Knife steels

BEST KNIFE STEEL COMPARISON AND CHARTS

Updated by Blade HQ Staff Writer Andrew Hamilton on 3/1/2019

Microtech M390 Steel

From designer to country of origin, blade length, and beyond, there’s a plethora of different factors to consider when buying that fancy new knife. But what is the best knife steel?

Is blade steel a mystery to you? Don’t know 20CV from M4? Is Crucible still just a play by Arthur Miller in your mind? Does Bohler-Uddeholm sound like a stinky cheese to you?

Don’t worry—we’re going to break down and compare all the best knife steels you can expect to find at Blade HQ so that you can determine the supreme steel for your needs. Give this article and each knife steel chart a gander, and you’ll be halfway to an Ivy League degree as a metallurgist (no uhh…not really, but we all start somewhere).

TLDR (Click to Jump Down)

In a hurry? Any of these blade steels are 100% good to rock and roll. All you have to do is click to be taken to that section.

PREMIUM STEELS

M390CTS-204PCPM-20CV
CPM-M4CPM-S90VCPM-S110V
Elmax

HIGH-END STEELS

CPM-154CPM-3VCPM-4V
CPM-S30VCPM-S35VNCTS-XHP
LC200N

MID-RANGE STEELS

1095154CMA2
D2H1O1
N690VG-10

BUDGET STEELS

400 SeriesAUS-8CTS-BD1
Sandvik SeriesSEE MORE>

FACTORS

Blades are designed to cut—that’s obvious enough. When it comes to getting the job done there are four main factors that determine steel quality. The goal of many knife users is to find the best steel to fits their needs. A knife with great edge retention will vaporize cardboard even after months of carry. Toughness is key on hard-use camp knives and fixed blades. Prioritize Corrosion Resistance if you take your knives to high humidity environments. Sharpenability is pretty self-explanatory, but softer steels can be touched up in the field on that big elk hunt.

EDGE RETENTION

Edge Retention (also called strength) is your knife’s ability to hold sharpness during use. Whether it’s dicing up cardboard boxes, feather sticking some firewood, or hacking up sisal rope, no one likes a dull knife. It’s remarkable the increased performance you find in cut tests when comparing premium steels to lower end options.

TOUGHNESS

A tough blade steel resists chips and total failure when subjected to beating, impact, twisting, and torsion. Tough blade steels are ideal for camping and hard-use. Where a normal steel would chip, these knives can sustain intense batoning sessions, power through staples, and glide through steel strapping.

CORROSION RESISTANCE

Are you in a humid, wet, and salty environment? Do you frequently use your knife to meal prep acidic ingredients like citrus or tomatoes? Certain steels are so good at resisting rust and corrosion that they can be left abused and salty without ill-effect. Carbon steels will pit and rust aggressively in wet environments if not properly cared for. Knives prone to corrosion can be protected with a thin coat of mineral oil.

EASE OF SHARPENING

Maybe one of the most frequently overlooked aspects of blade steel is sharpenability. Touching up certain steels with your sharpening stone is an easy, pain-free process whereas harder steels can make for an all-day affair to bring them back to sharp. Being able to field sharpen your knife can be the difference between life and death in the wilderness. An easy to sharpen knife will generally not exhibit excellent edge retention.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Benchmade S30V Steel

Blade steel is totally a super important factor to consider when buying a knife, but wait a second—it isn’t the be-all, end-all. Heat treat, blade geometry, the job at hand, and the sharpening of the blade all play a massive role in the performance of the steel.

HEAT TREAT

Heat Treatment is the process of hardening and tempering the blade steel through heat. This increases the strength of the edge tremendously. A well-done and consistent heat treat goes a long way towards the performance of a knife. High hardness (60 HRC+) increases the edge retention of the steel at the cost of brittleness. Low hardness increases toughness at the cost of edge strength. The effect of heat treat varies based on the composition of the steel.

BLADE GEOMETRY

Blade geometry is a subject that deserves its own article, but here’s a summary. Cutting and slicing performance improves as the thickness behind the edge decreases. Additional considerations include the thickness of the blade stock and the primary grind. Knives such as the Spyderco Chaparral have a very thin edge at only .014”. In contrast, a thicker blade stock with more material at the edge will yield a tougher, less slicey knife like the Ka-Bar Becker BK2.

SHARPENING

Sharpening goes hand in hand with blade geometry. A 30 degree inclusive edge means that each side of the blade is sharpened to 15 degrees. Inherently, more acute sharpening angles will see better cutting performance than more obtuse angles. In contrast, a more obtuse angle will be more stable and durable. Certain blade steels are more stable at highly acute angels.

CUTTING TASK

Often overlooked is the job at hand. When you put your knife to work, what tasks will it need to conquer?

Knife steels that exhibit extreme hardness and edge retention are amazing at cutting through warehouses full of cardboard but hit a staple and your knife may suffer a chip. Tough steels excel at camp chores and batoning wood but are unable to be used at very thin edge profiles while maintaining edge stability.

In reality, there is no perfect blade steel in the same way that there is no perfect knife. Compare your use cases to choose the perfect knife for you.

STRENGTH VS. TOUGHNESS

The best blade steels exhibit a balance of strength and toughness. Blade steels with an insane amount of hardness (pushing towards 70 HRC) tend to lack stability and can suffer from cracks, chipping, and total failure. Extremely tough blades may not cut as well as desired and can suffer from edge rolling and difficulty maintaining an edge.

The charts below aid visualization of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular knife steel. The most well rounded steels like CPM-154 and 154CM create an even shape while a steel like CPM-3V is severe due to high toughness and lower scores in all other categories.

Bohler M390 Knife Steel Chart

Bohler Uddeholm M390

Bohler M390 is widely revered as being the best all-around knife steel, which has led top companies to widely utilize it in higher end knives. M390 exhibits excellent edge retention, corrosion resistance, and high level toughness.

Bohler M390 Knife Steel Chart
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CTS-204P

Bohler M390, CTS-204P, and CPM-20CV are all essentially the same steel and sport a near identical composition. With significant amounts of Chromium, Molybdenum, Vanadium, and Tungsten, these steels are 100% ready for action. CTS-204P is made by the USA-based Carpenter Technology Corporation and CPM-20CV is manufactured by Crucible Industries.

CTS-204P Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-20CV

CPM-20CV can be found on my knives today and is made by the USA-based Crucible Industries. M390, 204P, and 20CV are all durable steels that sacrifice ease of sharpening.

CPM-20CV Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-M4

Crucible Industries has a real gem on their hands with CPM-M4… At the cost of some corrosion resistance you get amazing edge holding, toughness, and decent enough sharpenability. Based on experience and testing, M4 steel may outperform blade steels such as M390 and S90V in terms of edge retention and M4 is in a completely different league in terms of toughness. Some people are uncomfortable carrying a knife that is susceptible to rust and corrosion, but keep your blade oiled and there won't be any problems.

CPM-M4 Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-S90V

Popular among both Benchmade and Spyderco, CPM-S90V is a knife steel known for its excellent edge retention and very good corrosion resistance. This blade steel exhibits good toughness, but it does not meet the level of M390.

CPM-S90V Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-S110V

CPM-S110V exhibits many of the same qualities as S90V. The primary difference is out-of-this-world edge retention at the cost of a minimal reduction in toughness. If you frequently use your knife to slice up cardboard, there may not be a better steel than CPM-S110V. Both of these steels are a real bear to sharpen up!

CPM-S110V Knife Steel Chart
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Elmax

Bohler-Uddeholm produces more than just the famous M390 steel. Consider Elmax if toughness is high on your list. Excellent strength and toughness are balanced with very good sharpenability and corrosion resistance. Elmax is an amazingly well-rounded steel when you take all of these factors into consideration. Elmax can be found in many Microtech knives.

Elmax Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-154

It may seem like there’s a big step down between a steel like S110V and CPM 154. Realistically, in normal day to day use you would struggle to pick out any differences in comparison. CPM-154 is an excellent EDC blade steel with above average edge retention, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening.

CPM-154 Knife Steel Chart
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154CM

Both great steels, CPM-154 benefits from a powdered metallurgy and is finer grained than 154CM. Powdered steels are more consistent, have better edge retention, and improve toughness due to a lack of inclusions.

154CM Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-3V

CPM-3V is, in many ways, the perfect blade steel for a fixed blade knife. Insanely tough, this steel also manages to boast excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance.

CPM-3V Knife Steel Chart
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CPM-4V

CPM-4V boosts the edge holding when compared against 3V, but at the cost of some slight toughness.

CPM-4V Knife Steel Chart
Shop CPM-4V Knives