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Which blade steel is the best? And why.

Does anyone have a breakdown of the benefits of the different kinds of steel that is used for blades? It seems that if there is so much to brag about by saying my knife has a (blah blah, useless letters and numbers) blade, then they should all use the same kickass steel. But, I see several different kinds of steel being used. What should I look for and why? What makes one kind better than the other? It seems they are all alloys, but if one is genuinely superior to another, then why arent all knives made utilizing that alloy?

Apr 21, 2019
also: "It seems that if there is so much to brag about by saying my knife has a (blah blah, useless letters and numbers) blade, then they should all use the same kickass steel." Silly, isn't it? Let them brag tho, most of us do it from time to time and it's a good reminder that when it comes your time, there's always someone listening that's gonna be less impressed than you. Truth is, a lot of EDC stuff is bought for vanity and bragging rights and a lot of it's marketed using the same sort of insecurities that lead people to want to brag in the first place. Another way to say it is that very few lives will ever hang on whether someone bought a less expensive pocketknife steel or, by going with a titanium flashlight, saved pocket weight. Kitting out with the contents of Batman's utility belt is kinda dorky for most people. but it's ok that it's dorky. A lot of fun things are, and sometimes it's even useful. So what you're most contending with is human silliness, not metallurgy. The steel designations? Yeah, they're kind of useless. Most of us can recognize certain things from some designations, that's about it. Steels beginning with CTS are Carpenter steels, a US group. Steels beginning with CPM are made by Crucible, another American company (edit; I thought I’d read they were partially foreign owned now, but can find no evidence that it’s so.) P or PM often indicates that it's a particulate steel, which means the alloying agents are distributed very evenly during the process of making the steel, with fewer impurities. The steel usually has improved qualities as a result. V and N and Mo and Co can indicate the presence of vanadium and nitrogen and molybdenum and cobalt in the alloy == all kinds of other things get alloyed into steel, the main effects of which are either to form edge making carbides or to give the steel some other property like spring or corrosion or abrasion resistance. Steels that are just a four or five digit number, a letter and a number, or a number with a decimal point in it, are usually some sort of old school steel that you will need to oil, like D2, and occasionally a new school steel you’ll also usually need to oil. Steels beginning with a number and then 'Cr' are chromium steels, which resist rust better than high carbon knife steel or tool steel, but lose an edge in short order. Steels beginning with a number and C are carbon steels, the opposite. Generally speaking the higher the number in front of the Cr or C the better quality, but there are exceptions. Steels with names like 'Aogami Super Blue' and 'Sleipnir' and 'Elmax' and 'Maxamet' and 'Cru-Wear' do not leverage some deeper information most ppl lack, they're just marketing terms chosen to sound badass. Everything usually means SOMETHING but especially with numbers it can be whatever they like. And again -- most people have a much harder time than they expect to have in telling the premium steels apart from one another. M390, 20CV and 204-P are virtually identical in their chemical composition. With real diligence- i.e. the willingness to make thousands of cuts to different kinds of material, and then closely examine the blade — those three will eventuallly come out ahead of S30V, S35VN, XHP on everything but ease of sharpenability and will do better in the round than ZDP-189, S90V, S110V, M4, or Elmax. But the truth is, almost nobody cares enough to test it that far. It gets really tiresome. Even old school knife guys who grew up around knifemaking have to send stuff off to be tested in labs. Doesn't stop them or any of us from having a preference. But the truth is that the vast majority of these knives are not built because someone thought that these were the absolute best materials they could find. They are built to be or appear valuable enough to be sold for a profit to people who want a knife. And the vast majority of these knives are not bought because someone understands exactly what they're buying, any more than they can name every part of every machine they own. They are bought because people want them. And they'll be prepared to declare whatever brand they bought The Best not because it is, but because they bought it. That's the kind of monkeys we are from time to time. And the worse truth is that people who make knives are sometimes... bad people who make things with inferior materials, even though they know very well they're making cheap things from crappy stock and planning to sell them as premium to the masses. That 'Damascus' craze we just had that was mostly just pattern welded or etched steel? No one in the industry thought that stuff was any good, they just thought it looked wicked enough to sell. a lot of the 'damascus' was junk steel pattern welded together and given a simple etch and sold for a lot more than junk steel is worth. Same thing with titanium. There's a lot of cheap and comparatively heavy titanium alloy sold and made into knives and people pay extra for the titanium, not knowing that it's not up to the usual standard and a lot heavier than it ought to be. (On the flip side I've bought 'titanium' parts that I could bend with my hands. Watch the industry long enough and you'll lose track of the number of cheap cop outs you see). Either way a wink is as good as a nod to a blind man - a lot of consumers never know the difference, after a while they just go 'huh i don't see what the big deal is about titanium' and go on to the next thing they wanna buy.
Apr 23, 2019
reswrightGood write up. Makes me wonder why manufacturers think that "Damascus" is acceptable as a steel designation. I love the look of the stuff, but if you are going to sell kives with it, the steels involved should be listed.
Apr 24, 2019
fhoodYes. Damascus can be jaw dropping stuff. But when you go looking to see what the steel is and it just says ‘Damascus’, that’s like when cheap knives just say ‘stainless’. Bit of a O RLY. Saying that the knife industry knows how to put its best foot forward is understating it; so if there’s any doubt?there is no doubt. ;)
Apr 20, 2019
it's a matter of what steel is best for you. take a look at your last pocket knife.. What do you notice the most? Is the steel corroded? The best 'super steel' for you might be LC200N. Is the edge chipped or bent? The best 'super steel' for you might be CPM M4. Did you have a hard time keeping it sharp when you used it a lot? Are you patient? The best 'super steel' for you might be S90v, unless there were no chips on your edge at all, in which case it might be S110v. Sharpening these takes patience though. Are you struggling to pick out any major problems? S30V or S35VN, CTS-XHP or Elmax will probably take care of you just fine, unless you have a burning need to demonstrate your buying power in order to get something a little bit better. In which case you can get something in M390 or 20CV or CTS204P. Fun fact -- most of the people with a decided preference for one of these steels over the other, cannot tell them apart without the help of scientific tools, but the last three are prolly the most well rounded 'super steel available today. There are many many other choices and if you Google knife steel guides you'll find a lot of useful info. New steels are coming to market all the time -- like, I've heard that Maxamet may be even better for long term edge retention than S110v, which is currently my favorite steel for folders even though some folks hate it - it takes an insane edge and keeps it forever, but hard workhorse use will eventually ruin that edge, which is why my favorite steel for fixed edge hard use knives is CPM 3V instead. And if you become a knife person, half the fun of buying new knives is the chance to occasionally try new steels and find new things that work for you. Some folks even collect all the steels they can find like Pokemon. Last thing? Like has been said by others, heat treat, grind angle and blade thickness all play a huge role in how well your steel works for you, The right treatment can't make lousy steel into M390 but the wrong treatment can make M390 into lousy steel. this is the part where choosing a reliable manufacturer makes a big difference. A lot of companies will happily charge you a premium for super steel, but comparatively few will know how to get the best out of it, and will do that for you. The rest figure if you don't know any better, they'd just as soon save the money they'd have to pay to do it right.
Feb 28, 2019
m_b is correct. What are you going to do with the knife? How much do you want to pay? Can you sharpen? Please don't overlook Heat Treatment and blade geometry. It has been said that I would rather have a 440C blade with great HT and an S35VN with crappy HT. Buy from a reliable manufacturer. 8Cr13 is Chinese steel and toward the bottom of acceptable blade material, but Kershaw uses it and does very well with their HT. Same with Buck and 420HC.
Jun 14, 2018
No such thing as the 'best steel' as everything is a tradeoff. It all depends on the individual's taste and use. And also your budget. Keep in mind steel performs differently with different grinds too, so it really depends.
Main factors in determining how good a knife steel is are: 1) stainlessness 2) toughness 3) ease of sharpening 4) actual sharpness 5) edge retention
1) stainless is how resistant to rust/patina the steel is. this is especially important for diving, where salt water can corrode a blade really fast. Something with a high chromium content or nitrogen based steel would resist corrosion. But if you want the best corrosion, use... not steel. Aluminum and titanium doesn't corrode at all, but they can't really hold an edge, so they fail as knife steels
2) toughness is how well a knife's edge doesnt change on impact. axes, swords, and machetes that undergo a lot of stress are mostly carbon steel, since stainless does not good impact resistant (generally speaking) but they'll rust out if you don't take care of them. Many budget steels and machetes use 3cr13, which is crap in my opinion, since it cant hold an edge, but is pretty impact and corrosion resistant for a stainless steel.
3) ease of sharpening is how easy it is to sharpen a knife. this plays a lot into hardness, so higher rockwell hardness generally means harder to sharpen (although 'hardness' and 'resistance to abrasion' are also different) and also, generally easier to sharpen knives don't hold an edge as long. a lot of hunters prefer very soft and stainless steels like 420HC, so they can sharpen the knife on the go, when doing... hunting things. but for knife nerds 420HC is considered a budget steel (although quite a good one)
4) actual sharpness, which i'll define as the sharpest a steel can get (not a real term) depends a lot on the grain structure of the steel, which is dependant on the heat treat. Basically, the finer grain structure, the sharper the knife can get. But also this plays into steel composition, so for example D2 can never really get as sharp as many other steels. Actual sharpness is also dependant on the blade shape. Razor blades are extremely sharp, but they can range from disposable to thousands of dollars. The sharpenss has more to do with the thinness of the blade. So if you want super super sharp blades, just get a really thin knife. You may not be able to do anything with it though, since it'll probably chip itself to death with any use
5) edge retention. the holy grail and most hotly contended property. this is pretty much how long a knife edge can hold that edge. here's the secret though, there are really awesome steels out there that can hold an edge much longer than all of these super steels. look up stellite6k or talonite. It's crazy stuff, but you can't sharpen it unless you have some pretty special machines. Or if you want to re-cast your blade again.
Since knife steel isn't magic, you want to get a good balance of all of these properties. And also figure out what you like. Generally speaking the 'better' steels are going to cost more, so you do get what you pay for. Also keep in mind, steel is not everything, blade geometry is a huge factor of how that knife will perform. Try using a 1/4in thick survival knife for cooking, and you'll quickly notice the difference. All in all, just try them all out to gain experience. You'll eventually find a good balance of what blade steel fits your lifestyle. But don't buy into the hype of 'you have to get this steel' unless you actually have the experience, and the appreciation, of certain knife and steel properties.
Jun 13, 2018
Mostly name brand snobbery, and marketing. The average user won't ever notice the difference between any of the super steels.
That being said S35VN is my preference because it performs well and tends to not over inflate the price of the knife.
Jun 13, 2018
Depends on your budget really. If money is not an issue M390 is my favorite, best overall. For beater knives I prefer a good D2. Most of my EDCs are S35VN, which is a nice high quality steel but not as expensive as Elmax or M390.
Jun 13, 2018
It depends on the use. I am a butcher by day and a knife hobbyist and user the rest of the time, and for me, Elmax is wonderful edge retention, tough enough to seldom ever chip, and it is nicely corrosion resistant. It isn't as premiere or brittle as m390 so it fits in the best for everything for everyone category for me. If only more company's used it.
Jun 12, 2018
Jun 12, 2018
I find CTS-XHP to be very well rounded.
Mar 3, 2019
QualitytopsI use that site for info when buying a knife too 8)
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