Why is it important to understand carefully knife making steels? Each component of a product is essential in determining its overall quality and its efficiency for a specific purpose or function. The same goes for knives. Gaining a better insight about types of knife blades and knife making steels is important for you to know in which activities to use which one. I hope that after reading this article, you can easily decide what to choose the next time you purchase knives either for your collection as a knife enthusiast or simply for practical purposes.
Related articles: 'Knife Blade Types' and 'Knife Handle Materials'
Knife Steel Properties
- Corrosion Resistance: From the term itself, corrosion resistance refers to the steel’s ability to resist corrosion due to external factors such as humidity and moisture.
- Ductility: This property is characterized by the steel’s flexible ability without fracturing under load. It has no significant relationship, however, with toughness.
- Hardness: Hardness refers to the amount of carbon present in steel. It is characterized by the steel’s ability to resist long-term deformation. More often than not, hardness and toughness share an inverse relationship. However, that is still dependent on the other contents, and their levels present in a particular material.
- Manufacturability: This property is the steel’s ability to be easily made into a blade through various procedures ranging from simple to complex.
- Stability: Stability is typically the most important consideration when choosing a knife steel. It is a steel’s ability to withstand a sharp blade edge.
- Toughness: An excellent knife steel is capable of absorbing impact before fracturing under extreme stress. Toughness is not to be confused with hardness. Usually, hardness is not a perfect indicator of toughness and vice versa— which are two common misconceptions about steel properties.
- Wear Resistance: refers to the steel’s ability to resist wear and abrasion.
Common Knife Steel Elements
- Carbon: necessary for all types of steel as it is responsible for the material’s hardness.
- Chromium: responsible for the steel’s corrosion and wears resistance properties.
- Nickel: Nickel plays a major role in enhancing a steel’s toughness. Dive knives are usually rich in nickel content as the element also enhances corrosion resistance.
- Vanadium: this element improves a steel’s wear resistance as it comes with finer grain structure.
Types of Knife Making Steels
1. Damascus Steel
The name Damascus originated from the city of Damascus. The Europeans first discovered this steel during the crusades around the city. It is the perfect blend of ample toughness and hardness.
While Damascus steel has long existed, the manufacturing process through time has changed vastly. It is made up of two or more layers of different steel types that are seamlessly integrated together. After the careful folding, the resulting Damascus steel undergoes acid etching.
Damascus is one of the best knife making steels because of the intense manufacturing procedure that leads to tough, hard, and appealing knives. Since the intensive labor means a more expensive price tag, Damascus steel is commonly used for custom knives only.
2. Tool Steels
Tool steels are hard alloy steels that are specifically made for cutting knives. They are usually rich in molybdenum, tungsten, and other alloy metals.
10V Steel – 10V steel is considered as one of the most wear-resistant tool steels available in the market today. However, it has relatively poor toughness quality.
52100 Steel – This steel type is rich in carbon content, hence a compelling hardness and edge retention. If you are worried about safety, this might just be the perfect steel type for you. Also, if you like hunting, 52100 steel is your efficient companion.
A2 Steel – A2 steel is known for its toughness. Given that, it is commonly used for customized combat knives. However, A2 steel is a high-maintenance steel due to low chromium content. To prevent it from rusting, it usually comes with a knife blade coating.
D2 Steel – D2 steel is rich in chromium content, nearly as much as that of stainless steel. Chromium increases rust-resistant properties. The best thing about D2 steel, aside from its almost-rust-resistance, is its increased toughness. D2 steel has high stability, but it can be difficult to sharpen. Recently, I have written a detailed article about D2 Steel and reviewed some good knives made from this steel here.
L6 Steel – L6 steel has impressive toughness and edge retention properties. Saw blades usually use this steel type. L6 steel is perfect for cutlery as well. I think the only downside is its poor rust resistance.
O1 Steel – O1 steel has excellent stability but poor rust resistance. Hence, high level of maintenance is required.
O6 Steel – This steel type is just like an improved version of the O1 steel with increased toughness.
3. Stainless Steels
Stainless steels are very popular for having high levels of chromium that allow them to last a long period with just the right level of maintenance.
154 CM Steel
154 CM steel is rich in carbon; hence known for excellent hardness, toughness, and edge resistance. Given this superb combination, some would even consider this a “super steel.”
BG 42 Steel
While this steel is still new in the market, it is already slowly becoming remarkable among custom knife manufacturers. Because of its excellence in rust resistance.
420 Steel – With a low carbon content, 420 steel has poor edge retention properties and is rather extremely soft. Consequently, it requires frequent blade sharpening. Given this, most cheap knives come with 420 steel. Also, it is also the perfect material for diving knives given the constant saltwater contact.
440 Steel – 440 Steels are further classified into three: 440A, 440B, and 440C. 440A Steel is a low-cost stainless steel and the most rust-resistant among the three 440 steel types. 440B Steel is almost similar to 440A steel, except that it contains more carbon. Lastly, 440C steel is known for its compelling hardness and wear-resistant features. However, it is the least rust-resistant among the three 440 Steels.
The AUS Series is just basically like the 400 Series with enhanced toughness and wear resistance because of the added vanadium. Vanadium also makes the knives in the series very easy to sharpen.
AUS-6 (6A) – is comparable to 440A with a carbon content close to 0.65%. It is a low-cost steel, slightly higher wear resistance compared to 420J.
AUS-8 (8A) – with a rich carbon content, it is popularly used by Cold Steel. AUS-8 steel is comparable to 440B steel.
AUS-10 (10A) – is comparable to 440C with a carbon content close to 1.10%. It is slightly tougher than 440C.
Bohler M390 Steel
The Bohler M390 steel exhibits excellent rust resistance and wears resistance. However, it is more popularized by its hardness due to the vanadium additive. It is commonly used for surgical knives and scalpels. This knife making steel type is considered “microclean” because it can achieve a mirror appeal without intense polishing. The only con about the Bohler M390 is that it can be difficult to sharpen.
Bohler N680 Steel
This steel type has exceptional hardness and stain resistance. Consequently, it can withstand saltwater contact.
S30V Steel – S30V steel contains 3% vanadium content. Along with this, it also has high levels of carbon. As a result, it has an equally impressive toughness and hardness— which is quite difficult to achieve. A successful example of using this steel type is Spyderco’s Paramilitary 2 blade. You can read a full review on that knife here.
S35VN Steel – S35VN is the enhanced version of S30V launched in 2009. It is made up of finer grain structure with a few niobium content. While the S30V and S30VN may look just the same, the latter is easier to sharpen.
S60V or CPM T440V Steel – This type of knife steel has better vanadium and carbon contents than the S30V. However, it is not yet practically used by manufacturers.
S90V or CPM T420V Steel – S90V Steel has a big 9% vanadium content. While it has unparalleled stability, this steel type is quite impossible to sharpen. Given this, it is only being used for custom-made knives.
This is a very high-quality martensitic stainless steel. CPM-20CV has an outstanding corrosion resistance, with superior edge holding. Though it lacks the impact toughness of CPM-3V but being made with the CPM process, this steel is still very resistant to lateral stress (flex) breakage. Consider CPM-20CV for a very low-maintenance, all-weather cutting tool.
VG 10 Steel
This high-end steel has superior rust resistance features. The additional vanadium content makes it tougher and more stable.
This French steel is specifically designed for the airline industry. It is highly regarded for its corrosion resistance and rust resistance. X15 steel also comes with impressive hardness but lacks in toughness.
ATS 34 Steel – This steel is practically identical to a 154 CM steel in composition. It is commonly used in high-end knives given its high carbon content.
ATS 55 Steel – This steel type is almost analogous to the ATS 34 steel except that it does not contain vanadium. ATS 55 has impressive stability and rust resistance.
4. Plain Carbon Steels
Plain Carbon knife making steels are perfect for survival knives. Plain carbon steels are made up of carbon, iron, and manganese. They possess high stability while the blades are easy to sharpen as well.
10XX steel is classified into two kinds: 1045 steel and 1095 steel. The latter is the most common knife steel. The 1095 steel contains more carbon than the 1045 steel. However, 10XX steels have poor rust resistance. Hence, they require intense maintenance. You would also probably need a knife coating to prevent the blades from rusting.
Having a clear understanding of knife making steels and the most important steel properties could help you choose what knife would be perfect for a specific activity. As a result, you would be able to make the most out of the money you spend with less hassle.
Video tutorials on choosing knife making steels, from Walter Sorrells.References