6 Best Knife Steels: Reviewed & Buyers Guide

Jeffrey
January 11, 2022
Best knife steels

As a knife enthusiast and an aspiring knife maker, I’ve always wondered what the best knife steel is. Do I go for something high-end like the CTS-XHP, or is it better to go with something that’s more widely used, like the 1095? 

As it turns out, you can’t choose one type to rule them all. Each steel has its advantages and disadvantages, and accordingly, each has its uses. However, if you’d like steel with the best edge retention and corrosion resistance, I suggest you go with the CPM S110V steel.

Still, many other types are worth looking into, especially if you’re looking to use or make a knife with a specific function in mind, be it cooking, utility, etc. 

So, that’s why I’ve gathered and listed below 6 of the best knife steels in the market nowadays, as well as a helpful buyer’s guide that’ll help you choose the best knife steel for you. So, let’s dive straight in.

Here Are the Best Knife Steels – Tried & Tested

Below, you’ll find the best knife steel types present within the knife community. All these types will perform well under most conditions, but some are more suited to specific jobs than others. So, read on to know which one will work for your needs.

1. CPM S110V – Best Knife Steel Overall

CPM S100V from USA-based company Crucible is arguably the best knife steel available nowadays. This steel is the top of the top when it comes to its hardness, wear resistance, and edge retention. As such, you won’t find a knife that’ll hold its edge better and longer than one made of CPM S110V steel. 

This steel is chiefly made of carbon, vanadium, and niobium and is categorized as stainless steel as it has more than 13% chromium. As such, it’s got excellent corrosion resistance, which makes it perfect for knives that’ll become in contact with a lot of moisture, such as fishing knives, diving knives, and hunting knives

However, this steel isn’t that great at resisting chipping, so it’s not preferable for EDC (everyday carry) and survival knives that may be used in an aggressive and potentially damaging manner while camping or hiking. Moreover, the CPM S110V is still relatively rare within the marketplace, so it’s not as readily available as other types of steel, and it costs a pretty penny to acquire. 

Additionally, while knives made of this material hold their edge for extended periods, there will eventually come a day when they’ll need to be sharpened. When that happens, you’ll find the task to be highly challenging due to the steel’s high hardness, and it’ll test your patience.

Key Specifications:

  • Chemical composition: 2.8% carbon, 15.25% chromium, 2.25% molybdenum, 9% vanadium, 2.5% cobalt, and 3% niobium
  • Tempering temperature: 200-400°C (400-750°F)
  • Hardness: 63.5 HRC
  • Toughness: Decent resistance to chipping, but not all that great
  • Wear resistance: Top-notch
  • Corrosion resistance: High 
  • Edge retention: Excellent
  • Ease of sharpening: Very hard
  • Machinability: Incredibly hard to machine and grind

Chemical Composition

Chemical composition for CPM S110V, the best knife steel
Carbon2.80%
Chromium15.25%
Molybdenum2.25%
Vanadium9%
Cobalt2.50%
Niobium3%

Pros

  • Holds its edge for a long time
  • Extremely hard
  • Has excellent wear and corrosion resistance

Cons

  • Can easily chip away with forceful usage
  • Unpleasant to sharpen
  • Not easily obtainable

Recommended CPM S110V Knife

Spyderco Para 3 CPM S110V Signature Folding Utility Pocket Knife

About this Knife

  • Handle Material: Stainless Steel, Fiberglass
  • Color: Midnight Blue
  • Handle: CPM S110V Steel Blade
  • Blade Material: Stainless Steel
  • Style: Midnight Blue – CPM S110V Steel Blade

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2. CTS-XHP – Best Knife Steel for Moisture Exposure

Application-wise, CTS-XHP is the best knife steel for making kitchen and outdoor knives that come in contact with water due to its high hardness, edge retention, and corrosion resistance.

This high-end stainless steel isn’t that far off from CPM S110V in terms of the above properties. Thankfully, though, it’s considerably easier to sharpen, though it’ll still require some elbow grease.

The CTS-XHP gains these remarkable properties due to its unique manufacturing process (powder metallurgy) and chemical composition, with high amounts of carbon and chromium.

That’s why the CTS-XHP is also known as the high-corrosion resistance D2 steel and the high-hardness 440C steel. However, as you well know by now, the higher the hardness and edge retention are, the more brittle and more prone to chipping the steel will be.

However, if you’re looking for outstanding knife steel that’s more readily available than the CPM S100V, then the CTS-XHP steel from Carpenter will be your best option.

Key Specifications:

  • Chemical composition: 1.6% carbon, 16% chromium, 0.8% molybdenum, 0.5% manganese, 0.4% silicon, 0.45% vanadium, and 0.35% niobium
  • Tempering temperature: min. 204°C (min. 400°F)
  • Hardness: 61-63 HRC
  • Toughness: Decent resistance to chipping, but not high
  • Wear resistance: Excellent
  • Corrosion resistance: Superb 
  • Edge retention: Great
  • Ease of sharpening: Hard
  • Machinability: Not excellent, and also difficult to weld

Chemical Composition

Chemical composition for CTS-XHP, best knife steel for moisture exposure
Carbon1.60%
Chromium16%
Molybdenum0.80%
Manganese0.50%
Silicon0.40%
Vanadium0.45%
Niobium0.35%

Pros

  • Excellent edge retention and will remain sharp for a long time
  • Top-notch corrosion resistance
  • Excellent hardness and wear resistance
  • Easier to come by than the CPM S110V

Cons

  • Hard to weld
  • A bit brittle
  • Generally difficult to sharpen

Recommended CTS-XHP Knife

Spyderco Chaparral Lightweight Prestige Folding Utility Knife

About this Kinfe

  • Handle Material: Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon
  • Color: Gray
  • Blade Material: CTS-XHP Steel
  • Style: Lightweight

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3. CPM S35VN – Best Knife Steel for High-Impact Use

CPM S35VN, also referred to as S35VN, is the go-to metal for high-quality kitchen, survival, and pocket knives.

That’s because this steel’s toughness is so good that it can withstand impacts quite well. Moreover, similar to the CPM S110V and CTS-XHP, it also has excellent edge retention, high hardness, and excellent wear and corrosion resistance due to its high chromium content.

What makes this steel perform so well is the addition of vanadium into its composition. The vanadium increases the steel’s hardness quite a lot, and this, fortunately, leads to better edge retention and wear resistance. 

This steel has an older version called S30V that was a bit hard to work with. This led the manufacturers to look for a way to improve the steel’s machinability. They were able to achieve that by adding niobium into the steel’s composition, and thus, the CPM S35VN was invented. Not only did the machinability improve, but also so did the ease of sharpening and toughness. 

However, the edge retention of S30V is slightly better than that of S35VN, which makes the former steel more popular among knife makers. However, it would be best to base your choice on which property is more critical for your knife to have

Key Specifications:

  • Chemical composition: 1.4% carbon, 14% chromium, 2% molybdenum, 0.1-0.4% nickel, 0.5% manganese, 0.5% silicon, 0.4% tungsten, 0.03% phosphorus, 0.03% sulfur, 0-0.5% cobalt, 3% vanadium, and 0.5% niobium
  • Tempering temperature: 540-550°C (1000-1025°F)
  • Hardness: 58-61 HRC
  • Toughness: Great resistance to chipping
  • Wear resistance: Excellent
  • Corrosion resistance: Great 
  • Edge retention: High
  • Ease of sharpening: Hard but easier than S30V
  • Machinability: Better than S30V

Chemical Composition

Chemical composition for CPM S35VN, best knife steel for high-impact use
Carbon1.4%
Chromium14%
Molybdenum2%
Nickel0.1-0.4%
Manganese0.5%
Silicon0.5%
Tungsten0.4%
Phosphorus0.03%
Sulfur0.03%
Cobalt0-0.5%
Vanadium 3%
Niobium0.5%

Pros

  • Resists rust and corrosion quite well
  • Easier to sharpen than S30V
  • Can withstand high forces

Cons

  • Reduced edge retention compared to S30V

Recommended CPM-S35VN Knife

Cold Steel Recon 1 Series

About this Knife

  • Handle Material: Fiberglass
  • Color: Tanto Plain Edge
  • Blade Material: CPM-S35VN Steel
  • Style: Recon 1 Series

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4. 154CM – Best Knife Steel for EDC

If you’re a knife enthusiast, then you’ve probably heard of the 440C steel, and you know how good it is. However, you probably also know that it doesn’t have the best edge retention or corrosion resistance, and that’s why the 154CM steel was created. 154CM’s improved qualities are what make this steel stand out for EDC.

It’s the better version of 440C, which is all due to the addition of molybdenum into the metal’s components. Not only does this element increase edge retention, but it also enhances corrosion resistance. As such, any knife made of this steel won’t rust for years, even if it’s not impeccably maintained. 

Therefore, if you want to make or purchase the best hunting knives, best pocket knives, or cutlery, 154CM is the best knife steel for you. While it won’t stay razor sharp for long, it’ll hold a moderately sharp edge for a good while. And once the time for sharpening comes, you won’t have too much difficulty accomplishing the task as long as you have the right tools. 

You should note that there’s a powder metallurgy version of this steel called CPM 154. This version has improved edge retention and toughness, but I would be hard-pressed to report a difference between the two types. 

Key Specifications:

  • Chemical composition: 1.05% carbon, 14% chromium, 4% molybdenum, 0.5% manganese, 0.8% silicon, 0.03% phosphorus, 0.03% sulfur, 0.4% vanadium, and 0.4% tungsten
  • Tempering temperature: 149-232°C (300-450°F) 
  • Hardness: 60-61 HRC
  • Toughness: Notable toughness and high resistance to impacts
  • Wear resistance: Excellent
  • Corrosion resistance: Prominent
  • Edge retention: Great
  • Ease of sharpening: Relatively easy
  • Machinability: Hard to machine due to high carbide volume

Chemical Composition

Chemical composition for 154CM, the best knife steel for EDC
Carbon1.05%
Chromium14%
Molybdenum4%
Manganese0.5%
Silicon0.8%
Phosphorus0.03%
Sulfur0.03%
Vanadium0.4%
Tungsten0.4%

Pros

  • Great for EDC, kitchen, fishing, and hunting knives 
  • High corrosion resistance 
  • Holds its edge well
  • Handles heavy use well

Cons

  • Hard to machine

Recommended 154CM Knife

KATSU Folding Pocket Japanese Knife

About this Knife

  • Handle Material: Carbon Fiber
  • Color: Carbon Fiber Handle & 154CM Blade
  • Blade Material: Alloy Steel
  • Style: Carbon Fiber Handle

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5. D2 Stainless Steel – Best Knife Steel for Outdoor Activities

D2 is the best knife steel for making outdoor and utility knives as it’s very durable due to its considerable hardness, wear resistance, and edge retention.

If you want steel that’s a bit harder than the 154CM, then this should be your first pick. This steel falls into the category of tool steels, hard and heat-resistant steel alloys. However, it’s not considered stainless steel as it fails to meet the chromium requirement. As such, it’s sometimes referred to as semi-stainless. 

Nevertheless, it holds its edge better than the 154CM due to its superior hardness. Its edge retention is even comparable to that of the powder steels. 

Unfortunately, it’s not as tough as the 154CM, and it’s also much harder to sharpen. Moreover, it needs regular care and maintenance since its corrosion resistance isn’t the best.

It’s worth noting that if you’re looking to increase the toughness a bit, you can raise the standard tempering temperature to 482°C (900°F). Take care that the hardness will regrettably decrease in this temperature, but it’ll provide you with a much better balance between the two properties. 

Still, this steel is quite popular within the knife community, and any knife made from it is considered high-end.

Key Specifications:

  • Chemical composition: 1.5% carbon, 12% chromium, 0.9% molybdenum, 0.5% manganese, 0.4% silicon, 0.03% phosphorus, 0.02% sulfur, 1.1% vanadium, and 0.35% niobium
  • Tempering temperature: 150-204°C for max. hardness (300-400°F) 
  • Hardness: 55-62 HRC
  • Toughness: Decent resistance to chipping, but not the best
  • Wear resistance: Great
  • Corrosion resistance: Good but not ideal
  • Edge retention: Substantial
  • Ease of sharpening: Hard to sharpen
  • Machinability: Not excellent, and also difficult to weld

Chemical Composition

Chemical composition for D2 Stainless Steel, the best knife steel for outdoor activities
Carbon1.5%
Chromium12%
Molybdenum0.9%
Manganese0.5%
Silicon0.4%
Phosphorus0.03%
Sulfur0.02%
Vanadium1.1%
Niobium0.35%

Pros

  • High wear resistance
  • Stays sharp for extended periods

Cons

  • Painstakingly hard to sharpen
  • Edges will chip and rust if not regularly used and maintained

Recommended D2 Knife

Kershaw Emerson CQC-4KXL Folding Pocket Knife

Key Specifications:

  • Handle Material: G10 Front, 410 Stainless Steel Back
  • Color: 6055D2
  • Blade Material: D2 Stainless Steel
  • Style: CQC-4KXL D2 Frame Lock

—-

6. 1095 – Best Knife Steel for Heavy Use

1095 is used in survival-based knives that undergo some significant use and abuse. This is mainly because this steel is so resistant to chipping. Moreover, it’s relatively simple to produce and heat-treat and therefore not that hard to find in the market for a reasonable price.

However, the main disadvantage of 1095 steel is its low corrosion resistance due to the lack of chromium. As such, knives made from 1095 have to be coated in order to slow down the eventual corrosion or, at the very least, be treated with a simple oil. This will help make it perform well for longer.

Another aspect to consider is its edge retention that’s only average due to the carbon and manganese mix in its composition.

1095 steel is one of the most popular carbon steels among knife makers, especially beginners. While it may not be the best knife steel type out there when it comes to certain aspects, it still has its uses, and it’s still good enough for most knives.

Key Specifications:

  • Chemical composition: 0.95% carbon, 0.5% manganese, 0.03% phosphorus, and 0.05% sulfur
  • Tempering temperature: 372-705°C (700-1300°F)
  • Hardness: 55 HRC
  • Toughness: Good
  • Wear resistance: Higher than average
  • Corrosion resistance: Low
  • Edge retention: Average
  • Ease of sharpening: Very easy to sharpen
  • Machinability: Not great

Chemical Composition

Chemical composition for 1095, the best knife steel for heavy use
Carbon0.95%
Manganese0.5%
Phosphorus0.03%
Sulfur0.05%

Pros

  • Inexpensive compared to other types of steel
  • Very tough but has sufficient hardness and good wear resistance
  • Incredibly easy to sharpen

Cons

  • Will easily rust
  • Doesn’t have the best edge retention
  • Not that easy to shape

Recommended 1095 Steel Knife

ESEE-6 Fixed Blade Knife

Key Specifications:

  • Handle Material: Fiberglass
  • Color: Desert Tan Blade, Coyote/Black G10 3D Handle
  • Blade Material: 1095 Steel

—-

Buying Guide: What to Look for in the Best Knife Steel?

Various characteristics influence how the steel will be; however, the following 5 are the most important when choosing the best steel for a knife. So, let’s take a look at what those properties are, shall we?

Blade Hardness and HRC Ratings

First off, we’ve got the blade hardness. In simple terms, hardness refers to a material’s ability to hold out against deformation under stress. This is different from toughness, which is the ability to resist chipping or cracking when subjected to a sudden impact, such as a fall or a throw. 

As you can probably gather, a material’s hardness is directly proportional to its tensile strength but inversely proportional to its toughness. This means that the more robust and harder the knife is, the less tough it’ll be, i.e., the more prone to cracks it’ll be when subjected to a high impact force. 

Typically, the hardness of knife steels is measured by the Hardness Rockwell C Scale. This scale is based on a specific test that sees how deep of a mark an indenter will make in the metal. 

Accordingly, you’ll find that any steel will have an HRC rating that corresponds to the results of this test, and the higher the rating, the harder the material and vice versa.

As such, if you’re looking for the best knife steel that’s hard enough to survive for a significant amount of time, look for one that has a 60 HRC rating or more.

Sharpening and Serviceability

From my point of view, the most important thing you should look for in a knife is its ease of sharpening. In general, this quality is inversely proportional to hardness, wear resistance, and edge retention. 

Naturally, all knives will eventually dull away, no matter how high-end. Once this occurs, a knife will need to be sharpened as soon as possible to restore its optimum function.

That being so, when you come to choose the best knife steel, you should look for one that’s easy to sharpen, or else you’ll have a hard time restoring your knife’s cutting edge.

One more trait you should look for is a knife steel’s serviceability. This means that the steel should do you well in whatever you need it for. Of course, for this to happen, your knife steel has to match its intended use. Now, what do we mean by this?

To give you an example, carbon steel is typically used for machetes and survival knives that need to be tough, durable as well as easy to sharpen. 

However, carbon steel shouldn’t be used in EDC knives as they tend to rust quite quickly. EDC knives are usually made with stainless steel (and occasionally tool steel) to resist corrosion and deformation. However, the tradeoff here will be the knife toughness.

In a nutshell, for your knife to be serviceable, it should be made of a material that’s capable of doing what you need it to do with little to no trouble. So, choose the metal that’ll work best for you, and it should preferably be easy to sharpen as well.

Edge Retention

Edge retention is the ability of a metal to maintain a sharp edge, aka cutting angle, after use. Generally, chemical, thermal, and mechanical factors can dull the metal’s edges. However, when we come to talk about knives specifically, the mechanical factors are the ones that come to the forefront. 

For instance, repeated use can cause dulling of a knife’s edge. Interestingly, so does infrequent use, but the problem will arise from not using a knife correctly or for something other than its intended purpose.

Now, a knife’s edge retention is determined by many factors, such as the type of steel it’s made of, as well as the edge geometry and how the blade was manufactured. Of course, the better edge retention the knife steel has, the less frequently you’ll have to sharpen your knife. 

However, as nice of a concept as edge retention is, there’s currently no way to assess or measure it accurately. As such, when you find someone talking about the edge retention of a particular metal, know that their assessments are mostly subjective. 

Still, since edge retention negatively correlates to toughness and a positive correlation to hardness and wear resistance, look for a knife with the last two properties so that the edge is hard enough to resist deformation and will not wear away after a handful of uses. 

Corrosion Resistance

Corrosion resistance indicates a metal’s ability to hold out against corrosion, or in simpler terms, rusting. Generally, rust forms when a metal is exposed to factors like moisture, salts, acids, etc. Now, for metals to resist rusting and corrosion, they need to form a superficial oxide layer that’ll protect them from the previous damaging factors.

Accordingly, you need to pick steel with good corrosion resistance, especially if you’re planning on using your knife in areas of high humidity and moisture. 

Stainless steel is usually praised for its corrosion resistance due to its high chromium content. Here, the chromium particles react with the surrounding oxygen to form a chromium oxide layer that protects the blade from corrosion. 

Nevertheless, keep in mind that the more a metal’s corrosion resistance is, the worse its edge performance will be. So, look for a knife with a good balance between the two. 

Grind

The grind you want for your knife will influence the type of steel you’ll choose. A knife grind is what makes the knife thin enough to cut through things. This means that without a proper grind, the blade will get wedged in its target. 

There are various types of grind, but the main four usually used for knives are hollow, flat, convex, and Scandi. Each grind has its advantages and disadvantages, and therefore specific grinds are better applied to suit particular purposes. 

For example, Scandi and convex grinds are ideal for jobs like bushcraft and woodwork as they provide the knife with good strength but still allow it to have a good cutting performance. Meanwhile, hollow grinds are more suited to EDC knives, giving them an excellent appearance but making their edges more vulnerable. 

Alternatively, flat grinds are excellent for kitchen knives as they’re much stronger and easy to produce, but they’re thicker than a hollow grind, and they’ll continue to get thicker the more you sharpen them. 

The critical point here is that not all grind types can be applied to any steel type.

To clarify, if you want your knife to have an extremely thin grind, the knife steel has to have sufficient hardness to support that grind. Alternatively, if you don’t need that thin of a grind, but you need the knife to be able to withstand some impact forces, then the steel shouldn’t be too hard, or else it’ll crack. 

Again, the key is finding a balance between the two qualities and choosing the correct grind for the metal type.

Verdict

We’ve covered 6 of the best knife steels out there and what we can conclude with is that, to make a good knife, its metal needs to have a good balance between edge retention, hardness, ease of sharpening, corrosion resistance, and toughness. So, just because one type of steel has a higher hardness or wear resistance than another, we can’t say that it’s the best.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a knife that’ll maintain its sharp edge for a long time, then I highly recommend looking for ones made from the CPM S110V, closely followed by the CTS-XHP and the CPM S35VN. They all have excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance, so they’ll all make high-quality, durable knives that’ll last you a long time.

If you’re looking for something best for heavy use, then 154CM is the way to go. With its superior resistance to chipping, this steel will withstand what you throw at it.

Make sure to check our other reviews and buying guides: 

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