Steel, Steel, Everywhere!
But Are You Choosing The Right Steel For You?
“A knife is only as good as the steel it’s made from.” I don’t know the sage who first passed on this pearl of wisdom but it’s certainly one of the truest truisms of the edged tool world. Just over 20 years ago, there weren’t many steels to choose from. Just a batch of carbon “tool steels” and a handful of stainless ones, and hardly anyone knew them by their trade name.
That all changed when the modern tactical knife movement took bloom in the early 1990s—spurred on by the first Gulf War—and all of a sudden the name ATS-34 meant something. Up until that point this steel was only found on elite customs, mostly of the gent’s folder ilk, but this Japanese steel, made to emulate a hard-to-come-by American made 154CM, would be the springboard for a plethora of modern exotics available today and even helped revive the steel it was meant to replace.
By the close of the 1990s the competition among custom knifemakers had heated up to a frenzy, and manufacturers were battling for market share, too. BG-42, rediscovered native ball-bearing steel came in vogue for several years but was soon dethroned by a series of new exotic “powdered steels.” Ironically, at the same time some of our troops in the Middle East were finding advantages to the old carbon steels, sparking a renewed interest in these time-proven throwbacks. Add to that the flow of foreign steels entering the fray and you end up with a dizzying array of steel choices today.
Before ATS-34 stainless steel entered the market, most manufactured and custom knives were using the 400 series alloys, particularly 440C. These are still the most widely used factory stainless steels today. When heat-treated properly 440C is a very viable stainless steel and several of the top German manufacturers still use it in their premium knives. It is affordable and can easily be sharpened on a standard Arkansas stone.
ATS-34, 154CM, and BG-42 were all considered improvements over 440 series steels, thus easily took root in custom and better manufactured knives in the late 1990s. The term “stainless steel” is somewhat of a misnomer. Even the best stainless steels contain carbon and will corrode in the wrong circumstances, such as in salt-water environments.
Is there anything such thing as 100-percent stainless steel? In fact there is. Spyderco offers knives with a hydrogen-based steel, dubbed H-1, which is manufactured in Japan. The company has had such success with this steel in their Salt series knives that they buy up most of the manufacturer’s annual production. If you want true stainless steel in your knife at an affordable price, check out the Spyderco Salts.
Most of the innovation in new exotic steels can be found in the powdered variety. Crucible Industries pioneered the process of making proprietary knife steels in the USA and two of their products, S30V and its successor S3VVN, are popular among both custom knifemakers and manufacturers alike. Chris Reeve, owner of Chris Reeve Knives, worked closely with Crucible to develop both steels and is a huge proponent of powdered steels.
“S35VN is my current favorite.” Reeve tells GUNS. “The reason I use powdered steel is that overall you get better edge retention and toughness due to a more refined grain structure and a better distribution of Chromium, Molybdenum, and Vanadium. They melt the alloy in a big crucible and drop it in a molten state through nitrogen gas to keep it from oxidizing and these form miniscule steel balls that have an exact representation of the alloy. The grain structure is far more refined. In conventionally-made steels there is less refinement of the grain structure.”
Cutting-edge steels can be expensive when they first hit the marketplace, but once they catch on the price becomes more reasonable. “Typically this takes about a year or two to convert a successful new steel to acceptance by the customer base,” says Reeve, “and the more they like it, the more is sold and the more the price goes down to a stabilized industry standard.”
Aside from the cost they can add to a knife, the main downside to many state-of-the-art powdered steels is they require specialized sharpeners such as diamond and ceramic. If your knife requires sharpening in the field, you will definitely need one of these edging mediums with you.
American made 440C stainless steel has been around for decades
in knives like the Puma Prince (top) and Buck 110 (bottom).
Easy sharpening carbon steel is still the popular favorite among traditional
pocketknife users. Shown here is Great Eastern Cutlery’s Northfield Sunfish.
Foreign accents! The TOPS Xcest Delta (top) has a N690 Austrian-made stainless
steel blade, and the Benchmade-made HK Conspiracy one of Chinese 9Cr13CoMoV (bottom).
Chris Reeve helped develop Crucible Industries S35VN powdered steel, featured
here on his popular Pacific tactical fixed-blade model.
The Foreign Exchange
The globalization of trade has affected the cutlery industry in various ways, one being the more common use of foreign steels in cutlery. We asked Spyderco CEO and founder Sal Glesser to shed some light on the state of foreign steels in the cutlery industry. “As far as the steels that Spyderco uses, we have tried them all, domestic and foreign. We are not really committed to any one foundry and we probably work with a half dozen or so on a regular basis. We are always experimenting with steels developed by established manufacturers and smaller ones who are trying to develop steels.
“Normally, in order to select steel for our knives,” Glesser continues, “Spyderco uses a number of factors, first of all where the steel is made. All of our Japanese knives will use Japanese steels. There are excellent steels available and they don’t have to be transported from one country to another. When we make knives in Europe we will generally work with steels that are made by European Foundries. Now, for our Taiwan knives we ship US steels to Taiwan and for our Chinese knives we primarily have been using the best quality steels available in China, but now we’re starting to move into using US steels for our Chinese-made models as well.”
Sal also has keen insight into the competition among domestic and foreign manufacturers in the global steel industry. “There is a competition going on between a number of foundries in an effort to create better steels, sort of a ‘my steel can jump higher and run faster than your steel’ rivalry,” states Glesser. “Mostly, I see this in America where Crucible in New York and Carpenter in Pennsylvania are continually producing better and better steels. In Japan, Hitachi and Takefu lead the charge but there are many others such as Daido, Myodo and Aichi. In Europe, we have Bohler and Uddeholm in Sweden and Austria. Often they will work together, known as Bohler Uddeholm, likewise producing exceptional powdered metals for the global cutlery industry. There doesn’t seem to be too much going on in other countries. China, which makes most of the knives Americans and Europeans buy, doesn’t do much in the way of super steels.”
Many foreign steels are equivalent products possessing very similar alloys of steels made in the United States. Several knife manufacturers, including Benchmade and Spyderco, include informative links on their websites with valuable information about the steels they use and I highly recommend visiting these sites as well as using an Internet search engine for further knowledge on the details of a particular alloy.
Spyderco is no stranger to domestic and foreign steels. Pictured here is the
Frank Centofante Memory folder sporting superb Japanese VG-10 blade steel.
Yes, Virginia, there really is steel that won’t rust! Spyderco uses H-1 hydrogen-based
stainless steel in all of their Salt series folders and fixed blades.
One of the biggest proponents of D2 steel is custom knifemaker Bob Dozier.
This fan favorite is his Arkansas Toothpick boot knife.
Two beasties made using good ol’ fashioned American-made 1095 high carbon
steel include (left) the Grayman Mega Pounder and (right) the ESEE-5.
The High Carbon Craze
A strange thing happened on the way to the steel race. Many users found themselves much preferring the old standby non-stainless carbon steels! One of several companies who use 1095 high carbon (non-stainless steel) is Grayman Knives. These overbuilt, bulletproof knives are popular among US troops in the Middle East—and for a couple of very good reasons: affordability and easy edging.
Mike Grayman states, “Two things made us go with 1095 for our fixed blades: toughness and ease of sharpening. We tested a lot of steels but found for big blades that needed to be able to take a pounding and easily take a keen edge 1095 was tough to beat. The fact that it’s made in America was essential, and it’s reasonably priced compared to many of the other high performance steels, so we are able to pass the savings on to our customers.”
Non-military users such as survivalists, bushcrafters, and even casual campers also benefit from the fact that high carbon steels don’t require specialized sharpening mediums. High carbon steels can even be sharpened on a rock if necessary.
Another segment of the cutlery market where you’ll find an appreciation for carbon steel is those consumers who carry and collect traditional folding pocketknives. Here again ease of sharpening comes into play and some just like the nice gray patina carbon steels garner after a bit of use.
Some consider D2 steel as the perfect medium between high carbon steel and stainless. This is a high carbon steel with almost enough chromium to be classified as stainless. The high chromium content in D2 makes for excellent corrosion resistance and edge retention, the high carbon in the alloy offers ease of sharpening similar to other high carbon steels. The major disadvantage of high carbon steels, with the exception of D2, is they require more maintenance in the form of an occasional light oiling to prevent corrosion. I’ve owned D2 knives for 20 years, which have yet to show any signs of rust with only a modicum of maintenance. High carbon steels aren’t as tough as exotic powdered ones so they will need to be sharpened more frequently.
Many users own more than one edged tool in order to tailor their knife to their mission. If you need an everyday carry any of the stainless steels, low or high-end, would be a good choice because they require less maintenance. In the field, however, you need to ask yourself just how much you depend on a knife. Casual hunters who do a small amount of skinning or won’t be far from their vehicle where an extra diamond or ceramic sharpener can be stashed will do fine with an exotic steel, but if your treks take you deep in the wilderness and there’s a chance you could be stranded there you should seriously consider a high carbon steel. While there are certainly other considerations in buying a knife such as blade types and handle styles, choosing the right steel for you is a great place to start! For more information about the manufacturers and knives discussed and shown here check out the source box below.
By Pat Covert
300 Beavercreek Rd.
Oregon City, OR 97045
660 S. Lochsa St.
Post Falls, ID 83854
P.O. Box 1941
Springdale, AR 72765
Chris Reeve Knives
2949 S. Victory View Way
Boise, ID 83709
P.O. Box 50 , PMB 132
Lake Arrowhead, CA 92352
Great Eastern Cutlery
701 E. Spring St.
Unit 10, Building 2
Titusville, PA 16354
Puma Knife Company USA
13934 W. 108th St.
Lenexa, KS 66215
820 Spyderco Way
Golden, CO 80403
P.O. Box 2544
Idaho Falls, ID 83403