Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Last Gen Steels that Stink and Getting Some Perspective

Lots of folks will tell you that you only truly understand how a steel works when you sharpen it.  I think that is partially true.  With a strop and modern PM steels you can hold off full sharpening sessions basically forever.  I rarely break out my Sharpmaker these days, opting for my two strop, three grit set up instead.  But recently I had a chance to take a knife from dull to shaving sharp for the first time in a long time.  Doing so brought to light some of the hype around steels and why steel junkies need to be wary of jumping on the latest and greatest.

My Dad carries one of the Japanese SOGs, a SOG Mini Vulcan.

It is a very nice knife, especially compared to the recent rash (and I mean that in both senses) of SOG knives.  The grinds, as they are on all SOGs, are amazing.  But the knife has two features I dislike--the recurve and the blade steel.  Both conspire to make this a challenging knife to fully resharpen.  My Dad likes knives.  He carries them.  But the SOG is his working knife and so it's not something he babies nor is it something that he strops or sharpens.  He visited recently and brought the Vulcan with him and I gave it a full spa, to the extent I can do so.  I cleaned the blade and blew out the handle.  I retightened the pivot and I dropped two dabs of Nano Oil on the washers.  Finally, I took the edge from "can't cut paper" to hair popping sharp.

The steel, VG10, was a superstar ten or fifteen years ago.  It was THE choice for Spyderco and a lot of other companies, like SOG, using Japanese OEMs.  Developed as a steel for paring branches in industrial horticulture settings, VG10 is very corrosion resistant and takes a very keen edge.  With a HRc in the mid 50s and lacking the precision microstructure of a PM steel, VG10 is clearly last gen.  And it is a lesson for all of us--don't get caught up in the hype.  

Personally, I find that VG10 doesn't hold that keen edge all that long.  I have also found that it does not do great with stuff like cardboard, preferring kitchen duties to package processing chores.  I have also found that it is a true bitch to sharpen.  It took me a hour to get the edge back to sharp. I am not a great hand at the grinding stone.  I am not Andrew Gene, who can freehand sharpen an axe to the point where he can shave with it or hone a Murray Carter knife to the point where it can fillet paper.  No, not that good.  But I am decent.  And the Mini Vulcan really fought me.  

The hype was crazy high for VG10 and now, with some historical distance and a few dozen new "next gen" steels between its release and today, I think it is safe to say that VG10 was not that big of an improvement over something like AUS8.  It is a bit harder and gets a bit sharper, but it's increased difficulty in sharpening doesn't make up for the difference.  

Something similar can be stated about S30V.  This was the first "brand" steel, it was released with unheralded fanfare and basically kickstarted the steel junkie fever.  Sure there were people that loved steel before, but S30V had a team of celebrity designers and contributors including Chris Reeve himself. 

But I am not a huge fan of S30V either.  In addition to a similar challenge when sharpening, it is notoriously chip prone.  My ZT0350 got a bad chip when I was doing some fire prep and it was brutally hard to get out (though I did).

In the end, S30V has developed some very good heat treat protocols to ameliorate this problem, notably Reeve's own soft 57-58 HRc S30V.  Still, I think we can all admit that as great as it was claimed to be, S30V is unlikely to be a classic.  It won't have the historical significance of something like 1095.  Nor is it likely to have fans 50 years from now like D2.  It's good, especially when done right, but it is not great. 

Aside from bitching, the point I am trying to make here is that we need to be skeptical of new steels.  I think that I was taken in by Super Blue, which is an interesting and unique steel, but probably not worth the corrosion hassle compared to something like ZDP-189.  I am also a bit wary of XHP.  Makers like it because it is still perceived as a premium steel, its relatively inexpensive, and it is easy to grind and sharpen (relatively speaking).  It is also something custom makers can get to a mirror polish.  But I have never been really blown away.  It seems coarse, especially compared to something like M390.  I am also a fan of Elmax, which suffered the reverse problem--bad press out of the gate and has basically been abandoned.  Historical perspective would have helped there as well.

We need some time, generally speaking, to evaluate how good a steel really is.  Unless your a butcher or a ninja, your likely not using a premium steel knife enough in a few weeks to get a handle on its historical greatness, or lack thereof.  You can certainly get a feel for it and understand its merits compared to the competition, but it's hard to separate that from a sample size issue, a great heat treat or grind that really works.  I am helped in this regard by reviewing TONS of knives, but it is tough even in that situation.   

Maybe I am betraying my steel junkie heart, but I am fine with a CPM154 blade.  This is a steel I know really works.  Let's all get a bit of perspective.  After all, a few years ago we were told that ceramic would be the norm.  And we believed the marketeers until we dropped our ceramic knife and it shattered.  

Long story short--slow your roll when it comes to new steels.  They are more useful at selling you the same product twice than they are as an improvement over what you have.  Some new steels are great, some aren't.  Figuring that out takes time. 


  1. I don't mind VG-10 by itself, my big problem with it is the price tag it commands. As for S30V steel, I admit I have never been much of a fan, the chipping was always a bit of a deal breaker for me.

    1. I could not agree more with both you and Tony. I think AUS8 actually takes a better edge than VG-10, it definitely does it much quicker, and holds that edge almost as long. The price increase is very unjustified, and they should probably be priced about the same IMO. Honestly, as much as I enjoy my M390 blades, my favorite steel, lately, has been 14c28n. I find it takes as keen an edge as any steel out there, does so quickly, and holds that edge about as long as my S35vn blades. That is a true game changer for me, that Sandvik can do all that at the price point they sell that steel for. I find myself taking a second look at almost any knife offered with Sandvik now. Now I just need to try something in Elmax.

  2. Wait...does that mean that Cold Steel was right to stick with Aus8 all this time? What a weird thought.

    1. No, I don't think so. XHP is a very good steel, just quirky. Derrick Bohn told us on the podcast once that he found that XHP produced large and usual carbides. That meshes with my experience too. It is a great steel, just not an all time great, so far.

  3. To summarize your post: Some steels are overhyped and others are incremental improvements over their predecessors.

  4. Was the sharpening of the Mini Vulcan and the removing of the chip done with the Sharpmaker grey stone?

    If so, that is a 600 grit stone which is not meant for removing lots of steel but for getting a sharp edge back on a well maintained knife.

    1. Agreed. I actually don't see how anyone does anything besides touch ups on ceramic rods. They aren't coarse enough to reprofiling, in my experience.

  5. I'm going to play devil's advocate here and argue that VG-10's hype WAS justified at the time - 15 years ago, it was hailed as a superstar because, well, what outclassed it back then? In a world without M390 or Elmax or S35VN, it was top-tier. It wasn't a crappy steel, technology just continued to march on. M390 is an excellent steel, no question there, but in 10-15 years from now, do you really think we'll look at it the same way?

    In computers, the top-shelf graphics cards today will likely be outclassed in less than a year, but that doesn't mean they're not cutting edge, or compromised - and they'll still be perfectly serviceable (and likely outgunning consoles) for several years to come. The same holds true of steels - while VG-10 shouldn't command the premium price it once did, it seems unfair to treat it as obsolete.

  6. The difference is that there are older steels that are still excellent, especially in the right application. I'm thinking mostly about tool/carbon steels like M4, O1, 1095, D2, etc. (disclaimer: I'm no expert on how old these are exactly but they seem pretty venerable by now)

  7. In terms of edge holding against standard abraisives, I've really fallen away from the 'ladder of steel edge holding' that a lot of us knife knerda keep in our subconscious. In my mind, theres either knives that I need to sharpen sometimes (everything up to S35vn) and then the true freak steels like M4, M390, ZDP189 and S110V. Those guys only ever get a strop and are staying very keen. Everything else gets to the tipping point between needing strop and stone much sooner. These are just the steels I own, mind you.

  8. Insightful post. I'd go so far to say AUS-8 with good processing is just preferable to VG-10. AUS-8 is your buddy, it wants to get sharp for you. Reeve's S35VN has similar nice personality at a higher level.

    I've been playing with an Italian knife in N690Co (Spyderco Pattada) with chemistry resembling VG-10. Tony has praised this steel but I found it *exactly* like VG-10, complete with the annoying sharpening behavior. No more than a 1 point steel.

    I am almost ready for Peter's radical reduction of the stainless steel hierarchy. To me there are basically four gradations:

    Crap Tier (3Cr13, 420J2 etc) - avoid
    Utility Tier (AUS-8, quality 420HC, 14C28N, maybe BD1)
    Upscale Utility Tier (S35VN, CTS-XHP)
    Exotic / No-Sharpen Tier (ZDP, S110V etc)

    All but the Crap Tier have their good points and are worth owning in folding knives.

    1. I'd be interested to see how those tiers would map, if at all, to Tony's steel scoring.

    2. Even some of the "crap tier" might have its merits too. I am thinking of some research Cliff Stamp did on stuff like 440a when it has actually been properly heat treated and ground.

    3. Cliff has a point. I picked up the $15 Outdoor Edge Fish & Bone folder based on his recommendation and it earned a place in my kitchen knife block. It's basically a well designed folding filet knife with a comfy zytel handle and a well flat ground, very thin 440A blade.

      But that knife works in spite of its steel, not because of it. The 440A does dull too fast, it's just that you can still slice well because of the thin grind.

      If makers used costlier processing on steels like 440A or 420J2 they might do well. Realistically I don't see that making marketing or economic sense.

      Honestly I own a couple of other 440A knives that I do find uses for. Call it tolerable.

      I am, however, still scarred by the shittiness of the 3Cr13 on the Kershaw Starter series. It was simply no fun whatsoever to try to use.

    4. No kidding. Sometimes Kershaw gets a little too "Wal Mart" for my tastes these days.