GUIDE TO THE BEST KNIFE STEEL
Written by Blade HQ Staff Writer Andrew Hamilton on 9/25/2018
From designer to country of origin, blade length, and beyond, there’s a plethora of different factors to consider when buying that fancy new knife. But what about the blade steel?
Is blade steel a mystery to you? Don’t know 20CV from M4? Is Crucible still just a play by Arthur Miller in your mind? Does Bohler-Uddeholm sound like a stinky cheese to you?
Don’t worry—we’re going to break down and compare all the best knife steels you can expect to find at Blade HQ and beyond! Give this article and the knife steel charts a gander, and you’ll be halfway to an Ivy League degree as a metallurgist (no uhh…not really, but we all start somewhere).
TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)
In a hurry? Any of these blade steels are 100% good to rock and roll. It's all up to you.
Great For EDC (Everyday Carry)
Great For Fixed Blades
Blades are designed to cut—that’s obvious enough. But when it comes to getting the job done there are four main factors that determine steel quality. The goal of many knife users is to find the best steel with scores in each category that fits their needs.
EDGE RETENTION/WEAR RESISTANCE
Edge Retention (also called strength) is your knife’s ability to hold sharpness during use. Whether it’s dicing up cardboard boxes, feather sticking some firewood, or hacking up sisal rope, no one likes a dull knife. It’s remarkable the increased performance you find in cut tests when comparing premium steels to lower end options.
A tough blade steel resists chips and total failure when subjected to beating, impact, twisting, and torsion. Tough blade steels are ideal for camping and hard-use. Where a normal steel would chip, these knives can sustain intense batoning sessions, power through staples, and glide through steel strapping.
Are you in a humid, wet, and salty environment? Do you frequently use your knife to meal prep acidic ingredients like citrus or tomatoes? Certain steels are so good at resisting rust and corrosion that they can be left abused and salty without ill-effect. Carbon steels will pit and rust aggressively in wet environments if not properly cared for. Knives prone to corrosion can be preotected with a thin coat of mineral oil.
EASE OF SHARPENING
Maybe one of the most frequently overlooked aspects of blade steel is sharpenability. Touching up certain steels with your sharpening stone is an easy, pain-free process whereas harder steels can make for an all-day affair to bring them back to sharp. Being able to field sharpen your knife can be the difference between life and death in the wilderness. An easy to sharpen knife will generally not exhibit excellent edge retention.
Blade steel is totally a super important factor to consider when buying a knife, but wait a second—it isn’t the be-all, end-all. Heat treat, blade geometry, the job at hand, and the sharpening of the blade all play a massive role in the performance of the steel.
Heat Treatment is the process of hardening and tempering the blade steel through heat. This increases the strength of the edge tremendously. A well-done and consistent heat treat goes a long way towards the performance of a knife. High hardness (60 HRC+) increases the edge retention of the steel at the cost of brittleness. Low hardness increases toughness at the cost of edge strength. The effect of heat treat varies based on the composition of the steel.
Blade geometry is a subject that deserves its own article, but here’s a summary. Cutting and slicing performance improves as the thickness behind the edge decreases. Additional considerations include the thickness of the blade stock and the primary grind. Knives such as the Spyderco Chaparral have a very thin edge at only .014”. In contrast, a thicker blade stock with more material at the edge will yield a tougher, less slicey knife like the Ka-Bar Becker BK2.
Sharpening goes hand in hand with blade geometry. A 30 degree inclusive edge means that each side of the blade is sharpened to 15 degrees. Inherently, more acute sharpening angles will see better cutting performance than more obtuse angles. In contrast, a more obtuse angle will be more stable and durable. Certain blade steels are more stable at highly accute angels.
CUTTING TASK/THE JOB AT HAND
Often overlooked is the job at hand. When you put your knife to work, what tasks will it need to conquer?
Knife steels that exhibit extreme hardness and edge retention are amazing at cutting through warehouses full of cardboard but hit a staple and your knife may suffer a chip. Tough steels excel at camp chores and batoning wood but are unable to be used at very thin edge profiles while maintaining edge stability.
In reality, there is no perfect blade steel in the same way that there is no perfect knife. Compare your use cases to choose the perfect knife for you.
STRENGTH VS. TOUGHNESS
The best blade steels exhibit a balance of strength and toughness. Blade steels with an insane amount of hardness (pushing towards 70 HRC) tend to lack stability and can suffer from cracks, chipping, and total failure. Extremely tough blades may not cut as well as desired and can suffer from edge rolling and difficulty maintaining an edge.
The charts below aid visualization of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular knife steel. The most well rounded steels like CPM-154 and 154CM create an even shape while a steel like CPM-3V is severe due to high toughness and lower scores in all other categories.
Steel is real...
BOHLER UDDEHOLM M390
Bohler M390 exhibits excellent hardness and edge retention, corrosion resistance, and very good toughness. This steel is currently many consumer’s favorite, which has led top companies to widely utilize this steel.
CTS-204P AND CPM-20CV
Bohler M390, CTS-204P, and CPM-20CV are hard to differentiate. They are essentially the same steel and sport a near identical composition with significant amounts of Chromium, Molybdenum, Vanadium, and Tungsten. CTS-204P is made by the USA-based Carpenter Technology Corporation while CPM-20CV comes from Crucible Industries.
CPM-S90V AND CPM-S110V
Popular among both Benchmade and Spyderco, CPM-S90V is a knife steel known for its excellent edge retention and very good corrosion resistance. This blade steel exhibits good toughness, but it does not meet the level of M390.
CPM-S110V exhibits many of the same qualities as S90V. The primary difference is out-of-this-world edge retention at the cost of a minimal reduction in toughness. If you frequently use your knife to slice up cardboard, there may not be a better steel than CPM-S110V. Both of these steels are a real bear to sharpen up!
Bohler-Uddeholm produces more than just the famous M390 steel. Consider Elmax if toughness is high on your list. Excellent strength and toughness are balanced with very good sharpenability and corrosion resistance. Elmax is an amazingly well-rounded steel when you take all of these factors into consideration.
Carpenter produced CTS-XHP is another well-rounded and versatile steel. Equally at home as an EDC folder or as a fixed blade, this blade steel is easy to sharpen, corrosion resistant, and mixes very good edge retention with sufficient toughness. Spyderco and Cold Steel frequently utilizes this steel.
Crucible Industries has a real gem on their hands with CPM-M4… At the cost of some corrosion resistance you get amazing edge holding, toughness, and decent enough sharpenability. Based on experience and testing, M4 steel may outperform blade steels such as M390 and S90V in terms of edge retention and definitely in toughness. Some people are uncomfortable carrying a knife that is susceptible to rust and corrosion, but keep your blade oiled and there won't be any problems.
CPM-S30V AND CPM-S35VN
Chris Reeve is famous for developing two steels directly with Crucible Industries, and boy did this partnership result in an awesome product. S30V is in many eyes the ultimate EDC steel. Exhibiting very good edge retention, corrosion resistance, and sharpenability, S30V is utilizied by a variety of makers.
CPM-S35VN is the very slightly refined brother of S30V. The comparison between the two is tough. In head to head testing you would struggle to discern a significant difference between the two knife steels, but you should see improved toughness and sharpenability. You can’t go wrong with either of these great steels from Crucible.
CPM-154 and 154CM
It may seem like there’s a big step down between a steel like S110V and CPM 154. Realistically, in normal day to day use you would struggle to pick out any differences in comparison. CPM 154 is an excellent EDC blade steel with above average edge retention, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening.
Both great steels, CPM 154 benefits from a powdered metallurgy and is finer grained than 154CM. Powdered steels are more consistent, have better edge retention, and improve toughness due to a lack of inclusions.
CPM-3V and CPM-4V
CPM-3V is in many ways the perfect blade steel for a fixed blade knife. Insanely tough, this steel also manages to boast excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance. CPM-4V boosts the edge holding when compared against 3V, but at the cost of some slight toughness.
A2 has long been known as the classic standby for a fixed blade steel. Compared to CPM-3V, A2 is available more much affordably and is much more easily sharpened. Edge retention and toughness are very good.
O1 is a small step below A2 in terms of blade steel performance. With slightly decreased edge holding and a tendency to rust, O1 performs very well despite requiring light maintenance.
Good edge retention, toughness, and sharpenability, D2 has been a popular knife steel dating back to WWII. Keep your blade oilded as D2 is prone to rusting and corrosion. This is one of those most ubiquitous steels.
You can't go wrong with this timeless tool steel. 1095 has long been popular among knife makers for its easy workability, high toughness, and good edge holding. 1095 is budget-friendly and widely available.
VG-10 exhibits many of the same qualities of 154CM with the largest difference being an increase in corrosion resistance. Fully good-to-go, VG-10 may be one of the most neutral balanced steels on the market.
There’s no doubt-H1 is a specialty steel. When we call a normal steel stainless, it really means that the steel will stain LESS than carbon steel. The difference with H1 is that you can literally leave it in salt water forever and it won’t rust. If you’re interested in the perfect fishing knife, look no further. Such amazing corrosion resistance comes at a cost, as this steel does not exhibit stand-out wear resistance, edge holding, or toughness.
LC200N is an amazing steel! With 90% the corrosion resistance of H1, you also get much improved edge retention. While H1 steel lives in a specialist category as a fishing or boating knife, LC200N holds its own as an EDC blade steel. If you live in a humid environment or frequently meal prep with your pocket knife, try the Caribbean from Spyderco in LC200N steel.
N690 is an extremely ubiquitous and popular steel among knifemakers in Europe. Strength and toughness are comparable to that found on VG-10 or 154CM. This steel has extremely good corrosion resistant properties.
So what about all the other steels that didn't make it on the list? There are a million out there, and this page will surely be updated over time to include more. The following steels are a mix of steels lacking availability, lower performance, or no longer in large volume production. If your favorite designer makes a knife in one of these steels don't hesitate to pick it. Hone your sharpening technique and expand your collection, these steels are generally more affordable. Pro-tip—if your blade is labeled stainless steel, but no more details than that, you're probably best off keeping that knife decorative only.
The following are deserving of mention! But there are just not enough knives produced from these steels to give a rating.
CPM stands for Crucible Particle Metallurgy. Essentially, CPM steel is produced from a very fine powder of carbide particles. This allows for a very uniform distribution of carbides throughout the steel structure during solidification. Compared to forged steels, powdered metallurgy based CPM steels have a very fine grain structure and far fewer inclusions. Finer grained powder steels can take a sharper edge.
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.
So what is the best steel for knives? It really depends on what you're doing with your knife. Remember that in addition to steel, geometry and heat treatment both play a huge role in performance. All steels can get equally sharp!
It's okay to be a steel snob... I get it. M390 is super stuff, I always want more CPM-M4 in my life, and there's never going to be anything wrong with a fixed blade made out of A2. What's your favorite steel on your pocket knives? Do you think anything about this article could be improved? Send feedback to email@example.com.