BEST KNIFE STEEL COMPARISON AND CHARTS
In its most basic form, steel is just iron and carbon, but people have been studying, experimenting with, and perfecting steel with other elements for specific applications for millennia. The study of steel is now so complex and nuanced that one can acquire a graduate degree in the subject and still learn new things every day.
One such person is Dr. Larrin Thomas, a professional metallurgist raised by a knife maker and a giant knife nerd. He is the mind and writer behind Knife Steel Nerds, the go-to source for all knowledge about knife steel. Dr. Thomas is a friend of ours here at Blade HQ, and with his help, we’ve worked to create this knife steel guide. Here, you’ll learn the different factors that go into each steel, ratings for a wide variety of steel alloys, and you’ll get some recommendations for types of knives different types of steel work well for.
Factors for Comparison
When describing the characteristics of a steel, a few common attributes are commonly talked about. Each of these contributes to a knife’s overall performance. Here, we will discuss edge retention, toughness, ease of sharpening, and corrosion resistance.
Edge retention often refers to the ability of a knife’s edge to maintain its sharpness during use. However, it can be somewhat complicated because an edge can dull from many causes – wear, micro-chipping, deformation, or corrosion. Most edge retention tests isolate wear resistance or how long it takes abrasives to dull your edge in whatever you’re cutting. Wear resistance comes from hardness and carbides, hard particles formed between carbon and another element like Vanadium or Tungsten.
Toughness is the resistance to chipping or breaking. Tough steel can handle impacts without gross chipping or a tip breaking off. Steels that are higher in hardness and wear resistance are usually lower in toughness. This is one of the fundamental tradeoffs in steel. Steels that can be high in edge retention and toughness are desirable for general use knives. Steels high in toughness are excellent for knives likely to see hard impacts, like large chopping knives.
Corrosion on knife steels most usually takes the form of rust, patina, and staining. Corrosion is not only cosmetic. It can dull your edge, cause pitting, and damage the structural integrity of your knife. Stainless steels are more resistant to corrosion but remember that stainless steels stain less, and most of them will still rust in the right conditions. Being stainless is not an on or off property, and some stainless steels are more resistant to corrosion than others.
Ease of Sharpening
Ease of sharpening refers to how difficult it is to remove material with a sharpening stone. Wear resistance, be it high or low, is the most significant determining factor in ease of sharpening. Other factors include how thick your edge is, how dull your knife was at the start, the nature of the heat treatment, and what you’re using to sharpen your knife. The ratings in this article rate ease of sharpening primarily based on wear resistance, but if a knife is difficult to sharpen, there may be other factors in play.
“Premium” vs “Value” Steels
Many knife enthusiasts are concerned with categorizing steels as “excellent,” “good,” “poor,” etc. This isn’t exactly how steel works; different properties are difficult to increase without affecting something else. Steels do come at various price points, however, depending on the cost of producing them and the cost for the knife company to work with them. Steel with high wear resistance is more costly to manufacture, as the knife company goes through more abrasives to grind the knives. Steel high in carbides can’t be stamped out; it must be cut by a waterjet or laser, which takes time and is more expensive. Steels without these attributes are much less costly.
The most significant cost increase comes from powder metallurgy, used to create most of the expensive knife steels. Liquid steel is sprayed through a tiny nozzle, solidifying into a powder. Later, it gets heated and compressed into one ingot. It’s a costly and challenging process, but it makes extremely fine-grained steels, some of the best for knives, and makes some processes that were previously impossible a reality. The big names in powder metallurgy are Crucible (CPM- steels), Carpenter (CTS- steels), Bohler Microclean (M390), and Uddeholm Superclean (Elmax, Vanax).
Many steels are very similar to one another but go by different names from different manufacturers. They differ little in composition and treatment. For example, Bohler M390, CTS-204P, and CPM-20CV are all nearly identical and indistinguishable in practice. If you’re having trouble finding the steel you want, see if another manufacturer makes something much like it.
Comparing the Steels
Now that we know what each factor represents, we can see how the steels rank against one another. Choose a factor below to start sorting.
If you want to learn more about a specific steel, you can click it in the sorted listings below.
Ease of Sharpening
Should you continue to scroll further, you may find yourself lost in a seemingly endless list of knife steel wealth and knowledge. While some are into that type of thing, if you're familiar with a specific steel and want to compare it with another, you should definitely click on that button below.
Several factors aren’t related to the steel you choose but seriously affect the nature of your knife’s performance.
If you shop for knives based strictly on steel, you might be disappointed. Even premium steels can have poor performance with poor heat treatment. Heat treatment refers to the heating and cooling steps employed to achieve your knife’s proper balance of attributes. Poor heat treatment can make a knife too hard, too soft, hard to sharpen, easy to deform, or cause other issues. Since the heat treatment is done before you get your knife, and it’s impossible to tell how good the heat treatment is with your eye, you often must rely on the manufacturer’s reputation for a good heat treat.
This refers to the angle of your edge and the thickness of the knife behind the edge. Very obtuse edges resist chipping better but don’t hold their edge as long and don’t cut as well. Very acute edges are more brittle but remain sharp for longer and cut very well.
Categories of Steels
Below, we’ve listed some of the attributes you might want out of your steel and given some examples in both the more expensive powder metallurgy steels and more affordable conventionally produced steels. This list is not exhaustive, so check out some of our rating tables for more information on whatever steel you’re interested in.
Very High Edge Retention, Moderate Toughness
These steels have sufficient toughness to handle thinner edge geometry. They tend to be relatively expensive and difficult to sharpen, as they have high wear resistance. They make excellent everyday carry steels, especially for light- and medium-duty tasks.
High Edge Retention, High Toughness
These steels offer a great balance of characteristics that work well, from big choppers to thin slicers. Most of these steels are carbon steels, except for CPM MagnaCut (the fancy steel cooked up specifically for knives by Dr. Thomas), which has excellent corrosion resistance.
High Edge Retention, Moderate Toughness
These steels are the good old’ hard-working steels. For decades, different steels have been made to fit this category. Thanks to powder metallurgy, you’ll find even better edge retention on the high end.
More expensive powder metallurgy steels in this category include M390, CPM-S35VN, Elmax, CTS-XHP, CPM-S30V, and CPM-154. Less expensive, conventionally produced steels include VG-10, D2, 154CM, N690, and 440C.
High Toughness, Moderate Edge Retention
These steels are perfect for thin edges and high hardness. They’re excellent for choppers, hard-use folders, and outdoor knives that see impacts and heavy use when used at medium hardness. Because of their good edge retention, these steels are quite versatile in folders and fixed blades.
CPM-3V is a powder metallurgy contender in this category. LC200N is produced with a special technique to add high nitrogen, giving steel excellent corrosion resistance on the top! Conventionally produced steels include AEB-L, A2, 52100, 12C27, 14C28N, and AUS-8/,8Cr13MoV.
High wear resistance is not particularly necessary when only performing chopping, and its good ease in sharpening helps when having to restore the edges. 420 Simple, non-stainless steels of medium carbon content like 5160 also boast high toughness.
Maximum Edge Retention
These steels favor edge retention over all else. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have terrible toughness, but they have limitations. Most of these steels rely on particle metallurgy and are therefore more expensive. These steels are best for knives that don’t see impacts and are some of the most difficult to sharpen.
Maximum Corrosion Resistance
It’s hard to imagine a more rust-inducing environment than saltwater and fish guts. Divers, sailors, and anglers need knives that will resist corrosion above all else. Some steels are cooked up specifically with this in mind and are very difficult to make rust.
Damascus or ‘pattern welded’ steel is a result of combining two steels together. As such, the performance of the steel is entirely dependent upon the steels being utilized. The vivid patterns visible in Damascus steel come from the acid etching process in a ferric chloride solution. Steels patina in the acid at varying rates which allows for one steel to etch darker than the other and show that famous patterned contrast. Only a skilled blacksmith can make Damascus steels, so they tend to be expensive. They are usually chosen for their looks rather than performance.
So what is the best steel for knives? It’s hard to say. Let the job at hand be your guide. It’s OK to be a steel snob, but keep in mind that you don’t have to if you want a good knife. If you have a favorite steel, rock on! But keep in mind that no steel is perfect for everything.
And before you start arguing on behalf of the steel you think might be perfect, let me remind you that if your knife isn’t perfect for a task, you’ll need to get another one that is!