The Ultimate Guide to the Best Type of Steel for Knives

If you’re an everyday carry enthusiast, chef, or simply someone who appreciates a well-crafted knife, then you understand the importance of high-quality steel. Some types of steel offer incredible performance up-front, but tend to wear down quickly, whereas others last for years with little upkeep. But with so many options available, how do you know which steel is right for you?

We’re going to unveil exactly what separates different types of steel like tool, stainless, carbon, and Damascus. But every type is different, which is why we’ll also evaluate each type against factors like hardness & edge retention, corrosion resistance, sharpenability & maintenance, and toughness & durability. 

And though you probably know best, we’ll also offer recommendations for the best steel options based on different knife applications. Whether you’re looking for an everyday carry (EDC) knife, a hunting or outdoor knife, or a kitchen knife, we’ve got you covered. So, let’s cut into these different steels and figure out which is right for you. 

Most Common Types of Steel Used in Knife Making

When it comes to choosing the best steel for knives, there are several types that are widely used in the industry. Each type has its own unique characteristics and benefits, making it suitable for different applications and preferences. Let’s explore the most popular types of steel used in knife making:

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is one of the most commonly used types of steel in knife making because of its excellent corrosion resistance. It’s an alloy of iron, carbon, and chromium, with the chromium content providing the stainless properties. The chromium forms a protective layer on the surface of the blade, preventing rust and corrosion. Stainless steel also fares well in terms of hardness & edge retention, making it a popular choice for knives that require low maintenance and may be frequently exposed to moisture or harsh environments.

There are various stainless steel varieties used in knife making, with each having its own unique properties. One such example is VG-10, a Japanese stainless steel known for its exceptional edge retention, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening. Another popular stainless steel variety is 154CM, which is widely used in high-end knives due to its excellent overall performance, including edge retention, corrosion resistance, and toughness.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is another widely used type of steel in knife making, known for its exceptional hardness and edge retention. Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel does not contain chromium, making it more susceptible to corrosion. However, it’s far sharper and relatively easier to sharpen when it wears down, which is rarely we might add – it’s one of the most durable metals in existence. Carbon steel knives are favored by many enthusiasts and professionals for their ability to achieve razor-sharp edges, excellent cutting performance, and lightweight frame.

One popular variety of carbon steel is 1095, renowned for its hardness and edge retention. It’s often used in traditional and outdoor knives where durability and sharpness are not only demanded, but expected. AUS-8 is another carbon steel variety that offers good corrosion resistance while maintaining a balance between hardness and toughness. It’s commonly found in mid-range & Kukri knives and is a good compromise between performance and affordability.

Tool Steel

Tool steel is specifically designed for tool and knife making, as the name implies. It’s known for its exceptional toughness, wear resistance, and ability to withstand high impact. Tool steel is often used in heavy-duty applications because of its durability and strength. Though not as resistant to corrosion as stainless steel, it can still be treated with coatings to minimize the risk of corrosion.

One popular tool steel variety is D2, which is widely used in high-end knives and offers excellent wear resistance and edge retention. It is highly regarded for its ability to maintain a sharp edge even under heavy use. Another common tool steel variety is O1, known for its toughness and ease of sharpening. It’s a staple in hunting and survival knives because it never fails – you can count on solid performance when you need it most.

Damascus Steel

Damascus steel is considered the crown jewel of steel when it comes to knives, especially recently. It’s easily identifiable by distinct wavy or watery patterns that contribute to its superior toughness. It’s made by forging two steel alloys together, like 1080 high-carbon steel and 15N20 carbon steel. The forging process enhances both its strength and flexibility. And though it stands out in the performance categories, Damascus steel is most renowned for its aesthetic appeal.

One prominent type of Damascus steel is the “Pattern Welded” variety, where different steels are combined, layered, and then manipulated to produce intricate patterns. These patterns are not just superficial; they’re a testament to the careful forging that enhances the blade’s overall properties. Another variant is the “Wootz” Damascus, an ancient steel known for its characteristic patterns resembling flowing water. It’s a blend of exceptional hardness and ductility, often sought after by collectors and blade enthusiasts alike. Damascus knives are not just tools; they’re a testament to the art and craftsmanship of blade-making.

These are the four primary categories of steel used in knife making. Stainless steel offers excellent corrosion resistance and low maintenance, while carbon steel provides exceptional hardness and edge retention. Tool steel, on the other hand, offers superior toughness and durability. And Damascus offers a blend of all of those, with a clean look to package it up. Understanding the characteristics and benefits of each type will help you make an informed decision when selecting the best steel for your knives. 

Factors to Consider When Choosing the Best Steel for Knives

Selecting the best steel for your new knife is not as simple as buying whichever was recommended to you. If you want a blade that’s going to perform at a high level at all times, you need to consider several factors. 

Hardness & Edge Retention

Hardness refers to the steel’s ability to resist deformation and retain its shape under applied pressure. The Rockwell Hardness Scale is commonly used to measure the hardness of steel. The higher the number on the scale, the harder the steel. In general, harder steels are sharper and maintain this sharpness for longer, resulting in better edge retention over time. However, extremely hard steels may be more prone to chipping or breaking under heavy use. So if you’re looking for durability, don’t just pick the hardest knife you can find, strike a balance between hardness and toughness.

Corrosion Resistance

Corrosion resistance is particularly important if you plan to use your knife in environments with high humidity, exposure to saltwater, or acidic substances. Stainless steel is known for its excellent corrosion resistance due to the presence of chromium on the outer layer of the blade. Carbon steel, on the other hand, is more susceptible to corrosion and requires proper maintenance to prevent oxidation. Coatings and treatments can also be applied to enhance the corrosion resistance of both stainless and carbon steel knives.

Sharpenability & Maintenance

At some point during the blade’s lifetime, you’ll need to sharpen the knife to maximize its performance. Stainless steel blades are generally easier to sharpen due to their softer nature. They respond well to different sharpening methods and require less effort to achieve a keen edge. Carbon steel, on the other hand, is harder and may require more skill and effort to sharpen effectively. It’s important to note that all types of steel require sharpening, some more so than others. Proper cleaning, oiling, and storage practices will help also prolong the edge retention and overall performance of your knife.

Toughness & Durability

Toughness refers to a steel’s ability to withstand impact and resist chipping or breaking, such as when striking the knife against an object with high force. While hardness is important for edge retention, overly hard steel may lack the necessary toughness. Again, you’ll need to find a balance of hardness and durability to get the most out of your knife. Durability, on the other hand, encompasses the overall lifespan and wear resistance of the blade. A durable knife is one that can withstand regular use without compromising its performance or structural integrity.

By considering these factors—hardness and edge retention, corrosion resistance, sharpenability and maintenance, and toughness and durability—you can determine the best steel for your specific needs. Each factor plays a significant role in the overall performance and longevity of your knife. Now that we have a deeper understanding of these factors, let’s move on to exploring the best steel options for different knife applications.

Best Steel Options for Different Knife Applications

Let’s dive into the specific steel options that are well-suited for different knife applications. Whether you’re in need of an everyday carry knife, a hunting or outdoor knife, or a kitchen knife, there are specific steel types that excel in each category. Let’s explore these options:

Everyday Carry Knives

EDC knives are versatile tools that are carried daily for various tasks, such as opening packages, cutting ropes, and performing general utility tasks. When it comes to EDC knives, stainless steel varieties are often preferred due to their corrosion resistance and low maintenance requirements; they’re incredibly reliable. One highly recommended stainless steel for EDC knives is VG-10. It offers excellent edge retention, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening. Another popular choice is 154CM, known for its overall performance and versatility.

Hunting & Outdoor Knives

Hunting and outdoor knives are subjected to more demanding tasks, including skinning, field dressing, and cutting through tough materials. For these applications, a balance between toughness, edge retention, and corrosion resistance is crucial. One steel option that excels in this category is D2 tool steel. It offers exceptional wear resistance, edge retention, and toughness, making it ideal for heavy-duty use. Another suitable choice is AUS-8, which provides a good balance between hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance.

Kitchen Knives

Kitchen knives have their own unique set of requirements, as they are primarily used for food preparation. Stainless steel varieties are commonly used in kitchen knives due to their corrosion resistance and ease of maintenance. One popular stainless steel option is VG-10. Its high hardness and excellent edge retention make it perfect for slicing, dicing, and chopping tasks. Another recommended choice is 440C stainless steel, known for its good corrosion resistance and ease of sharpening.

It’s important to note that these recommendations are not exhaustive, and there are many other steel options available for each knife application. The key is to consider the specific requirements of your intended use and find a steel type that aligns with those needs. Additionally, factors such as budget, personal preferences, and brand reputation may also play a role in your decision-making process.

Whether you opt for a knife blade made from stainless, carbon, tool, or Damascus steel, each brings a unique set of traits to the table. Choosing the right steel—factoring in hardness, edge retention, corrosion resistance, and more—will make life easier for you down the road.