LC200N is of a generational leap in knife steel.
Long ago, Sal Glesser opined that steel was always a compromise and proved his point with this saying: hardness, toughness, or corrosion resistance: choose two. This maxim held true for ages. It had a slight amendment made when Nitinol 60 started being used in very high end knives. The maxim morphed to incorporate price. But for all intents and purposes the maxim was still true because Nitinol 60 was too expensive to be used at production scales.
With the release of LC200N (also known as Z-Finit), knife knuts now have access to a steel that breaks all of the rules about attribute tradeoffs. Its not an exaggeration to say that LC200N has the best attributes of a medium high hardness steel like CPM 154 and the corrosion resistance of H1. In my experience with the steel, aside from weird fingerprinting and film build up, there is no meaningful compromise with LC200N. Its relatively inexpensive, it holds an edge well, it is reasonably tough and resistant to chipping, and it is, in my testing, impervious to moisture. In short, this is as close to ideal as steel gets in the cutlery business in 2018.
Here is the datasheet for LC200N, which is a European steel made by ZAPP. It was originally designed for use as ball bearing steel for NASA and as a cutting steel in the food, chemical and pharmaceutical industries where its corrosion resistance was needed to counter moisture present in these environments. Here is a steel composition chart for LC200N. As is customary for ultra-corrosion resistant steels, there is a chemical swap--nitrogen is introduced in the steel's composition as a hardening agent for the iron over carbon which promotes rust. LC200N costs $20.73 for 1 cubic inch (prices taken from Alpha Knife Supply on 7/8/18). This is similar in price to other premium steels like M390, 20CV, and 3V. It is less than ultra-premium steels like REX 121 and Talonite.
LC200N can be found a handful of knives. Spyderco released a Mule (#25) in the steel. It also served as the blade steel on the maritime knife the Tusk. Finally, it is available on the Spydiechef. Michael Gavik of Gavko knives has released a few knives in the steel.
Here is the intro and ground rules for Steel Grade Cards.
Hardness: 4; quite hard with no real performance penalty elsewhere
Previous attempts at water impervious steels were always stymied by hardness. H1 was so soft that it was always at the bottom of any CATRA testing data. In fact, its difficulty holding an edge resulted in a Dragonfly that sported a saber grind as opposed to the normal, almost identity-defining full flat grind. LC200N changes the formula of the steel and now gets quite hard. Data sheets recommend a hardness of 60 HRc, which compares favorably to stuff like 154CM, VG10, and S35Vn. Proof is in the pudding—the Spydiechef sports one of the thinnest, sliceiest blades on the planet, something H1 could never hope to achieve.
Its not quite the hardness beast that something like ZDP-189 or M390 is, coming in about 10% less hard, but in practical terms that difference is relatively slight, especially when compared to the other attributes that LC200N brings to the table. Cedric and Ada has LC200N listed at 226 cuts. This is insignificantly less than CTS-XHP and a bit more than both Elmax and M4 (proving again, that we have unfairly slighted Elmax as a community). It is about a 100 cuts less than the aforementioned very hard steels—ZDP-189 and M390.
Toughness: 4; no issues in use, but never really thumped on the steel
Toughness, absent a bend test, is a whole lot harder to quantify as compared to hardness, but its clear during use that LC200N is plenty tough. In using it in the kitchen I did a bit of work around both fruit pits and meat bones. There were a couple of edge strikes that concerned me, especially given how thin the Spydiechef edge is. In the end the edge never even deformed, let alone chipped. I’d like to see how the steel would handle a beating given to it in a fixed blade form, but thus far there has been only a single LC200N fixed blade—the Spyderco Mule 25. If any production company out there wants to take a stab at a LC200N fixed blade, please do.
Corrosion Resistance: 5; best in the industry
I dropped the knife in the ocean (on purpose). I fell into a stream while on a hike with the knife in my pocket (on accident). I did lots and lots of food prep from cherries to pork chops. It never once rusted, tarnished, or even stained. There is, of course, a note on Blade Forums about someone’s Mule 25 rusting, but I am not sure how much weight to put on that single problematic blade given the huge number of people out there with no similar complaints. Its telling that no other owners reported the same and that Sal himself asked to see and test the knife. My bet is that there is something up with that single knife and not with the steel as a whole. My experience has been convincingly clear to me—no steel is better at resisting water, fruit and food acidity, and staining than LC200N.
One weird note—the steel tends to collect fingerprints in a weird way. Instead of the normal well defined smudges, fingerprints produce a bit of a haze. Its hard to explain it, other than to say that this steel does not behave like most steels in this regard. It also tends to hold the filmy haze through water. To get the blade gleaming I had to use rubbing alcohol (which is better for the blade anyway).
Sharpenability: 5; exceptionally easy
Thanks to a middling HRc (for the modern market) and a good grind, the LC200N on my Spydiechef took an amazing edge quite quickly. Stropping was almost always enough and when it wasn’t a dozen swipes on the Spyderco Sharpmaker’s white sticks were enough to put a screaming edge on the knife. One concern I have is that the grind might have more an impact than the steel here. That said, given the target hardness, I can’t see sharpening being an issue regardless of the grind.
Overall Score: 18 out of 20 with high price premium
LC200N is currently my favorite steel. It used to be that when asked what the best steel was, smart steel junkies used to give that most lawyerly of answers—it depends. But the reality is that absent some very specific use, LC200N is the best steel for the vast, vast majority of people. The real issue right now is availability. Gavko used the steel on some of his customs. There are a few other custom makers doing so. But the reality is that most people have experience with this steel through a trio of Spydercos—the Spydiechef, the Mule 25, and the Tusk (with a purchase distribution of probably something like 97%, 2.9%, and .1% respectively).
There is a new all around performance king in the knife world and it is LC200N. When can I get my bight blue FRN handled Dragonfly in LC200N Sal?