Choosing the Best Knife Blade Steel

Choosing the best pocket knife is difficult enough when you are a knife enthusiast, but for a novice there are so many things to learn. One question that I find most beginners (and some pros) ask me is which steel is the best for the blade of a knife? It is a really good question because a blade is only as good as the steel it is made from. The first thing I tell people who ask this question is that not all steel is created equal. In fact, there is a huge difference between a premium steel and a budget steel. I want to share a little bit about these differences and help you choose a steel that will last you long into the future.
A pocket knife with a steel blade.

Steel Basics

Steel is basically a mixture (alloy) of iron and carbon. Steel makers can add other metals to the alloy to improve/change the properties of the steel. For example, chromium is commonly added to create stainless steel and improve corrosion resistance. The most common additions to the alloy in knife blades include Vanadium, Tungsten, Manganese, Nickel, Cobalt and Molybdenum. The amount of carbon in the alloy is very important because high carbon steel is much harder than low carbon steel and this is an important factor in a knife blade. The following are the characteristics that each additive brings to the steel.
Vanadium – improves wear resistance, increases durability, allows the blade to be sharpened into a very sharp edge.
Tungsten – Similar to the improvements of vanadium
Manganese – Improves toughness and the hardening of the steel.
Nickel – Increases strength and toughness.
Cobalt – Increases strength and hardness
Molybdenum – combines with chromium to form bonds that improve abrasion and corrosion resistance of a blade.

The characteristics of the steel can also be changed by the way the blade is rolled and heated in the finishing process. Some blade manufacturers also choose to coat the blade to further improve the finish.

Important blade properties

Strength – The strength of the blade when it is faced with stress and strong forces.
Toughness – The toughness relates to the ability of a blade to resist damage such as cracking and chipping during use and how well it flexes without breaking.
Hardness – Similar to strength and relates to the ability of the blade to resist permanent deformity.
Corrosion resistance – The ability of a blade to resist corrosive forces, such as rust, caused by external factors (salt water for example). There is some trade off between corrosion resistance and blade edge performance.
Edge Retention – How long the blade will remain sharp before re-sharpening is needed.

It might seem simple to add off of these properties and create the perfect knife blade steel, but there is actually a fine balance between these properties. For example, a blade that has high strength or harness with have reduced toughness. Choosing the best steel for your knife really comes down to what you are going to be using the knife for. For example, you may need a high corrosion resistant steel if you are using a knife for salt water fishing.

The most common types of knife steel

First Class Steel

BG-42 – A premium steel which is known for a superior ability to hold an edge. It is highly resistant to wear and tear, but can be difficult to sharpen.
S30V – Many consider this to be the best knife blade steel available. It has a great balance between hardness and toughness. It resists corrosion and rust while remaining great edge retention. This steel is only ever found on high end knives.

High Quality

D2 – This is a very hard steel and it retains a great edge. Of course, the trade off is that this steel is harder to sharpen. D2 is classified as a semi stainless steel, but it remains very resistant to corrosion.
154CM – An American made steel that is known for its toughness and ability to hold an edge. It is also suitably resistant to corrosion.
ATS-34 – The Japanese equivalent of the 154CM. It is very popular with knife manufacturers at the moment. The lower corrosion resistance of this steel is the only glaring downside.
VG-10 – Very similar to the 154CM and ATS-34, but with added vanadium. This means that it is often considered to be of a slightly higher quality.

Middle Quality

AUS-8 – A Japanese made steel that is highly resistant to rust/corrosion. It also has great toughness, but does not hold an edge as well as some of the higher quality steels.
440C – This is the most common steel used in lower end/mass produced knives because it is affordable as well as being a good all round steel. It is highly corrosion resistant.

Low Quality

420J – This steel is used in budget pocket knives and it works well for most general applications. It is a tough steel, but is susceptible to wear and tear. This steel quickly loses its edge and needs to be re-sharpened often.

Final Thoughts

It is important to research the steel used in your pocket knife, but try not to become obsessed finding the perfect steel. All modern knives use decent quality materials and will perform well enough for most tasks. Although the blade is an important part of the knife, there are many other factors that you should also consider when choosing a knife.

The Types of Knife Blades

Choosing the type of knife blade for your next pocket knife can be overwhelming. After all, there are many different types of knife blades on the market. Choosing the type of knife blade is very important when selecting the best pocket knife for your requirements. You should make sure that the style and design of the blade will suit your intended use for the knife. Most knife manufacturers modify their own blade designs and these variations are designed to add a little something extra to the knife. However, all of these variations originate from the basic blade styles and in this article we will focus on the most popular basic blade styles used in pocket knife construction.
The types of knife blades

1. Straight-back blade

This is the standard type of blade found on many knives. It features a flat back (which is dull) and a curved edge. It is a good knife for chopping and slicing, and is most commonly used for kitchen knives. The straight dull back of this knife allows the user to put extra pressure on the knife to increase the cutting force. These blades are quite heavy when compared to other types of knife blades.

2. Drop-point

This type of blade is most commonly used for pocket knives and most modern manufacturers are using a modified drop point blade (the Spyderco Tenacious is a good example of a manufacturer modified drop-point blade). This blade features a convex curve on the back of the knife towards the tip. It is a very popular type of blade because it can be used for most cutting applications. Its only real weakness is that it is not as suitable for piercing as some other knife blades.

3. Spear-point

This is a symmetrical blade that finishes in a sharp point at the tip of the blade. They can be sharpened on both edges or have just a single edge. This type of knife blade is common for penknives, daggers, and any knife that is designed for thrusting or throwing.

4. Clip-point

A clip point blade is the same design as a straight back blade, but has a section of the blade removed from the back. This gives this type of blade a thinner tip, which is perfect for cutting in hard to reach places. The tip of these knives is usually concave, but straight tips are also quite common.

5. Tanto

This blade takes its name from Japanese samurai swords (tanto was the word used for the tip of a broken samurai sword). It has a chisel edge and this provides excellent strength. They are not overly suitable for slicing, but the tremendous strength in the tip of this type of blade is perfect for penetrating. This type of blade is not overly common for pocket knives, (although the popular Benchmade Griptillian offers a tanto blade option), but it is becoming popular in the tactical knife market.

Pen blade

The pen blade is very similar to the spear-point blade, but it has a much more gradual curve. They are most likely to be sharp on one side and dull on the other. This type of knife blade is very popular with Swiss Army knives and similar types of penknives.

Choosing the type of knife blade really comes down to your own needs. It is important to consider what you will be using the knife for and then pick a blade that is suitable for these applications. Unfortunately, there is no single knife blade to suit every situation, but if you are really unsure then a drop point blade is a good place to start.

How To Sharpen a Pocket Knife the Right Way

At bestpocketknifeadvice.com we are sticklers for sharp knives. A blunt knife is virtually useless in most situations and can actually be quite dangerous as well. Fortunately, modern knife steel is used on most knives (from the budget to the premium models), which means that the blade will remain sharp with regular use. Most knives come pre-sharpened and will hold their edge for many years to come, although this does depend on how you use your knife. That being said, every knife needs to be sharpened eventually and as a pocket knife owner it is important to know how to sharpen your knife the right way.

What you need to know before starting

There are many different ways to sharpen a knife and it is actually very difficult to sharpen a knife the wrong way. Everybody has a slightly different method and it is really the end result that matters. There are a number of knife sharpening products on the market that include automatic machines that can cost thousands of dollars. However, these devices are not necessary and is important to learn a method that you are able to feel comfortable with. There are different sharpening methods that are suitable for each knife, but in general pocket knives don’t require any special skills or methods to sharpen.

What you will need to sharpen your pocket knife

You can forget all about fancy sharpening tools and automatic machines. All you really need to sharpen a pocket knife is a sharpening stone and some form of lubricant.

The sharpening stone is what is going to sharpen that blade and create that great cutting edge again. There are numerous different types of sharpening stones on the market, but you don’t need to know about all of these. You should try to find a knife with two sides – a rough grit side and a fine grit side. Although you can easily pay more than $100 for a sharpening stone, this is really not necessary and you can get a very decent quality sharpening stone for about $20.

The lubricant you use is also very important because it helps limit the amount of heat that is produced while you were sharpening the knife. It is this heat that can potentially damage the blade and this is why lubrication is such an important part of the process. You can sharpen a knife without using any lubricant, and some sharpening stones advertise as lubricant fee, but this is definitely not the recommended method. There are a number of quality lubricants for knife sharpening for less than $10.

Knife sharpening steps

There are lots of great videos that will show you how to sharpen a pocket knife. This little video gives a good basic demonstration:

1. The first step is to apply lubricant to both sides of the sharpening stone. A thin layer is best, but using too much is better than using too little.

2. You can then begin to sharpen one side of the knife on the rough grit side of the sharpening stone. You will want to angle the knife blade to about 15 degrees against this side of the sharpening stone. This angle will very depending on the blade, but a 10 to 15 degree angle is most common for a standard pocket knife blade. Generally speaking, you will find that you will get a sharper blade with a smaller angle, but this reduces the edge retention (and you will have to sharper and more often). Maintaining the angle while sharpening is the most important part of this process. Don’t rush and practice keeping the blade at the right angle to maintain a top-quality sharp edge. If you have trouble with this process you can purchase our sharpening guide which is a tool for keeping the knife at a constant sharpening angle.

3. Once you are comfortable with the angle you can begin to gently stroke the blade against the stone. You can make this move toward you or away from you and this really comes down to personal preference. You don’t need to be putting a lot of pressure on the blade and a light to moderate pressure is all that is required. Imagine that you are trying to shave a very thin layer from the sharpening stone. Make about 10 strokes and then repeat this step on the other side of the blade. Once you have done this you should make 10 more strokes on each side, but this time you should alternate strokes between the left and right side of the blade. It is very important to maintain the same angle throughout this process and changing the sharpening angle is not recommended.

4. You should then repeat steps 2 and 3 using the fine grit side of the sharpening stone. This helps to refine the blade and removes any of the burr that was created during the first stage of sharpening.

5. You should then have a very sharp blade that is ready to be tested. Most knife users test the sharpness of their blade by cutting some paper sheets. It is a good idea to do this before and after sharpening so that you can see the difference you have made. If your knife is still not performing up to standard then you can repeat the steps and continue to sharpen the knife until it meets your expectations. After you’re finished you should clean the sharpening stone and ensure that you remove all of the small steel particles, because these can lead to rust in the future.