CPM-3V Knife Steel Overview

Jeremy Dodd
October 10, 2019
CPM-3V

Overview

Perfect knife steels are like opinions…

You were expecting a joke, right? Well, the fact is, there is no “perfect” knife steel. It all depends on what your intended use for the knife will be, where you expect to use the blade and the conditions in which you will use it. Many throw around the term “perfect,” and CPM-3V is no different. 

In some situations, 3V may be perfect for your needs. But that perfection comes with a hefty price tag and the understanding that because this is NOT stainless steel, you will be required to take care of it as such.

CPM-3V steel is bred for toughness. It is an American powdered steel made by Crucible Industries in Syracuse, New York. It is used in situations where tool breakage by an impact is a concern.

CPM-3V Composition

Chemical%
Carbon0.80
Chromium7.50
Vanadium2.75
Molybdenum1.30

CPM-3V is one of the newer “super steel’s” that utilize the Crucible Particle Metallurgy process. This is designed to provide maximum resistance to breakage and chipping in highly wear-resistant and shock-resistant steel.

Properties of CPM 3V

Hardness

The CPM 3V steel has a Rockwell hardness rating of 58-60HRC, which is considered a relatively decent score for a steel blade. The CPM 3V steel is used in applications where chronic breakage, chipping, and wear are encountered on a regular basis with other tools. 

The CPM 3V is an alloy with an excellent hardness, making it more resistant to wear and is perfect to use outdoors, in harsh and tough environments.

HRC steel chart
CPM-3V Falls somewhere around 58 – 60 on this Rockwell Hardness Scale. Anything at 60 or above is entering the category of a harder, carbon-rich steel that is found in higher priced, higher quality knives. This chart shows the spectrum of soft to hard steels used in knife-making

Toughness

A tough steel blade resists chipping and complete breakdown when subjected to impact, beating, twisting, and torsion. Tough blades are perfect for camping and outdoor use in the wild. A regular steel blade might chip or even break down, tougher steel blades can withstand that, such as batoning sessions, steel strapping, and much more!

Lucky for us, CPM 3V is amazingly tough steel. It is the toughest steel grade compared to other regularly steel grades such as D2, A2, and others. This steel was developed for particular applications which demand a great amount of toughness and chip resistance, replacing other tool steels that were not as tough or resistant.

Due to this superior toughness, CPM 3V is used for camping or bushcraft knives that can undergo and handle chopping, batoning, and other strenuous tasks.

Corrosion Resistance

Are you someone who tends to venture out into the wild, salty, wet, and humid environments? Do you often use your knife for prepping meals with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes or lemon? 

Certain steels are pretty good at resisting rust and corrosion and can be left uncleaned for hours without any complications or ill effects. Carbon steel knives will easily pit and rust in wet, humid environments if not looked after properly. Usually, you can protect blades with a low corrosion resistance with a thin layer of mineral oil.

CPM 3V offers good corrosion resistance. This is an advantage considering that 3V is a tool steel that usually has poor rust resistance; it is also stainless steel. CPM 3V’s good corrosion resistance makes it quite suitable for outdoor use without getting affected by the environment.

But does this mean that CPM 3V will never rust? Not really. You have to remember that this steel is not customized for optimal rust resistance, and leaving it exposed and dirty in the environment for an extended period of time can make it rust. 

You can protect your steel blade by coating it with PVD (Physical vapor deposition) and DLC (Diamond-like-carbon) to improve corrosion resistance.

Ease of sharpening

Usually, the most overlooked aspect of blade steel is its sharpenability and sharpness. Touching up or sharpening certain steels with a sharpening stone can be quite a simple, easy, and relaxing process, whereas harder steels can make the process much more challengingperiod, tedious, and not so relaxing. 

Achieving the right amount of sharpness can be a life-or-death matter when you are out in the wild, as it determines your ability to cut up and cook food as well as other tasks. It is crucial to keep in mind that an easy to sharpen knife usually indicates low edge retention.

Sharpening a 3V knife will most likely take you effort and time and you need harder abrasives to sharpen it. Most manufacturers agree that their factory-sharpened CPM 3V blades are put through a 1500 grit finish as opposed to the usual standard 600 grit for the ideal sharpening outcomes. 

This shows us how much more of an effort you would need to put in for your CPM 3V steel.

But this does not mean that you cannot bring your 3V blade to optimal sharpness if it gets dull. If you acquire the proper sharpening tools and do the process correctly, your knife will be razor-sharp.

Edge retention

The edge retention is the knife’s ability to hold its sharpness while in use. Whether it is cutting up nylon ropes, cutting fresh meat, sharpening wood, or cutting up cardboard boxes, no one wants to deal with a dull knife. The performance you can observe during cut tests is quite remarkable when you compare high-end steels to lower-end ones.

Edge retention and hardness typically go hand in hand. Due to CPM 3V’s high amount of hardness, it also provides good edge retention. It beats the edge retention ability of tool steels such as D2 and A2. It is crucial to keep in mind that it might not hold its sharpness as S35VN or S30V would.

Heat treatment of CPM 3V Steel

Step 1 – Annealing

Heat the steel to 900 C, hold it for 2 hours, then slowly cool at 15 C per hour to 595 C. After this, you can furnace cool it or cool it in the air at room temperature.

Annealed Hardness – About BHN 241

Step 2 – Stress-relieving

Heat the annealed parts to temperatures between 595 – 705 C, then hold for 2 hours. After this, you can cool it in the furnace or cool it in the air.

Heat the hardened parts to temperatures between 15 – 30 C below the original tempering temperature, then hold for 2 hours. You can cool it in the furnace or cool it in the air.

Step 3 – Hardening

*Preheat: 1450-1550F

To austentize, heat at temperatures between 1025 – 1120 C for 20-45 minutes.

To quench, put air or positive pressure quench for 2 minutes to below 50 C, or salt or interrupted oil quench to nearly 540 C. Then air cool it to below 50 C. 

Salt bath heat treatment will help to ensure maximum attainable toughness.

Step 4 -Temper

Three times at temperatures between 540 – 550 C for 2 hours minimum each time.

COMPARISON

CPM-3V FALLS SOMEWHERE AROUND 58 – 60 ON THIS ROCKWELL HARDNESS SCALE. ANYTHING AT 60 OR ABOVE IS ENTERING THE CATEGORY OF A HARDER, CARBON-RICH STEEL THAT IS FOUND IN HIGHER PRICED, HIGHER QUALITY KNIVES. THIS CHART SHOWS THE SPECTRUM OF SOFT TO HARD STEELS USED IN KNIFE-MAKING

Typically used for punches and dies, shearing blades, and stamping tools, CPM-3V is a good choice for industrial operations where toughness is the primarycomparing concern. It is the toughest of all of the tool steels and is intended to be hardened to a 58-60 HRC. Compared with A2 tool steel, CPM-3V will hold an edge better, but sharpening can be a chore, often requiring a harder abrasive with which to sharpen it. 

Knives made with 3V will often be factory sharpened at a 150 grit finish rather than the standard 600 grit, resulting in a more satin appearance. A2 will be easier to bring back to sharp in the field.

One area where a 3V knife would be advantageous would be in bushcraft applications, where batoning and chopping would be frequent. It is pretty resistant to corrosion or chipping, even though it is not stainless steel. Without proper care, it will, like all higher carbon steels, oxidize over time. There are several coatings that can improve corrosion resistance such as DLC and PVD.

CPM 3V vs. other steels

CPM 3V vs. Elmax

CPM 3V vs. Elmax steel comparison chart
Properties3VElmax
Edge retention6/107/10
Toughness10/107/10
Corrosion resistance4/107/10
Ease of sharpening5/105/10

From the above table, it is fair to deduce that CPM 3V provides improved toughness, whereas Elmax provides improved edge retention and corrosion resistance.

CPM 3V vs. S35VN

CPM 3V vs. S35VN Steel comparison chart
Properties3VS35VN
Edge retention6/108/10
Toughness10/106/10
Corrosion resistance4/107/10
Ease of sharpening5/105/10

From the above table, it is fair to deduce that CPM 3V provides improved toughness whereas S35VN provides improved edge retention and corrosion resistance.

CPM 3V vs. S30V

CPM 3V vs. S30V steel comparison chart
Properties3VS30V
Edge retention6/105/10
Toughness10/106/10
Corrosion resistance4/107/10
Ease of sharpening5/105/10

From the above table, it is fair to deduce that CPM 3V provides improved edge retention and toughness whereas S30V provides improved corrosion resistance.

CPM 3V vs. 1095

CPM 3V vs. 1095 steel comparison chart
Properties3V1095
Edge retention6/105/10
Toughness10/107/10
Corrosion resistance4/102/10
Ease of sharpening5/107/10

From the above table, it is fair to deduce that CPM 3V provides improved edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance, whereas 1095 steel provides enhanced ease of sharpening.

Typically used for punches and dies, shearing blades, and stamping tools, CPM-3V is a good choice for industrial operations where toughness is the main concern. It is the toughest of all of the tool steels and is intended to be hardened to a 58-60 HRC. When compared with A2 tool steel, CPM-3V will hold an edge better, but sharpening can be a chore, often requiring a harder abrasive with which to sharpen it. Knives made with 3V will often be factory sharpened at a 150 grit finish rather than the standard 600 grit, resulting in a more satin appearance. A2 will be easier to bring back to sharp in the field, but will not resist patina as well.
One area where a 3V knife would have an advantage would be in bushcraft applications where batoning and chopping would be frequent. It is pretty resistant to corrosion or chipping even though it is not a stainless steel. Without proper care, it will, like all higher carbon steels, oxidize over time. There are several coatings that can improve corrosion-resistance such as DLC and PVD.

Favorites using CPM-3V

Benchmade - Bailout 537GY, Plain Edge Gray Coated CPM-3V Tanto Blade, Black Grivory Handle, Made in the USA

One of my favorite knives available in 3V steel is the Benchmade Bailout 537 AXIS Lock Knife (Amazon).  Benchmade is one heck of a brand, and truth be told, I’ve never read a credible negative critique on any knife from this reliable company.   The Bailout Axis Lock is a folder that fits nicely into a pocket and weighs just over 2 ounces.  It features a “Grivory” handle (that’s just a proprietary hard polymer composite).

One of my favorite knives available in 3V steel is the Benchmade Bailout 537 AXIS Lock Knife (Amazon).  Benchmade is one heck of a brand, and truth be told, I’ve never read a credible negative critique on any knife from this reliable company.   The Bailout Axis Lock is a folder that fits nicely into a pocket and weighs just over 2 ounces.  It features a “Grivory” handle (that’s just a proprietary hard polymer composite) which you can read about HERE.

The CPM-3V gives it that harsh cutting edge that takes a long time to get dull.   A reinforced titanium lock bar provides the bailout with a dependable locking system.  The Tanto blade is standard and of course, a lanyard and reversible pocket clip are also classic with the Bailout.

 
As with all carbon steel blades, you absolutely must keep the blade coated in mineral or gun oil when it is not in use. You can also try Vaseline petroleum jelly – yes, I’m totally serious!
 

Conclusion

CPM-3V certainly has its place in the knife world. One of the significant drawbacks that it shares with many of the “neo-steels” available today is the cost. If you’re someone looking for a field knife that you can throw in the truck and forget about until your next outdoor adventure; then the 3V is probably not for you. 

But if you are a person who painstakingly cleans, oils, and hones your knives (as you should) each time you get back home, CPM-3V will give you a lifetime of service from a quality, tough as nails carbon steel.

 

About The Author
Jeremy Dodd is a columnist for KnifeUp Magazine covering outdoor, tactical, hunting, and fishing topics. He served eight years in the United States Navy and attended Vincennes University for Conservation Law Enforcement. Jeremy lives in Washington, Indiana.

2 comments on “CPM-3V Knife Steel Overview”

  1. Why does the steel industry not do the following:

    Since A2 is such a good baseline steel – – why not
    develop a ‘neo-A2’ by hammer forging it before
    letting it slowly air cool?

  2. CPM S90V and CPM 3V are my favorite steels and this site has awesome information. A link to this site needs to be placed in bladeforums.com

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