The Best Knife Steels: Complete Guide for Knives

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Whether you’re buying a pocket knife or forging one, you should always consider the type of steel features. While you might think the biggest difference your choice of steel could bring is the knife’s color, that is simply not true. The truth is, the type of steel you choose can determine the knife’s wear and corrosion resistance, as well as its hardness. 

But seeing how complicated choosing the right knife steel can be, we have created a comprehensive guide to help. From determining the characteristics that make good steel to showing you the most popular types of knife steels, here is everything you need to know about choosing the perfect steel for you. 

Popular Types of Knife Steel

A better understanding of the most popular types of steel used in forging knives can help you make a better decision. The most popular types include:

Tool Steel 

As the name would imply, this steel primarily exists in most tools. It contains elements like cobalt, molybdenum, and tungsten, making it very hard and resistant to heat. If you plan on using your pocket knife often, then tool steel can be a good choice. 

Stainless Steel 

Easily one of the most popular types of steel, even people who know nothing about steel tend to know what it is. However, since every other knife comes with the label “stainless steel,” it can be difficult to which ones are real. Nevertheless, this steel is usually much shinier, especially compared to other steel. The higher levels of chromium give it a unique shine and higher corrosion resistance. 

Alloy Steel 

Alloy steel is the most diverse type of steel, as the name itself implies that there are multiple elements added to the mix. The most common alloys used in its construction include manganese, chromium, and nickel. Most blacksmiths will manipulate the composition of these elements depending on their use. Alloy is most common in auto parts, pipes, and even smartphones. 

Carbon Steel 

Almost 90% of all knives consist of carbon steel, owing mainly to its incredible durability. There are different types of carbon steel, including high, medium, and low concentrations. Despite having more durability, carbon steel is easily the dullest. It is also more prone to corrosion, especially with higher concentrations. 

Popular Knife Steel Elements

Steel is not a natural element extracted from the earth. Instead, it’s more of a collection of different elements. Therefore, it is fairly versatile, especially regarding how durable, corrosion-resistant, and sharp it can be. Here are some of the most common elements used in knives. 

Vanadium 

It makes the blade more resistant to wear while making it harder. 

Tungsten 

It also increases wear resistance for knives.

Molybdenum 

It increases the durability of steel, especially at high temperatures. 

Nickel

It makes the blade much tougher.

Manganese

In lower quantities, it can make the blade harder. But if you add too much, you could risk the blade becoming too brittle. 

Cobalt

It makes the blade stronger.

Chromium

While all steel can rust, adding chromium can make the knife more resistant. It is the element that makes stainless steel so shiny. 

Carbon 

Carbon is an essential element in creating steel, as it hardens the blade without making it too brittle. The amount of carbon added to a blade also indicates the quality of the blade. 

Iron

Iron is also an essential ingredient of steel, as it acts as the base for the blade. 

Characteristics of Good Quality Knife Steel

A better understanding of the different elements in knife steel should give you a better idea of what steel you should choose. However, it is worth looking into the different characteristics that make quality Steel stand out from the rest. 

Corrosion resistance 

Corrosion resistance is just a fancy calling a steel’s resistance to rust. Note that it mainly applies to the rusting due to external sources, including salt moisture and even humidity. Since all steel does rust at some point, this mainly prolongs the time that it takes for it to rust. However, prioritizing the higher corrosion resistance does come at the cost of the blade’s edge performance. 

Wear resistance

A blade’s ability to withstand wear mainly comes down to the wear it experiences and its ability to withstand adhesive and abrasive use. While steel with high concentrations of carbon and smaller manganese concentrations will be tougher, chemistry also plays a major role in determining its strength. If a blade has smaller carbides, it will be more prone to both types above of damage, even if its composition of elements is similar to steel with bigger carbides. 

Toughness

The most important thing that any blade can be is tough, which refers to its ability to resist things like cracks and chips when using it. Chipping is rarely easy to fix and usually means that the blade is on its last legs. Oddly enough, the harder the blade does not necessarily mean that the blade will be tougher. In fact, the harder the blade will be, the tougher it will be.  

Sharpness 

Sharpness or edge retention refers to how sharp a blade will be and how long it will retain it. The sharpness of blades also comes down to their hardness. But if you focus too much on a blade’s hardness, it is more difficult to sharpen and is more likely to chip or crack. Therefore, there is a very precise combination of different elements that a blacksmith will have to get right. 

Popular Knife Steel You Can Find Today

With all of the characteristics out of the way, we can move on to helping you choose the right steel that you should choose. Since investing in the right steel can be a little expensive, we compiled the list according to how expensive they can be to invest in. with that out of the way, here are some of the best types of steel you can find in a knife. 

Low End 

1. AUS-6

The AUS-6 is the lowest of the lowest end, with the cheap steel containing very little carbon, making it much softer. It is very similar to the 420 series in terms of composition and is surprisingly good at resisting corrosion. And even though it is not able to retain its edge for very long, it is fairly easy to sharpen. 

2. 420J 

The 420J is a slight upgrade to the AUS-6 but is still much softer, owing to its fairly low carbon composition. Compared to higher-end steels, it loses its edge much faster but is also much easier to sharpen. And even though it is not very resistant to regular wear and tear, it can be very resistant to stains while being generally flexible. If you find a knife with this type of steel, always remember that it is on the cheaper end. Manufacturers will usually mass produce these knives, as they are cheap and generally easy to maintain. 

Lower Mid-Range

3. 1095 

The 1095 is relatively cheap while still offering the quality that you would expect from mid-range steel. It has a carbon composition of almost 1% but also comes with very little corrosion resistance and very average edge retention properties.

However, where it manages to shine is its toughness. Not only is this blade very easy to sharpen, but it also manages to get a very sharp edge. It was also surprisingly resistant to chipping and cracks, making it a great survival knife compared to other types. You can even make it more resistant to corrosion with a little bit of oil treatment. 

4. 13C26 

The 13C26 is slightly improved over the 1095 in terms of its hardness and corrosion resistance. It is very similar to the AEB-L and 440A series in terms of sharpness and edge retention. When using all three side by side, you can rarely tell the difference unless you’re looking into it.

It also features lower chromium to carbon ratio, which makes the blade harder but more susceptible to rust. The harder blade can also be a little harder to sharpen. You can also find the 14C28, which stands as a slightly better version of the 13C26. 

5. 420 HC

When it comes to the undisputed champion of the 420 series, the 420 HC stands as the obvious contender. It features increased levels of carbon but is still not quite there compared to higher-end steels. But make no mistake, the good heat treatment ensures better edge retention and is also very resistant to corrosion. And despite being on the most budget blades, it gives plenty of bang for your buck. 

The harder steel is still fairly easy to sharpen, but its edge is a little underwhelming. That mainly comes down to higher carbon concentration. 

6. 440A

The 440A is a slightly better version of the 420 HC, which comes with a higher carbon concentration. More carbon means that it is more resistant to regular wear, but it does come at the cost of the blade’s corrosion resistance. 

It also features the same level of sharpness and edge retention that comes with the 420 HC. Therefore, the edge is still a little underwhelming, despite being easier to sharpen. 

Upper Mid-Range 

7. 14C28N 

The 14C28N is very similar to the 13C26 mentioned earlier, with the major upgrade coming to corrosion resistance and not much else. In fact, it’s similar to the 13C26, almost to a detriment, as the blade doesn’t hold much in terms of massive improvements. If you liked the 13C26 and wished that it was more resistant to corrosion, then you will like the 14C28N. But if you didn’t think the earlier version of this steel was special, this certainly won’t win you over. 

8. 8Cr13MoV 

The 8Cr13MoV is an improved version of the AUS-8 with slightly more carbon. But the best thing about this particular steel is its price. While being almost identical to the AUS-8, it is significantly cheaper. The MoV series mainly comes from China, making them fairly cheap. 

It is fairly resistant to corrosion and is fairly easy to sharpen while giving off a very sharp edge. Finally, even if the edge is pretty sharp, its overall edge retention is below average. 

9. CTS-BD1

The CTS-BD1 is a very good blade for anyone looking for a blade that can maintain its edge for a long time. People will usually compare this steel to the 8Cr13MoV and the AUS-8, with major differences in its corrosion resistance and its ability to hold an edge for longer.

The chromium carbides in this steel are mid-sized, which are good, but still do not compare to any of the premium versions. These bigger carbides also mean that the blade can become exceptionally sharp, which works well with better edge retention. 

10. AUS-8 

The AUS-8 is a Japanese variant of the 440B, which is almost better in every way. The few things that it manages to get right include better corrosion resistance and is much tougher. Not being as hard does allow it to be more resistant to chipping and cracks while taking on a razor’s edge. 

It also has less carbon when compared to other steels, even in this category, which means that it is not as hard. And steel that is not as hard is usually very poor when it comes to holding its edge. 

11. 440C

The 440C was the old undisputed champion of most US knives, mainly because of its all-rounded nature. While it has aged to a considerable degree now that some of the newer models have come out, you are getting a very good steel at a fairly low price. 

It also happens to have high levels of chromium and carbon, which means that it is the perfect balance of hard and tough. It sharpens very easily, is razor-sharp, and manages to hold that edge very well as well. 

High-End 

12. N680 

Starting off the high-end list is N680, which is easily one of the most corrosion-resistant knives you can use. With a composition featuring over 17% chromium, it is pure stainless steel. If you plan on working close to saltwater or will be using the knife in a very humid climate, this is the best knife for the job.

It also helps that the steel used in this is fine-grained, which means that it can be very sharp despite the relatively lower concentration of carbon. While certainly sharp and resistant to rust, it does come at the cost of edge retention.  

13. H1

The H1 specializes in being very resistant to corrosion and outpaces the N680 in this regard. If you want the best of the best stainless steel, then the H1 is easily the best option. However, all of that specialized chromium does come at a cost, specifically that of edge retention. 

While it certainly sharpens fast and is almost rust-proof, it does not hold an edge well at all. In fact, its edge retention is very similar to that of some of the lower-end steels, which is a little shocking. 

14. VG-10

The VG-10 features more chromium, making it very resistant to rust and corrosion. Coming from Japan, it has been slowly making its way to the American market, with many liking its tough composition. 

This steel is also fairly hard, allowing for a sharper blade without compromising its toughness. Therefore, you get a very sharp knife that is also moderately resistant to chipping and cracks. The increased vanadium makes this corrosion-resistant knife even more special. 

15. D2 

The D2 is tool steel through and through, which is not easy to sharpen but retains its edge for very long. You may even hear some refer to this as semi-stainless since it only has 13% chromium. Despite the lower chromium composition, it still offers plenty of corrosion resistance without sacrificing its toughness. 

It does come with the downside of being fairly difficult to sharpen. If you don’t have any experience sharpening blades, you likely won’t be able to bring out the blade’s edge. 

16. ATS-34 

The ATS-34 is very much a competitor to the American 154CM. The blade is very balanced, perfect for an everyman’s knife. The blade manages to get a nice edge without sharpening it thoroughly, but it can be a little difficult to sharpen. The blade is fairly rust-proof but is not as good as some others on the list. And the edge retention is very good, especially when comparing it to the steels in this category. 

17. 154CM 

The 154 is easily the most popular type of steel that people use throughout various knives, specifically because it upgrades everything about the 440C. By simply adding molybdenum, they made their knife more resistant to corrosion and rust, despite not having as much chromium. The 154CM can also hold an edge slightly better than the Japanese ATS-34. And while it can be a little tricky to sharpen, it can be easy with the right equipment. Many of the best pocket knives that you can find online consist of this improved steel. 

Premium

18. CPM S30V

And now we enter some of the most premium steels that are almost perfect except in a few regards. The CMP S30V, for example, is a staple in most premium cutlery sets and pocket knives. The steel alloy features large vanadium carbides, which makes it very hard. But that hardness does not come at the cost of toughness, as it is able to become razor-sharp without being too difficult to sharpen. 

19. CPM S35VN

The S35VN is a superior version of the S35VN, with some noticeable additions and upgrades. This new version includes niobium, making the steel much tougher and easier to sharpen. Therefore, you get all of the hardness of the S30V, except it is much tougher. Even though it doesn’t revolutionize the overall design of the S30V, but is certainly a good contender for your go-to choice of knife steel.  

20. CPM M4

Another entry from CPM, this time of their M4 steel, which is a high-performance tool steel. It is remarkably tough and can hold an edge better than any other blade in this category. It is also very resistant to regular wear and tear, as well as abrasion resistance. Of course, true to the tool steel spirit, it is also one of the most difficult blades to sharpen without the right equipment. If you don’t know how to sharpen a blade properly, you might skip this one.  

21. CTS-XHP 

We end this category of knives with what is easily the best in terms of edge retention and performance. Despite being a steel meant for most survival situations, it has surprisingly good edge retention. In fact, it is almost like tool steel with other EDC properties. 

However, you will have to be very careful when sharpening this blade. Much like tool steel, this can be very prone to chipping and cracks and is not easy to sharpen. 

Ultra-Premium

22. CPM 20CV

The 20CV is a PM tool steel with plenty of corrosion resistance and very effective wear resistance. The high levels of chromium ensure that rust and corrosion are not an issue while still being extremely sharp to the touch. And while it is not as tough as its main competitor, mainly the M390, it has very good edge retention. That alone is the main selling point for some. 

 But similarly to other knives with good edge retention, sharpening it can be a little difficult, especially thanks to its harder nature. 

23. Elmax

Elmax takes three of the most expensive yet perfect elements for the best type of steel and combines them. The thing that makes the Elmax so special is how it has all of the best parts of carbon steel, along with the benefits of being stainless.

The Elmax has plenty of resistance to corrosion and rust while holding an edge for much longer. It also happens to be one of the few knife steels that are fairly easy to sharpen. 

24. ZDP -189

The ZDP-189 is another one of those blades that manage to contain massive amounts of chromium and carbon. Therefore, it is very hard while having plenty of resistance to corrosion and rust. The hardness is almost otherworldly, with the best knives having very long edge retention. On the other hand, the harder blade also makes it very difficult to sharpen. In fact, it can be more difficult to sharpen than most tool steels.  

25. M390 

The M390 is another incredible new super steel that features vanadium, molybdenum, and chromium, as well as tungsten. These metals combine to make the steel very resistant to corrosion while being very hard. The hardness ensures very good wear resistance, better edge retention, and increased sharpness. 

Despite being so sharp and hard, it is not as difficult to sharp as the other knives in this category, which can be a relief to some of you. And if you polish the steel just right, it can perfectly reflect light like a mirror. It lives up to the name stainless steel.  

26. CPM S90V

The S90V is possibly one of the few knives that provide excellent corrosion resistance. It is also very hard allowing you to have a very sharp knife on your hands. The steel also features elements like tungsten, vanadium, molybdenum, and chromium, allowing it to be very sharp and stay that way for a very long time. 

Of course, the major downside to this knife is that it is very expensive. But for the price that you pay, you will be getting the absolute best of the best in terms of edge retention. With that said, one steel does come fairly close, and that is the next entry. 

27. CPM S110V

The S110V is possibly the only thing that compares to the S90V’s price tag and features. It holds an edge significantly better than its other cousin and manages to hold it for an almost ridiculous amount of time. 

Granted, sharpening this knife can be an absolute nightmare, as you have to be very, very careful. It also doesn’t help that corrosion resistance can be underwhelming, especially at its price. But even with all of that out of the way, nothing else compares to the edge of an S110V. 

Conclusion 

Choosing the right knife steel, whether you are trying to craft the perfect knife or just want to buy one, Is not easy. But with the help of this guide, it doesn’t have to be very difficult. Not only have we gone over all of the things you should consider, but we have also gone over all of the different steels that are perfect for any situation. 

If you want to choose the right knife for the job, then you need to be able to make the best choice. Hopefully, this guide will give you all of the information you need when you go out and buy your first knife or forge one. 

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