Last Updated: May 28, 2017
When I review knives the kind of steel is very important. I usually spend quite a bit of time researching the steel. In addition to my own impressions I look to user experiences, manufacturer guidelines, and independent resources on steel. Then, I usually spend a good amount of time in each review discussing the the pros and cons of the steel, why the manufacturer might have selected it and sometimes I even do comparisons and go into detail on heat treating and all of that.
This is good information, and I want to make sure people have access to it, but I also don’t want to repeat the same stuff over and over. For example, if you have read one blurb on 154 CM, you have probably read them all. This page will allow me to go more in depth on a steel and make it easy for you to get to the information you want, and avoid reading through stuff you already know.
The Steel Chart
By popular request I have created a steel chart, where I try to simply map out the relative merits of each steel. You can use this chart to try to find the best steel for you. I decided to do this on 20 point scale, where I assign a maximum of 5 points to the 4 categories of Ease of Sharpening, Toughness, Edge Retention and Corrosion Resistance. The closer to 20 points the “better” the steel.
A Word of Caution – Steel Should NOT be Studied in a Vacuum!
Really listing out all the steels like this and assigning a number or rank may not be as helpful as you think. Just ask the experts in the comments section. Steel should not be studied in a vacuum. There are many other variables to consider outside the steel itself, even when considering things like edge retention (which many would assume only pertains to the steel). Here are some other factors to consider:
- The Edge Geometry – What angle is the edge set at? Is the blade v ground, convex, or chisel ground? This can all have a huge impact on the performance of a knife
- The Heat Treat – A poor heat treat can bring even the best steel to it’s knees, or make a “crappy steel” pretty good.
- The Hardness of the Steel – e.g., the heat treat – a given steel can be hardened to various points on the Rockwell scale.
- The Material Being Cut – You wouldn’t want to use a relatively brittle steel like VG 10 to chop wood),
- How you use the knife – Chopping vs slicing vs batoning vs stabbing.
So there is a lot to consider and simply dumping stuff into a chart won’t give you a full picture of things. But generalizations and charts can be helpful, especially if we are talking about production knives.
So this should also illustrate the “give and take” that occurs with various steels. Generally speaking you shouldn’t be as concerned with the total (I might change this total points system down the road). Also, keep in mind no single steel will be able to get a 5 in all the categories, but some are nice well rounded steels, while others are a little more biased one way or the other. Just because a steel doesn’t get a great X/20 score doesn’t mean it’s a bad steel. An “unbalanced” steel is good for certain types of tasks and sometimes requires a little more maintenance but will provide much better performance (ZDP 189 is a good example). This goes to the importance of using the right tool for the job.
Also, keep in mind this is a work in progress and it’s also kind of a ‘seat of the pants’ evaluation. These are my personal experiences, subject to change, and breaking everything down to a 1-5 scale is something that will probably require some tweaking. For more information on any particular steel (including my justifications for giving it a certain number) scroll down further to read the commentary.
|Steel:||Ease of Sharpening:||Toughness:||Edge Retention:||Corrosion Resistance:||Total (of 20):|
Again, these are some of my personal thoughts on knife steels, subject to change. It’s not meant to be the steel bible. Feel free to drop me a comment (or email) with your thoughts on this. It’s not a perfect system but perhaps with your input we can make it into something fair, accurate and useful to people who want to learn a little more about their knife steels.
Blade Steel Chemical Composition
Most of the discussion on this page is anecdotal. There is nothing wrong an anecdotal discussion of steel, but if you want to delve further into the science and metallurgy of blade steels, then I invite you to check out my page on steel composition. It goes into the chemical composition of steel, what the various elements can do to blade steel, etc. For many I think it will be too much information, but feel free to check it out if you geek out on this sort of thing.
Blade Steels – Commentary
AUS-8: AUS-8 is Japanese made medium-carbon, high chromium stainless steel, which offers a good balance of toughness, edge sharpness and corrosion resistance. The score this steel earned my surprise people, but there is a lot to like about AUS 8. Edge retention is definitely the weakest link on this steel, but depending on the heat treat and the purpose of the knife I think it can be entirely adequate.
8Cr13MoV: A Chinese steel with similar performance characteristics to AUS-8. 8Cr14Mov and it’s variants (including 8Cr14MoV) is actually excellent steel for the money. Like AUS-8, it lacks the edge retention of the higher end steels but can take a wicked edge and is reasonably tough and corrosion resistant. For EDC knives in the $35 and under bracket 8Cr13MoV is really tough steel to beat.
440-C: 440C is generally considered a lower end knife steel in America, but it is commonly used in medium to high grade knives in Europe. I think the low end stigma in the US is a bit unfair for 440C. It isn’t a super steel, but it is very adequate stainless steel, is far better than “no name steel” and is found in a lot of high value knives. 440C is a high-chromium stainless steel with a terrific balance of good toughness and corrosion resistance. 440C takes a nice edge and is fairly easy to resharpen.
S30V: Widely considered to be one of the best high end steels on production knives, S30V is an all around performer with great corrosion resistance, toughness, a fine grain structure and great edge holding capabilities. It will take a little work to sharpen and loses it’s initial razor sharpness fairly easily but it holds a great “working edge” that is very tough to beat. While a number of super high end steels have reached the market, S30V still remains as an obvious choice for any high end piece of cutlery.
VG 10: A higher end Japanese steel known for it’s hardness and ability to take a very fine (and sharp edge). Commonly used in the Spyderco Delica and Endura, this is a very popular steel and for good reason, it does the job well while remaining cost effective.
154CM: 154CM is a high end stainless steel made in America by Crucible, the same manufacturer of S30V. 154CM is a very popular steel and is used a lot by Benchmade and is used exclusively by Emerson Knives. 154CM was originally designed for industrial applications and is a durable steel that holds an edge very well and is easy to sharpen. One potential issue is that although 154CM is stainless, it will rust if left in a damp environment. It’s important to keep the blade clean and to cover it with oil if you live in a humid area. That said, I’ve noticed the corrosion resistance to be very good. All stainless steels will rust if neglected.
ZDP189: Don’t let the low score fool you. ZDP189 is great steel if you know how to take care of it. It takes a wicked edge and will hold it better than any other steel I have encountered. However, because it takes and holds such a nice edge it is not particularly easy to sharpen and it is not very tough. Also, it is not particularly corrosion resistant. If you use it for food prep, clean the blade off. Try to keep it dry after washing it, and don’t take the knife to the beach. If you know how to sharpen it (better yet, if you don’t let it get dull) ZDP189 should perform very well for you.
D2: D2 is a high carbon tool steel. Compared to a steel like 1095 it is not nearly as tough (meaning it is more prone to chipping out or breaking) but it is capable of holding an edge for a long time. D2 is also much more resistant to corrosion than 1095. For these reasons D2 steel is a good for smaller folding knives, but is not ideal for large fixed blades such as dedicated choppers and large survival knives.
1095-HC: 1095 is a high carbon steel (instead of a stainless steel) commonly used in heavy duty tools. Because it is a high carbon steel, it can and will rust if you don’t take care of it. That is why 1095 is suitable for fixed blade knives only. 1095 makes great steel for heavy duty choppers and survival knives because of it’s extreme durability and resistance to chipping, easy sharpening and decent edge retention. Because of the potential rust issues it is very important to keep knives made of 1095 clean and oiled. Take extra care to store a knife made of 1095 out of its sheath (this is a good idea for all knives) and keep a thin layer of lubricant on the steel. Also, selecting a knife made of 1095 with a durable coating (such as the powder coat used on ESEE knives) will help prevent rust.
Other Factors Effecting Steel Performance
Again, I would advise people researching the steels that the steel itself isn’t the end all be all of the knife. The following are other considerations explained in a little more detail. This is a work in progress.
Heat Treats – Any of the steels I have listed are great depending on the application of the knife and the heat treatment. An exotic steel with a poor heat treatment will not hold up as well as a more inexpensive steel with a great heat treatment. That said, I think the steel used should be factored into the price of a knife. The more exotic steels like 154CM and S30V are going to cost more than 440C and 8Cr14Mov and I would be hesitant to buy an expensive knife that uses an inexpensive steel.
Edge Geometry – The angle the edge is set at is critical to edge retention. Typically a wider angle is set for something like a survival knife or heavy chopper and a narrower angle is set for a kitchen knife or fine utility blade. The degree the edge is set at will of course affect how the edge will wear. Also, consider that convex, v grinds and chisel grinds will perform differently too. Also consider that a full flat grind will behave differently from a saber or partial grind – again, depending on the task at hand.
Cutting Material and Intended Use – Chopping wood, cutting rope and cardboard, and skinning game are very different tasks that are best accomplished by different knives. So it makes sense that you will want to consider what you will be primarily using the knife for when considering the steel. Case in point, 1095 is fine for clearing brush or processing wood for a fire, but it’s a terrible choice if you work in a warehouse and break down boxes all day. No single steel is going to outperform the rest for every single task so consider your intended use first.
09/07/2018 – Larrin over at Knife Steel Nerds has written a great critique ranking the steel ranking articles of various knife blogs, including my article here. If you are interested in taking a deep dive into the science of steel, then you owe it to yourself to check out Knife Steel Nerds.
Larrin Thomas is a steel metallurgist, and his blog is dedicated to in depth articles with scientific research on all things knife steel. My article is written as a lay person, and draws largely from my experience and some crude research. Larrin is the real deal so if this is a topic you care deeply about, subscribe to his blog and consider becoming a Patreon so he can continue to dive deep on this topic.
I will be updating this article in response to his critique.