When looking for the best steel for knives, you will find several different types. It can be confusing, even for an experienced collector. There are four main categories of steel, and a multitude more within each group. The different steels have individual qualities that can make one type perfect for one job, yet totally wrong for another. Having knowledge about steel and the varieties available will help you make an informed decision.
What is Steel?
Steel is a combination of iron and carbon. By adding other elements, the hardness of the steel can be increased. Each element has advantages and disadvantages. Knowing a little about these elements and their properties will help you decide which steel is best for your knife.
Along with carbon and iron, steel contains a few other key ingredients. Chromium and Copper prevent corrosion. Stainless steel blades have at least 12% Chromium. Cobalt, Phosphorus, and Silicon add strength, as well as Molybdenum. Molybdenum helps maintain the strength of the steel when exposed to high temperatures.
Magnesium will harden the steel, but it can cause it to be brittle. Nickel imparts toughness to the steel. On the other hand, Sulfur reduces toughness, but it is used to raise the steel’s machinability. To increase a blade’s wear resistance, Tungsten and Vanadium are used.
Combinations of these ingredients give us thousands of different types of steel. They are divided into four main categories.
• Carbon Steels – includes Carbon, Iron, and a little Manganese.
• Alloy Steels – Has specific amounts of Vanadium and Molybdenum with larger Manganese amounts.
• Tool Steels – Contains Molybdenum and Tungsten.
• Stainless Steels – Uses Chromium as its main ingredient.
Because these four groups are still too broad to determine exactly which type of steel is best for your knife blade, we will further break each category down.
Carbon steels include the 10XX steels, as well as 1045 and 1095. When it comes to knife blade steel, 1095 is the most common. Steels ranging from 1045 to 1095 are also found in knife blades, while swords will use 1050. 1095 has more Carbon and less Manganese. It has greater wear resistance, easily sharpens, and holds its edge well. 1095 will rust more readily. 1045 has more Manganese with less Carbon, and it is only okay at keeping its edge.
The Alloy Steel 5160 is a Carbon Steel with a small amount of Chromium added, not enough to classify it as a Stainless Steel, but enough to increase its strength. It’s recognized for its toughness.
INFI Steel is an alloy owned by Jerry Busse. Known as a proprietary metal, it stands apart because a portion of its Carbon is replaced with Nitrogen. A blade made of this metal will be tough and wear resistant. It is also stain resistant and easily sharpened.
52100 have a high amount of Carbon. It is much harder and holds an edge nicely. It is often found in hunting knife blades. Because it has less Chromium, the risk of rusting is increased.
A2 Steel is extremely tough, yet has a lower wear resistance. You’ll find this kind of steel being used in combat knifes. It only has 5% Chromium, so it needs to be carefully cared for to avoid rusting.
CPM 10V Steel is the most resistant to wear. If toughness isn’t a top priority, these blades will wear well. CPM 3V Steel is a high wear metal. It’s a successful steel when used in a knife blade, while CPM M4 Steel wears well with high toughness ratings.
D2 Steel is just under the classification of a stainless steel. It’s resistant to rust, while being tougher than a true stainless steel. It is difficult to sharpen, but retains its edge nicely. With a Carbon level of 1.50 to 1.60%, it is hard to polish.
LG Steel holds a nice edge and retains a higher toughness. It easily rusts, and it is considered the best steel for knives used as cutlery. It’s also commonly used for saw blades.
M2 Steel is a very heat resistant steel with a Carbon ratio of .85%. It will hold an edge well, but in larger knifes it can seem brittle.
01 Steel is harder, and it retains a good edge. If not maintained properly, it rusts quickly. The 06 Steel, when compared to 01, is tougher. It has the very best edge retention of all steel.
W2 Steel is a common Carbon Steel with a higher amount of Carbon than normal. It holds an edge nicely, and it is extremely hard.
The 400 series includes 420. It is soft and doesn’t hold its edge. Found in cheaper knives, it is ideal for diving knives due to its rust resistance. 440A is the most rust resistant, while 440B is similar with a higher Carbon content. 440C is a high end stainless steel. Common in knife blades, it’s hard and wear resistant. 425M is used in Buck Knifes.
The 154CM Steel is referred to as a super steel. Made in America, it holds an edge nicely.
The ATS series includes ATS 34 which is used in custom high end knives. ATS 55 is prone to rust, and it doesn’t hold its edge. BG 42 Steel is a newer stainless steel, also found in custom knives.
Bohler M390 Steel is wear, stain, and rust resistant. It is the most common steel used for surgical implements. The Bohler N680 Steel is also stain resistant, good for saltwater use.
The SXXV Series is very popular due to its rust resistance, strength, and ability to hold an edge. Wear resistant, it can’t be polished to a mirror finish.
V610 Steel is a super steel. High end with Vanadium to add to its toughness, it holds an edge nicely and is rust resistant.
X15 Steel is ideal for diving knives. It will resist corrosion, even in the worst conditions.
Damascus is a precious metal made by folding together layers of other metals to form a beautiful yet strong blade.
Titanium is sought after for its strength combined with its lightweight feel.