When it comes to the best steel for knives, Ill try and keep this article as simple as possible, avoid the real technical stuff and speak plain English as much as possible. Although understanding some of the technical details will help you in making a better choice when buying any time of knife. Typically when youre considering a heavy duty knife like a Hunting knife or a Tactical knife.
- 1 What Makes Iron Into Steel?
- 2 What is Stainless Steel?
- 3 What is the Best Steel for Knives Then?
- 4 Wrapping it Up
What Makes Iron Into Steel?
Lets start at the very beginning and explain briefly what turns plain iron into steel (Im assuming here that you do know that iron is at the base of steel). In the simplest way explained, iron becomes steel when carbon is added to it. The amount of carbon added to iron to turn it into steel varies from 0.002% to 2.1% of the total weight. When anything else is added to pure iron it is called an Alloy.
Pure iron in and by itself is relatively soft. Adding carbon to it makes it a lot stronger. But there is a pay-off to this. Adding too little carbon to iron will still leave the iron being too soft for the purpose of knife blades. Adding too much carbon (up to 2.1%) makes the steel very very strong, but also much too brittle for a knife blade, and containing this much carbon also makes it impossible to form and shape the steel. Typically iron that has the maximum of carbon is called cast iron and is often used in fire stoves and kitchen pans.
What is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel is sometimes also called Inox steel, borrowing the word Inox from the French Inoxydable. For steel (already an alloy) to become stainless (so that it doesnt rust) a minimum of 11-14% Chromium is added to the mix (there seems to be some unclarity on how much Chromium makes steel stainless; across the Internet the number fluctuates between 11 & 14%). Without the added Chromium Iron and also Steel will rust quite fast. Adding enough Chromium will form a layer of Iron, Carbon and Chromium that will prevent Oxygen to react with the Iron molecules.
What is the Best Steel for Knives Then?
There are literally thousands and thousands types of steel (alloys) used. But this article focusses on the best steel for knives, plus I promised you in the beginning to keep it as simple as possible. So I decided to only give you the most important types of steel that are being used for knife blades.
If youre looking for a Full overview of all the kinds of possible steel alloys go here (Wikipedia). If you can settle for the most important one’s being used for knife blades read on…
There are a couple of factors that influence the type of steel being used.
- Strength or Toughness: The more carbon the steel has the tougher the blade will be (with an optimal tipping point between toughness and steel becoming brittle again).
- Resistance to wear: this is how fast will the blades edge become blunt. And of course this very much depends on what you use your knife for. If it is just to keep in your car for just-in-case situations, nothing much will happen. But if you go hiking every other weekend
- Resistance to rust or stains: How maintenance free or intense is your knife?
All other terms used to define certain aspects of the knifes blade are pretty much all derivatives from these 3 terms.
Premium Quality Steel
A premium quality steel with a very high stain resistance. Very tough and durable. Even so tough that you will need a diamond stone sharpener, as an ordinary sharpening stone will not be hard enough.
When buying a top set of kitchen knife, make sure that the blades are made of this material, because it is probably the best steel available. This is a very tough steel that will keep its sharpness for a very long time. Made by the US firm Crucible this stainless steel alloy is definitely a premium steel.
Top Quality Steel
Top quality Japanese steel, comparable to the next one (154-CM). The toughness is great, so it will stay sharp for a long time. We consider it a top quality (as opposed to premium quality) because it is slightly less rust resistant.
The US equivalent to the Japanese ATS-34. Which means it pretty much has the same properties as the previously described steel type.
This steel has less than 11% of Chromium and could therefor rust somewhat faster. You can also call this D2 steel “semi stainless” because of this. It still gets the Top Quality rating because it still is a very tough steel that will stay sharp for a long time (the amount of chromium in steel only adds to the stainlessness of it, not to the toughness).
Medium Quality Steel
This is a good quality steel that you will find in lots of everyday (pocket) knives of a medium price range. It is relatively easy to sharpen and typically excels in its stainlessness. Which for everyday usage is a pre. The Japanese equivalent to the US made 440-Chris is the AUS-8 steel.
Made in Sweden by the company Sandvik. Has good stainless quality and is easy to sharpen. It’s a good combination of price and quality for use in everyday knives. This type of Swedish steel is actually an improved version of the earlier produced 13-C-26 steel
Our first Chinese manufactured steel. And steel of good quality. It contains enough carbon to make it durable and tough, thereby retaining its sharpness. A typical steel that you will find in cutlery and medium range priced knives.
420-HC & 440-A
Two kinds of steel that are actually very similar in their properties. The HC stands for High Carbon, making it slightly tougher and more durable than the 440-A steel. The later has more chromium than the HC variety, making it less prone to stains and possible rust. If you want a tougher steel and are ok with a bit more maintenance go for the HC version. Otherwise the 440-A steel is best.
Lower Quality Steel
For the sake of being complete we have also included a couple of lower quality steels. Not that we advise you to buy knives made using these types of steel, but we would like you to make the best choice when making your purchase.
This steel is considered a lower quality steel because it lacks enough carbon (less than 0.4%) to give it the toughness that you would expect from a knife. Although easier to sharpen (because it is less tough) it will probably wear too fast for daily use.
There might be one advantage though, and that is that steel with less carbon will be more flexible. Knives used to cut special fruits could benefit from this. Typical mass produced, low priced knives will use this kind of steel.
To close the line we mention this Japanese made steel, which is pretty similar to the 420 steel mentioned above.
Wrapping it Up
We have said earlier that the blade is probably the most important part of your knife. But it is not the only part that’s important.
It will always be important to consider what the purpose is that you have in mind when buying a knife. If it only for decorative reasons than the quality does not really matter.
But if you’re a die-hard survivalist than you might want to opt for the best quality and premium quality steel blade and knife.
Next to the best steel for knives is the consideration of the handle, and all the other parts of the knife.