We've come the part of the series where there is a big long obligatory list of steel. Joe Talmadge's guide is pretty good on this account. Instead of just rehashing what he and others have written, I am going to do this from a purely experiential point of view. I am going to rank them in terms of my favorite steels based on my experience. First, I am going to compose the list using the most common name, either the trade name or the AISI/SAE name, whichever is more common. Second, I am going to rank the steels using the three tier scoring system I use in knife reviews. I will only rank steels I have used. I am going list all my 2 point steels, followed by my 1 point steels, and then my 0 point steels. After that I am going to list the steels that I'd like to use but haven't. Note that I am going to ignore older or less frequently used steels like 440A or 440B. I am going skip steels that have been essentially made obsolete by similar but simply superior steels like BG-42 and ATS-34. I will throw in a shout out to Spyderco and the Mule Project. Finally, I am going to lay out a simple method for choosing blade steel.
NOTE: If no brand is listed with the steel assume that it has performed similarly across brands (such as with S30V or S35VN which is a propriety mixture from Crucible Steels and has specific instructions regarding heat treating). If a brand is listed I will explain why I did so and it is usually because of different performance of the same steel from different brands. Note that 154CM is a special case, in my experience, so if you are looking at a knife with that steel, read that note. Its complicated to say the least.
2 Point Steels (in rank order)
ZDP-189: In my mind, this is the best utility/EDC steel out there. The incredibly high carbon content and massive wallop of Chromium means that you get unprecedent edge retention, through high hardness, and a blemish free blade. It is very difficult to sharpen, so touch it up and maintain it with a good sharpening routine including a strop. If you do you will be rewarded handsomely with a blade that works forever. It does have a tendency to chip. The DFII has no chips, but the Caly 3 I got in trade had some towards the tip. I worked them out and then stropped the blade to make it insanely sharp, but chipping seems like it could be a problem.
S30V: By now this steel is a last gen steel, thanks the S35VN, but I still like it a great deal. It is a very good all around steel--excellent corrosion resistance, good hardness for good edge retention and wear resistance, and less chipping than ZDP-189. Still worth the increased cost and even though it is "last gen" lots of makers are finding new ways to get better performance out of the steel, such as Spyderco giving the PM2 a super steep grind and a larger secondary bevel.
S35VN: I like it a lot, but I am not sure if it is all that much better than S30V. The niobium might add a bit of hardenability, which is good for knife makers, but as a knife USER I am not sure it makes a difference to me. Once people are more familiar with it, I am sure it will surpass its older brother.
N690Co: I have only one knife with this blade steel on it, my Fox Cutlery SpyFox, and it is really amazing how well it holds an edge and how well it resists corrosion. The SpyFox is just such a tiny knife that it is hard to evaluate, but each time I carry it I marvel at how good the steel is and think that maybe my review was overly harsh. Some guy named Sal, over on the Spyderco Forum, said that it was like European VG-10 and he seems to know what he is talking about. I think it might be a tad better at holding an edge though.
ESEE 1095: The Candiru proved to me that you can get a great edge with non-stainless steels. Their heat treat on the 1095, done by Rowen Manufacturing, is really the secret sauce and a perfect example of how you can get great performance out of a cheaper steel if you do the heat treat right. Coming in at 57 HRC, the ESEE 1095 is hard enough to get a good edge but not so hard as to chip a lot. Really excellent steel in a survival blade and worth the extra dough you pay for an ESEE knife.
14C28N: A poor man's S30V with no real meaningful drawbacks. It cannot be hardened as high, hitting a 58HRC on most blades, but the two point difference in negligible in real world use. I loved the steel on the Skyline because it seemed to be to be the best balance of the three main traits of steel, for the money. This is the Manny Pacquiao of steels--dollar for dollar probably your best buy. If the Cryo came in 14C28N, steel junkies across the globe would have passed out from anticipation a long time ago.
D2: Steel, like all technology, is subject to a learning curve. The performance you get out of an engine in a car or a graphics engine on a computer is always better at the end of the production run than the beginning. D2 is like that as well. It has been around for a long time and will be around for decades to come, but knife makers and production companies have been able to coax increasingly high performance from it over time. Folks like Bob Dozier can harden it to around HRC60-62 through a proprietary heat treat, and others like William Henry have been able to get it virtually rust proof with DLC coatings.
1 Point Steels (in rank order)
154CM: I have had quite a bit of experience with this steel and it still is hard to rate. I have had two Benchmade knives and a Leatherman Skeletool with 154CM and all three performed radically differently. The 154CM on my Benchmade Sequel was a constant pain. It rusted like crazy and it got dull quite quickly. The 154CM on the Skeletool has stayed sharper longer but there is still, on occasion, a rust problem. But the 154CM on my MiniGrip has been simply outstanding. I can't explain the difference--maybe something changed, maybe it was a different heat treat (but that wouldn't explain the quality variance among the Benchmade knives). If it were consistently as good as the 154CM on the MiniGrip I have, it would be my second favorite steel, better than even S30V. It has been abused extensively in my MiniGrip and shows no wear at all. When I average them, it gets a one, so that is where I put it.
VG-10: Spyderco's go to steel and a very good all around choice. It has a ton of stain resistance and gets very sharp. My only complaint is that it does not hold an edge all that well. I have had tons of experience with this steel and I have never found it to be an outstanding wear resistant material. It is easy to sharpen, though. If I had my choice I'd take 154CM in the same price range, but I'd probably prefer the cheaper 14C28N if I had to pick something.
Benchmade 440C: I thought that the weak point for the Aphid would be the steel, having a less than stellar experience with 440C on the Boker Exskelibur II, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was very sharp and has stayed sharp through quite a bit of use. It was also easy to sharpen and proof that an old steel can still be a good steel.
Buck 420HC: This is a perfect example of a cheap steel made better by processing. Some of the 420HC is marked as Bos heat treated and that stuff is really nice. The rest isn't but I find it hard to believe that none of Bos's methods were used because this stuff is really quite nice. It is significantly harder and holds an edge longer than, say, SAK steel or even Leatherman's 420HC. It performs more like VG-10 in my experience than it does other 420 or even 440 series steels.
STEEL MID POINT
CRKT and Kershaw 8Cr13MoV: I have used this steel quite extensively and for whatever reason it has always performed quite nicely in either brand's knives. I really loved it on the little OD-2 and the McGinnis Tuition. The steel holds an edge better than the same steel from Spyderco. Note the mid point demarcation. 420HC is something that I find to be virtually always adequate and CRKT and Kershaw 8Cr13MoV is something that is usually adequate for a given task.
5160: I have this on my Ontario RD-7 and I noticed that while it took a beating quite well and split wood with aplomb it had a tendency to chip (which is surprising given its 54-55HRC). It also does not hold an edge as well as the ESEE 1095, another survival knife, high carbon non-stainless steel. As between the two, the ESEE 1095 is a clear and indisputable winner.
Leatherman 420HC: I have seen this on the Leatherman Sidekick and my Leatherman PST and while it is okay it is merely that. Edge holding is considerably worse than Buck's 420HC, but still enough for most tasks. If an upgrade were available I'd take it.
Cold Steel AUS 8: I used this on an old Recon, an old Voyager, and more recently on a Mini Tuff Lite. Overall, across the three knives, it was not so good. No amount of voodoo or magic is going to make this steel perform better than just meh. I liked how sharp it got but that was about it. It tarnished, though never rusted. I am not sure if I gave it a fair test though as I was opening bags of wet mulch with it. It did not hold an edge.
Boker 440C: Barely, barely, BARELY adequate. This steel was something I debated internally a lot. In the end it was not a total failure because it was okay for semi-regular EDC tasks, but if you do ANY unusual cutting prepare for lots of maintenance. I have been disappointed by Boker in a bunch of different ways, but the steel was perhaps the biggest let down.
0 Point Steels (in rank order)
Spyderco 8Cr13MoV: This steel is just awful. I used it on the Tenacious and it was tarnished out of box in a way I could not remove. It was also hard to keep sharp and incredibly soft. I got a rolled edge, where the actual cutting portion is hard to resharpen more than once with very little hard use. Just too soft. I can't explain the difference between this and the other two brand's 8Cr13MoV, but the difference is large.
SOG AUS 8: Cyro treat it, pray to the steel gods, sacrifice a goat whatever. Two knives with extensive use on one and a month or two use on another have proven that this steel stinks. It just cannot hold an edge. Nothing I did with the Twitch II seemed to keep the steel sharp and as result, it was just disappointing, especially given SOG's ludicrous pricing. There is no way that this should be the blade steel on a $50 knife. NO WAY.
Kershaw 420HC: I used this on my EDC Scallion which I carried for years. It SUCKED ASS. There is no point in have a steel this soft on a knife other than like a pen knife or a letter opener. It had to be sharpened almost weekly. Horrendous, though still used on Scallions to this day. AVOID.
Up and Coming
CTS XHP (440xh): Sal Glesser called this a "stainless D2" which is sort of like saying "200 mph hybrid" the best of two possible different things combined into one. I am still trying to think of ways to score a Techno or a Chaparral Titan just so I can play around with this steel. Carpenter's stuff is really exciting and this is one of their cooler offerings. Sal, any chance I could get a review copy of the Chaparral Titan or Techno? You know, for science's sake?
INFI: A proprietary steel made by Busse. He lists it as a non-stainless steel but it has pretty good stain resistance. Furthermore, it has toughness properties that seem almost impossible. Some of the stress tests have recording INSANE durability.
RWL 34: A powder steel very close to ATS-34 or 154CM. The PM gives it more uniform carbides and given how much I like some 154CM, I can't see how this would be anything but awesome.
H1: A weird and quirky steel used mainly by Spyderco that is virtually rust proof. I have heard that sharpening is difficult and it cannot be full flat ground for some reason (see DF2 in H1), but this is still something I want to see in person. Oops into the ocean!
M4: The hardness scale is not the end all and be all, but when you see a steel that hits 66HRC you take notice. Used in some high end Spydercos and Benchmades, I'd love to stack it up against my favorite, ZDP-189. Diamondblade's friction forged D2 falls into this category as well.
Spyderco: Keep Steel Junkies Addicted Since 1981
Yes, yes I know Spyderco was founded in 1978, but the Worker was not released until 1981, so that little section header is correct. Lots and lots of companies use different steel and I am, as I have stated before, brand agnostic, but it is hard to disagree with Spyderco's approach. They have a good entry level steel across various blades VG-10. They use lots of ZDP-189. And they experiment with steels all of the time. The Mule Project is such an awesome idea--same shape different steel over and over and over again. As a steel junkie you can't ask for more than what Spyderco delivers. No company has as wide a range of steels from ZDP-189 and M4 to decorative Damascus steels, they make something for everyone. This willingness to try out new material is something every one of us should appreciate. It is also something they deserve commendation for, as risk taking is not always profitable.
With all of this information, how do you choose a steel? How do you apply what I have covered here?
To figure out which is the best steel for your use (as there is no "best steel" period, like there is no best hammer or best saw period) ask yourself these five questions:
1. What are you using the blade for?
2. What of the three major traits of steel do you want to emphasize?
3. How was it heat treated?
4. How was it shaped and ground?
5. How and how often will you sharpen it?
Answer those questions and you will have an idea of what is the best steel for you. You will have a good starting point for research, at the very least. In many cases, it comes back to use. Hard, survival tasks do better with softer, tougher steels. In that role I like ESEE 1095, but I would not turn down a peek at a Busse INFI blade. In a pocket knife that will handle mostly utility tasks, I like the low maintenance of a ZDP-189 blade, though the MiniGrip's 154CM is pretty good too.
Hope this has helped.