February 15, 2021 5 min read

knifemaking steel

Quick Summary

There is no one type of steel that is definitively the best for knifemaking. The best steel for your blade will depend on your preferences, the preferences of your customers, and the type of blade you’re producing. However, the most popular steels for knifemaking include carbon steel, stainless steel, tool steel, damascus steel, ATS steel, AUS steel, and SXXV steel.

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When you make knives, the secret to success is using the right materials. Although design and formation techniques are important, the type of steel you use makes a key difference in how your finished knife performs. 

Steel is basically an alloy of iron and carbon enriched with other elements to improve desired results. They include, but are not limited to, manganese, phosphorus, silicon, and sulfur. However, when it comes to knifemaking, not all steel is created equal. 

What Qualities Should You Look For in Knifemaking Steel?

To produce a high-quality knife, you want to use a steel that is:

  • Strong
  • Resilient
  • Easy to shape and work with
  • Ductile (can bend without breaking)
  • Corrosion-resistant
  • Wear-resistant
  • Capable of holding an edge
  • Hard enough to resist deformation

When you shop for knifemaking steel, you’ll usually come across those with iron, carbon, and at least one of the following materials:

  • Nickel: Produces a tougher blade.
  • Cobalt: Adds strength to the blade.
  • Chromium: Gives stainless steel its corrosion resistance. Technically, any steel can result, but those with higher chromium content are much less prone to it.
  • Tungsten: Increases wear resistance.
  • Manganese:Makes a harder steel, but can cause brittling if the composition is too high.
  • Molybdenum: Good corrosion resistance and helps steel maintain strength at high temperatures.
  • Vanadium: Creates a harder blade and increases wear resistance.

Two types of steel can be as different from each other as iron and bronze. Therefore, steel producers follow a precise ‘recipe’ every time they make a particular type. Each of these combinations (which also vary in proportions) has its own name, so that customers know exactly what they’re getting.

The list below covers the steels commonly used in knifemaking. 

SAE / AISI

SAE and AISI naming conventions use a four-digit number to classify steel. The first two digits identify the materials used while the last two indicate the percentage of carbon in the composition.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel produces a sharp, strong blade that’s easy to resharpen, making it ideal for creating machetes, bowie knives and other tools intended for heavy-duty work. 

The C10_ series steels are a popular choice: the ‘C’ identifies it as carbon still while the ‘10’ indicates that it is plain carbon steel with a maximum of 1% manganese. The last two digits state the carbon percentage in the alloy: for example, C1045 has 0.45% carbon. Whenever possible, go for a steel with 0.30%-0.60% carbon because they are sufficiently hard without becoming too brittle during processing.

Carbon steel grades commonly used to fashion blades include C1045, C1075, C1090, and C1095. Out of all of them, 1095 is most frequently used for knifemaking. It contains 95%  carbon, which improves hardness and wear resistance.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel specifications usually appear in three-digit format, with each number identifying an aspect of its composition. (For example, the first digit specifies the type of iron used.) Most knifemakers use the 400 series. For example:

420

420 is cutlery grade, with around .38% carbon and a minimum of 12% chromium in its content. The comparatively low carbon content means that it’s a softer steel and won’t hold an edge too well. If you make a knife from this material, you’ll have to sharpen it frequently and watch out for chipping. On the plus side, it’s highly corrosion-resistant, which makes it a great material for wet applications, such as diving knives.

440

440is a higher-grade cutlery steel with better hardness and edge retention. There are three different types:

  • 440A: This type has a carbon content range of .65% to .75%. Of all the 440 steels, this one is the most rust-resistant.
  • 440B: This steel has a higher carbon content- typically .75% to .95%, so it retains sharp edges more effectively.
  • 440C: 440C steel is considered higher end due to its carbon content range of .95% to 1.20%.

AUS Series

This knifemaking steel from Japan has vanadium added, which makes it tougher, more wear-resistant, and easier to sharpen. Commonly-used grades in knifemaking include:

  • AUS-6: This type has .65% carbon and holds an edge fairly well.
  • AUS-8: This steel is fairly popular because it has .75% carbon and more vanadium, allowing it to hold an edge better.
  • AUS-10: This option has 1.1% carbon and even more vanadium.

ATS Series

Of all the steels in the ATS series, ATS 34 is considered the best for knifemaking. It has a carbon content of 1.05% and is often used to make higher-end knives.

SXXV Series

This steel series is becoming popular due to its strength, corrosion resistance, and ability to hold a sharp edge. Bear in mind, however, that they can be difficult to sharpen. The types used most often for knifemaking are the 30, 60, and 90, which refers to their 3%, 6%, and 9% vanadium content in the alloy.

Tool Steel

Tool steel is a hard and durable material that contains different alloys to boost important properties, like heat resistance. Its ability to maintain function and form under heated pressure makes it the steel of choice for industrial tools. 

Tool steels commonly used for knifemaking include:

  • A2: Not as hard, but exceptionally tough. It typically consists of 1% carbon and 5% chromium.
  • D2: Corrosion resistant and excellent edge retention, but not as tough. The percentages of carbon and chromium are higher. 
  • M2: Retains a perfect edge but hard enough to become brittle, making it too fragile for certain applications. It is molybdenum-based.

On the downside, tool steel doesn’t have a smooth finish and is less corrosion-resistant than stainless steel, so you probably wouldn’t use it to make kitchen knives.

Damascus Steel

Damascus steel is produced by forging two different steel grades together and applying an acid-etching process to create beautiful, unique patterns. Although they are better known for their aesthetic appeal, damascus steel knives can also be strong and durable, depending on materials used and forging skill.

Which Steel Is Best? 

Ultimately, there is no one type of steel that is definitively better than the other. The best steel to use for your knife blade will depend on a combination of your own preferences, the preference of your customers, and the type of blade you’re producing. Regardless of the type of steel you choose, Red Label Abrasives carries the sanding belts you need to grind and finish your blades to perfection. 

Contact an Industrial Abrasive Specialist

Red Label strives to offer the best online resources for knife makers on our Daily Grind blog. However, we also know that sometimes it’s better to have your questions answered by a real human. If you have any questions on the best material for your next project, the technicians at Red Label Abrasives can help. We also sell premium knifemaking kits that can produce the superior results you envisioned. For more information, please call 844-824-1956 or fill out our contact form.