This article is part of:

Explainer Series

A series of guides to help you buy and use gear in the outdoors.

view all 48 articles

Knife Blades: Common Steels Explained

Filed under: Camping  Explainer Series  Knives  Outdoor 

Knife-makers use dozens of steel types to create knife blades. Which one is right for you? We look at 10 common steels used by popular knife brands to help you select the right material for your blade.

buck knife
Buck’s Vantage is one of the brand’s many blades that use 420HC

Three main characteristics differentiate steels from one another: corrosion resistance, hardness, and toughness. I won’t go into detail about those here. But to learn more about these and other attributes, read our related outdoors knife buyer’s guide.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in May 2015 and was most recently updated on May 3, 2018.

Commonly Available Steels

420HC

This is basically a retrofit of a very old steel, adding more carbon to the recipe of 420 (hence, the HC for “high carbon”). It is soft, with very low carbon content. And given the recipe, it has a low number of carbides, the extra-hard microcrystals in steel that provide the hardness necessary for a stable and sharp edge.

420HC does not hold an edge well, but it is relatively stain resistant and tough. It’s easy to sharpen. There is one exception: Buck’s 420HC (Buck and only Buck) is produced using a proprietary heat treat. It is actually quite good, a low-cost steel that performs like a mid-price steel.

ESEE-3PM-DT

1095

This is an old high carbon (non-stainless steel). It’s tough, but that’s about it. 1095 stains easily and thus is often coated, especially in fixed blades. It’s found on a large number of traditional-style folders. And while it can be hard depending on the heat treat, I have found it easily chips, causing microscopic dings in the edge when hardened to a high level on a thin blade.

Blade Boot Camp: A Buyer's Guide To Choosing Your Knife

Everything you need to know to buy the right knife for the job. Read more…

In thick forms, like a fixed blade, 1095 is a tough, low-cost steel. Used in knives since at least World War II, 1095 performance varies considerably with an abundance of tweaks in the recipe and the heat treat. Rowen’s heat treat on ESEE knives that use 1095 is exceptional. Ka-Bar’s is less so. In particular, I have found the ESEE/Rowen 1095 to be less likely to chip and better at holding an edge than the Ka-Bar version – even in knives with the same role, thickness, and blade length.

foresight
The CRKT Foresight uses AUS-8 steel

AUS-8

One of the more common stainless steels, and one readily available in lots of different places worldwide, AUS-8 is a decent all around steel. It’s hard enough, tough enough, and stain resistant enough. It will not hang long with high-end powder metal steels (a method of making steel using ultra-pure micrograins of steel that are heated and pressed together). But among the steels you’ll find at Cabela’s or the like, this is a pretty good choice.

8Cr13MoV

VG-1

VG-1 is a non-powder steel made by Japanese specialty steel maker Takefu. Generally seen as a slight upgrade to the 440C/VG-10/ATS-34 caliber of steel, it’s a decent all-around steel with good corrosion resistance, decent toughness, and only modest hardness. Cold Steel still uses VG-1 on some knives, and, for the money, it does well. In use, it’s very similar to 440C and VG-10.

8Cr13MoV (any of the CR series)

These are Chinese-produced steels that recently started showing up in Chinese-made knives. 9Cr is the top end of the series and is quite good – as good or better than AUS-8. Type 8Cr, the more common formulation, is worse than AUS-8: a little more prone to corrosion and not quite as hard. It is very cheap though, and when ground appropriately it can be a real winner from a value standpoint.

Note: Don’t bother with anything less than 8Cr in this series. Steels 7Cr and below aren’t worth your time or money. They lack the carbon necessary to hold an edge, even during mild use.

swiss-army-knife

1.4116

This is the steel used in Swiss Army knives and is excellent for beginner sharpeners. It’s very tough and exceptionally corrosion resistant. (Some crazy folks clean their Swiss Army knives in a dishwasher. That’s a little too far, but you get the point.) It does not hold an edge well, but it’s so easy to sharpen that you can get it back to razor sharpness in a few minutes.

benchmade axis drop point stryker
Benchmade’s Axis Drop Pint Stryker comes in 154CM

154CM

While not a powder steel, 154CM is widely used in nicer knives. It is a good balance between all three attributes, being relatively hard, tough, and corrosion resistant. It is very similar chemically to RWL 34 and ATS-34. If the knife you’re looking at has a 154CM blade, you’re fine.

Note: There is a powder metal version called CPM154 that is purer than the non-powder version, making it easier for knife-makers to grind. CPM154 is a truly superior steel.

Sebenza 21
The Sebenza 21

S30V

This is an American-made powder steel produced by Crucible and developed specifically for knives with the aid of the knife guru Chris Reeve (maker of the vaunted Sebenza among other gems). Like 154CM, it’s a good compromise between all three steel attributes.

Five years ago, S30V had a premium price. But as the market has grown and newer steels have come out, it has fallen in price and prestige. I have found that most makers harden S30V too much, making it prone to chipping at the edge.

Chris Reeve’s version, which is about 2 points less hard than others, is quite good. Like 154CM, there is a newer version, S35VN, which shares many of the same attributes as S30V but is easier to craft into a knife thanks to niobium. I have found S35VN less chippy even at the same hardness.

S90V

This is a powder metal steel also produced by Crucible. It’s a very hard steel and is exceptionally difficult to sharpen. The benefit of this, of course, is that the steel holds an edge for a very, very long time. Because of its difficulty in sharpening and machining, it is very rarely used and comes with a high price premium. Even though it has very high hardness, it is also still decently resistant to corrosion and quite tough. This is one of the better steels on the market.

S110V

This is also a power metal steel produced by American steel company Crucible. Like S90V, it’s a high-hardness steel, but it’s more balanced than S90V. Spyderco offers this as the high-end steel for many of its evergreen blades, like the Paramilitary 2, Paramilitary 3, Manix 2, and Native 5. A lot of custom makers also like S110V, including the great RJ Martin.

The Spyderco Dragonfly 2 is among many of the company’s VG-10 offerings

VG-10

This is a non-powder Japanese steel used primarily in Spyderco knives. It is very corrosion resistant and quite tough. But I have found it lacking in hardness, even when compared to cheaper steels like AUS-8. This is a mid-price steel with matching performance. It’s not bad, but you can find better in the market at the same price.

bob dozier general purpose
Bob Dozier’s general purpose D2 blade

D2

D2 is a tool steel used in industrial settings. Its high hardness and relatively high toughness also make it an excellent choice in cutlery. Though technically not a stainless steel – at least 14% chromium, and D2 usually has 12% – it is relatively corrosion resistant.

D2 has been around for more than 20 years, an eternity in metallurgy terms. Different heat treats have emerged over the years, but one has risen to the top as the best: Bob Dozier’s D2. Despite its age, it’s a truly superior steel. There is a powder form, CPM D2, and PSF27 is also very chemically similar.

Bark River Elmax
Bark River Knives uses Elmax in some blades

Elmax

A European powder metal steel used in higher end knives, Elmax has an advanced formula and the result is a very good all around steel, a generation ahead of formulations like 154CM.

There has been some Internet controversy over the grinding and heat treat of this steel. But in my experience, it has been nothing but great. Only a few years ago Elmax was pricey, but competition has driven it down to reasonable levels, making it a decent value.

CTS-BD1

This is a non-powder steel produced by American steel company Carpenter. BD1 is excellent budget steel, very similar in composition and performance to GIN-1, a Japanese steel used a decade ago by Spyderco. BD1 is not terribly hard but sharpens easily. CRKT and Spyderco use BD1.

AEB-L

AEB-L is a non-powder steel produced by Swedish steel maker Uddeholm. The greatest living knife maker and one of the greatest knife makers of all time, Michael Walker, calls AEB-L one of his favorite steels. It gets exceptionally sharp, a nod to its origins as a razor blade steel.

Many custom makers enjoy AEB-L, as it is easy to machine but still has a high hardness, around 62 HRc. The steel is similar to Sandvik’s 13C26. AEB-L is rarely found on production knives but can be found on custom knives easily. Jesse Jarosz, a custom maker from Montana, regularly uses AEB-L.

Nitro V steel
The Massdrop Perpetua uses Nitro V steel

Nitro V

In nitrogen steels, nitrogen is used as the iron hardener instead of carbon, thus limiting the possibility of rusting. Developed by New Jersey Steel Baron, Nitro V is a non-powder steel marketed as an enhanced version of AEB-L. Nitro V, as its name indicates, adds nitrogen to AEB-L’s formula to make the steel even more corrosion resistant. It has enough water-fighting properties that it can be used in marine environments.

Nitro V is also significantly cheaper than many other steels with this level of performance. Custom maker Brian Trudeau uses Nitro V, and Massdrop’s Perpetua design is the first production knife to sport it.

14C28N

European steel company Sandvik produces 14C28N, a non-powder metallurgy steel. It is an update of its 12C27 and 13C26 steels, which were developed for use in shaving razors. Most steels use carbon to increase hardness, but 14C28N uses nitrogen, boosting hardness without the normal penalty of increased corrosion. 14C28N is offered on midpriced knives and is one of the better steels on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

CTS-XHP

This is a powder steel produced by American steel company Carpenter. When it debuted, Sal Glesser described XHP as a combination of D2’s hardness and 440C’s corrosion resistance.

Time and use have proven this to be quite accurate. XHP is an exceptionally well-balanced steel with excellent all-around attributes. Spyderco and Cold Steel have used it, though Cold Steel recently switched to S35VN due to availability concerns. Despite its wonderful performance, XHP is actually not terribly expensive compared to other high-end, all-around performers.

The Next Level

The following are less common steels, but they are definitely worth tracking down. They represent the absolute best performers on the market in terms of their specific attributes.

spyderco pacific salt
Spyderco makes several H-1 blades, including the Pacific Salt

Corrosion Resistance: H1

This is a nitrogen steel that is extremely corrosion resistant – so much so that it’s used in knives designed to go in salt water, among the most difficult conditions knives are used in. It’s not a particularly great cutter, being poor at retaining an edge. But it’s lightyears ahead of the alternatives, specifically titanium-bladed knives.

Koster Knives MUCK
The MUCK knife by Koster Knives uses CPM3V

Corrosion Resistance: LC 200N

Also known as Z-Finit, Zapp produces this steel in America. It was originally developed for use as ball bearing steel by NASA. The unique process used to make LC 200N results in a fine-grain structure.

LC 200N is an elite performer, with high hardness, high toughness, and off-the-charts corrosion resistance. This is a virtually stain-proof steel suitable for all sorts of aquatic environments. Spyderco is the only production company using this steel, though Michael Gavik of Gavko knives produced a number of customs in LC 200N.

Toughness: CPM3V

This is an American-made powder steel. It is exceedingly tough and relatively hard, but it’s not stainless. In my experience, it will tarnish and discolor quickly. But in use, I have found nothing that withstands the abuse that 3V can take. Hammering through hickory, digging at roots in sandy soil, and cutting around bone did nothing to chip, dent, or roll the edge of my 3V knives. If you need something that soaks up abuse, try 3V.

rockstead kei-zdp
Rockstead makes the $1,450 KEI-ZDP from ZDP-189

Toughness: INFI

A proprietary steel and heat treat developed by Busse Knives, INFI is an excellent performer and one of the best steels for big choppers on the market. Though technically not a stainless steel due to its composition, in use it performs exactly like one. INFI is also quite hard and sharpens easily. But the true calling card of INFI is its insane toughness. Short of purposeful abuse, it’s all but impossible to chip an edge on an INFI blade.

Hardness: ZDP-189

A Japanese powder steel, ZDP-189 is essentially the polar opposite of 3V – it’s uber-hard instead of uber-tough. Thanks to its very high hardness (64–66 HRc compared to the average of 58–62 HRc), ZDP-189 can be ground thinner and sharpened less often. This makes for a great slicing knife and a perfect steel, in my opinion, for a regular use everyday carry folder. ZDP-189 can tarnish, though not as easily as 3V.

Hardness: Maxamet

Carpenter produces this powder steel. Maxamet is one of two current high-hardness kings, with HRc marks in the high 60s approaching 70, a hardness usually only seen in carbide steels. Maxamet’s hardness results in incredible edge retention and a nightmarish sharpening and machining experience.

Furthermore, because of its ultrahigh hardness, Maxamet is very prone to corrosion, probably worse than 1095. It’s so high in hardness that Maxamet knives usually ship with desiccating packages. Spyderco has produced a number of production knives with Maxamet, and the steel debuted on the ZT0888.

Hardness: REX 121

REX 121 is a powder steel produced by Crucible. The brand designed it as a carbide replacement. It has an HRc over 70, usually even harder than Maxamet.

The high hardness makes it all but impossible to sharpen and machine. As a result, there are no production knives with REX 121 steel, though Ferrum Forge used the steel early on in its custom knives and a Kickstarter knife from the Creely Brothers. Because of its abrasion-eating hardness, knives with REX 121 come an exceptionally high price.

sm-100 knife
The Kobold Expedition Tools Little Bastard is made of SM-100 and costs $695

All Around: SM100

The old rule in steels used to be: “Corrosion resistance, toughness, or hardness – choose two.” But SM100 (the trade name for Nitinol 60) threw that out the window when introduced to the cutlery world. It is very hard, tough, and corrosion resistant. It’s called memory metal because heat can get it to revert back to a previous shape.

In fact, it’s not technically a steel at all, as it uses titanium and nickel. Steel is a combination of iron and carbon with other elements. But SM100 is not widely available, hard to heat treat and grind, and exceptionally expensive. No mainstream companies use SM100, and the niche makers that do usually charge more than $1,000 for knives with SM100 blades. But if you want to know what the coolest blade material is, for my money, SM100 is it.

–Anthony Sculimbrene authors the blog EverydayCommentary.com.

Know Your Knife: Handle Grip to Blade Tip

Knives are one of our oldest tools, so it makes sense that they have evolved into thousands of styles since the first person chipped one out of stone. This guide explains important features to consider when buying a new knife for the outdoors. Read more…

previous:
next:
Saving…
×