Best Knife Steel for Bladesmithing
In bladesmithing (knife making), choosing the right material for your blade style and function is extremely vital to its success! But with over 65,000 material options on OnlineMetals.com and so many creative types of blades, it can be daunting just getting started. To simplify the process for you we’ve laid out the important factors to consider when choosing your knife steel, the elements impacting those factors, our popular knife steel choices, and how they compare with one another.
6 Factors When Considering Knife Steels
When crafting a blade, it is extremely important to understand your unique needs and end use when choosing a steel. Each knife steel has vastly different offerings when it comes to hardness, sharpenability, ability to hold an edge, toughness, and so on. We’ve identified 6 key factors below that determine the effectiveness of the steel you are choosing:
Hardness, commonly measured by the Hardness Rockwell Scale C (HRC), refers to a blade steel’s ability to withstand deformation under pressure. If you are more familiar or prefer Brinell Hardness Testing, we have a conversion table. The higher HRC the harder steel, while inversely the lower the HRC the softer the steel.
We’ve found that the ideal hardness for most blades falls between 52 (high-impact blades) to 65 HRC (low-impact blades). These knives balance the ability to hold an edge and endurance to withstand regular abuse without breaking. Like all these factors, hardness has adverse effects if too high or too low.
Steels nearing the 65 HRC range will lack flexibility, increasing the possibility of shattering due to impact and brittleness of a blade’s edge. These steels will take more work upfront to sharpen but provide long-lasting edge that requires less sharpening over its lifetime.
Steels falling around 52 HRC have great sharpenability and flex, making them harder to shatter, but offer poor edge retention and tend to dull faster. These softer steels are a great option of high impact blades like throwing knives or larger knives expected to take brute force consistently. Below is a chart of a few common knife types and their HRC ranges from high to low Impact:
Another important trait of blade steels is how easily it can be sharpened. Sharpenability can range from simple stone sharpening, to requiring more advanced techniques, tools, and time. The ability to sharpen your knife outdoors is one example where quick sharpening is essential.
As previously mentioned, sharpenability and hardness are very closely related. A hardness of 64 HRC will require more time, effort, and systems to bring its edge to a preferred sharpness. The beauty of hard metals is once sharp, they require far less long-term maintenance.
3. Edge Retention
The ability to hold a cutting edge, or Edge Retention, with continued use is paramount for a successful blade. Edge retention takes in to account the hardness and the alloy composition of the steel in use. The harder the blade the stronger the edge retention, and that can be accomplished with high carbon content.
Most bladesmiths want their knife to retain a cutting edge for a long time, but that doesn’t mean low edge holding capability is always a bad thing. Beginner bladesmiths also tend to start with low edge holding capabilities to master and hone their sharpening ability with easier materials. It is important to note that the blade steel with the best edge retention comes with extremely high hardness, making the blade more brittle, and ultimately restricting it to light/medium cutting tasks.
Toughness is the steels’ ability to maintain the construction of the blade through intense work or use. A tough blade will be strong and resist chipping, cracking, or breaking when put to hard work!
Typical use cases for a tough blade include camping knives intending to power through staples and other heavy-duty obstacles. Although hardness and toughness sound similar, they have an inverse relationship. As toughness goes up, hardness declines and creates a more flexible blade. As toughness decreases, hardness goes up creating a more brittle blade.
5. Corrosion Resistance
Corrosion Resistance is the ability to resist rust and corrosion and is also a major consideration when choosing the correct blade steel. If you plan on using this blade in a wet environment (outdoor/fishing knives) or cutting acidic foods (kitchen cutlery), corrosion resistance should be your top priority for your knife build.
However, do remember that extreme corrosion resistance comes at the expense of edge retention and strength. This explains why you’ll find fishing knives are usually made of softer steels which offer excellent rust-free properties but lose their edges fast and require frequent sharpening.
You’ll find higher corrosion resistant properties when the steels composition contains high quantities of chromium. To receive the “stainless steel” designation, it must contain at least 11% chromium content. The higher the content, the better the anti-corrosion performance. You’ll even notice some steels considered “semi-stainless” which means it contains high chromium but not enough to be stainless.
6. Heat Treatment
Heat treating is a part of the knife making process that is designed to help harden the steel of the blade for use. Most steels provided by Online Metals aren’t pre-hardened, so you will need to have a plan when it comes to heat treatment. There are four steps in the heat treatment process for blades consisting of normalizing, quenching, tempering, and sanding.
Ease of heat treatment is dependent on the heat treatment method you choose:
Sending your steel out for heat treatment: What equipment do they have? Air-hardening steels, such as those in the high alloy, stainless, and “extra stainless” categories are preferred. This is because they don't need to submerge in a liquid, in fact, liquid would likely crack most thin pieces due to shock.
Heat treatment with a PID (Temperature controlled) furnace: Air hardening steels are also the easiest option for heat treatment for this method. To maintain flatness, speed up cooling rate, and keep the hardness consistent it is recommended to use a plate quench. This process places and clamps the blade between two aluminum plates to allow it to form martensite and keep the blade straight.
Heat treatment with a torch: Maintaining consistency with this method is extremely difficult and achieving the target hardness and overheating are concerns. We’d recommend using high carbon steels like 1075 and 1084 if using this method.
Alloying Elements and Their Impact on Blades
Element: Carbon (C)
Impact: One of, if not the most critical factor impacting your steels performance. It functions as a hardening element and makes the iron stronger. All steels have carbon and are designated as low, medium, and high carbon. Low carbon contains 0.3% or less carbon, medium carbon is typically between 0.4% to 0.7%, and high carbon is generally considered 0.8% and above.
Element: Chromium (Cr)
Impact: Gives steel its corrosion resistance. Technically all steel can rust, but types with more chromium (greater than 11%) are much less prone to it.
Element: Manganese (Mn)
Impact: Hardens the blade, but also leads to brittle blades if added in high quantities.
Element: Molybdenum (Mo)
Impact: Adds corrosion resistance and helps steel maintain strength at high temperatures.
Our Most Popular Knife Steels
Tool steel is designation of carbon alloy steels that were made to support hard working tools. Elements such as tungsten, molybdenum, cobalt, and vanadium, help these tailor-made metals accomplish hard tasks and maintain strength at high temperatures.
W1 Tool Steel
Composition: 98% Fe, 0.6%-1.4% C, 0.25% Mn, 0.15% Cr, 0.1% V, 0.025% S, 0.025% P
Hardness: As Shipped - Rockwell 91B, After Heat Treat - Rockwell 50-64C
W1 (water hardening steel) is great for outdoor knives as it forges easily, is easy to heat-treat, performs well, and finishes nicely. With such high carbon (0.6%-1.4%), this steel has high tensile strength and hardness with low ductility and toughness. Many compare W1 to 1095 steel due to similar properties, but small alloying additions create a higher hardness and yield strength than 1095 steel.
O1 Tool Steel
Composition: 96% Fe, 1.2% Mo, 0.94% C, 1% Mn, 0.5% Cr, 0.5% W , 0.3% Si
Hardness: As Shipped - Rockwell 88-95B, After Heat Treat - Rockwell 62-64C
O1 (oil hardening steel) is a general-purpose tool steel and is perfect for knife blades due to its excellent abrasion resistance, toughness, and machinability characteristics.
Beginners that lack experience in sharpening blades will enjoy how easily this blade steel sharpens without having to invest in crazy expensive sharpening equipment.
O1 tool steel can perform heavy-duty cutting tasks such as bush crafting without chipping or cracking. In comparison to A2, O1 offers better sharpenability while falling short in toughness and edge holding capability.
A2 Tool Steel
Composition: 91% Fe, 5.13% Cr, 1.15% Mo, 0.95%-1.05% C, 1% Mn, 0.5% Si, 0.33% V, 0.03% S, 0.03% P
Hardness: As Shipped - Rockwell 94-99B, After Heat Treat - Rockwell 59-62C
A2 (air hardening steel) is not as hard with lower carbon content but is a fine grain, superior quality steel which has excellent wear and abrasion resistance properties.
A2 knife steels are extremely popular for bladesmithing due to their exceptional toughness and ability to withstand regular heavy-duty use without signs of cracking or chipping. In terms of holding a cutting edge, it compares well to 440C, meaning it will hold a nice working edge for a long time.
A2 is great for any fixed blade, tactical or combat knives, but you won’t find it in many EDC knives.
D2 Tool Steel
Composition: ~83% Fe, 11%-13% Cr, 1.4-1.6% C, 1.1% V, 0.7%-1.2% Mo, 1% Co, 0.6% Mn, 0.6% Si, 0.33% V, 0.03% S, 0.03% P
Hardness: As Shipped - Rockwell 97-102B, After Heat Treat - Rockwell 60-62C
D2 (D stands for Die) has high-carbon, and high-chromium properties, resulting in high wear and abrasion resistance. When looking for a great knife steel for a knife, D2 is a high-end option as it is cheaper than specialty steels and possesses a similar high-quality. Back in WWII, D2 steel was used to make dies for production lines.
D2 is sometimes referred to as semi-stainless steel because it falls slightly short of the amount of chromium (between 11% and 13%) needed to make it stainless steel.
The high hardness in D2 steel helps create a long-lasting edge but comes at the price of difficult sharpening and lower toughness.
Stainless steel is a popular type of steel among bladesmiths due to its high resistance to rust and corrosion. These steels have tougher, yet softer properties, which allows them to sharpen easily but lose their edge quicker than their carbon steel counterparts.
440C Stainless Steel
Composition: 80.75% Fe, 17% Cr, 1.05% C, 0.4% Mo, 0.4% Mn, 0.4% Si
440C is generally considered higher end steel and boasts the highest levels of carbon and chromium in the entire 400 series (0.95% to 1.20%). This is important for your blade because it offers a good mixture of hardness and corrosion resistance at an affordable price. When compared to other stainless steels, such as 420HC steel in the same 400-series, it holds a better cutting edge and offers better sharpenability at the expense of corrosion resistance. This makes is a great candidate for mass-manufactured pocketknives.
Carbon steel, more specifically high carbon steel (0.8% and above) is well-suited for bladesmithing. The high amount of carbon present in the steel provides the toughness, strength, edge-holding, and corrosion resistance necessary in a great knife. The 10 series steels are the most commonly used in bladesmithing, with the “10” indicating that it is plain carbon steel with a maximum of 1% manganese, and the last two digits designating the carbon content (1045 has 0.45% carbon).
1075 Carbon Steel
Composition: 98% Fe, 0.70%-0.8% C, 0.4%-0.7% Mn, 0.05% Max S, 0.04% Max P
1075 steel will provide a quality blade for both knives and swords, but is more commonly known as the best steel for making swords due to its ability to return to its original shape after use and perfect balance between strength and springiness. It’s easy machineability, workability, and affordable price means that it is going to be a fantastic choice for beginners.
1084 Carbon Steel
Composition: 98% Fe, 0.8%-0.93% C, 0.6%-0.9% Mn, 0.05% Max S, 0.04% Max P
1084 steel features great hardness, lending itself to great wear resistance and edge retention. With the right heat treatment, this steel can also get quite tough, making it a good choice for hard use knives like camping, bushcraft, and survival knives. The only downside is the corrosion resistance isn’t great and require proper care. It is also a great partner with 15N20 for forging and for layering Damascus steel.
1095 Carbon Steel
Composition: 98% Fe, 0.9%-1.03% C, 0.3%-0.5% Mn, 0.05% Max S, 0.04% Max P
1095 carbon steel offers great toughness, resistance to chipping and breaking, and sharpenability all at a great price point for beginners. Its mixture of carbon and Manganese give it favorable edge holding capabilities, while its lack of chromium allows it to stain easily.
Due to its high toughness levels, 1095 carbon steel is best suited for making fixed blade knives for hard use applications such as camping. Its ease of sharpening also makes it a great beginner blade for those learning the art of sharpening.
Best Knife Steel Chart
Now that we’ve discussed our blade steels individually, let’s look at them side by side for easier comparison. We developed an oversimplified ranking system to give you a visual comparison and help you make the right choice for your blade. We’ve used all the factors listed above and ranked them from 1-10 (10 being the best, while 1 is the worst).
As always, reach out with any questions through the phone (888) 527-3331, our onsite chat, or email us at [email protected]. We are always expanding our portfolio of products, so bookmark this page and check back to see if we’ve added any more high-end or premium blade steel options.
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