Know Your Knife: A Guide to Good Steel
There is no tool as versatile, handy, and long lasting as a well-made knife. The only problem, however, is that telling a good knife from a bad one can be nearly impossible if you weren’t raised by a blacksmith. The biggest factor is the quality of the steel, and since steel is an alloy that’s made in about a zillion different ways, knowing what’s good and what’s not can be a dizzying experience. For this reason, we’ve put together a quick reference knife guide to some of the most common steels used in knives so that you can make a more informed decision next time you buy a blade.
Before we dive in, however, we’ll first go over the most common elements present in steel and the properties they give it.
- Iron – The main ingredient in steel
- Carbon – This is one of the most important elements in steel, as it functions as a hardening element and makes the iron stronger. Every type of steel will have some amount of carbon, and oftentimes the amount can be very telling of the quality of a blade. Low carbon means there is 0.3% or less carbon in the alloy, medium carbon is typically between 0.4-0.7 percent, and high is generally considered 0.8 percent and above.
- Chromium – This is the element that makes stainless steel stainless. Technically all steel can rust, but types with more chromium (usually around 12-13 percent) are much less prone to it
- Cobalt – adds strength to the blade
- Manganese – hardens the blade, but also makes it brittle if added in high quantities
- Nickel – adds toughness to the blade
- Molybdenum – helps a steel maintain strength at high temperatures
- Tungsten – increases wear resistance
- Vanadium – increases wear resistance and makes the blade harder.
Now that you know a bit about the different elements used in the production of steel, here’s a quick rundown of a few of the most common types you’re likely to encounter in knives. This definitely isn’t an exhaustive list, however, so if you ever come across a steel you’re unfamiliar with, don’t hesitate to do some research.
The 400 Series:
420 Steel – Common in lower-end knives, this steel has about .38% carbon. The low carbon content means that it’s very soft in comparison to most others, and it doesn’t hold an edge well. Blades made from this material need to be sharpened frequently, and are more likely to chip. On the bright side, however, all 420 stainless steel is extremely rust resistant. This makes it a great material for diving knives, since their constant contact with saltwater makes them more likely to rust.
425M Steel – This is a material similar to the 400 series that has .5% carbon. Not a great steel by any means, but it’s not a bad one either, and it’s reasonably tough for the price.
440 Steel – There are three different types of 440 steel: 440A, 440B, and 440C. The further along in the alphabet, the better it gets. The only problem is that oftentimes manufacturers simply stamp “440” on the tang of the blade without the letter grade, so knowing what you’re buying is tricky. As a rule of thumb, if it doesn’t explicity say 440C, it’s most likely a lower-end version like 440A or B. Certain knife manufacturers have even gone so far as to rename 440C as other things in order to differentiate the quality of the product.
440A Steel – Has a carbon content range of .65-.75%. This is a low cost stainless steel. It is the most rust resistant of 440 steel, and 440C is the least rust resistant of the three. However, taken as a whole, the 400 series is comprised of some of the most rust resistant steel you can buy.
440B Steel – Very similar to 440A, but has a higher carbon content range (.75-.95%), so it has better edge retention.
440C Steel – This steel has a carbon content range between .95-1.20%, and is generally considered a higher end steel. It’s extremely common in knives because it provides a good mixture of hardness and corrosion resistance, but also isn’t terribly expensive.
The AUS Series:
Made in Japan, the biggest improvement of the AUS series over the 400 Series is the addition of vanadium, which improves wear resistance and provides great toughness. It also reportedly makes the steel easier to sharpen.
AUS-6 Steel – Has .65% carbon, and is generally considered a low quality steel. It’s comparable to 420, but with better edge retention and less corrosion resistance.
AUS-8 Steel – This fairly popular steel has .75% carbon, which makes it fairly tough. It also has more vanadium than AUS-6, so it holds an edge better. Cold Steel likes to use this stuff a lot in its blades
AUS-10 Steel – Has 1.1% carbon, and is roughly comparable to 440C. It has more vanadium and less chromium than 440C, which makes it slightly tougher in comparison, but also a little less rust resistant.
The ATS Series:
ATS 34 Steel – This steel is very similar to 154 CM (listed below), and is generally considered one of the best steels you can buy. It has 1.05% carbon, and there are lots of high-end custom knives that use it because it’s just excellent metal. Benchmade and Spyderco seem to be fans of this steel, as you’ll see it a lot in their products.
ATS 55 Steel – This steel (carbon content of 1.00%) does not have the vanadium that is present in both ATS-34 and 154-CM (see below). This means that it doesn’t hold an quite edge as well, and has also been reported to be less rust resistant than ATS-34.
The SXXV Series:
This series is becoming quite popular because of its strength, ability to resist rust, and how well it holds an edge. These are difficult steels to sharpen though, if you do need to give them an edge. All of these knives are very wear resistant. The 30, 60, and 90 you’ll see in this series stand for 3%, 6%, and 9% vanadium in the alloy respectively.
S30V Steel – This steel was designed to be used for knives. This steel is very tough, and yet still has great wear resistance. For how tough the steel is, it actually has very good hardness also, which is why many consider it to be one of the best choices for knife making. It has a carbon content of 1.45%.
S60V Steel – This stainless steel has high wear resistance. It has lots of vanadium, and also has a carbon content of 2.15%. It’s just a step above S30V, but is relatively rare in knives because it’s more expensive.
S90V Steel – This steel has superior edge retention, but due to it’s ridiculous hardness, it can be almost impossible to sharpen. You’ll typically only find it in custom-made knives, and it has a carbon content of around 2.30%.
Others Noteworthy Steels:
154 CM Steel – This is high quality steel – arguably one of the best available for knives. It has a carbon content of 1.05%. It holds an edge well and is hard steel. It actually has pretty good toughness for how hard the steel is as well. It is tougher than 440C, and is often compared to ATS 34 because the two are so similar. Some people prefer this steel to ATS 34, however, since this one is made by Crucible, an American company.
M390 Steel – Has 1.9% carbon, is very stain resistant, and has excellent wear resistance. It has vanadium as an additive, and consequently is a popular hard steel. This is also the type of steel used most often for surgical applications.
N680 Steel – Has .54% carbon. This is another very hard steel that is highly stain resistant, making it good for saltwater applications.