When you’re new to knife making, the number of tools and components that go into the process can be overwhelming.
Even if you’ve been reading on knife making for a while, it’s hard to apply this knowledge practically if you have no previous experience, and you’ll likely find yourself looking for help.
And that’s why we like to help our clients with the process like we did in our guide on making a knife, our roundup of the best forge, and more. And in this article, we’ll talk about one of the essential components of the process, and that’s steel.
To start, we tried various steel types and shortlisted the six we’ve had the best experience with.
We favored the 1084 knife steel due to its easy heat treatment. However, your situation might differ from ours, so follow along as we review the best steel for knife making!
Here Are the Best Steels for Beginner Knife Makers – Tried & Tested
1. Knife Steel 1084 – Best Overall
- Rockwell Hardness: 50 HRC at 650°F (343°C) to 65 HRC at 300°F (149°C)
- Toughness: Average to high
- Wear Resistance: Depends on heat treatment
- Edge Retention: High
- Corrosion Resistance: Low
- Sharpening: Easy
Knife steel 1084 is one of the most popular types of knife making steel, and every knife maker has probably come across it at least once. It’s also often known as the beginner’s steel, but what warrants it this name?
First, knife steel 1084 contains a lot of carbon and is one of the simpler steels in terms of composition, and it’s widely available in stores, and you can easily find it online also.
Moreover, the simple composition means that 1084 steel is very forgiving with heat treatment, which is ideal for beginners since heat treatment is a complicated process to nail down at first.
The downside of the 1084’s simplicity is that it’s not as strong or tough as other popular types of steel. It’s also not very resistant to corrosion, so you’ll need to take care of your blade and oil it often.
However, the trade-offs are worth it for beginners, in our opinion, since the 1084’s forgiveness will make your life a lot easier.
- Affordable and readily available
- Forgiving heat treatment process
- High toughness and edge retention
- Allows you to adjust hardness and wear resistance
- Easy to sharpen
- High carbon content making it relatively soft
- Low corrosion resistance
Often dubbed the beginner’s steel, 1084 is an excellent choice for beginner knife makers since it’s relatively easy to work with, cheap, and easy to find.
2. 1095 Steel – Best Soft Steel
1095 knife steel has a rich history due to its popularity, simplicity, and effectiveness.
And although 1095 steel is a bit harder to handle than 1084 for beginners, it’s still a good choice since it’s not very challenging. Plus, you should know it either way since it’s so popular!
You can tell that 1095 steel has a high carbon content by the 95 in its name, which refers to 0.95% carbon. Some metallurgists even produce it with up to 1.03% carbon, which is relatively high.
The high carbon content means the blade turns out softer but, in turn, is tougher and retains its sharp edge for long periods.
However, the relatively low hardness means the blade isn’t as wear-resistant as other popular types of steel, but it should still withstand outdoor use for a while.
Still, 1095 is a great choice, and you should consider it if you’re looking for soft steel.
- Very popular and widespread
- Relatively easy to work with
- High carbon content increasing toughness
- Great edge retention
- Easy to sharpen
- Relatively low wear resistance
- Will quickly rust if not coated properly or cleaned frequently
1095 knife steel is an old and popular type of steel that’s often used for blades that need to be sharp for long periods. It’s also a good choice for beginners looking for soft steel to work with, though it’s a bit harder to work with than 1084 steel.
3. W2 Steel – Best Hard Steel
W2 belongs to the water-hardening tool steel (W) family, characterized by the high carbon content, often exceeding 1%, which adds strength to the blade.
Generally, steels with high carbon content are heralded for their incredible hardness, and the W2 is no different as it can reach 65 HRC, which is extremely high for a knife blade.
Of course, the downside of having such a hard blade is that it’s generally more brittle and a bit harder to work with and sharpen. However, metallurgists often add molybdenum to increase the steel’s toughness.
Either way, if you’re looking for a hard blade that can retain a sharp edge for a while and can withstand wear and tear, then W2 is a good pick.
- Very hard type of steel
- Good wear resistance
- Good edge retention
- Excellent for larger knives
- Low corrosion resistance
- Low toughness
- Somewhat harder to sharpen
If your focus is on hardness, wear resistance, and edge retention, consider W2 knife steel, as it boasts incredibly high hardness rates of 62-65 HRC.
4. Knife Steel 80CRV2 – Best for Small Knives
In a way, we can compare 80CRV2 steel to several other types that share some of its properties, such as 1084 and stainless steel.
80CRV2 is similar to 1084 in its high carbon content and low alloy structure. The two types are 0.85% and 0.84% carbon, respectively.
However, 80CRV2 has a more complex composition and, more importantly, contains vanadium (the V in its name), which improves the steel’s hardenability and wear resistance.
Also, 80CRV2 has a low chromium content of about 0.6% (in most cases), so we can’t consider it stainless steel either. So instead, we consider it a carbon steel alloy. In comparison, stainless steels typically have 12-18% chromium, at minimum.
With a Rockwell hardness rating of 55-57 HRC, the 80CRV2 isn’t the hardest steel on the market. However, it’s not a terribly low rating either, and the steel makes up for this by being tough, reliable, and balanced.
In our opinion, this makes the 80CRV2 steel excellent for making smaller knives for lighter use.
The downside with this steel is that it can’t resist rust, and you’ll need to use an anti-corrosive coating to keep the blade clean.
- Great for smaller, light use knives
- Great toughness
- Good balance between hardness and toughness
- Low corrosion resistance
Due to the relatively low hardness rating of 80CRV2 steel, we believe it’s best suited for smaller knives and light use since it’s very tough.
5. Small Parts 54305 O1 Tool Steel Sheet – Best for Error-Prone Users
If you’re looking for steel with a slightly different heat treatment process that uses oil instead of water, check out O1 tool steel.
Oil hardening can differ a bit from water in that it allows you to use relatively low temperatures in the process and add more dimensional stability to your final product.
Also, what sets O1 tool steel apart from other popular types is its high manganese content. If you recall the other types we’ve covered so far, none of them exceeded 1% manganese content. But O1 trumps that with 1.2%, sometimes reaching 1.4%.
This high manganese rate increases the steel’s hardness. But with that, brittleness increases, so nickel is used in a small quantity to try and offset that.
One of our favorite traits of O1 tool steel is that it slows down the machining process. So if you’re the error-prone type and have made mistakes during that process in the past, you’ll like O1 steel as it gives you more time to correct your errors before it’s too late.
- Good balance between hardness and toughness
- Good edge retention
- Gives some leeway to error-prone users
- Relatively low corrosion resistance
- Not the best wear resistance
What stands out in O1 tool steel is how it acts as an inhibitor during the machining process, slowing it down. This makes it an excellent pick for users who tend to make mistakes or slight miscalculations since you’ll have some time to fix your errors.
6. 440C Stainless Steel – Best for Corrosion Resistance
The 4xx family, specifically the 440 subfamily, may not be the oldest in the world of knife steel. However, there was a time when it was among the most popular types in the States since knife makers at the time popularized it.
440C steel is high carbon steel and also a type of stainless steel, boasting an incredible 17% chromium in its composition. This makes 440C a great anti-corrosive steel as well.
And with a high carbon content of 1.1%, 440C gets a relatively high hardness rating of 58-60 HRC, depending on the heat treatment process. Because of this hardness, 440C is great at wear resistance and edge retention.
However, as the inverse relationship between hardness and toughness is natural, high hardness means you must sacrifice some toughness. But fortunately, smart metallurgists often offset this with a decent amount of molybdenum to add some toughness to the steel.
Overall, what stands out the most in 440C steel is its corrosion resistance ability.
- Great corrosion resistance
- High hardness
- Good wear resistance and edge retention
- Only decent toughness
- Hard to sharpen
440C is on the harder side of things as it can reach up to 60 HRC. However, despite this high hardness rating, its high molybdenum content adds extra toughness, and the 17% of chromium adds a lot of corrosion resistance.
Buying Guide: What Should a Beginner Knife Maker Look For in a Steel?
No one type of steel stands out as the one-size-fits-all of knife making. So before you go out for some knife steel shopping, here are five traits you should look for before making a purchase.
Hardness refers to the material’s ability to resist damage from other materials without getting permanently deformed, and it’s often measured using the Rockwell hardness scale. Steel hardness is precisely measured using the Rockwell C scale, or HRC for short.
For reference, soft steels are around 45 HRC, while harder steels are closer to the 58-62 mark.
You may think the best knife is one with an exorbitantly high Rockwell hardness rating, such as 65 HRC. However, harder steels are more difficult to sharpen and more brittle. So although they may retain their sharpness for more extended periods, they’re susceptible to wear and tear.
On the other hand, softer steels can be easier to sharpen, but they tend to dull faster than their hard counterparts, so they require frequent sharpening and honing.
The trick here is to find the sweet spot on the Rockwell scale that fits your needs.
When you first hear about toughness, it may sound like it’s the same thing as hardness, but it isn’t, though toughness and hardness are often inversely related to each other.
Toughness refers to the steel’s ability to resist chipping or cracking upon sudden impact. Therefore, a tougher blade can remain in shape for longer since it won’t chip away easily when you’re using it.
Wear resistance is related to hardness since it refers to the steel’s ability to resist abrasive damage, such as cutting, which is normal and a part of everyday knife use.
Even if you don’t use your knife for heavy applications every day, it’ll still wear down with time, as things often do. But you can prolong your blade’s “longevity” (so to speak) using a more wear-resistant steel type.
However, just like hardness, wear resistance is often inversely related to toughness, so you should look for a balance between all of these.
Most of the time, a knife is as useful as its blade is sharp. After all, why own a knife if it doesn’t have a sharp edge that you can use to cut things?
For instance, a knife may look fancy and dandy at first glance, but it becomes dull when you use it for a while. And that’s why you should look out for edge retention in steel.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a defined standard measure for edge retention in steel, so you’ll have to spend more time studying the materials themselves.
Steel is essentially an alloy consisting of iron, carbon, and possibly other metals.
However, steel’s composition is mostly iron, which is notorious for oxidizing, rusting, and corroding if you leave it exposed in certain conditions, such as moisture, or if you don’t clean it frequently enough.
To fight this problem, you can use a type of steel with anti-corrosive properties. But unfortunately, anti-corrosive elements are notoriously brittle (relative to other knife making steels), so you’d be sacrificing strength and wear resistance in favor of corrosion resistance.
In the end, it depends on your situation. If you need a tough knife that can withstand damage, then be ready to clean your blade frequently and keep it away from moisture.
However, if you’re not going to be using your knife for heavy-grade work, you can consider picking a more anti-corrosive, softer steel, such as stainless steel.
What Steel Is Good for Beginner Knife Making?
1075, 1080, and 1084 steels are often considered the best types of steel for beginner knife makers since they’re all reasonably easy to heat-treat and don’t require advanced tools.
Moreover, many beginners look for these types because they’re cheap and abundant in stores.
Is 1095 Steel Good for Beginner Knife Makers?
Despite being one of the most popular steels for knife making, 1095 steel isn’t the best choice for beginners since it isn’t as forgiving as the 1075 or 1084, particularly when it comes to heat treatment.
What Thickness Steel Should I Use for Knife Making?
As a beginner, you should aim for a blade thickness of ⅛ inch (3.175 mm) or less, as any more than that would be difficult to grind, especially with limited equipment.
Can You Use Cold Rolled Steel to Make Knives?
Most cold rolled steel has too little carbon to make a good knife blade. However, you can find some cold rolled steel types that can, but be careful as they’re much less forgiving with heat treatment than other popular types of steel.
We’ll wrap up here with our guide on the best steel for beginner knife makers.
To quickly recap, there isn’t a single type that stands out as the best since your situation will dictate the type you should use. However, as a beginner, we recommend 1084 knife steel, often dubbed the beginner’s steel, as it’s the most forgiving when it comes to heat treatment, and it’s pretty cheap and abundant in stores.
If you’d like soft steel to start with, check out the 1084’s sibling, 1095 steel, which sets itself apart with its high carbon content, moderate hardness rating, and very high toughness.
However, if hard steel is what you’re after, then there’s W2 steel, which has a complex composition that gives it an incredibly high hardness rating at the cost of lower toughness.