In this article, we’re going to examine the top pocket knife steels available on the market today, as well as what makes them such high quality, functional, and reliable. We’ll then list what we believe are the best five steels you can acquire in a pocket knife, and provide you with a few high quality pocket knives currently on the market that have these five steels.
Now, as you probably already know, it is truly a glorious time to be a steel snob. Knife manufacturers know that, now more than ever, their users want not only great knife designs, but for those knives to be made out of equally great steel. Whereas five years ago the number of choices you had for high-end steel was relatively low, as the market grew so did the number of available choices. And today, there are a dizzying array of super steels contending for your dollars: ZDP-189, M390, ELMAX, CTS-XHP, S35VN, M4, and S110V just to name a few.
In attempt to help you stave off choice-madness, I have picked what I consider to be the five best pocket knife steels available today. That is not to say that I think they are the best in all situations. No, I chose the five that work best in what I consider to be the standard suite of tasks a pocket knife is called upon to perform: things like breaking down boxes, opening packages, whittling, etc.
Before we get started, let’s take a quick glimpse at a handful of great pocket knives on the market today (and ones we’ll be discussing in this article) and see how well they compare against each other based on price, blade material, blade length and more:
$ = $1 – $30 | $$ = $31 – $60 | $$$ = $61 and above
Good Pocket Knife Steel Traits
For these kind of tasks a handful of key characteristics come into play, such as:
- Hardness: this determines the keenness of the edge a steel can take
- Edge Retention: how long will it hold an edge?
- Ability to Sharpen: if you’re using the knife a lot, you’re going to need to sharpen it often
- Toughness: how resistant is it to impact or chipping?
- Rust resistance: is it suitable for a variety of different environments?
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
I’ll address each steel’s performance in these five categories in an attempt to help you decide which steel is best for your needs. After that, I’ll discuss one or two knives that use that steel, to give you an idea of where to start looking.
N690Co is my choice for best non-super steel. It is a familiar face on the European knifemaking scene, and is even used by many custom knife makers.
It is an extraordinarily balanced steel: at 58-60HRC, it is hard enough to take a good edge, but not so hard as to be impossible to sharpen. In fact, I would say that N690’s “sharpenability” is its strongest feature: it sharpens easily and takes a great edge. It is also resistant to chipping, too; I’ve never had an N690Co blade chip out on me, even when it was being used hard. Finally, its rust resistance is great, particularly for a non-super steel: it is considerably less prone to rust than 154CM or AUS-8, two steels it is often compared with.
If you’re interested in trying out a great knife with N690Co, I recommend the Spyderco Pingo. This is a non-locking Spyderco knife made in Maniago, Italy. Mine came out of the box with an excellent edge, and held it for a long time. Another knife that features N690Co is the Benchmade 10300 Monochrome. This is a knife that is out of production but widely available on the secondary market for less than $30; at that price, it is a ridiculous deal, because N690Co performs like a $100 blade steel.
S35VN is the unexciting super steel you should be excited about. Whereas before it had an air of inscrutable limited availability, this year it is everywhere; S35VN is slowly replacing S30V, its predecessor, in older knife designs, and is featured in many new high-end knives releasing this year.
It’s the stereotypical super steel. At 58-61 it gets harder than your standard steels, and it has much higher wear resistance: your S35VN knives are going to hold their edges for a long time. The biggest improvement it makes over S30V is in its sharpenability: S30V was notoriously troublesome on the stones, whereas S35VN, although not easy, is manageable. It is also less chippy than its forbearer.
Rust resistance is a considerable step up over N690Co or, really, most other steels. In short, it does everything well; it doesn’t have the extreme characteristics that some of the other steels on this list exhibit, but its balanced nature is its greatest strength: sometimes you just want a great steel, and S35VN is exactly that.
There are a lot of knives coming from Zero Tolerance this year with S35VN; in particular I like the ZT0450. However, the best place to start with S35VN has to be the new Spyderco Native 5 FRN. An $80 knife with S35VN is crazy, especially when that knife is as good an all-arounder as the Native 5. This is an underappreciated design, and S35VN really makes it sing.
Super Blue is the best carbon steel. Because it is not stainless, we already know where its weakness lies. Are we over that? Cool, because there’s a lot of good to talk about.
Able to be hardened to anywhere between 61-65HRC, Super Blue will take an incredibly steep and sharp edge, and whereas many high-hardness steels chip out easily, Super Blue is tough enough to withstand some abuse. And unlike many of its carbon steel cousins, Super Blue stays sharp for a long time, and even when it begins to dull it does so without getting toothy, so that delicate cuts are still possible. In fact, perhaps it’s for this reason that it’s often used in high-end, quality kitchen knives. Super Blue was designed by Hitachi to be the ultimate carbon steel; and whether or not that is strictly true, its performance is hard to argue with.
Spyderco is the only company with commonly available Super Blue knives. I’d recommend the Stretch 2. It is a longer knife at 3.5”, but that extra length makes it great for food prep, a particular strength of Super Blue. If you’d like something smaller, the always-excellent Dragonfly 2 is available in Super Blue as well.
ZDP-189 is the best steel for edge enthusiasts. If you want the steepest, sharpest edge, and want that edge to last forever, then ZDP-189 is your steel. A very hard steel, it is often hardened to around 65-67HRC, which is crazy. This means that a ZDP-189 edge can be very steep and very sharp, yet still stable enough to be used; a lesser steel would just fall to pieces at some of the edge angles ZDP-189 excels in. Edge retention, too, is unparalleled. I have used my Dragonfly 2 in ZDP-189 for more than a year without needing to sharpen it—which is good, because ZDP-189 is not a lot of fun to sharpen. It isn’t as bad as it has a reputation for being, but neither is a joy on the stones. And, while it seems pretty resistant to rust, it does tend to tarnish if you don’t care for it.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that ZDP-189 is not good for hard use, high-impact tasks, because it can chip out pretty badly. But these are small prices to pay for such incredible, pure cutting performance.
I mentioned the Dragonfly 2 for the ZDP-189. I think this is an ideal blade for this steel. It is big enough to use every day for all sorts of tasks, but not so large that you’re going to be miserable sharpening it. If you want something a little bit larger, I’d recommend the Spyderco Caly 3. It has a 3” blade and, because its ZDP-189 blade is sandwiched between layers of 420J2 on either side, you’ll see a lot less discoloration or tarnishing over time. Both knives are excellent choices.
CPM 154 is the best all-around steel for a pocket knife. It isn’t the best in any one category, but it performs well in all of them. It can be hardened anywhere from 55-62HRC, and in general I find that it gets a little bit sharper than S35VN a little easier, without sacrificing anything in toughness or edge retention. Additionally, the particle metallurgy process seems to have been particularly favorable to CPM 154, because it keeps a very clean, even, smooth-slicing edge even as it dulls—almost as smooth as Super Blue, without the susceptibility to rust. CPM 154 is a steel that you appreciate the more steels you have used; it’s just a no-fuss super steel with no downsides.
The Northwoods Knives 2014 and 2015 Indian River Jacks were made with CPM 154. These are traditional slipjoint knives, but CPM 154 makes them perform on a level with seemingly more developed folders. They are, unfortunately, out of production, but available on the secondary market quite frequently. Beyond the IRJ, CPM 154 is very popular on the custom pocket knife scene. I expect that in the next few years we’ll see many more production knives with this most excellent steel.
There you have it: five of the best steels for a pocket knife right now. To reiterate my disclaimer: this list is in no way definitive for all cutting tasks and needs. But for the average EDC pocket knife, I think these are the best. Any one of these will please someone long succumbed to steel snobbery, or introduce a newcomer to that lifelong affliction.
See you down the rabbit hole.
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