15n20 Steel Review: Is it Good for Knives?

Peter Stec
September 24, 2021
15n20 Steel Review

Damascus knife fan? Ever wondered what the other steel is, the one forged together with Damascus steel? Chances are, it’s 15n20. 15n20 is a great steel for Damascus knives and for regular knives. As a very affordable steel, this one has high amounts of Nickel and moderate amounts of carbon. 

As far as steel performance goes, this one has incredible toughness and tensile strength that provides a great backbone for the Damascus steel. As compared to iron alloys that are generally used as backbone steels, the 15n20 provides more resilience and strength. 


This is the ultimate guide to everything you need to know about 15n20 steel. We’ll look into details of its chemical composition, capabilities and properties. Consider all your questions about 15n20 steel answered!

15n20 Steel Review | What is 15n20 Steel?

Let’s get down to the basics: what is 15n20 steel in the first place? 15n20 steel is high-nickel low-alloy steel used for providing structure to Damascus knives, although knives made out of pure 15n20 are also produced. 15n20 is not a stainless steel, and doesn’t have high-carbon content either. This makes it quite unique as far as steels go, and is called a Nickel steel since that is the substance with the highest content percentage. 

You will mostly find the 15n20 alloy steel in the market by the European manufacturer’s Bohler. It is either considered an affordable steel or a mid-range steel. 

15n20 is also used for axes and larger tools and weapons due to its high hardness. However, it is more commonly found in Damascus knives or heavy-duty culinary knives (hacking knives, butchering knives, or kitchen cleavers).  

It’s not just Damascus steel that 15n20 is coupled with. You’ll also commonly find combinations of dual layered steels like 15n20 and 1095, and other competitive steels in the market. 

What is the Heat Treatment of 15n20 Steel?

Heat Treatment of 15n20 Steel

15n20 undergoes a couple of heat treatment processes before it’s fit to be molded into a knife. These heat treatment processes directly impact the final properties and performance of 15n20 steel. Always pay attention to the heat treatment processes and temperatures in order to spot any manufacturer differences.

Annealing

Annealing is one of the most important heat treatment processes. It involves heating up the steel up to a certain temperature. Most of the time, this temperature is the critical temperature, which refers to the point where the steel is no longer magnetic. After the heating of the steel, there are three substages of annealing. 

The first stage is recovery. In this stage, the low temperature allows 15n20 steel to recover its properties such as thermal expansion and grain density. 

The second stage is recrystallization. In this stage, 15n20 undergoes cold forming in order for stronger crystallizations to occur rather than weaker ones. 

The third stage is grain growth. In grain growth, 15n20 is exposed to heat in the temperature range of 400–600 °C. 

Quenching

Quenching is another heat treatment which directly increases toughness. The temperature of the heating that is done in the austentizing phase and then the medium in which quenching is done both play an important role in the final properties of 15n20 steel. 

There is a big difference in what would happen by exposing 15n20 steel to 1,480° heat and then letting it air cool, versus the controlled cooling that occurs in the quenching medium. Quenching liquids can be regular water, brine (saline water), or even oil. 15n20 is most commonly quenched in oil. 

Tempering

Tempering can be described as essentially baking your steel at a lower temperature. Well, the temperature is still high, but it is a fraction of the high temperatures your steel is exposed to during annealing and quenching. 

The temperature point in the Tempering phase directly influences the hardness of the steel ultimately. If 15n20 steel is tempered at 200° for 2 hours, it will have approximately 60HRC which is a high score for hardness. If 15n20 steel is tempered at 700° for 2 hours, it will have 50HRC in hardness. This is a significant difference in hardness rating. Since hardness and toughness are inversely proportional, lower hardness means more flexibility and toughness in the steel. 

What is the Composition of 15n20 Steel? 

15n20 steel is high-nickel, low-alloy steel. What are these alloying agents? What role do they play in making 15n20 steel the metal that it is? Let’s find out by looking at all the materials and the percentages in which they are added in. 

  • Carbon 0.75% – The lesser amounts of carbon in 15n20 steel contribute towards hardness, but not to a great extent. For carbon to be a major contributor of hardness, it would need to be of a higher percentage in 15n20 steel. However, it does contribute a lot to the edge retention properties of the 15n20 steel. 
  • Nickel 2% – Most steels generally have a very small fraction of nickel content, but 15n20 has a much higher Nickel content. The nickel content is significant enough for 15n20 to be called a Nickel steel. Nickel contributes greatly towards the toughness of the steel. A lot of the inner strength and flexibility of 15n20 can be attributed to the high Nickel quantity. 
  • Manganese 0.4% –  Manganese is a common alloy that is added to most steels. That’s because Manganese immediately improves the hardness of the steel and adds a good dose of brittleness. We tend to think that brittleness is undesirable, but this isn’t the case. Brittleness actually contributes to edge retention, helping the knife stay sharper for a longer time. 
  • Silicon 0.03% –  Silicon is another common and important alloying agent. This helps greatly in the deoxidizing of steel during the heat process (particularly the smelting process). 
  • Phosphorus 0.02% – While you might think 0.2% is too less for phosphorus to do anything, it actually contributes greatly towards toughness and internal strength of the steel. 
  • Sulfur 0.01% – Sulfur also increases the toughness of a steel, by decreasing its hardness. In 15n20, the addition of sulfur boosts the tensile strength of 15n20 steel. Sulfur also contributes to the machinability factor.

How Hard is 15n20 Steel? 

The hardness of 15n20 can vary according to the heat processes. The most common and standard hardness of 15n20 is 61-62 on the Rockwell Hardness Scale, HRC. 62 HRC is quite a high rating and indicates a very hard steel, and if 15n20 is tempered at a low temperature for a long time, it can even go up to 65 HRC. If 15n20 is tempered at a high temperature for the same time, the hardness can be reduced significantly. 15n20 tempered at 700° will result in a 50 HRC, while 15n20 tempered at 200° will result in 65°. 

What are the Properties of 15n20? 

15n20 has low-carbon amounts, and high-nickel, with low alloying agents. Furthermore, it’s more commonly used as a blend with other steels (like Damascus steel) and not as often on its own. If that’s not unique enough, I don’t know what is! I was very curious about the capabilities of 15n20 when I came across it many years ago. Let’s look at the different properties of the 15n20 steel. 

15n20 Hardness

15n20 can have a range of hardness depending on the temperature of tempering and other heat processes that were carried out by the manufacturer. The hardness of 15n20 can vary between 50-65 HRC in the Rockwell Hardness Scale. However, you will most commonly find that 15n20 is around 61 HRC. 

This is a higher than average hardness and definitely means that 15n20 can stand up to a variety of applications. We recommend that you opt for a slightly lower 15n20 hardness, since you’ll receive better toughness from this steel. 

15n20 Toughness

15n20 has pretty great toughness. This can be directly attributed to the amount of Nickel that’s present in the steel. Nickel has a contributing effect on toughness. A tougher blade means that its more flexible and much less prone to breakage. While many people assume that a harder steel is better for knife blades, this also means that it can quite literally shatter if dropped to the floor!
The toughness of 15n20 makes it not just suitable for kitchen knives (which don’t have much toughness requirements generally) but also as a great base for Damascus knives. Outdoor survival knives and combat knives always require more toughness because they come in contact with surfaces such as wood and stone. Hunting and cooking in the wild also needs a tough blade: the knife might come in contact with bone and needs to win the battle!

15n20 Edge Retention

15n20 actually has better edge retention than you would expect. Due to the Nickel and Manganese content, and partly the low carbon content, 15n20 knives stay sharp for a decent amount of time. Of course you will have to sharpen them every once in a while, but not after every application. 

Edge retention also depends on the hardness level according to the manufacturer of 15n20. I sharpen my 15n20 knife every once in two weeks, but that might also be because I don’t use it every day. You will be able to tell when your 15n20 knife needs a good old sharpening. 

15n20 Ease of Sharpening

Unfortunately, you rarely get edge retention AND ease of sharpening in one steel: either one of them shines, and the other takes a hit. The 15n20 is not extremely easy to sharpen, but it’s not a huge task either. You’ll have to get the knack of sharpening your 15n20 at a 20° angle, and as long as you carry around a lightweight portable sharpening stone around your travels, you shouldn’t come into any trouble in regards to sharpening your 15n20. It might take a few minutes to ensure that you’ve evenly sharpened the entire blade, not just the tip. 

15n20 Corrosion Resistance

If you paid attention to the 15n20 Composition, you might have noticed that 15n20 doesn’t have any Chromium content. Chromium most importantly contributes towards the corrosion resistance of a steel (although it also contributes to the hardness), ensuring that your 15n20 doesn’t get rusted. Since there’s no Chromium, the 15n20 is not corrosion-resistant. This also means that it is not a stainless steel. 

You will have to take a lot of care of your 15n20 knife and/or Damascus knife to ensure that it does not catch rust. This includes keeping it clean and dry.

Is 15n20 Good for Knives?

Yes, 15n20 is a good choice for knives. It delivers great hardness, toughness and edge retention as a knife on its own, and also provides a lot of solid stability and internal strength when paired with another steel such as Damascus steel or 1095 steel

A unique feature that 15n20 has is that it is acid resistant. The nickel content in the 15n20 makes it resistant to acid, which is one of the reasons why Damascus knife makers prefer it so much. 

The only caveat of 15n20 is that it is not corrosion resistant. There are some 15n20 knives in the market that have been finished with an anti-corrosion coating. This can really help make up for the lack of corrosion resistance.

Is 15n20 a Stainless Steel? 

No, 15n20 is not a stainless steel. That’s because it doesn’t have any Chromium content in it that can work towards resisting the formation of rust and other corrosions. If you’re investing in a 15n20 knife, be sure to purchase some mineral oil as well. Regular oiling of your knife will help you provide a protective coating against stainless steel. 

You should also take measures to ensure that your knife is kept clean and dry. Moist conditions are very welcoming to the formation of rust. If you live in very humid climates, ‘dry’ may not be dry enough. Oil your knife always to be on the safer side. If you’re using the knife for kitchen purposes, it would be wise to use food-grade mineral oil. Regular cooking oil can go rancid easily, especially oils like olive oil. 

How Does 15n20 Compare to Other Knives in the Market? 

Now that we know 15n20 offers great performance — a good blend of hardness and toughness at a reasonable price, it’s time to see if it’s really the best option that’s out there. There’s no doubt about the fact that it is the best steel to use along with the Damascus knife, due to its high Nickel content. However, if you’re looking to buy a knife made from pure 15n20, you might want to check out other options as well — just to be sure you’re really choosing the best steel. 

15n20 vs. 1084 Steel

15n20 vs 1084 steel comparison chart
Properties15n201084
Edge Retention6/104/10
Ease of Sharpening4/107/10
Corrosion Resistance1/101/10
Toughness 6/105/10
Hardness7/105/10

15n20 steel performs really well when compared to 1084, it has better toughness and hardness. 15n20 also is capable of holding a better edge than the 1084. Both steels have little to no corrosion resistance.

15n20 vs. Maxamet Steel

15n20 vs Maxamet Steel Comparison Chart
Properties15n20Maxamet Steel
Edge Retention6/1010/10
Ease of Sharpening4/102/10
Corrosion Resistance 1/103/10
Toughness6/102/10
Hardness 7/108/10

Both 15n20 and Maxamet Steel are low-alloys with no chromium content. Maxamet steel is a very hard knife with less toughness, while 15n20 can be more balanced. Both steels are not corrosion resistant, but Maxamet Steel is more high-end. 

15n20 vs. 52100

15n20 Vs 52100 Steel Comparison Chart
Properties15n2052100
Edge Retention6/108/10
Ease of Sharpening4/101/10
Corrosion Resistance 1/101/10
Toughness6/107/10
Hardness 7/109/10

Both these steels are not stainless steel, and have poor corrosion resistance. However, the 52100 has better edge retention. 15n20 has better ease of sharpening than 52100.

Best Damascus Knives in the Market

These are the best Damascus knives in the market. They may or may not use 15n20 in their steel blend.

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The makers didn’t skimp out on the wood handle either — the shadow wood doesn’t just look great, it stands the test of time as well. 

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Conclusion

15n20 is a great knife steel, and one of the only High-nickel alloys that are powerful and acid-resistant. It’s a great choice for Damascus knives, 1095 knives, or even a knife on its own.

About The Author
Hey Knife Up gang! I'm Pete, and I'm just another man like you in a small rural town who loves the outdoors as much as the other million internet users that cruise sites like KnifeUp.com every day. The difference is that I like to share what I know and research what I don't totally know so that YOU can have all the info you need to feel confident and prepared for all things outdoors-related! And, for those who care, I have 42 years of wilderness canoeing and bushcraft experience in Northern Ontario and spend most of my Summers covered in mosquitos and fish slime, but hey, it's a lifestyle choice, eh?

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