A knife is really only as good as the steel the blade is constructed from. Therefore, in this article, we’re going to examine what steel is the best for pocket knives. We’ll of course dig into the debate between carbon and stainless steel, while also reviewing a few blade steels that we find particularly reliable and noteworthy.
It’s worth noting, too, that many knife manufacturers will show a deep preference for one steel material over another and will showcase it in most of their knives. Other times, they will have a generic model and will have the option to upgrade the steel for a fee. The sky is truly the limit on what can be done to customize a knife to suit a person’s needs.
Before we move into the best steels available, please take a look at some of the more popular pocket knives available and what steels the blades are made of:
$ = $1 – $30 | $$ = $31 – $60 | $$$ = $61 and above
|RAT Worx MRX||CPM-154||1.94” (blade)||$$$||4.3/5|
|Spyderco Ladybug (Super Blue)||Aogami Super Blue||4.3”||$$$||4.8/5|
|Spyderco Dragonfly 2 (ZDP-189)||ZDP-189||2.25” (blade)||$$$||4.7/5|
|Spyderco Rubicon||CPM S30V||3.04”” (blade)||$$$||4.6/5|
|Zero Tolerance Sinkevich||S35VN||3.25” (blade)||$$$||4.5/5|
|Zero Tolerance Hinderer||ELMAX powdered steel||3.25” (blade)||$$$||4.6/5|
Carbon versus Stainless
Carbon steel in pocket knives is not generally a good idea. It is too brittle and while it maintains an edge well, it is prone to chipping and snapping. Carbon steel is excellent for full-tang knives where it is not asked to move or to balance on a pivot point and is supported throughout the length.
Stainless steel, however, thrives in most conditions and many stainless steel knives are created specifically for one purpose or another. It is this adaptability which makes them ideal for pocket knives and other folding knives as they can be properly tempered to handle a short tang, long tang or even none at all if required.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
What Makes One Steel Better Than Another?
Different quality steels can make or break (quite literally) a knife. If the steel is too soft it will require constant sharpening and will not hold an edge. It may even warp with heavy usage. If the steel is too brittle, it will chip and potentially snap.
The goal is to find steel that is soft enough to sharpen yet retains an edge; hard enough to withstand constant use without breaking. This has been the goal of knife makers throughout the ages and new technologies are coming together every day to improve what is already out there.
Most of the well-known and loved steels are mixed with elements, heated to a precise temperature and then treated in specific ways. This does not come cheap and a lot of the quality steels will be significantly higher quality, yet higher price tag than their budget competitors.
Below are some of the steels commonly used:
Top 5 Steel Reviews
- CPM S30V
Commonly known as S30V, this is one of the best steels possible and comes with a price tag that reflects that, as prices for these knives are rarely under $150.
Made in the United States by Crucible, this steel is able to hold an edge and resists water, making it ideal for folding blades. Favored by brands such as Spyderco and Benchmade, it has a very fine grain, making it possible to obtain a smooth razor’s edge. While it is possible to obtain a very fine edge, if the blade is shaped correctly, the blade will also maintain a usable edge even with consistent work and will handle abuse well.
While the edge is able to be honed to near perfection, it will take time and patience to obtain this quality. One of the tradeoffs for this harder steel is that it takes a fair amount of effort to sharpen and hone this steel, which will be necessary if having a razor’s edge is required, as it will lose the initial sharpness and dull quickly to a very sharp usable edge (yet still not as sharp as it was).
Despite the fact that this steel will lose its edge relatively quickly, the edge it does retain and the overall durability and hardness of the steel make this one of the best steels available.
154CM is also very good steel and the price still will reflect that at $75-200+.
This steel is made in the United States by Crucible, the same manufacturers of S30V steel, and is able to withstand abuse and hold an edge incredibly well. It is much easier to sharpen and hone than a knife made of S30V.
While it has these advantages it sacrifices some of the weather protection of S30V and is more prone to rusting if it is put away wet or even if the environment is too moist. This is easily prevented by ensuring the blade is properly dried and oiled as necessary. It is important to remember that all steel, even stainless steel, will rust in time if the conditions are right, and therefore to prevent rust one must just prevent the conditions which can cause rust.
154CM is a favorite of Benchmade and is the only steel used by Emerson. This alone speaks volumes for its durability and quality as both of these companies are known for quality products designed to last decades.
8Cr13MoV is a much cheaper steel to purchase than either the S30V or the 154CM. Made in China, this steel is known for being one of the most popular steels found in folding knives in the low-mid price range.
This steel is found in brands such as Schrade, Kershaw and CRKT and is known for its ability to not only obtain but hold an edge, particularly for the price. This steel is usually coated to assist with corrosion and can handle a fair amount of medium-hard usage without issue.
While this is very good steel for the price, you may end up sacrificing money for time here. Because this isn’t one of the hardest steels available, you may find yourself sharpening these blades more often than you’d expect.
This, however, is offset by the price. The harder steels can cost 5-10 times what a knife made of 8Cr13MoV would cost you. Knives with this steel generally cost under $50.
In all, this is a quality steel that is available to almost every budget with a variety of manufacturers and is suitable for almost any use.
420HC is a high carbon version of the 420 stainless steel, making it harder and more durable. This steel is made in the USA and knife makers such as Buck and Leatherman are known to use this material extensively. While still softer than a 440, the 420HC is ideal for tools which are regularly sharpened and do well as a hunting blade, as these knives are not expected to hold an edge for prolonged use yet are expected to take an edge quickly and effectively.
This steel does present some issues in that it is prone to rusting and therefore it is important to wash off the knife after use. Make sure the knife is properly dried and then oiled before any length of storage.
If this knife has been in storage for more than a couple weeks, it is also advisable to take it out prior to needing it, wash it off, ensure there is no rust or other issues and then sharpen the blade as these blades seem to do best when working on a regular basis and tend to rust if left unhandled for longer periods of time.
Again, this is a case of you get what you pay for and with this steel, even though it does present some issues with rust, is a good steel for those on a tight budget as knives made with this steel are almost always under $50.
As you can see, not all steels are created equally and even steels with the same general components can be dramatically changed by temperature and how the steel is treated while making the blade. Most of the well-known knife manufacturers have become well-known by delivering a consistent and high-quality product and often the way they treat their steel is a trade secret which is closely guarded.
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