The Best Knife Steel: Knifemakers Weigh In

Ok, so we all ought to know by now that “what is the best knife steel?” is a specious question. While one steel might excel at certain tasks, it may fail miserably compared to other steels if it is used for the wrong application. But that is not a satisfying answer, so let’s see if we can’t come up with criteria to identify what steel is truly best.

Since no one steel is the “best” in every category, perhaps versatility has something to do with what makes a certain steel “best.”

So, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, I decided to engage in an exhaustive, highly accurate, irrefutably scientific survey by asking some guys we know… who just happen to be world class knifemakers… the following question:

“If you were restricted to one steel, for the rest of your life, for all of your blades – big, small, thick, thin, etc., etc. – what would it be, and why?”

And now, alphabetically, their answers!


Christopher Berry / Big Chris Custom Knives

When you first posed this question to me I thought my answer would be quick and easy, but the more I thought, it became not so simple. I use mostly all high alloy high wear steels, most of all is CPM 10V. That, however, is not the only steel I would want to use from now on as it is just not versatile enough.

I do believe that I would be very pleased if I could only use CPM 4V as my one and only steel. I have made hunting and bushcraft knives, camp knives and choppers, as well as kitchen and chef knives, all from 4V. It is also the steel that I am using in my Bladesports Competition Chopper.

4V is very versatile as performs very well in anything from a 3″ blade up to 15″ or even a 20″ blade. Edge holding, toughness, and versatility were the criteria I used when choosing which steel I would pick, and 4V has a great combination all three.

Clay tested the Big Chris Wolvering in 4V. Read the full review.

Dan Eastland / Dogwood Custom Knives

Wouldn’t it be awesome to live in a world were one could get a high carbon stainless steel blade? Wait, we do! CPM-154 has 1.05% carbon (more then the 0.95% in 1095) and is truly a stainless steel. I should admit I have a lot of practice sharpening knives free hand and use DMT stones so that can skew my prospective on how easy it is to sharpen a steel. I would remind the reader, if you spend one minute sharpening a knife ten times, or ten minutes sharping a knife once, it all comes out to the same, so the ease of sharpening bothers me less than the others.

I like the toughness of the particle steels. It allows me to chase the higher grinds and thinner blade that produces the lighter knives that I so love.  It takes longer and costs a little more for me to work with but the payoff is there in the performance. S35Vn is a close second but the production cost to sales cost balance tips a bit too far on the production cost  side.

I have worked a lot with AEB-L lately and it is a dream to work with and performs well, but it is just not the 500 horsepower, sequentially fuel-injected twin turbo that CPM-154 is. 154 has the additional advantage of being on the market long enough that people have gotten the heat treat really dialed in where some of the other newer steels are still going through growing pains.

The Dogwood Cub in CPM-154 that I picked up at BLADE Show 2016.


Stephan Fowler / Fowler Blades

I would choose W-2 steel hands down.

The Vanadium carbides can be manipulated to provide a superior ability of sharpening and edge holding. The carbon amount allows for high hardness without sacrificing ductile strength. I can do anything from a fully polished beauty to a belt finished field knife and know that the steel will stand up to generations of use.


Ross Gammons / Dry Creek Forge

I would choose 80crv2. It has the best of both worlds, with excellent edge retention and ridiculous toughness and flexibility. Even at higher hardnesses it still remains very tough. At the same time It holds an edge better than O1. Its my favorite carbon steel. I know there are other high alloy steels like 3v, but the heat treat is much more involved, costly and time consuming. 3v also eats up consumables, like belts and band saw blades. So I choose 80crv2 as the best bang for the buck.
The Dry Creek Forge Bush Bowie in 80CRV2. Photo by Omar Saer.

Les George / George Knives, Zero Tolerance, Kershaw

If I had to stick with one steel based on performance, I would have to choose CTS-XHP based on it’s well rounded characteristics and the years that I have spent testing and refining its application. On a related tangent… It’s important to remember that there are no bad materials. There are only bad applications.


Scott Gossman / Gossman Knives

If I had one steel to choose to use for the rest of my life it would be S7 tool steel. Reason being this steel is extremely tough and I feel it would never fail under any conditions. It holds an edge well and is easy to sharpen with simple sharpening tools. The testing I’ve done has been very abusive and it has held up better than any other steel I’ve tested in the same manner.

As a side note, I have seen firsthand the results of Mr. Gossman’s abusive testing. Whereas other high end steels will shatter, Scott fired a couple of rounds of .41 Magnum at an S7 blade to see what happened, including a direct hit right behind the edge. Not only did the edge survive (it merely deflected into a bowl shape), it was still sharp and usable. I was amazed!

Gossman Big Boar Tusker in S7


Todd Hunt / T.M. Hunt Custom Knives

If I could only use one steel for the rest of my life for my knives, It would no doubt be O1 tool steel. There are a lot of reasons for it. Some of the most obvious is not only its edge retention, but the ease of maintaining the edge. Once the edge is established on 01, maintaining it can be done by simply stropping it back.

Of course, O1 is not a stainless steel, but here in the heart of Indiana that’s not much of an issue. Simple preventive maintenance or just plain old common sense knife care affords a good working tool for many years.

O1 is an excellent steel for the beginner knife maker to use to introduce him or herself to quality material while not breaking the bank and can be effectively heat treated with good results without expensive equipment. However, I do get fairly annoyed when it is written off as simply a “beginners” steel… I think a lot of makers think that they have to use the latest and the greatest most expensive steels out there, or as I like to call them “fad steels.” While there is nothing wrong with this besides adding significant cost to the client and added complexity to the maker, you have to ask yourself what your going to use the knife for. I find so many times that O1 will not only hold its own, but in many cases out preform most of these expensive super steels, so in my mind, dismissing it as an entry level material is a foolish thing to do, especially when you consider its relatively low cost compared to others.

I think the longevity of its existence says a lot. O1 has been around forever and its definitely not going away anytime soon, especially in my shop. Its the metaphorical “old work truck” of steels in my book. Maybe not the best, not the fastest or fanciest, but a real workhorse, tough as hell and always dependable.

 

A bevy of O1 blades in a pic Todd sent us for his 5 From The Grinder Interview

Sean McWilliams / Sean McWilliams Forge:

My answer would have to be. CPM T440V. I might just have enough to last As long as I need. It’s a steel I know and trust, have for 30 and more years. Of all the Knives I own, my T440V Ranger-7 is the last one I’d turn loose of. “. .. cold, dead fingers “, you know…


Andy Roy / Fiddleback Forge

Firstly, understand that I am not a metalurgist. A big factor in my steel choice is ease of grinding. This is very relevant to my knives because of the convex grind I use. This is a light pressure grinding operation. I will never make another knife out of 3V for this reason alone.

I also happen to love carbon steels. I love their performance, and their edge holding, always have. But I also love being able to see a patina of memories develop on the steel. I started making knives with 01 steel, and loved it for its functional qualities. I’ve never found anything an 01 edge can’t handle.

Here I will mention the third factor in my steel choice rationale. That is being able to finish a knife and ship it before it rusts. I have settled on A2 tool steel, and I really love knives made from it. A2 is easy to grind. It doesn’t rust before we ship it either, and the edge performance I get from A2 is outstanding.

We just finished the [Fiddleback] ‘user weekend’ and folks used Fiddlebacks all weekend. It was a great opportunity to see the steel in action. Not one person showed me edge damage. Well, thats not true, but the knife in question was used to chop a chainsaw blade out of wood. That one needs some touchup.

The hemp-wrapped, A2 Fiddleback Nessmuk, also picked up at BLADE Show 2016.

Will Woods / William Woods Bladeworks

Oh that’s a tough one. If I only get one, then I would choose Damasteel. You get the performance of a CPM powdered metallurgy alloy in a Damascus form. It is cost competitive compared to other stainless Damascus products and looks amazing in almost any pattern. Second choice is S35VN.

L.T. Wright / L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives

At this moment in time my one steel would be A2. I like the performance of it both as a steel used for EDC and bushcrafting. It works well in any grind, helping a knife design excel. It has great edge holding ability while maintaining flexibility and user friendly sharpening.
Image courtesy of David C. Andersen
The LTWK Rogue River in A2. Read our full review.

So, here are the results of our unimpeachable evidence.

4V – 1
80CRV2 – 1
A2 – 2
CPM154 – 1
CPM T440V – 1
CTS-XHP – 1
Damasteel – 1
O1 – 1
S7 – 1
W-2 – 1

So, do we call A2 the winner? Best steel of all time?

Well, maybe we didn’t actually learn anything, but it was fun, wasn’t it!?

comments

  1. cmeat says:

    after decades of swiss army stainless and buck carbon steels, everything rated higher than 440c i find remarkable.
    whenever i strop the 10v chef’s knife (chopping and mincing piles of onions, garlic and peppers does not seem to affect the edge) i hit the 154cm and s35v edc’s as well. none of them ever seemed to have dulled much.
    still, there is something about those d2 blades…

  2. elcas says:

    we learned something very important: it depends

  3. stuartb says:

    Best post of the year, very interesting thoughts

  4. Hey guys, Andy Roy sent me a more detailed explanation for his steel choices this morning. I’ve updated the post above. Don’t miss it!

  5. John Rapp says:

    What about Z-Wear PM Steel? I’ve seen some crazy stuff done with knives made of this steel.

  6. Mark C Sentz, A.B.S. Master Bladesmith weighing in! As Bill Moran’s last Protégé,my vote would probably go to 1084 or 1095. I choose those because they both forge very well and are versatile enough to make a small bird knife, a good folder blade and right up to a large camp knife. Both are forgiving steels that can be given a variety of heat treatment and hardness including differential hardening of back and edge. Here is a Masters thoughts…..

    1. It always comes back to 1095 🙂

      Thank you for chiming in Sir.

  7. I am more of a User/Designer than a Blade-Maker (though I was initiated to the forge & made a few small blades for personal use). Edge-Apex stability, toughness, strength/crispness (no plastic deformation) & a modicum of corrosion resistance seem worthy qualities. A whiff of Vanadium, a touch of Tungsten, about 1% of Carbon, not too much Manganese, Chromium (4-8%?)… I “vote” A2…

    it can be forged, and oil quenched too (down to ~ 950 F … ie till “black” & then air cooled & chilled). It is economic and versatile… (My favourite “economy” HSS is M2, though).

    This said, without going up to powdered steels, W2 (with Tungsten) would have my nod… It comes close to what Wilkinson-Latham used for Cavalry Sabres (properly tempered).

  8. Bmurray says:

    I have to agree with most of the Artist above. I like O1, A2 for the everyday steels and the CPM154 and S35VN for the harsher environmental conditions. I’ve found the production model Fiddleback knives in the S35VN perform amazingly well with the edge holding and rusting, even when around salt water.

  9. bladesmith3 says:

    no one mentioned my favorite. m390.

  10. avid fan says:

    D2?

  11. Switchblade says:

    Well, A2 is a staple in the Bark River line up as well. So, I guess that says something for that particular steel.

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The Best Knife Steel: Knifemakers Weigh In

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