Dozens of types of steel are used to create knife blades. Which one is right for you? We look at ten common steels used by popular knife brands to help you select the right material for your blade.
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.
This is an old steel, 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 micro-crystals in steel that provides the hardness necessary to make a stable and sharp edge. 420HC does not hold an edge well, but it is relatively stain resistant and tough. It is easy to sharpen. There is one exception — Buck’s 420HC (Buck and only Buck), which is produced using a proprietary heat treat. It is actually quite good, a low cost steel that performs like a mid-price steel.
This is an old high carbon (non-stainless steel). It is tough, but that’s about it. It stains easily and thus is often coated when used, especially in fixed blades. It is 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.
In thick forms, like a fixed blade, 1095 is a low cost, tough 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.
One of the more common stainless steels, and one readily available in lots of different places worldwide, I have found AUS-8 to be a decent all around steel — hard enough, tough enough, and stain resistant enough. It will not hang long with high-end powder metal steels, but among the steels you’ll find at Cabela’s or the like, this is a pretty good choice.
8Cr13MoV (any of the CR series) Steel
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 corrosion-prone, 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 — 7Cr and less isn’t worth your time or money, lacking the carbon necessary to hold an edge even during mild use.
This is the steel used in Swiss Army Knives and it is an excellent steel for beginner sharpeners. It is 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) and very tough. It does not hold an edge well, but it is so easy to sharpen, you can get it back to razor-levels in a few minutes.
While not a powder steel (a method of making steel using ultra pure, micro grains of steel that are heated and pressed together), 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 are 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.
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). It, like 154CM, is 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 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 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.
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.
D2 is a tool steel used in industrial settings. Its high hardness and relatively high toughness make it an excellent choice there and in cutlery. Though technically not a stainless steel (the threshold for that designation requires 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, and over the years different heat treats have emerged, but one has risen to the top as the best—Bob Dozier’s D2, despite its age, is a truly superior steel. There is a powder form, CPM D2, and PSF27 is also very chemically similar.
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 controversy on the Internet (yes, I know Internet Controversy is a pairing of words as common as “Dishonest” and “Politician”) 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.
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.
Corrosion Resistance: H1
This is a nitrogen steel (nitrogen is used as the iron hardener instead of carbon, thus limiting the possibility of rusting) that is extremely corrosion resistant, so much so that it is 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 is light years better than the alternatives, specifically titanium bladed knives
This is an American-made powder steel. It is exceedingly tough and relatively hard, but it is not a stainless steel. 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.
A Japanese-powder steel, ZDP-189 is essentially the mirror opposite of 3V—it is uber-hard instead of uber-tough. Thanks to its very high hardness (64-66 HRc, compared to the average around 58-62 for most other steels), 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.
All Around: SM100
The old rule in steels used to be: “Corrosion resistance, toughness, or hardness– Choose Two” but that was thrown out the window when SM100 (the trade name for Nitinol 60) was introduced to the cutlery world. It is very hard, very tough (it’s called memory metal because heat can get the metal to revert back to a previous shape), and very corrosion resistant.
In fact, it is not technically a steel at all (steel is a combination of iron and carbon with other elements), using titanium and nickel. But SM100 is not widely available, hard to heat treat and grind, and exceptionally expensive. No mainstream companies used SM100, and the niche makers that do usually charge more than a grand for knives with SM100 blades. But if you wanted to know what the coolest blade material is, for my money, SM100 is it.
— Anthony Sculimbrene authors the blog EverydayCommentary.com.