When it comes to the best steel for knives, it’s important to realize that every steel has trade offs. When you take these into account, you can choose your steel to tailor the properties of a knife to your liking. There are literally hundreds of excellent knife steel types out there, but there are a handful of common knife steels that are used throughout the industry. As such, I won’t cover every steel out there, but I will try to hit some that are seen most often in the knife industry.
Another thing to be aware of is that steel alone is not a good indicator of how a knife will perform. Equally as important as the steel is the heat treat. A steel will perform differently at various material hardnesses. The most common method of measuring hardness is on the Rockwell scale. Typically, most knives are hardened in the 55Rc range to 62Rc range. The lower in the range a knife lands, the higher the toughness but lower the edge holding capability will be relative to the same steel at different hardness. Knives low in the hardness range will make ideal choppers and hard use knives. Knives higher up in the hardness range will be more brittle and withstand wear better, however they will lack the toughness of knives lower in the range and they will be more prone to chipped or rolled edges. These knives will make ideal slicers.
Basic properties of knife steels:
When cutting with a knife, friction acts against the edge of the blade. With use over time, particles will separate from the edge as the material you are cutting abrades the steel. The point on your edge is most susceptible to this type of wear. As particles get removed from this location, your cutting surface will widen and your knife will start to feel more dull and require higher cutting pressure to make cuts. Wear resistance describes a steel’s ability to resist this type of abrasive wear.
Toughness describes how resistant a knife blade steel is to impact events. The most common type of impact damage that occurs are chipped edges. This can occur when you drop your knife, baton through wood, etc. Knife toughness typically is highest in the lower end of the hardness range because the material is less brittle.
Grain size is related to how fine of an edge your blade can take. Usually, the finer the steel grain, the finer the edge a knife can take. Larger grains tend to have larger minimum edge thicknesses. There are numerous heat treat methods that can be used to achieve various grain sizes for different types of steel.
As an end user this has little effect other than knife price, however to a knife maker manufacturability is everything. Some steels are notoriously difficult to machine, whereas others are notoriously difficult to heat treat. On the other hand, some are easy to work with all around but these typically cost more. The manufacturability describes how difficult a steel is to work with when making a knife.
Common Knife Steel Types:
1095 is a knife steel that is extremely high value which makes it a common knife making steel. It is a relatively cheap carbon steel that has some very desirable properties. If heat treated right, it can be extremely tough and take a fantastic edge. Companies like Kabar and ESEE Knives are well known for using 1095. Like many carbon steels, 1095 is notoriously difficult to heat treat as it tends to be prone to warping. Often times extra steps must be taken, particularly on larger knives, to prevent this from happening. It should be noted that non-stainless steels like 1095 are generally tougher than their stainless counterparts at the cost of corrosion resistance.
S30V is one of the most common high end steels used in knife manufacturing today. It is a stainless steel that is touted as the first steel designed specifically for cutlery. It is a particle steel made by Crucible. It takes a fine edge, is easy to sharpen, is reasonably tough, and has good wear resistance. It is truly a steel that does everything well, but nothing exceptionally. This is a great choice if you are unsure where to start and want an awesome all-arounder.
Crucible’s S35VN was intended to be an improvement to S30V in that it is easier to machine with better wear resistance and toughness. Proper heat treat is imperative with S35VN as I find that if treated at a hardness that is too low, the edge is prone to roll a little more easily than S30V. It is a great steel if done right and it is in vogue at the moment.
154CM is another great all around stainless steel and is comparable in many ways to S30V. 154CM is used by companies such as Benchmade and Zero Tolerance. Like S30V, it has good toughness and holds a decent edge. If you are debating between 154CM and S30V, pick the knife you like better as steel performance is almost equal.
440C is a stainless steel that once was extremely common as one of the go-to knife steels. However noawadays, it seems to be slowly getting replaced by some of the more popular and more modern particle steels as the preferred knifemaking steels. The steel is a great all-arounder with good toughness and it will hold an edge admirably. It’s an older steel that’s still around in the knife industry for a good reason!
D2 is a tool steel that is found on many knives. D2 wear resistance is high, its toughness is midrange, and it has higher chrome content than a typical carbon steel which imparts good corrosion resistance properties. Some consider the steel a semi-stainless steel, or a stain resistant steel as opposed to a plain carbon steel. It is an extremely well liked steel. Kabar uses this on some of their higher end survival knives as well as some combat knives.
Where To Get Knife Steel?
If you are a knifemaker, you will inevitably wonder where to buy the best steel for your knives. There are a number of shops that supply knife steel, so it’s really a matter of finding one that supplies the alloy you want in the appropriate size. It is also always nice to find one who pays attention to customer service. Three great ones are listed below:
As an added bonus, a lot of knifemaking information can be gleaned from these sites. Many of them contain the material makeup information, heat treating recommendations, and other engineering tidbits that will help you along the way. Spend a little time on each one as there is much to learn.
I hope this knife steel guide has been helpful. Remember, steels are always a trade off, so you have to decide on what properties you want before choosing the best steel for knives that you make as well as knives you buy. If I didn’t list your favorite steel, feel free to describe it in the comments.