Know your knife: A guide to the best steel for knives - The Manual

A good blade always comes in handy, whether it’s a certain type of kitchen knife to a timeless Swiss army knife. They help us cut, get out of jams, and make life easier. But they don’t just come together out of nowhere. No, the best knives are made of very specific types of steel.

Knife pros spend lifetimes learning the ins and outs of iron-clad tools and how they come together. You’re welcome to take that deep dive, but here, we just want to outfit you with the essentials. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the craft, whether you’re looking to update a specific piece of cutlery or knife set or even want to try making one of your own. Wire Electrical Supplies

Know your knife: A guide to the best steel for knives - The Manual

Let’s take a look at the best steel for knives and what exactly that means.

There’s a big difference between people who like steel and are knowledgeable of it and those who’ve worked with steel all their lives and are intimate with it. DJ Brelje, bladesmith and owner of Maë Knives in Oceanside, California. Brelje has been working with steel all his life. Before he became a bladesmith, he was a welder for over 20 years. You can read reviews and learn about steel from forums, blogs, and online guides all day long (which is what we did). Or, you can just ask a pro (which is also what we did).

You’re not going to find steel on the periodic table. That’s because it’s a man-made substance crafted out of many elements. It’s mostly iron and carbon, but there are many other elements added to the brew that give it other properties.

Steel is used in more than just knives; it’s used to make the majority of things we come in contact with every day. According to the World Steel Association, over 1.9 million tons of steel was produced worldwide in 2022 with over 3,500 different grades. Remember, there are many “types” of steel, but overall, it falls into one of four categories.

Carbon steel makes up most of the steel production across the globe (90%) and is what most knives will be made from because of its high durability. There are three levels of carbon steel; low (0.30% or less), medium (between 0.30% and 0.60%), and high (between 0.60% and 1.5%). Although very strong, carbon steel is duller and prone to corrosion.

Alloy steel has a wide array of alloying elements, like nickel, chromium, or manganese mentioned above, which are manipulated depending on the steel’s practical use. Alloy steels are often used in electronics, pipes, or auto parts.

The term stainless steel is thrown around a lot, so it can often be hard to know if it’s actually stainless steel. But, the main telltale sign of stainless steel is it’s shinier due to high levels of chromium, which make it highly resistant to corrosion. Stainless steel knives are typically a combination of high carbon and contain between 11% and 17% chromium.

Tool steel is used for precisely what it sounds like, tools. Tool steel is incredibly hard and heat resistant thanks to the inclusion of durable elements like tungsten, molybdenum, cobalt, and vanadium.

Now that we understand what goes into steel and what the main types are, let’s cover what characteristics a good blade should have. Many of these factors are reliant upon one another. However, some qualities must be given up for others in their chemical composition when developing particular steel. So finding the “perfect” knife can be somewhat of a double-edged sword — pun intended. For instance, when crafting stainless steel, some of the carbon needed for hardness must be given up for elements that contribute to non-corrosiveness, like chromium.

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of a knife is its sharpness. After all, its primary purpose is to cut through materials quickly and effectively. A knife’s ability to retain its edge is dependent upon its hardness. On the other hand, a knife that’s too hard is very tough to sharpen. A precise combination of strengthening elements, combined with naturally malleable iron, allows for excellent sharpness and edge retention.

Hardness and toughness may sound like the same thing, and though they are dependent on one another, they aren’t necessarily the same. To understand hardness in steel, you should familiarize yourself with the Rockwell Hardness Scale, which is used to classify hardness in steel. Very high-carbon steel combined with elements like manganese will make the steel very hard yet brittle. That’s why some rigid knives are also brittle and can chip and break easily.

The blade’s toughness is its resistance to chipping, cracking, or breaking from impacts and torsion pressure. Elements that rank mid-range on the Mohs Scale of Mineral Hardness, like nickel, will add toughness to the steel. Sporting and combat knives with shorter, thicker blades typically have high ratings in the hardness and toughness departments.

Wear resistance refers to the blade’s ability to keep its edge through rigorous use in multiple applications. Hardness and wear resistance go hand in hand because steel with high levels of carbides (carbon) is more wear-resistant, and high-carbon steel is some of the hardest. But, a knife that is too hard will chip or break, and for it to be able to perform, it has to have elements within the steel that make it tough.

Any steel can rust under the right conditions. Yet, steel with high levels of corrosion-resistant elements like chromium (stainless steel) makes it that much harder. Often steel strength and wear resistance are sacrificed for anti-corrosive properties.

Before we jump into all the best types of steel, there’s one more point we need to touch on, and that’s steel grade classification.

If you thought things were a bit too technical before, you haven’t seen anything yet. Steel grading and classification are incredibly complicated, but it’s good to have a basic understanding of how the different types of steel are named.

It’s important to understand that steel is made worldwide, and every country has its own classification system. The SAE (previously Society of Automotive Engineers) grading system is the most commonly accepted in the US. It uses a four-digit code to classify carbon and alloy steel and a three-digit code for stainless steel. With carbon and alloys, the first number denotes the main component. For example, 1xxx is carbon steel (the most common steel for knives). McHone Industries has a great article explaining this topic in more depth.

To make matters more complicated, steel from other countries like Germany and Japan — where many kitchen knives are crafted — has a different grading system. On top of that, steel companies that paten steel they develop will have another name entirely.

It’s important to know all of this when you want to make sure the high-carbon steel knife that a company sells you is actually comprised of high-carbon steel. You can usually track down the type of steel knife manufacturers use on their websites if it’s not stamped on the knife itself. If a knife maker is unwilling to tell you the kind of steel they use, that should be a red flag that the quality isn’t what they claim it to be.

The moment you’ve all been waiting for, finally! Well, we hate to break it to you, but in the end, there is no one or two definitive best types of steel. Everyone has a different opinion of what’s the best. Forgers, like Brelje, have a favorite kind of steel. Big knife manufacturers prefer certain types. Then you have knife enthusiasts who have tested endless knives yet still have varying opinions.

The best we can do for you is mention some common types of steel used in very well-respected and high-performing knife brands. Then, unfortunately, you’ll have to do your own research and formulate your own opinion.

“For me, I look for steel that’s reliable. I feel the reliability comes from working with the same material (steel) until you figure it out and get consistent results.” This list of steel is what you’ll find Brelje hammering away at his workbench.

As we mentioned, knives that are designed for utility or tactical purposes need to use tough, hard, and wear-resistant steel so they can hold up to any condition. Here are some of the most commonly used tool steels used in knives.

Kitchen knives are most commonly made from high-carbon steel, stainless steel, or a combination of both. Below are some steel brands that you’ll most commonly find on the market.

The most significant improvement of the AUS series (which is made in Japan) over the 400 series is the addition of vanadium, which improves wear resistance and provides excellent toughness. This also reportedly makes the steel easier to sharpen.

This series is becoming quite popular because of its strength, ability to resist rust, and how well it holds an edge. These are difficult steels to sharpen, though, if you do need to give them an edge. All of these knives are very wear-resistant. The 30, 60, and 90 you’ll see in this series stand for 3%, 6%, and 9% vanadium in the alloy, respectively.

Damascus steel originated in ancient Syria and was known for centuries to be the finest steel in the land. It was formed by hammering several dozen layers of wootz steel to create extremely strong steel with a distinctive yet decorative wavey pattern.

In terms of Damascus steel today, it’s more often imitated but seldom replicated. That’s because the technique of making Indian wootz steel was lost centuries ago, so now people tend to use whatever steel is available. There’s a lot of imitation Damascus steel out there where manufacturers combine only a couple of types of steel, and then acid-etch the well-known Damascus steel into the blade.

However, some knife makers are staying true to the old ways, like DJ Brelje at Maë Knives. He uses 60 to 200 layers of steel when he makes one of his Damascus-style blades.

No matter what type of steel is in the blade, no knife is going to last long if it isn’t properly cared for. With proper care, even the cheapest knives can last a long time. With that in mind, here are some basic knife care tips.

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Know your knife: A guide to the best steel for knives - The Manual

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