Knife steel choice

Discussion in 'Knives, Gear, Guns And Other Tools' started by JollyRoger523, Dec 12, 2019.

  1. JollyRoger523

    JollyRoger523 Member

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    The "Big changes coming to ESEE knives" thread got me thinking of this. There are a lot of requests for ESEE to make knives in premium steels. I trust the forum members have more real world knife experience than the average "knife guy" who posts on some internet blog or YouTube. I have never paid a whole lot of attention to some of their "tests." I don't care that knife A cut 12 more linear feet of cardboard than knife B. Such measurebating (I term I heard on a camera forum and think is very fitting) usually doesn't tell much about real world performance. Not to mention they rarely compare two of the same knives with different steels, it is usually two different knives made from different steels.

    So what steel would you choose for a certain knife and why? It should go without saying that proper heat treat and edge geometry should suit the intended purpose of the knife.
     
  2. JollyRoger523

    JollyRoger523 Member

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    My own thoughts are as follows. These are only my opinions and not meant to offend anyone. My thoughts are backed by a decade as working as machinist doing primarily tool and die type work. This has given me insight into steels used in industrial applications.

    As I mentioned in the other thread, I suspect a lot of knife companies utilize super steels as part of their marketing. This comes at an increased cost both in the material costs and the cost of manufacturing. I honestly feel these steels are better suited (cost to performance) in industrial applications than in user knives. That said I have had several folders in super steels and had no issues with them. I use them until they need sharpened and then sharpen them.
    My folder use is pretty tame these days. I'm curious to hear from people who have more experience in this area.

    Here is my list based on steels that I have experience with:

    10xx series steels - I know the high carbon plain steels work well for knives but we did not use these steels at my shop.

    O1, O6, A2 - any of these steels would make a great field knife. They through harden and hold a great edge with good toughness and wear resistance. We made a lot of cutting dies out of these steels. Obviously you need to maintain them to prevent corrosion. In making my own knife by hand, I selected A2 for the primary reason that it is very stable in heat treat.

    D2 - Yes I know there have been good knives made from D2. However, I have seen too much micro chipping in D2 for me to select it as a knife steel. We used a lot of D2 for forming and punching dies that were used under great pressure. It has great wear resistance and is fairly corrosion resistant for a non-stainless steel. It should be noted that none of the D2 dies we made had a sharp cutting edge. We re-worked a lot of the dies when they wore down and this is where I observed the micro chipping and cracking.

    52100 - This would also make a good knife, but I would probably pick A2 as it is much more common.

    M4 - This is the steel I would use if edge retention were the number one consideration. This steel is used to cut other steel. It is not very corrosion resistant.

    5160 or S7 - this is the steel I would use for a heavy chopper, axe, etc that would be subjected to a lot of impact type use and toughness was the primary consideration.

    440C - If I needed a stainless steel, this would be it. The only reason I picked 154CM over it for my handmade small blade was that I could source that in flat ground stock, which was important to they way I made it.

    Lesser grade 400 series stainless - If extreme corrosion resistance was my primary goal (salt water diving, etc) I would pick one of these steels (420 if memory serves me) and deal with the reduced edge retention.

    Some other steels that we often used that could make good knives (although with the choices above, why would I) H13, L6, Stellite welded to a backing steel, vanadis 10, several of the CPM series although we didn't use any of the standard "knife super steels". We also did a lot with carbide, but on it's own it would be too brittle for a knife.

    I have been out of the trade for about 12 years. I have no doubt that there are many great knife steels, but the above is what I have experience with in industrial applications which are used much harder than typical "knife use".


    Edit *
    Honestly, I'm confident that any knife purchased from a good company would be more than sufficient to meet my needs regardless of steels choice. This of course assumes the steel, heat treat, and geometry all were suited to the intended use of the knife.
     
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2019
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  3. JV3

    JV3 Member

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    handle shape/ergonomics is far more important to me...and i carry more than one cutting tool with me always...neck knife (usually a mora 510
    or fiddleback forge arete), h&b forge shawnee tomahawk, and a victorinox sak in my fire kit (which stays in my front pocket the whole trip regardless unless i'm sleeping).

    my fire kit also has a dmt diafold fine and extra fine if i need to touch up an edge which i'll do after dinner and i'm just staring at the fire and boozing before bedtime...so edge retention is far from my priority.

    would i want a mora or my fiddleback in a supersteel like m390, 3v, infi, etc.? sure! that's just a nice bonus because i'm a knifenut but 1095 fulfills my needs just fine honestly.
     
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  4. JollyRoger523

    JollyRoger523 Member

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    This is an excellent point and one I strongly agree with.
     
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  5. CoolBreeze135

    CoolBreeze135 Member

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    Honestly, I'm not too picky anymore. Sure, I have opinions. But most respected knife manufacturers use decent steels and decent processes to heat treat them, so there are a lot of safe bets.

    I get my eye on a knife because of the design, weight, size, comfort, etc... The steel is certainly important. It can either increase my interest or decrease it. But steel isn't everything.

    I think VG10, 154CM, 14C28N and N690 are just fine. These are now becoming the low-mid end of stainless steels in knives, but I'm still quite happy with them in either fixed blades or folders (especially since they are becoming quite affordable). I like a balance of affordability and performance, so this space makes me pretty content. Even things like AUS-8, while not my pick by any means, isn't a bad steel considering it can be had in $30 knives.

    I quite like the higher-end powdered stainless steels like S35VN, M390/20CV/204P, S110V, etc... I don't think they are strictly necessary, but they have some good selling points. They probably have more relevance in folders and small fixed blades. Large fixed blades can and should err towards toughness instead of edge retention, plus a big knife is going to have a more exaggerated price increase with a steel upgrade. Price is a big deciding factor for me. Sometimes it is easily possible to get more performance without spending much more money. I jump on that opportunity. If a fancier steel really jacks up the price, though, I'll refrain from purchasing.

    1095, O1, 80CrV2, etc... are still solid choices for carbon steel. I don't complain about them (I like my ESEEs and Beckers), but they aren't necessarily exciting or tempting. They are more justifiable in a big fixed blade than a small one. I would say they are quite serviceable. I would never buy a simple carbon steel folder. I like my folding knives to be stainless (or at least semi-stainless).

    Higher-end tool steels with lots of wear resistance are sweet. CruWear and M4 are awesome. I think they are good in fixed blades or folders, as they have high wear resistance but also high toughness and acceptable corrosion resistance.

    Tired of D2. It's become ubiquitous. It's a bit inconsistent, arguably a bit suspect in some of the inexpensive imported knives, and simply overused when I don't think it is the ideal choice in most cases. But it's not bad either. Wouldn't pay very much for it.

    My ideals:

    For a folder, I honestly don't care too much as long as it is a good stainless. I'd say my current favorite is LC200N just because it has that bonus feature of being impervious to elements. It makes me more confident to take a knife fishing, kayaking, wading, etc... without worrying about getting home to clean and dry it out. I doubt I'll ever truly need the insane level of corrosion resistance, but it's comforting.

    For fixed blades: It's hard to beat 3V. It's got some of everything. Pretty good edge retention, pretty good stain resistance, excellent toughness. And it's pretty easy to sharpen. I'd say it may be just about the perfect field/woods knife steel. For me, CruWear has begun to overshadow it, though, particularly for smaller fixed blades. It has a good boost in edge retention over 3V without losing too much of the other stuff. For larger fixed blades, I think 80CrV2 and 1095 are attractive for toughness and affordability. Then again, I don't use many large fixed blades. I like compact and lightweight.

    So if I had to pick one favorite steel overall, it may be CruWear. It seems to have decent enough stain resistance to make a good folding knife (I have a sprint run Delica in CruWear that I love), good enough toughness to make a sturdy fixed blade, and plenty of edge retention to go around.

    But like I said earlier, steel isn't at the top of my list when considering a new knife.

    Take this whole thing for what it is: The experience of one individual knife user who doesn't do many extreme things, but still puts knives through a good workout on occasion. I don't have any experience making or heat-treating knives. Just using them.
     
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  6. Sam Wilson

    Sam Wilson Member

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    440C. Still a fantastic steel. I have owned/used many knives in 440C, and when done properly is downright impressive, especially when cost is factored in. Most of the time, when you hear people knocking it, they've never had it done properly. And that goes for a lot of other steels, also.

    For that matter, many of the forum posts you read about people knocking a steel are next to meaningless. Having owned/used a knife or three in a particular steel doesn't necessarily tell you much. Unless those knives had identical edge geometry and heat treat, they can be almost totally different performance-wise. And even then, you have a sample size of one or two, which is statistically a nightmare.

    Add to that that it is at least possible that the steel is not what the manufacturer says it is, and you have a big fat recipe for misinformation.

    So in closing, 440C.

    Sam
     
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  7. Mudman

    Mudman Member

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    Personally from my own experience- of all the different steels I've tried. As long as there's good HT, I can't tell a big difference cutting wise. Sharpening these "super" steels is when things get noticeable. As it's not as easy.

    The only steels that have caught my attention in use- were AEB-L and 80CRV2. I've made two knives from 80crv2, and was impressed how easy it was to sharpen- yet the edge was tougher (to me) than a well heat treated 1095.

    I've only used one knife in aeb-l, and found it less interesting than 80crv2, BUT noticed you could get the edge stupid sharp, and it holds that crazy edge surprisingly long relative to how thin it was. I'm actually working on a few prototypes in this steel, but need to get around to having them heat treated.

    most of the fancy steels I've tried were certainly cool, and had a few interesting characteristics- but nothing stood out enough for me to say I could justify the extra cost. CPMS30v really had my hopes up- but I was mildly disappointed when trying that out. Same with 5V. Where they do shine- is when complex geometry *sprinkled* with a little sorcery come into play. S grinds or these wonky tactical stuff work well for these. But boy howdy I hear you go through a lot of belts making them.

    I've also tried a few knives in D2, and me no likey.
     
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  8. Creaky Bones

    Creaky Bones Member

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    Really interesting read on AEB-L here- https://knifesteelnerds.com/2019/03/04/all-about-aeb-l/
    Amazing that a common stainless steel that’s been around for a century or so still manages to out compete newer “supersteels” in toughness.

    All things like optimum heat treat, blade geometry, handle design being equal, I’d be happy as a clam with a knife in AEB-L, 14C28N, 3V, S7, or 80CrV2. I have knives in all of those steels, and enjoy them all. S35vn isn’t high on my want list.
     
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  9. Ossian

    Ossian Member

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    I cut a lot of cardboard and abrasive materials on a regular basis. For me m4 is my top choice for these tasks. Vg10, d2, hap40, and s30v also hold up good. I have one knife in 154cm from Benchmade and the edge retention is terrible, could be just a bad heat treat.
    For field knives I like a2, 01 and 1095. I have one 3v blade from survive knives and it does hold an edge nicely. I do have a Spyderco Military in 52100 that takes a keen edge and is a tough steel but I generally prefer a fixed blade for field use.
    I also carry a h1 full serrated blade every day, that steel is a beast in serrated.
    I haven’t tried 440c, I don’t judge a steel until I use it.
     
  10. DYSPHORIC JOY

    DYSPHORIC JOY Moderator Staff Member

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    In my experience, 154CM is hit or miss. I have had excellent results with TM Hunt but issues with edge retention on others. He tends to have HT dialed in very well with his blades in O1 as well.
     
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  11. CoolBreeze135

    CoolBreeze135 Member

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    I have a couple Benchmades in 154CM and have been pretty impressed with them. Using one of them, I cut completely through electrical cords with the thick plastic coating. It sliced cleanly through the wiring and all. I inspected the edge very closely after the fact, and there was not a single trace of wear or damage. Using the other one, I cut up a bunch of cardboard and didn't need anything more than a swipe on a ceramic rod to get it shaving again.

    I'm guessing it may be a lemon, as many people say that 154CM has better edge retention than VG10, and I have seen a few tests that back it up. It's my favorite non-powered steel, I'd say.
     
  12. Ossian

    Ossian Member

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    I agree that 154cm is easy to bring back to shaving sharp. It just seems like after a few cuts on cardboard that the edge reflects light. I should probably try and go beyond just a touch up to get it shaving. Probably needs to be hit with the diamond stones to remove all of the fatigued metal. My endura in vg10 doesn’t suffer from this problem with just the ceramic stones on the sharp maker though.
     
  13. JollyRoger523

    JollyRoger523 Member

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    My Benchmade 154CM was the first premium folder I ever bought after using a Gerber folder for years and years and years. Edge retention was a lot better than the Gerber. I have been more than happy with it.

    For comparison I've since used Spyderco S30v, ZT and CRK S35v, and ZT Elmax. All performed well in my relatively light cutting tasks I typically use a folder for. I will say that the BM 154CM was the easiest to get super sharp. It cuts like a laser. The Elmax I could get close. All the others I can get nice and sharp, but not quiet as sharp as the BM (with less effort than the rest).
     
  14. C99c

    C99c Member

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    I'm primarily a various carbon steel, VG10, AUS8, 440, 145CM user and have been snice way before I ever cared to look at what steel was on a knife.

    I know it's already been said, but a lot of folks confuse steel issues with edge geometry issues. A thick grind with an average to poor initial sharpening from the factory is probably responsible for more negative steel reviews than anything else, if I had to guess.

    Take a 145CM Griptilian or Emerson folder and regrind/re-sharpen them and it's a totally different tool. A FFG VG10 Endura is much better than an identical Sabre ground one. Etc, etc.

    Most people, understandably, don't want to drop $100 plus on a knife and then send it off and spend another $50 plus to vastly improve it.

    I don't care what steel a knife has as long as it isn't a burden to sharpen. I just want something well designed that carries easily.
     
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  15. Sam Wilson

    Sam Wilson Member

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    Not to drift, but the above comment by C99C (and others in this thread seem to be of similar mind) contains some good and very true information. Edge geometry is far more important than many people give it credit for.

    So many knives are bought/made out of some fancy steel and they're an utter waste because the manufacturer gives them the edge geometry of a mashed potato. To illustrate with hyperbole (in a sense), I have made simple knives before out of plain old mild steel, steel that is not even capable of being heat treated effectively, and then watched as people talked about how sharp and "good" of a knife it is, and were favorably impressed with it's cutting aggression and edge holding.

    The point being that even "junk" steel that is ground thinly and sharpened properly will cut surprisingly well and long. But the opposite holds true, too. Even the best steel, heat treated perfectly but left with thick edge geometry will almost always be a disappointment, leading people to think it is the fault of the steel. In reality, it is the fault of the manufacturer/maker who is simply trying to keep his abrasive costs and warranty claims down.

    Both of which are understandable endeavors, but both of which shortchange and confuse unwitting buyers. So in closing, give 440C done right a chance. You will likely be shocked. Good thread.

    Sam
     
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