Best Knife Steel Comparison – Detailed Charts and Suggestions

In an era where you have a thousand and one different knife steels to choose from, you can’t afford to be a steel snob.

The secret to finding a great knife for your intended is paying close attention to the blade’s edge holding, sharpening difficulty, toughness, and corrosion resistance.

Disregard these important factors, and you’ll only double your chances of never owning that one knife that works so good you want to scream: “Yes, this is my dream knife!”

The following extensive blade steel guide will take you through the most commonly used blade steels today and how they compare to each other. We understand you’re no metallurgist, so we have kept things simple in this guide.

Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll be feeling like a knife steel expert with an edge over your fellow knife enthusiasts.

Top 5 factors to consider when choosing the best knife steel:

We have to do this! BEFORE we get into the specific top steels used for knives, it’s important to understand that a knife blade steel is only good if it meets your unique needs and expectations.

The different knife steels out there show dramatic variations in terms of how easily they sharpen, hardness, edge holding capability, toughness, and so on.

These variations form the basis of the KEY factors that can make or break your knife blade, depending on what you intend to use it for.

best knife steel

For instance, if you expect your new knife to cut like a Jedi’s lightsaber (hello, Star Wars!) for longer without frequent sharpening, you’ll need to ensure it has the best edge retention.

Likewise, if you’ll be spending most of the time in wet or humid conditions with your knife, you should make sure its blade has excellent corrosion resistance.

Here are the FIVE main properties that define the quality of any blade steel:

1. Hardness

Hardness is one of the top factors that you can rely on to find the best quality knife steel for your needs.

Usually expressed in Rockwell Hardness Scale (HRC), hardness refers to a blade steel’s ability to resist deforming under pressure or applied forces. The higher you go on this scale, the harder steel becomes. The lower you go, the softer the steel becomes.

That said, the sweet spot for nearly all consumer knives, fixed blades, EDC, and even premium knives, fall in the 54 to 65 HRC range. These knives have relatively good edge holding ability and can easily survive regular abuse without breaking.

However, hardness comes at a cost. If you get a knife with extremely high hardness, it will have next to zero flex which will increase its chances of shattering due to impact or when abused.

High hardness increases the brittleness of a blade and causes chipping and unevenness of its edge.

Hard blades also take a lot of time and effort to sharpen. But this is somehow in your favor because they achieve a high-quality edge that lasts for eons without the need for resharpening.

knife steel Hardness

In contrast, softer steels usually fall in the 54-56 HRC hardness range. As you can easily tell, these steels are incredibly easy to sharpen and offer a lot of flex, making them hard to shatter or roll when in use.

However, softer steels have poor edge retention and tend to dull faster. You will need to sharpen them more frequently.

Soft steel is best used for hard impact blades like throwing knives, machetes, axes, and larger knives. Such bigger blades usually experience harder use than smaller EDC knives and are expected to take a brute force without easily shattering or chipping.

2. Sharpenability

Another important aspect that defines a great blade for you is how easy it is to sharpen. Some steels are fairly easy to sharpen with just the simple sharpening stone. But others will take almost the entire day to achieve a sharp edge and will require a more advanced sharpening system.

As we have just discussed earlier, the hardness of steel has a lot to do with its ease of sharpening.

Harder steels are generally harder to sharpen and softer knives are the easiest to sharpen. If you get a knife with a hardness of 64 HRC, then be ready to take time and effort to bring its edge to great sharpness.  And don’t forget to invest in a more advanced sharpening system.

Sharpenability

The sweet side about these harder steels is that once they achieve a good edge, they can hold it for exceptionally long and you won’t need to sharpen them more often. Just some stropping here and there will help bring their sharpness back up.

3. Edge Retention

Edge retention refers to the ability of your knife to keep its cutting edge with continued use.

Edge retention is usually affected by the hardness and composition of the steel. High hardness results in extreme edge retention. Using high contents of carbon in a steel alloy also increases edge retention characteristics. Adding more chromium to make a steel more corrosion resistant will make it softer and compromises its edge-keeping ability.

If you’re like most knife enthusiasts, you would avoid a knife that dulls down pretty fast. You want a knife that can retain a quality working edge for long.

Depending on what you intend to use your blade, however, low edge holding capability isn’t always a bad thing.

For instance, if you’re looking for a knife with excellent corrosion resistance for fishing or use in wet environments, you’ll have to sacrifice the edge holding ability. Also, if you’re just a beginner working on your sharpening skill, soft steel will be a good starting point as it’s pretty easy to sharpen.

Edge Retention

You should also know that blade steel with the best edge retention comes with extremely high hardness. This will be a problem because high hardness will make the blade more brittle and more prone to breaking and chipping.

A knife with the ultimate edge retention will only be limited to light to medium duty cutting tasks as tough use might cause it to chip or crack.

4. Toughness

Blade toughness is just what it sounds like—being strong in the face of hard use or abuse! A tough blade shows excellent strength and easily resists chipping, cracking, or breaking when put to hard use or abuse, e.g. bending, twisting, torsion, accidental dropping, or beating.

If you’re looking for the best camping knife or something to use for hard cutting tasks, then you must pay more attention to the toughness of the knife you choose. Tough steels can easily sail through harder batoning, powering through staples, and other heavy-duty use.

Hardness and toughness don’t fit in the same basket, though. As toughness goes up, hardness declines (and vice versa).

Increased hardness/strength makes the steel more brittle and makes it much easier to break when used for hard tasks. Drop a high hardness blade steel on a hard surface and the impact will make it chip or break.

knife steel Toughness

On the other side, tough knife steel with plenty of flexibility will have a hard time maintaining holding its edge and its edge is more likely to roll during cutting.

The composition of steel has a lot to do with its toughness-hardness correlation. If steel features high carbon content, it forms more carbides which lead to increased brittleness and less toughness. The less carbon quantity steel uses, the lower the brittleness level, and the toughness will go high.

5. Corrosion Resistance

The ability to resists rust and corrosion is also a major consideration when shopping for a new knife.

 If you reside in a humid and wet environment, corrosion resistance should be your top priority when looking for a new knife. Also, if you frequently use your knife to cut foods with acidic ingredients, e.g. tomatoes and citrus, corrosion resistance is an important consideration.

However, you should remember what we stated previously that extreme corrosion resistance comes at the expense of edge retention and strength. This explains why you’ll find fishing knives are usually made of softer steels like H1, LC200N, and N690 which offer excellent rust-free properties but loses their edges fast and requires frequent sharpening.

Corrosion Resistance

So, how do some steels achieve high resistance against corrosion?

The secret lies in the composition of the steel. Adding high quantities of chromium to steel alloy will increase its rust resistance properties. For any steel to earn the “stainless steel” tag, it must feature at least 11% chromium content. The higher the content, the better the anti-corrosion performance.

Besides the composition, the treating and manufacturing process of knife steel will also affect its corrosion resistance properties.

You should also keep in mind that steels with excellent corrosion resistance might still need additional care and maintenance to keep them completely rust-free. This is pretty easy as it involves properly cleaning and oiling your blade after every use.

Only get steels like H1 if you live in high rust-prone environments. Otherwise, you don’t want to get inconvenienced with their soft side which makes them dull a working edge fast.

Premium and high-end steels tend to balance edge retention and rust resistance with good care and will work well in areas less prone to rusting.

Other factors that define a quality knife steel:

Heat treatment

For starters, heat treatment in the knife steel industry involves employing heat to harden and temper knife steel.

How a manufacturer conducts the heat treatment process can have a huge effect on the blade performance.

Hardening steel at high temperatures will increase the hardness degree and edge retention performance but at the cost of brittleness. Treating it to low hardness will increase the steel toughness while sacrificing edge retention.

Imagine two blades made from the same S30V blade steel offering completely different edge retention properties—one holds an edge for long while another loses it fast? That’s the kind of effect different heat treatment processes can have on the same knife steel.

As you can easily guess, no respected manufacturer will compromise when it comes to heat treating their knives.

You should always consider buying your knives from high-end manufacturers like Spyderco who use the best heat treatment practices to ensure the blade is optimized to perform just as you expect it to.

Blade style

As you might already know, knives come in a plethora of grinds like the full-flat grind, hollow grind, chisel grind, scandi grind, sabre, convex grind, and so on.

These different knife grinds are optimized to suit different cutting applications. Having a clear goal of what you intend to use your knife will play a huge role in helping you choose the best grind for you.

Knife grinds is a huge topic on its own. But this guide is about knife steel, so our main focus here is the relation between these different grinds and the type of steel.

It’s important to understand that some steels won’t work with all these ground types. Harder blade steels tend to support more blade styles compared to soft and corrosion-resistant steels.

Blade style

For instance, you can’t grind H1 steel knife into a full-flat ground because the resulting grind will feel too brittle and thin for the steel to hold. The edge will get easily damaged. Steel like this will be much more suitable in a partial flat grind.

Hard steel, on the other hand, will go well with a thin full flat grind and will without cracking under pressure.

If you go to the knife market with a specific knife grind in mind, then you want to make sure the steel it comes in matches the blade style so that your knife performs as expected. You should also be ready to put in the required maintenance work for that specific grind.

If you want to learn more about different knife grinds, this guide will come in handy.

Quick Note: As you can easily see from this list of key factors that define a quality knife, you’ll hardly find a knife that balances all the features. The hardness comes at the sacrifice of toughness, corrosion resistance trades off edge retention, etc. This clearly shows that there’s simply no perfect blade. The secret to finding a perfect blade is to account for how you intend to use your knife and then set out to hunt for a knife whose key properties are focused on your unique needs and requirements.

The most popular knife steel in use today

Having discussed the most important factors to look for when shopping for a new knife, we can now go ahead and look at some of the most common steels you’ll find in most blades you will find in the market today.

To help you easily understand how these steels compare to each other, we have grouped them into 4 key families: Super steels, premium, high-end, mid-grade, and low-end steels.

If you’re in hurry, the following quick table summarized these four categories of knife steels:

Super steels

Premium

High-end

Mid-grade

Low-end

CPM S110V

CPM S30V

CPM-154

440C

1095

CPM S90V

CPM S35VN

154CM

AUS-8

440A

CPM 20CV

CPM M4

CPM 3V

14C28N

13C256

Elmax

CTS-XHP

CPM 4V

CTS-BD1

AUS-6

ZDP-189

CPM-4V

O1

420HC

M390

 

LC200N

D2

VG10

H1

A2

We ranked the steels on a scale of 1 to 5, with the properties of specific steel getting better as you move up the scale. This is the chart we used to rate the different types of steel:

Rating:

Comment:

0-1.4

Very difficult

1.5-2.4

Fair

2.5-3.4

Good

3.5-4.4

Very good

4.5-5

Excellent

For hardness, we use the standard HRC rating.

NOTE that these rankings are by no means the official industry classifications. Our ranking is based on the performance steel delivers.

Let’s take a closer look at these steels and what key properties they feature.

Super steels:

This is the highest category in our rankings and is made of steel like Elmax and, S110V, and M390. The steels in this section offer are simply the best all-around knife steels offering superior properties like insane edge retention, unparalleled wear resistance, excellent corrosion resistance, and toughness.

Needless to mention, knives made using these steels are quite expensive. The super steels knives are also hard to come by since these steels are made using alloys that are quite rare or more difficult to mine.

CPM S110V

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

58-66 HRC

Edge retention

5/5

Corrosion resistance

3/5

Sharpenability

0.5/5

Toughness

3.5/5

CPM S110V

When you see CPM in knife steel, that simply means it is made following the Crucible Powder Metallurgy technology. Crucible is a US-based steel manufacturer. Feel at home already?

The toughest blades that last for lifetimes are made using CPM S110V. We have reviewed many CPM S110V stainless steel knife

It yields extremely high wear resistance and superb edge retention—it is simply unbeatable in this category in the consumer knife manufacturing world. But that comes at the sacrifice of slightly lower toughness.

S110V is hard to tell from its sibling (the CPM-S90V) since the two share a bunch of similarities. But they go their separate ways when it comes to edge holding capability. Their levels of performance in this area can’t be matched. S110V is costly as hell.

S110V is also difficult for knife makers to machine and sharpening you can make you go crazy. if you don’t have the sharpening skills, stay away from this one! The good thing is that it will hold up the sharpness for a ridiculously long period of time.

If you want to have a feel of just what CPM S110V is made of, get the Spyderco Military knife.

CPM S90V

Steel properties

Rating

Hardness

58-66 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

0.5/5

Toughness

3/5

CPM S90V

Also from Crucible’s CPM family, this S90V steel misses the superior wear resistance and edge retention of its big brother above by a fraction. Without comparing it to S110V, no knife steel holds an edge and offers wear resistance better than S90V.

The steel is composed of high carbon quantities. But what really sets it apart is the high vanadium quantity (expect to find up to 3x the amount you get in s30v and Elmax).

Due to the high amounts of Vanadium used in this steel—and being in mind that this metal is costly to work with—you expect S90V to be premium priced. It also needs a lot of time and effort (and skill) to sharpen.

It also offers healthy resistance to corrosions and feels quite tough, which contributes to making it well-rounded knife steel.

CPM S90V is popular among the Spyderco and Benchmade manufacturers. You can get this Benchmade - 940 EDC to have firsthand experience of this super steel in your knife.

CPM 20CV

Properties:

Rating:

Hardness

58-66 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

3.7/5

Sharpenability

1/5

Toughness

3/5

CPM 20CV

Now CPM 20CV has an interesting story. It was produced following the famous M390 steel from Bohler-Uddeholm (coming up later). M390 (comping up shortly) also inspired Carpenter to come up with CTS-204P steel (coming up later in the ranking).

It’s, therefore, safe to say that 20CV is Crucible’s version of Carpenter’s CTS-204P and Bohler’s M390.

20CV is essentially tool steel made using the PM process to offer you a great combination of superb edge retention and excellent wear resistance while being highly corrosion resistant (it beats s110v and s90v in this category).

But the high wear resistance sacrifices ease of sharpening—something you should always bear in mind when you go for these ultra-premium steels.

Though this steel is fairly new in the market, some top knife manufacturers like Benchmade and Spyderco are already warming up to it. So, you can bet this is a very good steel for knives.

Elmax

Properties:

Rating:

Hardness

57-62 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

1.5/5

Toughness

3.5/5

Elmax

Before Austria’s Bohler merged with Swadesh’s Uddeholm to come up with the famous M390 steel, they produced this magical Elmax steel.

Elmax is particle metallurgy (PM) steel high in chromium, vanadium, and molybdenum elements which give it an extremely high hardness of 57-62 HRC and consequently terrific wear resistance. It makes the Elmax steel great for knives.

The steel has very good toughness but also scores excellently in terms of edge retention and is surprisingly much easier to sharpen than the other super steels in this category (though it’s generally hard to sharpen).

If you take all these factors into consideration, you can easily see that this is well-rounded blade steel to have in your knife. Keep in mind that these knives will cost you a fortune. But they compensate for this by serving you for a lifetime.

Examples of knives made using Elmax include ZT 0620 Emerson and Spyderco Lil Lion Spy.

M390

Properties:

Rating:

Hardness

60-62 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

3.5/5

Sharpenability

1/5

Toughness

3.5/5

M390

M390 is a powder metallurgy tool steel, just like the CPM steels, proudly produced by Bohler Uddeholm. The super-steel was designed to meet the need for a knife blade with extra-high hardness, insane edge retention, superior toughness, and excellent corrosion resistance.

Expert opinion on M390 is highly positive. It offers high wear resistance and the tradeoff here is that it’s extremely hard to sharpen.

The manufacturer uses Chromium, Vanadium, Molybdenum, and tungsten elements to give the steel unparalleled sharpness and edge retention. Most of the carbides in this steel are formed by Vanadium and Molybdenum. This leaves most of the chromium unused and free to fight rust and corrosion.

The manufacturer alternatively refers to the M390 as “MicroClean” steel. The reason behind it? Well, you can easily polish and clean it up to achieve a true mirror surface. This means the blade made from this super steel will not only be tough but also dazzling beautiful.

An example of a great M390 knife is the Benchmade Barrage 581.

ZDP-189

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

64 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

3/5

Sharpenability

0.5/5

Toughness

3.5/5

ZDP-189

This is a Japanese HITACHI knife steel designed to offer insane hardness. High hardness then results in the steel yielding extremely high wear resistance and being one of the most difficult knife steels to sharpen.

They use high quantities of carbon and chromium which results in the formation of extremely hard chromium carbides—raising the hardness of this steel as high as 64HRC (on average) …but some manufacturers treat it all the way up to 66HRC!

On top of this, the steel composition advocates for high corrosion resistance. However, the anti-rust properties for ZDP-189 aren’t as good as in other super-steels because of the high carbon quantity it carries. This brings the corrosion resistance down to what you find in average stainless steel. Nonetheless, the level of rust resistance remains great.

ZDP-189 would make a great alternative to S30V if you need more hardness and corrosion resistance isn’t a priority for you. All in all ZDP-189 is a great steel for knives.

Example of a ZDP-189 knife you can get on the market today is Spyderco’s Dragonfly 2.

Premium grade knife steels:

This tier is made of steels like CPM S30V, CPM S35VN, CPM M4, and CTS-XHP.

CPM S30V

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

59 - 61 HRC

Edge retention

4/5

Corrosion resistance

3.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

2.5/5

CPM S30V

S30V stainless steel is designed to offer you the best combination of wear resistance, toughness, and corrosion resistance.

Crucible, through their proprietary PM process, optimized the chemistry of this steel to form more vanadium carbides which are known to be harder and more effective compared to the chromium carbides. this is the steel’s secret to high wear resistance and excellent edge retention.

The steel also offers high toughness levels compared to high hardness steels like D2 and 440C. The corrosion resistance is also great in this steel and will match that of 440C or slightly overdo it in various conditions.

S30V is, however, a bit hard to work with for knife makers. But this has been solved by the introduction of S35VN which offers close performance to s30v but is easier to worth with.

You’ll mostly find S30V in luxury kitchen knives and premium pocket knives. A great example of a knife made using this steel is the legendary Spyderco Paramilitary 2.

CPM S35VN

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

58 – 61 HRC

Edge retention

4/5

Corrosion resistance

3.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

3/5

CPM S35VN

S35VN was produced as a more advanced option to the S30V. It’s hard to spot any differences between the two brothers. But on a closer evolution, you’ll find that S35VN offers slightly better toughness and sharpenability than s30v.

This steel uses a finer grain structure than s30v. The letters S, V, and N in the steel represent Stainless, Vanadium, and Niobium respectively. Niobium usually enhances the strength of knife steel.

The steel chemistry features niobium which leads to the formation of both vanadium and niobium carbides. The result of this slightly tweaked chemistry is improved wear resistance, sharpenability, and toughness over its younger sibling.

Not to forget, this steel is also easier to machine, grind, and polish for knife makers compared to s30v.

The Off-Grid Scorpion EDC Knife is one of the top-rated S35VN knives you can find on the market today.

CPM M4

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

64–66 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

1/5

Sharpenability

1.5/5

Toughness

3.5/5

CPM M4

CPM-M4 is high-speed steel that appears in the Crucible line of premium-grade steels. It is a bit different from S30V and S35VN in that its composition combines molybdenum, vanadium, tungsten, and high carbon content. This results in a knife with a high hardness level over that of s30c and s35vn.

High hardness and high Vanadium content in the M4 steel also make it more challenging to grind after heat treat.

Though this unique composition is the secret to the metal achieving a high hardness, the tradeoff is that chromium quantity was reduced below 4%. This keeps it below the 11% needed to make M4 stainless. As a result, the steel delivers poor corrosion resistance compared to the above steels.

Top-rated knives with CPM M4 blades include Spyderco Advocate Premium Flipper and Benchmade - Bailout Axis Knife.

CTS-XHP

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

58 - 62 HRC

Edge retention

4.5/5

Corrosion resistance

3/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

3/5

CTS-XHP

This is also American-made knife steel from Carpenter. It is manufactured using PM technology, resulting in a finer grain structure for improved overall performance.

CTS-XHP is said to be upgraded D2 steel, with an insane amount of hardness but little flex. High hardness increases wear resistance. The blade is difficult to sharpen but the good side is that it holds an edge for a long period of time.

Mind you, this steel beats S30V in terms of edge retention. But s30v is back with a higher toughness score. The Carpenter’s XHP steel has a pretty brittle edge that you must with a lot of care to avoid chipping or cracking.

Some examples of top-rated knives with a CTS-XHP blade include Cold Steel Recon 1 and Spyderco Paramilitary 3.

High-grade knife steels:

CPM 154

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

58-59 HRC

Edge retention

3/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

2/5

CPM 154

CPM 154 is one of the steels in the high-end category. High in carbon and chromium content, this steel offers good edge retention and excellent corrosion resistance.

Don’t confuse CPM 154 with 154 CM. the former comes as the CPM version of 154CM, with more evenly distributed carbides, giving it more enhanced attributes over the 154cm. Though both steels are made by the American-based Crucible Industries.

The steel offers you improved toughness and corrosion resistance than its predecessor. Grinding it is also incredibly easy. Many knife makers have also discovered that they can easily polish this steel to achieve a mirror-like perfection, further setting it higher than 154cm.

Like its cousin, however, this steel is easy to sharpen.

The steel makes a good choice for an EDC blade with fairly good edge retention, good sharpenability, and excellent corrosion resistance.

Kershaw heavily uses this steel for some of their top-rated EDC blades like Kershaw Leek and Kershaw Leek Assisted Opening pocket knives.

154CM

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

60 - 61 HRC

Edge retention

2.5/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

2/5

154CM

154CM is the standard version of CPM 154 steel we have just discussed above. The steel is also considered an upgraded version of the 440C steel with added molybdenum.

This gives 154cm better edge holding ability than 440c while exhibiting similar excellent corrosion resistance, despite having less chromium quantity.

The steel isn’t too difficult to sharpen when you have the right sharpening equipment. It offers decent toughness and will hold up to most uses. The steel is also similar to the Japanese ATS-34 and the Swedish RWL 34 knife steels.

However, you should keep in mind that knives made using this steel usually come at a premium cost, which explains why you’ll find premium brands like Benchmade using it for their knives.

If you’re looking for the best knife made with a 154CM blade, you can’t go wrong with the Benchmade Nimravus.

CPM 3V

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

58-60 HRC

Edge retention

3.5/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

5/5

CPM 3V

CPM 3V is an insanely tough steel that finds heavy use in making fixed blades that need to stand up to the abuse and impact that comes with rough use.

The American-made CPM 3V steel is also hard and manages excellent edge retention and will beat popular tool steels like A2 and D2. It offers great edge retention. As expected, sharpening this still will need better sharpening equipment.

Despite the steel not being stainless, it also offers good corrosion resistance and will withstand outdoor use pretty well with good care.

Overall, 3V is the go-to steel for manufacturer high-toughness knives for camping, bushcraft, and other knives destined for use in tough conditions.

You can get the Cold Steel Warcraft Fixed Blade or Benchmade Bailout 537GY to experience how tough this steel is when used for batoning through hardwood, cutting around the bone, digging roots in sandy soil, and other hard tasks.

CPM 4V

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

64 – 67 HRC

Edge retention

4/5

Corrosion resistance

2/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

4.5/5

CPM 4V

America’s Crucible developed 4V to improve on the edge retention of 3V steel above. But this comes at a price—slightly reduced toughness in 4V.

Most folks would also have always wanted to get more hardness in 3V which has been solved by 4V. This steel can achieve pretty high hardness up to 64 HRC. This means it offers better wear resistance and edge retention than 3V while still maintaining good toughness levels.

Sharpening a 4V knife will, however, be a bit challenging…but once you get a sharp edge it holds it for relatively longer.

The steel contains more carbon, molybdenum, and vanadium content than CPM-3v, which is the secret to its ability to achieve high hardness and wear resistance.

However, keep in mind that cpm-4v contains only 5% chromium, which is far below the amount needed to make it stainless. Though it still offers some degree of corrosion resistance, you’ll still need to show it a lot of care to keep it completely corrosion-free.

LC200N

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

58 - 60 HRC

Edge retention

3.5/5

Corrosion resistance

4.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

3.5/5

LC200N

LC200N, also, gets a place in this category of high-grade steels. It is a high nitrogen alloy famous for its extremely high corrosion resistance.

This steel is quite new in the market and was used by NASA to create ball bearings for their top-performance aerospace equipment. This is a great thing because most of the properties of steel for making ball bearings fit well for steel used for knife making.

LC200N also goes by the name Z FiNit, where Z stands for Zapp, the manufacturer, and FiNit stands for fine-grain nitrogen steel. It is high nitrogen and you can think of it as 154cm steel but with carbon traded for nitrogen.

This steel is ultra-stainless steel which offers you extremely high rust resistance performance. This makes it suitable for knives used in wet and saltwater conditions such as fishing, hunting, and chef knives.

Edge retention is great for lc200n and feels close to that of the premium s30v steel. This means you can do a lot of cutting with this steel without losing its working edge. It offers a toughness compared to H1 and sharpening it is a breeze.

Some great examples of this steel include Spyderco Caribbean Salt and Spyderco Pacific Salt 2.

D2

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

57 - 61 HRC

Edge retention

4/5

Corrosion resistance

2/5

Sharpenability

1.5/5

Toughness

3/5

D2

D2 is a popular die tool stool (D stands for Die) used in consumer knife manufacturing. The steel offers an excellent combination of high toughness and excellent wear resistance.

The steel is sometimes referred to as semi-stainless steel because it falls slightly short of the amount of chromium needed to make it stainless steel. D2 is prone to rust and corrosion, so you’d want to keep your D2 oiled to keep away rust.

When it comes to keeping an edge, D2 does a great job at holding its edge for long. his is expected due to the high hardness the steel comes with. The price to pay here is that getting a sharp working edge with D2 is quite challenging.

The steel isn’t the best in terms of toughness, but it still offers a good amount of toughness to withstand a variety of heavy-duty cutting tasks without cracking or chipping.

Examples of popular D2 steel knives you can get today include Cold Steel Leatherneck Sf and Ontario Rat II.

VG10

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

59 – 61 HRC

Edge retention

3.5/5

Corrosion resistance

4/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

3.5/5

VG10

VG10 is one of the most popular Japanese stainless steels used for knife making. It offers strong anti-rust performance and has relatively high hardness. It can get extremely sharp and will retain its edge for impressively long, thanks to the vanadium in this steel chemistry. This element also improves its toughness and strength.

Despite featuring high hardness, this steel is easy to sharpen. it delivers reasonable toughness and will withstand medium-duty tasks, say in your kitchen.

The high-end stainless steel is similar to the 154CM and AT-34 steels, but it contains more chromium quantity. This gives it excellent corrosion-resisting properties and can be used in humid and marine conditions with very little maintenance.

Bohler’s N690 steel shows similar properties to VG10 but offers you better edge retention and is more challenging to sharpen. This is why you’ll find knife steel enthusiasts often referring to N690 as Vg10 on steroids.

VG10 will do well for both EDC and chef knives. Some of the top knives featuring this steel include the Spyderco Dragonfly and FANTECK Damascus Professional Chef Knife.

H1

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

57 – 59 HRC

Edge retention

1/5

Corrosion resistance

5/5

Sharpenability

4/5

Toughness

2.5/5

H1

Mydo Metals, based in Japan, makes H1 steel. This steel has a superpower which is being the ultimate corrosion-resistant knife steel that just doesn’t rust! This is what you call true stainless steel, or 100% stainless steel.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, however, excellent corrosion resistance comes at a price—reduced edge retention.

H1 also scores pretty low in other categories such as hardness, sharpness, and edge retention. H1 steel will lose its edge so quickly that you’ll need to sharpen it more frequently. You also don’t want to use it to cut hard media.

The H1 is easily compared to D2 steel: While D2 excels in being tough and super-hard, H1 takes the opposing softer side but resists corrosion easily, which is the main problem of D2 steel.

Overall, the rust-free steel will work best for knives used in wet conditions such as fishing and diving. A few examples of diving knives featuring H1 steel include Spyderco Dragonfly 2 and Spyderco Ladybug 3.

A2

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

57 – 62 HRC

Edge retention

3/5

Corrosion resistance

0.5/5

Sharpenability

2/5

Toughness

4/5

A2

If you’re still looking for insanely tough knife steel, you won’t go wrong with A2. Proudly manufactured by US-based Crucible Industries, A2 steel knives is very popular in the knife industry for its exceptional toughness and will withstand regular heavy-duty use without signs of cracking or chipping.

But the extreme toughness comes at the cost of moderate wear resistance. In terms of edge holding, it comes to steels like 440C, meaning it will hold a nice working edge for fairly long. Sharpening this steel is super-easy, thanks to its decent wear resistance. Working with it will also feel easy for knife makers.

Unfortunately, this steel doesn’t offer you good corrosion resistance due to the low chromium (5% only) in its composition. Neglect it for a minute and it will get attacked by rust!

You shouldn’t expect to find A1 steel in EDC knives. But for any fixed blade, tactical or combat knives, it will do just fine.

Mid-grade knife steels:

440C

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

59 – 60 HRC

Edge retention

1.5/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

3.5/5

Toughness

3/5

440C

440C makes it to our list as one of the mid-range knife steels in use today. It was rated as high-end steel but the introduction of newer and better steels pushed it to a step down to the mid-level classification. But the 440c is still good for knife steels.

Appearing in the 400-series of knife steels, this steel is a good all-around choice that comes at an affordable price. It is mainly used in mass-manufactured pocket knives.

440C boasts the highest levels of carbon and chromium in the entire 400 series.

In terms of specific performance characteristics, the steel holds an edge better than the 420HC steel in the same 400-series. But this comes at the expense of corrosion resistance. It is relatively easy to sharpen that steels in the high-end and premium categories.

Don’t forget that the steel also delivers reasonable toughness and wear resistance.

440C is similar to the Chinese 9cr18mov. Both metals sharing almost similar chemistry and performance in terms of corrosion resistance, edge retention. Knives made from both steels also fall in the same price range.

AUS-8

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

58 - 59 HRC

Edge retention

1.5/5

Corrosion resistance

2/5

Sharpenability

4/5

Toughness

2/5

AUS-8

AUS 8, also known as AUS-8A, is Japanese-made stainless steel. The mid-range knife steel is popular with knives within the budget range in the US market. This is one of the best steel for small knives.

It comes with well-balanced chemistry that enables it to deliver a high degree of hardness, wear resistance, toughness, and corrosion resistance.

The steel delivers decent edge retention and great anti-wear resistance. Sharpening AUS-8 is a dream, even for beginners.

The stainless steel also delivers decent corrosion resistance but requires extra care to protect it from corrosion. The use of nickel in its chemistry enables this steel to deliver decent toughness.

It is also worth keeping in mind that this steel features a pretty similar chemical composition to the Chinese 8Cr13MoV (this is believed to be the Chinese version of the Japanese AUS-8 steel).

AUS-10A, though relatively new to the knife steels market, is another similar steel to AUS-8. It gives up a small amount of chromium in AUS-8 for Vanadium which increases its toughness at the expense of corrosion resistance. However, it’s hard to easily notice any differences between the two metals.

440B is another equivalent to AUS-8 steel knives as it features similar properties to this Japanese steel. However, its durability lags behind AUS-8.

Overall, the steel has greater durability compared to other cheaper knife steels. Some premium manufacturers like Benchmade and Ontario use it to manufacturer a variety of their low-end knives

Examples of popular knives featuring AUS-8 stainless steel blades include Rat I Folding Knife and SOG SEAL Pup Elite Fixed Blade Tactical Knife.

14C28N

Steel properties:

Rating:

Hardness

55–62 HRC

Edge retention

2/5

Corrosion resistance

3/5

Sharpenability

3/5

Toughness

1.5/5

14C28N

14C28N is also a great choice for budget knife steels. It has similar properties to its siblings from the Swedish manufacturer Sandvik, the 13C26 and 12C27. And they’re collectively known as Sandvik steels.

14C28 is actually an upgrade from the manufacturer’s 13C26 steel. In fact, it was produced following a special request from Kershaw—one of the respected US knife manufacturers—to make the 13C26 steel more corrosion resistant. And that’s how 14C28 was born.

When you analyze the chemistry of these two steels side by side, you’ll discover less carbon and slightly more chromium in 14C28. But the main difference lies in the steel in 14c28 which gives it superior corrosion resistance over its predecessor.

Other than that, this steel can also get extremely sharp and can keep its edge for fairly long. However, it doesn’t do well in terms of toughness and you risk cracking or breaking your 14C28N knife if you cut hard media.

If you’re looking for budget steel with good performance, you can’t go wrong with the Kershaw Knockout and Kershaw Leek, both of which are great 14c28n knives.

CTS-BD1

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

58-60 HRC

Edge retention

2/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

3/5

Toughness

2.5/5

CTS-BD1

This is American steel produced by Carpenter to deliver excellent corrosion resistance and hold a good working edge. The steel was designed as a result of a special request from Spyderco to Carpenter. Now, Spyderco knives are ruling the pocket knife market.

The manufacturer took all the properties of AUS-8 steel and added a little amount of chromium to increase its corrosion resistance.

They then heat-treated the steel inside a vacuum to enable it to form larger chromium carbide particles—which help resist corrosion better than similar-sized particles that aren’t vacuumed.

Thus, CTS-BD1 steel beats aus-8 and MoV steels in corrosion resistance.

This American steel is extremely easy to sharpen and achieves a razor-sharp edge pretty quickly. It holds its edge slightly better than AUS-8 and 8Cr13MoV.

With its well-rounded performance, this steel is sure to offer you great value for money.

Spyderco was the only company using this steel when it first hit the market. But with time, many other reputable knife manufacturers warmed up to it.

Some of the most popular knives that come with this CTS-BD1 steel blade include JAMES The Folsom Straight Pocket Knife and Spyderco Manix 2.

O1

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

57 HRC

Edge retention

3/5

Corrosion resistance

1.5/5

Sharpenability

2.5/5

Toughness

4/5

O1

O1 boasts well-balanced chemistry of elements which enables it to achieve the high hardness and deliver excellent wear resistance. The high hardness gives this steel great edge retention performance with regular use on cutting hard media.

Absolute beginners with no much knowledge about sharpening will like how easily this blade steel sharpens without a lot of effort or expensive sharpening equipment.

The toughness of this steel is also good, but not as good as that of premium steels. You can use it for heavy-duty cutting tasks such as bushcrafting without chipping or cracking. O1, however, offers decent corrosion hesitance but will require extra care to keep it from getting rusting and corroding.

O1 stands slightly below A2 steel in overall performance. A2 holds an edge longer than O1 but it is a challenge to sharpen, unlike O1. O1 beats A2 in terms of corrosion resistance but A2 scores higher for toughness. Click here to know more about O1 steel.

Low-end knife steels:

This category highlights all the steels lying at the bottom of the pyramid of knife steel quality ranking. Steels in this category don’t offer good edge retention. They’re generally affordable and found in mass-produced knives. They make a great choice for absolute beginners and budget-minded knife users.

1095

Steel properties

Ratings:

Hardness

55-58 HRC

Edge retention

2/5

Corrosion resistance

1/5

Sharpenability

4/5

Toughness

3/5

1095

1095 is old high carbon steel with a high amount of toughness. It offers good resistance to chipping and breaking than most of the steels in this tier.

But it performs poorly in other categories. it stains easily because it contains virtually no chromium. For this reason, the steel should always be coated with a rust-proof coating, especially when used to make fixed blades.

The steel makes some of the easiest to sharpen knives. The mixture of carbon and Manganese in its composition gives it an edge over other low-end steels when it comes to keeping an edge.

Due to its high toughness levels, 1095 carbon steel is best suited for making fixed knives for camping, bushcrafting, and other hard use applications. Its ease of sharpening also makes it a great beginner blade for those learning the art of sharpening.

All the 1095 steel knives are low priced and affordable for starters and knife enthusiasts with a tight budget.

440A

Steel properties

Ratings:

Hardness

56 HRC

Edge retention

1.5/5

Corrosion resistance

1/5

Sharpenability

4.5/5

Toughness

0.7/5

440A

440A is simply 420HC with increased carbon quantity. The steel is a predecessor to 440B and 440C. These two steels contain even higher carbon content than 440A. This makes it more machinable at the cost of its hardness.

The increased carbon in 440A compared to 420HC makes this steel more durable and wear-resistant than 420HC blades. Nonetheless, it still lies in the side of softer steel and sharpens pretty easily.

Unfortunately, it has poor corrosion resistance and might not do well in wet and marine applications. has better anti-corrosion performance compared to its successors.

13C26 steel from Sandvik is a special version of 440A. It contains higher carbon content in place of chromium, thus it sacrifices some degree of corrosion resistance for strength. But the difference is insignificant and you will barely notice when using blades made from these two steels.

440A steel is used to produce inexpensive knife blades since it’s more affordable and a great alternative to high-end steels. Display and replica weapons are also made using 440A steel due to high affordability. 

AUS-6

Steel properties

Ratings:

Hardness

55-57 HRC

Edge retention

1/5

Corrosion resistance

2.5/5

Sharpenability

4.5/5

Toughness

2/5

AUS-6

AUS-6 belongs to the same family of AUS steels as AUS-8 and AUS-10. But a big difference exists in the overall performance of this steel compared to its siblings which pushes far below the lowest category of knife steels.

That said, you should note that this steel comes as Japanese equivalent for the 420 series steel but offers less corrosion resistance and better edge retention.

It contains 0.65% which makes it relatively softer steel. The advantage of being soft is that this blade is extremely easy to sharpen and achieves a super-sharp edge quite fast. This is a good thing because soft steels don’t hold their edge for long and require more frequent sharpening.

As expected, this is also low-cost steel and finds use in making budget-friendly knives. It is mainly used in kitchen knives.

If you’re looking for a pocket-friendly pocket knife for a young knife enthusiast or a first-time knife on a budget, AUS-8 knives will fit your needs.

420HC

Steel properties:

Ratings:

Hardness

57 HRC

Edge retention

1/5

Corrosion resistance

2/5

Sharpenability

4/5

Toughness

3/5

420HC

420HC is an improvement over old steel, the 420 steel. The letters "HC" in this steel stands for High Carbon and it means that this steel has higher carbon content than the 420 steel.

420HC appears in the 420 series of steels and shares similar properties to its siblings namely 420, 420J, and 420J2. These steels usually contain low carbon content (0.15% and 0.40%) and attain a hardness of about 57HRC after heat treatment.

The steel carries a relatively low carbon quantity which makes it softer steel. As a result, it tends to lose its edge pretty quickly. But they are pretty easy and quick to sharpen and take their edge back to ultra-sharp.

The good thing about this soft steel is that it has a lot of flex and can withstand a lot of impact without breaking or cracking easily. They also have high stain resistance and will require very little care.

Buck Knives, Leatherman, and Gerber Knives use 420HC extensively use this steel to make budget knives. They harden the steel to 57HRC, which means slightly better durability and edge retention.

Its siblings 420J1 and 420J2a are also highly affordable and also highly corrosion-resistant and mostly used for making diving knives. They form the middle ground between 420 and 420HC steels. Click here to check our full review on 420hc steel knives.

Other knife steels you should know about:

In addition to the above list of steels, there exist some other steels that are also used in knife making that are worth mentioning.

However, these are exotic steels and don’t fit any specific group of knife steels. There are also extremely rare in the knife market.

Similar to all the other knife steels, however, these special steels come with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Cru-wear

Cru-wear is produced by America’s Crucible Industries and is one of those rare blade steels. It delivers a combination of excellent toughness, high hardness, and high wear resistance.

The manufacturer came up with this steel by modifying their D2 steel. They reduce the carbon and chromium content in D2 chemistry and increased vanadium and tungsten levels. The result is Cru-Wear steel featuring vanadium carbides which beat chromium for increased hardness.

The lower carbon content leads to increased toughness, bringing the steel close to other tough steels like CPM 3V and M4.

Many knife enthusiasts believe that Cru-Wear is designed to offer a mid-ground between 3V and M4 steels. It has greater toughness than M4 but won’t hold an edge like M4. It is less tough than 3V but longer an edge longer. See how it bridges 3V and M4?

Some of the top knife manufacturers that use Cruwear for their knives include Spyderco, Bark River, and Jake Hoback.

Maxamet

Another knife steel worth mentioning is Maxamet, non-stainless steel manufactured by Carpenter, another US-based brand. We have a full review on Maxamet steel knives. This steel is popular for its insane hardness—can become as HARD as 70HRC!

This is such a high hardness level for knife steel and gives a knife a super-power which is tremendous edge retention and extreme wear resistance. Needless to mention, sharpening this knife will be ridiculously tough!

In other words, this is one of the best steels available in terms of edge holding. Though most folks are already comparing it to Cruwear’s S110V steel, the debate is still ongoing.

Although offering such superb edge retention, the steel is still able to deliver reasonable toughness to keep off chipping and breaking problems.

However, the superior edge holding capabilities comes at a cost which is poor corrosion resistance. The steel is non-stainless and will need extra care to keep off the rust.

Spyderco offers you an opportunity to use this blade steel by using it in their Native 5 and Manix 2 knives.

Vanax SuperClean

Bohler Uddeholm is behind this Vanax SuperClean steel. It solves the problem of the Maxamet by being both strong and corrosion-resistant. The high-tech steel offers extremely high corrosion resistance.

Vanax carbon content has been kept low and Nitrogen has been used in its place to make it strong and durable knife steel.

The steel also offers a pretty high working hardness between 60 and 62 HRC which results in superb edge retention capabilities (but not as great as the Maxamet) and excellent wear resistance. Its edge retention and toughness are comparable to Elmax steel.

Sharpening it won’t be an easy task. This steel also offers very decent toughness and good machinability.

If you’re looking for a steel that makes diving knives with both excellent corrosion resistance and the ability to hold an edge, Vanax is a great choice. It outperforms rust-free steels like H1 by being able to hold a great edge and at the same time remain corrosion-free.

CPM REX-121

REX121 is SUPER-HARD, high-speed steel from Crucible and can achieve a hardness of up to 70-72 HRC! This puts it in the same category as other super-hard steels like Maxamet and HAP 72 from HITACHI.

The steel features high Vanadium and Cobalt quantities which enable it to deliver a combination of extremely high hardness and wear resistance. It delivers superior edge retention comparable to Maxamet.

Sharpening it would be quite hard. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you have confidence in your sharpening skill and you use a good quality diamond sharpener, you should be able to sharpen your rex 121 steel blade.

But cpm rex-121 has some drawbacks. It has lower toughness and will likely not hold up well to hard use. You should just cut with it over and over but don’t abuse it.

As expected, rex-121 is also extremely difficult to grind due to the high carbide volume.

Another drawback is that this steel is non-stainless and will rust easily if you neglect it.

K390

K390 is proudly made by Bohler Uddeholm s advanced tool steel using their proprietary particle metallurgy (PM) process—also known as the MicroClean technology. They intended this steel to be a workhorse in the most severe conditions. 

The steel comes with a unique combination of elements which comprises 9% Vanadium and added tungsten and cobalt for excellent extremely high wear resistance and high compression strength.

K390 has high edge durability and will hold a nice working edge for a longer period of time than most of the high-end steels on the market today. But the tradeoff is that it’s quite difficult to sharpen.

The K390 weakness includes being less tough and likely to chip or break when abused. It is also highly vulnerable to rusting (it is non-stainless steel) and will need regular care to keep away corrosion. You can check the full K390 steel review after this article.

What elements are used in making knife steels?

Although we have seen different blade steels exhibiting varying qualities and performances, it is worth noting that their creation usually revolves around the same list of elements mixed up in different combinations. The way a manufacturer mixes different elements contributes to the overall quality and performance of blade steel.

Here are the most common elements used to create blade steels:

  • Carbon (C): this is a must-have element in a steel alloy. It plays the role of hardening the steel. But using too much carbon increases the hardness to high levels that in turn make the steel brittle and reduces its toughness. High carbon steels feature 0.80% or more carbon content, medium carbon steels have a carbon content between 0.4 and 0.7%, and low carbon steels have less than 0.3% Carbon content. By paying attention to the amount of carbon steel that comes with the blade steel, you can quickly get a clue about its overall quality.
  • Chromium (Cr): fights corrosion. It is also a crucial element for any steel to become stainless. That is, steel requires at least 11% chromium quantity to qualify as stainless steel.
  • Cobalt (Co): increases the strength of a blade.
  • Copper (Cu): helps prevent corrosion. Used in trace amounts to prevent a blade from forming a patina.
  • Manganese (Mn): enhances the strength and hardness of a steel alloy when used in small amounts. Too much of Manganese can, however, increase the brittleness of steel.
  • Molybdenum (Mo): magically increases the resistance of a steel to heat, allowing for more forging and machining options. High-end steel manufacturers heavily rely on this element to make steel with high hardness without affecting corrosion resistance.
  • Nickel (Ni): helps make the steel easier to weld and form when used in smaller quantities. It also improves the durability of blade steel.
  • Nitrogen (N): using nitrogen in a steel alloy boosts the blade’s corrosion resistance and enhances its longevity. Most manufacturers use nitrogen as a replacement for Carbon to achieve these benefits. This element also affects how easily a steel hardness is, thus helping in a special manufacturing process.
  • Phosphorous (P): it increased the anti-corrosion properties of steel while adding to its overall tensile strength when the carbon content is low in the alloy.
  • Sulfur (S): used in small quantities to increase the machinability and make it easy for knife makers to work with. However, it is considered a contaminant and can cost the steel some toughness.
  • Silicon (Si): useful for sticking the different materials together during the manufacturing process. It also acts as a deoxidizer and degasifies to get rid of oxygen from metal in the molten state.
  • Tungsten (W): contributes to the formation of fine carbides, thus helping form fine grain steel. It also increases wear resistance and toughness and enables it to retain its hardness at high temperatures.-
  • Vanadium (V): just like Tungsten, it helps in formation of finer grain steel and ensures these grains retain the fine nature throughout the manufacturing process.

Best knife steel comparison charts:

As we promised you at the beginning of this post, this section contains our best knife steels ranking in easy-to-understand charts for hardness, edge retention, corrosion resistance, and toughness.

Knife Steel Hardness Chart:

Knife Steel Hardness Chart

Knife Steel Edge Retention Chart:

Knife Steel Edge Retention Chart

Knife Steel Corrosion Resistance Chart:

Knife Steel Corrosion Resistance Chart

Knife Steel Sharpenability Chart:

Knife Steel Sharpenability Chart

Knife Steel Toughness Chart:

Knife Steel Toughness Chart

Final verdict

As you can see from this guide, the world of knife steel is soo vast that your chances of getting a blade that fits your unique needs are quite high. Whether you desperately want superb edge-holding, insanely tough, extremely corrosion-resistant, or an easy-to-sharpen knife, there’s blade steel that meets your needs.

We have provided you with all the important details you need to know about different knife steels in this comprehensive guide and we have no doubt that now you can easily walk into a knife shop and pick a knife that you’re sure will work for you.

Don’t forget to pass this helpful knowledge about the best knife steels to the steel snobs in your life so they can start choosing knives that actually meet their needs.

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