Whether you’re a first-time buyer or a seasoned everyday carry veteran, picking out a new pocket knife can be an absurdly daunting task if you’re not 100% certain you already know what you want. From the size and shape to the materials that go into their construction, there’s a lot out there to consider. And that goes double if you’ve got a specific purpose in mind, as the knife you end up carrying could end up being a much more important tool than for which you’ve prepared (like if you get stuck in a survival situation).
One of the most important things to pay attention to when shopping for a new knife, however, is the steel used in the creation of the tool’s blade. Truly, it may very well be of the utmost importance to the overall lifespan and usefulness of your knife. But how does one discern which steels are the best for an EDC tool? We can tell you firsthand, it’s a tough path to walk. Lucky for you, we’ve done a lot of the legwork to help you toward acquiring a better understanding of the world of blades below in our ultimate guide to EDC knife steel. Whether you’re hunting for a beefy outdoor-ready bowie knife or you just need a budget folder to get you through your day, the following explanation will set your mind at ease.
What's The Deal With Knife Steel?
Why It's Important
Of all the parts that go into the creation of an everyday carry knife, we’d hazard a guess and say that – to pretty much everyone – the blade is the most important piece. And that’s probably because,The steel that goes into the creation of a specific blade is going to affect a number of different factors. without it, the tool has little to no functionality left. Yes, without a blade, it’s not even a knife.
More than that, however, the steel that goes into the creation of a specific blade is going to affect a number of different factors, including the knife’s intended purpose, its price, the level of difficulty of maintaining it, and even its replaceability. So, when searching for an EDC blade, the steel out of which it is created should be weighed heavily at the top of the list when of consideration factors. Granted, some compromises may be made here and there when the decision becomes a little more granular and pared-down, but basic functionality and purpose depend almost entirely upon the quality of the steel used to make a knife.
Things To Look For
While knowing that you need to pay attention to your knife steel when making an EDC blade purchase is good, it’s not everything you need to know – not by a long shot. The problem is, there’s no real system in place to let you know the quality of a steel just by glancing at the name of the metal. This is because there is no standardization when it comes to the names of steels. You see, companies that manufacture the material name it based on their own internal systems – There are still some factors you can watch for that will give you a better idea as to the quality of the steel in a given knife.meaning there’s no relation between what one brand calls their metal versus the names of others.
That being said, there are still some factors you can watch for that will give you a better idea as to the quality of the steel in a given knife. One of these metrics is completely standardized (meaning it’s associated with a strict numerical value), whereas others are more of a roundabout figure to give you a better idea as to what you’re getting. We’ve outlined the most common and important ones below:
Corrosion Resistance: Determined primarily by the amount of chromium in a given blade, corrosion resistance refers to how well a knife can resist environmental deterioration – most commonly, rust. Stainless steel is the primary example of a corrosion resistant steel. The higher the content of chromium (or other corrosion resistant alloying elements), the longer and more effectively a blade can keep from rusting. This is, of course, altered by kinds of exposure. For instance, a knife that is used in a thick fog will resist the moisture better than a diving knife that’s taken into salt water. While a percentage of alloying elements might be listed, environmental factors keep this metric from having a solid numerical value.
Durability: Including both overall durability and resistance to wear, durability determines a blade’s toughness, as well as abrasion and adhesion resistance. Toughness can be referred to both as the blade’s resistance to chipping or cracking, but also might refer to its ability to flex without snapping. Abrasion resistance refers to how much friction a blade can withstand without losing mass, whereas adhesion resistance is the measure of how well a blade keeps from collecting other materials on its surface.
Edge Retention: Fairly simple and straightforward, edge retention refers to how well a blade can keep a cutting edge. There are other factors, however, that go into determining the overall value of a blade when it comes to edge retention. For instance, softer blades might not hold and edge very well or for very long, but they can be sharpened to a razor’s edge very easily. Blades that hold an edge for a much longer time, by contrast, can be extremely difficult to sharpen and are less resistant to chipping (which can be harder to fix).
Hardness: The only metric regarding knife blades that has an associated numerical value, hardness is a determination of how well a steel resists indentation. To gauge this, steel is placed in a pneumatic machine that forcefully indents the metal – after which the depth of the indentation is measured. That depth is given a value which holds a place on the Rockwell scale (also called HRC). The benefit of a harder blade steel is excellent overall strength. However, high hardness steels also tend to be more brittle and prone to chipping or snapping under too much pressure.
Imbue Your Blade
Iron is the base metal that makes up steel. In fact, it’s the main element and one of only two elements that are absolutely necessary to create the metal. The other is carbon. This unique combination of elements creates a substance that is greater than the sum of its parts and has been an important part of human civilization since around the first century, when it was created in China. Technically speaking, as steel is a combination of two or more elements, it qualifies as an alloy on its own. Any other element that can be added to steel is known as an “alloying element.”But, iron and carbon are not the only two elements that can be imbued into the substance. Any other element that can be added to steel is known as an “alloying element.”
These secondary elements are often added in the manufacturing process of steel to add certain characteristics – the ones we laid out in the metrics section above – to the finished product. But, like the ancient practice of alchemy, alloying is a game of give and take. Sure, adding another element might increase one aspect of the metal – making it stronger or more easy to sharpen – but that is almost always done at the expense of other aspects. This give and take makes it hard to say which types of steel are the absolute best. What we can impart, however, is the following list of common alloying elements and what, exactly, they do when added to a knife steel.
A necessary element in the creation of stainless steel, this element is chiefly responsible for corrosion resistance. As a side note, a blade requires a minimum of 10.5% chromium to truly be considered stainless, but is most commonly around 14%.
Used to increase the strength of a blade, cobalt is often found in high-end steels.
The material most famous for being used in the construction of pennies and piping, copper has highly anti-corrosive properties and increases durability.
This transition metal has been known to increase brittleness in blades, but the trade off is a big boost in overall hardness.
Fairly uncommon, this brittle metal increases overall hardness at the expense of durability.
Like copper, nickel can increase overall durability and corrosion resistance.
This transition metal is most commonly used to increase strength and toughness.
Though it’s a non-metal (and is known for its toxicity), this element is imbued into blades to increase strength, but can cause brittleness.
Commonly used in the creation of computer chips, this metal adds strength to steels.
A combustible non-metal, sulfur has been used to make machining steel simpler, but at the expense of toughness.
Used heavily in military applications, tungsten makes for excellent durability and scratch resistance.
One of the most desirable and therefore expensive alloying elements, vanadium increases durability and hardness.
While there are a wide variety of steels that can be found in everything from your motor vehicle, to your kitchenware, to the hardware on your favorite hiking backpack – there are a lot fewer that can be considered suitable for use in pocket knives – as the properties necessary for everyday carry use are fairly specific. Still, even pared down to knife steels, the number of options can seem daunting. To make things a little easier, we’ve outlined many of the most popular and common options below, as well as some information as to what makes them special.
About as bare-bones as it gets, the 400-series of knife steels should be considered the bargain bin when it comes to everyday carry knives. That’s not to say they’re not worth your time, but you should have it in your head that you get what you pay for. There are a wide variety of 400-series steels (non-proprietary, which is nice), though none stand head and shoulders above the rest. 420HC is certainly the most common – and it features excellent hardness and decent corrosion resistance – though the difference is nominal. Other varieties often include a letter tacked onto the end, which indicates an alloying element. For instance, 420F features additional chromium for more corrosion resistance.
It’s hard to say what’s more common, 400-series steels or 10-series. The point is, these knife steels are practically ubiquitous throughout the knife world. The defining difference between these steels and the 400s is that 10-series steels are high-carbon blades. This means that, most typically, they offer excellent wear and chip resistance (you’ll see them commonly used in machetes and even some swords). The tradeoff, however, is that these blades do not resist corrosion very well at all and, in order to keep them from discoloring and/or rusting, will require fairly regular maintenance. Although, most folks would likely just replace a rusty blade, as these steels are supremely inexpensive.
Owned by Aichi Steel, AUS series knife steels are, for all intents and purposes, the Japanese version of 400-series steels – though there is slight variations from steel to steel. In all honesty, while there are certainly different makeups between them, the actual in-use differences are hardly noticeable to your average EDC enthusiast. That might sound like blasphemy to a hardcore homegrown knife fanatic (or the knife makers out there reading this), but we say this: try out an AUS-series next to its 400 equivalent in a blind test and we dare you to really tell them apart.
If the AUS-series of steels is the Japanese version of the 400s, then the Cr/MoV is the Chinese version of both. The most common variety is 8Cr13MoV. These steels are owned by a company called Ahonest and typically feature a higher carbon content than that of the AUS-series – meaning they offer greater strength at the expense of corrosion resistance. Still, for the price, this steel is pretty hard to beat.
Most commonly referred to as Victorinox steel, 1.4110 is the standard stainless knife steel used in the brand’s famous Swiss Army Knives. It is very cheap – in price, not quality – and offers exceptional corrosion resistance. If it has any major downside, it would have to be that the blades do not hold an edge well. But, they are so easy to sharpen and inexpensive, there’s little to truly get fussy about.
Made by a Swedish company of the same name, Sandvik is actually a generic name for a series of steels. For instance, if you see a knife designated as 12C27 – it was made by Sandvik. That particular variety is the brand’s standard stainless steel and is well-rounded, especially considering its relatively low cost. Similarly, they offer one dubbed 13C26, which is similar to 440A but with more toughness and less corrosion resistance, and another on the high-end called 14C28N that has nitrogen added for more corrosion resistance.
Often found in higher-end knives, 154CM is a top-tier non-CPM steel that balances toughness, hardness, and corrosion resistance better than just about any other steel in its class. It does not, however, stand up to CPM steels in the same manner. Luckily, if you can afford it, there is a powder metallurgy version called CPM154, which can be looked at a lot like a beefed up version of the original steel. That beefed up version, however, does typically cost a good deal more.
Technically, S30V is a CPM steel – meaning it was made by the Crucible company using their proprietary method and is, therefore, in the same family as all their other powder metallurgy steels. This one, however, is certainly their most common and popular and deserves its own spotlight, as such. In fact, a version of this steel is used in the creation of the legendary knife designer Chris Reeve’s Sebenza series of knives. Once very expensive, the price of this steel has dropped a bit and has become more accessible – which is especially tantalizing considering how incredibly durable and tough it is. As a secondary note, the S30VN variety is said to be less prone to chipping than S30V – even at the same hardness rating.
Primarily used by Spyderco in their folding knives, VG-10 is a Japanese steel known for corrosion resistance and toughness, though it has been known to be prone to disfiguration. It can hold an extremely sharp edge and is easy to sharpen back to that edge, however, which – for many – is enough reason to keep this one in mind when shopping around. Besides, if you like Spyderco’s legendary designs, you might just have to deal with the fact that it is a standard option.
Often referred to as “tool steel,” D2 toes the line very close to garnering it a “stainless” designation, though some would argue that it doesn’t feature enough chromium to make it truly stainless (it has around 12-13%). Still, this knife steel is highly desirable for its high hardness and toughness – especially when it comes to kitchen cutlery – though it has been known to be very difficult to sharpen. Still, D2 has been around for long enough to have successfully stood the test of time as one of the best knife steels around.
Short for “Crucible Powder Metallurgy,” CPM steel is named for the company that makes it, as well as the proprietary process used in its creation. CPM steels are legendary for their toughness and ability to survive even the most brutal of punishment. While this family is certainly one of the most durable steels out there, it’s important to note that it is not stainless – meaning it can become discolored and even corrode without proper care. That being said, steel made through this process is some of the most highly sought after in the world. This family of steel includes varieties such as S30V, S35VN, M4, 20CV, CPM3V, and S90V.
While the above offerings are certainly the most common and accessible, they really only scratch the surface when it comes to overall varieties. As such there are a number of less common knife and tool steels that you may come across in your search for bladed tools. We’ve gone ahead and outlined some of the more prevalent rare options in the following section. Just remember: this is not a definitive list by any means, just examples of other types of steel you may see.
H1: A product of Myodo Metal, a Japanese manufacturer of steel, this metal is essentially rustproof – which means it doesn’t corrode when exposed to things such as salt water. As such, this steel is extremely popular when it comes to diving knives, though the trade off for its water-resistance is a drop in edge retention.
Niolox: Made with vanadium, molybdenum, and niobium – Niolox is an extremely high quality stainless steel variety offering a unique combination of excellent corrosion resistance in conjunction with superb hardness and edge retention.
Sleipner: A product of Uddenholm (the Swedish steel company that merged with Bohler), Sleipner steel is alloyed with elements of silicon, manganese, molybdenum, and vanadium. A tool steel, it offers exceptional machinability, resistance to chipping and wear, and has a high hardness rating.
Elmax: This ultra-premium powdered steel is an alloy including the elements chromium, vanadium, and molybdenum and is made by a Swedish company, Uddenholm, that merged with Bohler. While this steel is excellent overall, it excels when it comes to edge retention and corrosion/wear-resistance.
M390: Another steel made by the folks at Bohler, M390 is often referred to as a “super-steel” for its superb properties across the board. It is alloyed with vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten – giving it excellent wear- and corrosion-resistance, as well as hardness.
Damascus: While this term is tossed around a lot, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with a specific variety of steel. Rather, it actually refers to a technique used to fold the steel during the smithing process. This technique causes the metal to acquire a unique wavy appearance and is said to increase many of the positive aspects of a given steel, including edge retention, overall strength, and more.
The Final Cut
The truth of the matter is that it all depends upon what is best for you.Often, we hear people discussing which steels are considered “the best.” The truth is, none of them towers over the others in enough ways that we could take a hard stance on which steel is king. The truth of the matter is that it all depends upon what is best for you. A more inexpensive steel might seem lacking when it comes to its edge retention and chip-resistance, but the fact that you could easily replace it gives it a major leg up over more pricey options. Similarly, high-grade steels boast much better metrics than their lower cost counterparts. Everything is a trade-off – a corrosion resistant blade might not hold and edge as well as one that’s prone to rust, and so on and so forth. You just have to figure out which one suits your purposes the best.
The Ultimate Guide To Pocket Knife Blade Shapes
Now that you’ve gotten more familiar with different types of knife steel, it’s time to delve into the history and functionality of the different types of pocket knife blade shapes.