The Ultimate Guide About The Many Types of Knife Steel

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One of the most important aspects of a knife is the knife steel.

The knife steel is basically the material that was used to create the blades.

Most of the popular knives on the market today use steel to create their blades, but there are some companies known for making ceramic blades as well.

The steel used to create a blade plays a big role in its sharpness, edge retention, and overall functionality in the kitchen.

And when you’re shopping for knives, whether they’re for the kitchen or for a hunting trip, it’s very important to consider the material of the blade.

With all the different steel types out there, distinguishing the good from the bad can be pretty tough for some people.

That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive guide of the different knife steel recipes used by different manufacturers.

In this guide, we’ll be giving you a detailed profile of the different steel on the market and what makes them ideal for knives.

If you’ve been looking to learn about all the different knife steel recipes out there, you’ve come to the right place.

Read on to learn more.

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What Makes a Good Knife Steel?

There are many factors that go into choosing good knife steel for blades.

Manufacturers are always coming up with new innovations to create better steel recipes that will be sharper, harder, and much more durable.

Here are some of the key factors that you need to consider when selecting good knife steel;

Hardness

In terms of steel, hardness refers to the ability to resist stress when force is applied to the material

When it comes to the world of knife steel, hardness is also referred to as strength and is typically measured in HRC.

HRC ratings use the Rockwell C Scale.

Kitchen knife steel usually has an HRC between 50-60, which is the ideal rating for kitchen knives.

Wear Resistance

Wear resistance refers to the material’s ability to withstand both abrasive and adhesive wear.

Abrasive wear occurs when a harder material comes into contact with a softer material.

Adhesive wear, on the other hand, occurs when the debris is dislodged from one surface and ends up on another surface.

Wear resistance is usually directly associated with hardness and toughness, though there are other factors that come into play.

With wear resistance, the size of the carbides plays a big role.

Bigger carbides allow for better wear resistance.

However, the larger the carbides are, the more brittle the material is, so manufacturers need to find a proper balance.

Toughness

Toughness refers to the ability of steel to resist chips and cracks when subjected to sudden loads.

The tough knife steel is hard enough to withstand stress but not so hard that it cracks under pressure.

The harder the material, the less likely it is to be classified as “tough”, though measurements aren’t exactly standardized yet.

Currently, Charpy and Izod ranking systems are used to measure the toughness of a material.

Corrosion Resistance

It’s very important for a knife to resist corrosion.

Corrosion occurs when the knife oxidizes, which is something that is typical of metals.

Corrosion can cause severe and sometimes irreparable damage to a knife.

To create a corrosion-resistant blade, manufacturers need to use stainless steel or materials high in chromium.

Chromium is known to aid in corrosion resistance and steel needs to consist of 11% chromium before it’s considered stainless.

Edge Retention

One very important quality of a knife is how long it stays sharp.

In the world of knife steel, this is referred to as edge-retention.

The better a knife’s edge retention, the longer it will stay sharp and functional in the kitchen.

Typically, the harder a certain steel recipe is, the better its edge retention.

However, manufacturers need to find a balance between hard steel that retains its edge without being too hard that the blade will become brittle.

Ease of Sharpening

There is no blade that can stay sharp forever.

Eventually, you will always need to resharpen a knife.

So, when choosing knife steel, manufacturers consider how easy it is to sharpen.

The harder the material, the tougher it will be to sharpen.

While edge retention and hardness are very important, manufacturers also have to make sure that it’s easy to re-sharpen the blade if it gets dull.

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Different Elements Found in Steel

Steel is an alloy of carbon and iron.

The ratios of these two elements vary depending on the recipe, and manufacturers are known to add other elements to boost certain characteristics of the material.

Typically, these are the most common elements you will find in a steel recipe;

Carbon

More carbon in a recipe makes it harder, giving it better edge retention.

Chromium

Chromium allows a recipe to resist corrosion.

When a recipe contains at least 11% chromium, it is considered stainless.

Molybdenum

Molybdenum is used by knife manufacturers to add toughness to their steel recipes.

Manganese

Manganese increases the overall strength, hardness, and wear resistance of steel.

Nickel

Nickel is also used to improve the toughness of knife steel.

Vanadium

Vanadium increases the hardness and wears resistance of a knife.

Cobalt

Cobalt makes a steel recipe much harder.

Tungsten

Tungsten increases the wear resistance and hardenability of steel.

Sulfur

Sulfur makes a steel recipe more machinable.

Phosphorous

Phosphorous aids in making steel harder while also increases corrosion resistance.

Nitrogen

Nitrogen makes the material more resistant to corrosion.

Copper

Copper helps in the deoxidation of steel, increasing corrosion resistance.

Boron

Boron makes the material easier to harden.

Zirconium

Zirconium is occasionally integrated with a steel recipe to increase toughness and ductility.

Categories of Knife Steel

There are countless different steel recipes out there.

Some have been used for decades on end, while others are fairly young and new to the game.

And while there are tons of different recipes, they are commonly subdivided into these three categories;

Carbon Steel

This is the most common type used for kitchen cutlery.

It is characterized by a carbon content between 0.05% – 3.8%’s total weight.

It is known for being a very hard material, which is why blade manufacturers enjoy using it for their knives.

With a carbon steel knife, you’ll be able to retain the edge for much longer, meaning you won’t have to sharpen it as often.

However, if you’re considering a carbon steel blade, make sure to check the HRC to determine that it’s not too hard.

While you need a blade to be hard to hold its edge, if a blade is too hard it becomes brittle and will chip when exposed to sudden impact.

On top of that, this type has a lower chromium content, making it more prone to corrosion.

Carbon steel knives are used by many professional chefs out there because of their sharpness and edge retention.

And when getting a knife of this kind, you have to ensure that you take proper care of it to avoid unwanted damages.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is a recipe that has at least 11% of chromium.

The premier feature is that it won’t rust or it can resist corrosion much better than other materials.

Many recipes of this type also include other elements that are there to increase its corrosion resistance.

However, the downside of this is that corrosion resistance usually comes at the expense of toughness and hardness.

To qualify as true stainless steel, the recipe needs to have 13% chromium.

Many knife manufacturers compromise by using high-carbon stainless steel.

These materials won’t be as corrosion resistant as true stainless steel but can be seen as a middle ground between the tough carbon steels and corrosion-resistant stainless steel.

Tool Steel

This one is a hard alloy typically used for cutting tools.

These materials are used for cutters, reamers, and in bits that are commonly used for machining.

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The Most Popular Types

Now that you have a general idea and image of how the world of knife steel operates, it’s time to look at the most common recipes out there used by knife manufacturers.

We’ll lay out the features, pros, and cons of each steel recipe so you will figure out the best one to use for your knives.

To make it easier for you, we’ve further subdivided the categories into premium, high-end, mid-range, and budget categories.

Premium Choices

CPM S90V

It is primarily used for Benchmade and Spyderco knives.

The premier feature is its edge retention, which is what makes it a great material for outdoor and survival blades.

With that said, this material is not exactly the toughest on the market and because it is so hard, you might find it hard to sharpen knives with this.

M390

This one is considered super steel in the market despite it being a fairly new recipe.

The main components are chromium, molybdenum, and tungsten.

It is very hard, so it might be hard to sharpen, but it will stay sharp for a very long time.

One of the reasons this type is very popular with survival and outdoor gear is that it has a high chromium content, which makes it resistant to corrosion.

Elmax

Elmax is a high-chromium, vanadium, and molybdenum alloy powdered steel.

It is an incredibly hard material, so once you get an edge on your blade it will last you a long while.

And among the super steels available on the market, Elmax is by far the easiest to sharpen.

Elmax is stainless, so it is very resistant to corrosion.

However, since it’s so hard, Elmax also shares many qualities with carbon steel, making it a great choice for knife manufacturers.

The recipe was created by the Uddelholm Company, which is now known as Bohler-Uddelholm.

CTS-204P

This one is one of the most popular choices for knife manufacturers today.

Since it’s very hard and tough, knives with this can last users for many years, especially when cared for properly.

It also offers great edge retention and corrosion resistance, making it fairly easy to maintain.

However, since it’s a very tough material, many people find it hard to sharpen CTS-204P knives.

CPM-20CV

It is another very popular premium choice used in many tactical, survival, and hunting knives.

Similar to CTS-204P, it is very tough, hard, and offers great corrosion resistance.

However, there is a trade-off in the fact that this one is very hard to sharpen.

CPM-20CV, CTS204P, and M390 are very similar steels with near-identical compositions.

High-End Choices

CPM-3V

If you need a fixed blade knife, experts highly recommend CPM-3V.

CPM-3V is largely seen as one of the premier choices for any fixed blade knife.

It is tough, hard, and boasts decent corrosion resistance that can help protect the blade and keep it sharp for a long time coming.

On top of that, it’s a bit easier to sharpen than some of the other harder ones on the market.

CPM-S30V

Many experts rank CPM-S30V as one of the best EDC recipes.

EDC stands for “every day carry”.

It exhibits great edge retention and corrosion resistance.

However, since it’s so hard it lacks a bit of toughness.

Also, the corrosion resistance isn’t the best, so if you have a CPM-S30V knife, make sure to take care of it to avoid rust.

D2

This is a tool steel that some people dub “semi-stainless”.

There are other experts who believe that D2 is a mid-range choice, but we firmly believe that it is a high-end recipe.

It boasts a very hard composition, beating out most others in its range.

And with its high chromium content, it will resist corrosion very well, but it doesn’t have enough chromium to be called stainless.

Like with most hard steels, D2 is tough to sharpen and most people recommend hiring a master sharpener to do the job as only they can get a fine edge on D2 steel.

VG10

VG-10 is a very hard one used by a lot of knife manufacturers.

It is used in kitchen knives and pocket knives such as ones made by Spyderco.

VG-10 is known for being very hard but also has a fair amount of chromium and vanadium, making it resistant to corrosion while also being tougher than others.

It’s fairly hard to sharpen this to a fine edge, but once you do it, it will remain sharp for a long time.

CTS-XHP

This recipe is known for being versatile.

CTS-XHP fits very well on an EDC folding knife while also performing very well on fixed blades.

Another great characteristic of CTS XHP is that it’s easy to sharpen and offers great corrosion resistance.

Mid-Range Choices

1095

This is a popular recipe within the 10 range of carbon steel.

The premier feature of 1095 is that it’s tough and will resist wearing very well, even with heavy use.

It’s a great material for heavy-duty survival knives and fixed-blade knives because of its toughness.

Many 1095 knives are coated to delay corrosion which you can always fix with a bit of oil.

A2

A2 is considered a classic choice used for fixed blade knives.

A2 is a very affordable material that is easy to sharpen.

However, this recipe doesn’t boast the best edge retention or corrosion resistance.

O1

O1 and A2 are usually mentioned in the same breath as they have very similar properties.

With that said, O1 is a step below A2 when it comes to performance.

However, it is still an affordable material that would be a great material for any knife.

With O1 knives, you have to deal with the sub-par edge retention and make sure to keep it away from extreme conditions since it tends to corrode easily.

N690

Knifemakers and manufacturers in Europe use N690 a lot for their knives.

The strength and toughness are comparable to VG-10, which is what makes it very attractive for manufacturers.

It also boasts great corrosion resistance.

However, while you can compare N690 to more premium materials alloys, it isn’t as tough or hard.

440C

In the knife-making world, 440C is one of the most popular recipes out there.

It is great all-around steel that is used for kitchen knives, tools, and other types of blades.

440C is very common with mass-produced pocket knives as the material is hard, tough, and generally affordable.

It doesn’t boast the best corrosion resistance, but it is the hardest steel in the 440 families, allowing this material to hold an edge for much longer.

Another great feature of 440C is that it sharpens very easily, making it a great pick for people who don’t have access to master sharpeners.

Budget Choices

AUS-8

For most people, AUS-8 is considered high-end steel.

It’s a Japanese alloy that boasts many desirable characteristics.

However, we put it in this category solely because it is affordable, which is why many manufacturers enjoy using this material.

AUS-8 knives come in many different forms.

Manufacturers use AUS-8 for kitchen cutlery, pocket knives, EDC blades, and even fixed blade knives.

While it may not hold its edge as well as other high-carbon steels, it is still very hard and can hold an edge for a decent amount of time.

One of the advantages of reduced edge retention is that the material is much easier to sharpen than other carbon steels out there.

420J

It is considered to be on the lower end of the spectrum.

And for the most part, this sentiment rings true.

It doesn’t boast exceptional hardness or toughness, but it is still a great all-around budget option for knifemakers.

420J has a low carbon content, which means it doesn’t have great edge retention.

However, since the material is softer, it is more resistant to chips and cracks while also being much easier for you to sharpen.

You can find this in many budget-friendly, mass-produced knives.

CTS BD-1

CTs BD-1 is stainless steel developed at the request of Spyderco.

This material is similar to AUS-8, but it should be noted that the material boasts better edge retention.

On top of that, the material has more chromium than others, which makes it resistant to corrosion.

It has decent wear resistance but doesn’t have the same carbides as other high carbide steel recipes.

440A

440A is part of the 440 steel family.

This material is known for having great edge retention and wear resistance despite being a budget-friendly material.

However, there is a slight trade-off since 440A doesn’t have great corrosion resistance.

So, if you find yourself with a 440A knife, make sure to keep it away from moist and extreme conditions as the material tends to corrode in said conditions.

420HC

As the name suggests, 420HC also hails from the 440 families.

This material is considered the “king of the 440 families” since it has some of the best features seen amongst knives in the family.

It offers great edge retention, wear, and corrosion resistance, as well as being relatively easy to sharpen.

The material is fairly affordable, so you can find many mass-produced knives with 420HC steel.

While this is considered lower-end steel, in the hands of the right manufacturers, it is turned into a great knife.

An example of this is Buck, which is a brand known for top-quality knives made out of budget materials such as 420HC.

Conclusion

And with that, our comprehensive guide to the different types of knife steel comes to an end.

Remember, there are many different materials out there, so it’s important to always research.

The type used in a blade plays a huge role in the functionality and price of a knife.

When looking for the right knife steel, there are many factors that come into play.

You have to consider the durability, toughness, hardness, weight, and other characteristics of each material to figure out the best choice for your blades.

But once you find the right steel for you, it will be incredibly easy to find an EDC, pocket, survival, tactical, and even kitchen knife that can cut and slice through all the materials you’ll encounter in your journeys.

Last Updated on September 28, 2021

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My name is Andy Wang, and I'm a retired chef. I used to work at the City Vineyard restaurant in NYC. I also had a culinary degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. And this blog is where I share my love for knives and cooking with people like you.