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Everything You Need to Know About Knife Steel

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Of all the components that make a knife, its steel is the most important.

Close up of a person using a James Brand knife to cut fishing lineThe James Brand

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Ever wondered how one pocket knife can cost $20, and another $200? It almost always comes down to the materials used to make it, and the defining ingredient in any knife is the steel that constitutes its blade.

But the variance that separates one knife’s steel from another’s is more tangible than a dollar amount; how the blade performs and how long it will last are both a result of the makeup of its steel. To help demystify things — and give you a better idea of what to prioritize when knife shopping — here’s a look at what’s in knife steel, its various qualities, the most common types and an example of each class as applied to a knife that’s currently available to purchase.

Elements of Knife Steel

The two elements that make the base metal known as steel are iron and carbon. Carbon is the special ingredient that allows iron to become steel, and the quantity present affects how hard, strong, tough and wear-resistant steel is (more on these terms in the next section).

Other elements (usually metals but sometimes non-metallic ones, too) that might be present in the makeup of a particular type of steel include chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, niobium, nitrogen, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, tungsten and vanadium. Each affects the defining traits of the final knife steel. For example, chromium lends corrosion resistance, and its presence is necessary to classify steel as stainless.


The 6 Traits of Knife Steel

The elements that make up steel (and their percentage in a given steel’s makeup) lend different qualities to the final material, making tangible differences between one blade and another. Here are the most common ways those qualities are measured and what they mean.

Corrosion Resistance

A blade’s immunity from rust and degradation due to acids. If you frequently use your knife in wet environments or for food prep (there’s lots of acid in things like tomatoes and citrus), good corrosion resistance is essential. That also goes for folks who use their blades outdoors or in particularly humid environments. Maintaining your knife with mineral oil is the best way to prevent corrosion.

Edge Retention

A blade’s ability to maintain a sharp edge (this determines how often a knife will need to be resharpened). Some steels will lose their edge after a handful of uses, while others can maintain a fine cutting angle for a long time before they need to be sharpened. Edge retention is typically related inversely to toughness — meaning one will be traded off in favor of the other.

Strength

This constitutes a knife steel’s resistance to deformation, measured by how much stress it can withstand before breaking. Strength is closely related to hardness, which knifemakers measure using the Rockwell C scale (the higher the number on the Rockwell scale, the harder the material). It should be noted that two different types of knife steel might have the same hardness rating but not the same strength.

Toughness

Toughness refers to a blade’s ability to withstand sudden impacts and forces that might otherwise produce cracks or chips — like stabbing or chopping. Processing kindling for a fire is a good example of a situation where toughness is important.

Wear Resistance

A blade’s ability to resist abrasion; essentially, how it holds up to regular use. Even if you only use your knife to cut open cardboard boxes, the entire blade will wear down over time, especially if its steel has low wear resistance.

Ease of Sharpening

Perhaps not one of the “official” traits of steel, ease of sharpening is a quality worth considering and is frequently noted in the product descriptions that accompany knives. Even knives with standout edge retention need sharpening eventually. Easy sharpening is typically related inversely to wear resistance and edge retention. The harder a knife steel is, the more difficult it is to sharpen.


Common Types of Knife Steel

Knowing the key traits of knife steel, you might wonder why knife makers don’t merely use types that maximize each property. To an extent, they do, but, unfortunately, steel is not that simple. Adjusting the chemical recipe to highlight one key trait often comes at the expense of another. For instance, high wear resistance typically produces steel that’s more difficult to sharpen.

In other words, as long as adamantium remains fictional, compromise is inevitable. (Newer, innovative steels like CPM MagnaCut — found in Benchmade’s TaggedOut and Leatherman’s ARC — are starting to chip away at that compromise, but at the price of, well, price.)

Consequently, there are many types of knife steel out there, typically denoted by a chain of letters and numbers that’s neither easy to interpret nor remember. Easier to recall are the common groups that these steels fall into. Just remember: you can usually tell what class a given steel falls under by checking the manufacturer specs (which are usually readily available with a quick Google search).

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to check out a much more exhaustive list of the most popular and common currently available knife steels, Knife Informer’s Guide to the Best Knife Steel is an exceptional resource that goes into great detail, including 10-point-scale ratings regarding each steel’s performance in the above knife steel trait categories.

Carbon Steel

For steel to be considered carbon steel, it’s generally accepted that the formula has to contain at least 0.5 percent carbon. Carbon steel, or high carbon steel, has good strength and is easy to sharpen but rusts easily and needs to be maintained regularly.

1095

1095 is perhaps the most widely used carbon steel. Because it’s so resistant to chipping and is easy to sharpen, it’s a common type for survival-oriented knives. There are also some variations, which start with baseline 1095 and then add other elements (like the 1095 found in Ka-Bar’s Becker BK2 Companion fixed blade).

a large black fixed blade knifeAmazon

BEST BUSHCRAFT FIXED BLADE

KA-BAR Becker BK2 Campanion

The Becker BK2 Campanion is a burly, full-tang bushcraft fixed blade that has might on its side. It’s heavy for a knife its size, but that extra weight comes in handy when you’re slashing through tough undergrowth or prepping a fire for camp.

Specs

Blade Length 5.25 inches
Blade Material 1095 Cro-Van steel
Handle Material Grivory
Total Length 10.5 inches
Weight 16 ounces

Pros

  • Time-tested, fan-favorite pedigree
  • Incredibly tough and capable

Cons

  • Very heavy compared to other fixed blades

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel requires a minimum of 10.5 percent chromium in its makeup. Without that level of chromium, stainless steel reverts to being carbon steel. The added chromium helps it resist corrosion but often negatively affects toughness. Stainless steel is the most popular type of knife steel today.

CPM S35VN

There is a wide range of stainless steel varieties that knife makers use in their blades, all with varying traits and quality. CPM S35VN, made by Crucible Industries with design input from master knifemaker Chris Reeve, is a premium option that’s as close to perfectly balanced as knife steels get. Be prepared though: knives that use it tend to be expensive — although it has become more approachable over time (and with the creation of newer, higher-end super steels).

Chris Reeve Sebenza 31 Plain Drop PointChris Reeve Knives

Chris Reeve Knives Sebenza 31

One of the most iconic knife designs of all time, the CRK Sebenza is considered the high-end folder by which all other high-end folders are judged. This is equal parts a modern marvel and heirloom piece, which deserves a spot in every EDC fanatic’s collection (so long as they can afford the investment).

Specs

Blade Length 2.99 or 3.61 inches
Blade Steel CPM MagnaCut or S45VN
Handle Material 6AL4V Titanium (optional canvas Micarta, bog oak, box elder burl and Macassar ebony onlays)
Locking Mechanism Reeve Integral Lock
Total Length 6.98 inches or 8.40 inches

Pros

  • One of the best EDC knives ever made
  • Highly customizable
  • Available in two sizes

Cons

  • Extremely expensive
  • Sometimes hard to get

Tool Steel

Tool steel is known for its high strength/hardness as well as wear resistance and toughness. It’s often a choice for blades that are going to get used over and over (hence its utility-driven name), but you can find it in everyday pocket knives too.

D2

Because it has a relatively high amount of chrome, D2 can take on the appearance and some of the other traits of stainless steel. That, plus a solid combination of edge retention and toughness, makes it one of the most common steels found in knives, especially the EDC variety. It does have low corrosion resistance, though, and performs best with regular care.

a knife with a black handleCRKT

Best Overall Pocket Knife

CRKT Pilar III

The Pilar III builds upon predecessors with a bevy of useful attributes: the IKBS ball bearing pivot keeps opening and closing smooth, the high-carbon, stainless steel blade is easy to sharpen, G10 with stainless steel handle feels and looks bombproof and the frame lock felt secure during use.

Specs

Blade Length 3 inches
Blade Material D2
Handle Material G10 stainless steel
Locking Mechanism Frame
Total Length 7.25 inches

Pros

  • Versatile design works great for lots of tasks

Cons

  • A little bulky in the pocket

Damascus Steel

Damascus steel is unique in that it isn’t defined by its chemical composition; rather, it is a combination of different kinds of steels that are hammered into layers and folded together. The final Damascus will exhibit varying traits depending on the types of steel that are included, but it tends to be high-quality and is always marked by its stunning swirling patterns. (For more on Damascus steel, read our guide to it.)

Damasteel

Making Damascus steel is an intense and rigorous process, and as such, much of it is made by craftspeople, in small quantities. The Swedish company Damasteel developed a powder metallurgical process that allows a high degree of control over the look and characteristics of the final steel, allowing for some unique variations in the possible patterns. The care and quality are evident in the pricing of these knives, as they often cost much more than their stainless steel counterparts. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that there are imposter Damascus steels sometimes found in extremely cheap knives, so make sure you buy from reputable brands.)

the james brand the carterThe James Brand

Best Overall Damascus Knife

The James Brand The Carter

The Carter is well-known for being both beautiful and useful, and the Damascus-and-micarta version ups the ante quite a bit. The James Brand built its Damascus knife with a drop point blade, while its handle has micarta scales to cut weight and add durability.

Specs

Blade Length 2.8 inches
Blade Steel Damascus
Handle Material Micarta
Locking Mechanism Slide
Total Length 6.5 inches

Pros

  • Gorgeous, advanced EDC design
  • Slim and lightweight

Cons

  • Much more expensive than standard versions

Super Steel

Technically speaking, super steel isn’t so much its own class — meaning its classification isn’t determined by its specific makeup — but by its overall quality. As such, a super steel could technically be a steel that might also fall under the umbrella of being carbon, stainless, tool, etc. While these types of steels are desirable — they are, after all, the best of the best — they’re also overbuilt, meaning the average user will likely never push them to their limits in normal use.

Elmax

Böhler-Uddeholm in Sweden — like its high-end sibling, M390 — Elmax is commonly found in knives priced in the hundreds of dollars. It’s known for its toughness and wear resistance, but generally performs well above just about any lower-end steel around (hence the price and desirability). It also offers some of the best edge retention out of all currently available commercial steels.

Huckberry

Giantmouse Ace Atelier Carbon Fiber Knife

The Giantmouse Ace Atelier is actually a smaller, more EDC-friendly version of another knife in the brand’s exceptional lineup, the Ace Grand (named after the Grand Hotel in Nuremberg, Germany). Like its sibling, this knife was made with a high attention to detail and is intended for casual EDCers and hardcore collectors alike.

Specs

Blade Length 2.875 inches
Blade Steel Elmax
Handle Material Carbon Fiber
Locking Mechanism Liner
Total Length 6.813 inches

Pros

  • Extremely high-end materials
  • Easy deployment thanks to ball-bearing pivot

Cons

  • Quite expensive
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