Pete is a true gem of the community. He is to the knife community what Ryan Thibodaux is to the baseball community. He recently combined two of my favorite things—Tier Lists and Steel in this superb video.
A few things about this list compared to Pete’s list. First, I don’t have experience with as many steels as Pete does so there will be some notable omissions. There is no REX 121 or Maxamet. Some of the junk steels are missing too as I haven’t bothered to buy a knife with something like 440A or anything less than 8Cr13MoV.
I am also prioritizing three things differently than Pete does.
Most importantly, I really like well-balanced steels. I’d rather have a steel that is above average in everything than a steel that does supremely well in one thing at the cost of other things. Pete, with his cut testing, focuses on very hard steels and his tier list demonstrates that focus.
Next, I also like steels that sharpen easily. I think that we, as a community, need to realize that super hard steels that cannot be self-maintained are an inherently a bad idea. As such, I am going to prioritize sharpenability higher than Pete did (or at least higher than he explicitly stated).
Finally, I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room—price. Some of these steels are so expensive that they are, effectively, beyond justification. No performance improvement (or more accurately no performance improvement that would arise in the context of a average knife user) could possibly justify the price.
One other note—the price of steel is really in flux right now. I usually check every two or three months to make sure that bar stock prices roughly translate into knife prices and while that is still true, there has been a lot of fluctuation in prices. I am not an economist, but I would assume it is because of the steel tariffs. Oddly, some steels are going down in price. S35VN is now basically the price of S30V, as there is probably less demand overseas given the tariffs between the US and China. I would imagine that non-US steels are going to fill that gap as Chinese makers switch over to tariff-free steel. That might put price pressure on stuff like M390, which is made in Europe.
There are three prominent steel “families” which I have grouped together unless there is a reason not to. These are steels that have different trade names or different steels with very similar recipes. Here are the three families: the LC200 N family (LC200N, Z-Finit, and Cronidur 30), the M390 family (M390, CTS-204p, and CPM-20CV), and the 154CM family (154CM, RWL34, and ATS-34).
So without more lead up, here is my steel tier list circa May 2019 (prices are taken as of the week of May 13):
The best on the market, with no real trade offs between hardness, toughness, corrosion resistance, sharpenability, and price. I am convinced that a steel has to be user-serviceable with regular equipment to belong here. As of 2019, there is only one steel that I think deserves placement in the S Tier.
LC 200N aka Z-Finit aka Cronidur 30: With an approach favoring balance, sharpenability, and price, it is hard to find a better steel than LC 200N. If H1 and CPM154 had a baby this would be it. This is a great steel, does everything well with no appreciable weaknesses and it does it all at a very reasonable price. Alpha Knife Supply has bar stock of LC 200N at $37.50 (.066x23x1.5) while D2 is $22.00 for a very similar size (.050x23x1.5). M390 is roughly twice the price.
These are steels that excel at one or two things but with a cost in other attributes. These steels are all quite good and you should be willing to pay a premium for them.
20CV: Of the M390 family of steels 20CV stands out as being noticeably easier to sharpen. That is a huge plus in my mind, as lots of new PM steels are hard as nails but impossible to self-service.
INFI: I have had two long user periods with INFI and both times I have found the same thing—this is a great steel, even if it is, as rumor has it on the IKC, really more of a heat treat than an entirely new steel recipe. As you will see in these rankings, heat treat matters, as I have no fewer than four steels that rank higher than the base steel because of heat treat. And while they don’t call it stainless, I can’t manage to stain my INFI knives. As far as tough steels go, this is my favorite. If you want to see truly bonkers performance, thin the edge out a bit on your Busse. INFI can hold a atom splitting edge for a while.
ZDP-189: You like edges. You like them ultra sharp. You like them to stay that way. You like ZDP-189. And while it can stain a bit, its nothing to worry about. One other concern is that ZDP-189 is a limited distribution steel because of Japanese government restrictions. That raises prices and limits availability.
M390/204p: These two, in my experience, are indistinguishable from each other. Both are excellent steels. But I like 20CV because of its sharpenability a bit better. I have seen some metallurgy writing that indicates that the difference is that 20CV has bigger carbides, but I am not sure. Someone with actual metallurgy insights comment below.
3V: Tough as taffy and not bad at holding an edge, I really like 3V for fixed blades. My experience tells me that INFI is better as I have used an INFI blade and 3V blade side by side for a while and the 3V blade chips while the INFI blade rolls. That could be edge geometry, but I usually put a convex cutting bevel on my fixed blades so I get the sense that its the chemistry and not the physics that explains the difference.
S90V: S90V would rank higher if it were easier to sharpen. It is an exceedingly great steel to use with very few drawbacks, but it is as hard or harder to sharpen than ZDP-189 and for that reason, I love it but am not ready to buy knives only with S90V.
S110V: S110V is, in my experience, very similar to S90V, with a smidge less toughness. I will be candid and say that without being told, it would be hard to tell the difference between the two unless I had a lot of cutting to do and it was in rough material. In that case, I could probably figure out which is which.
Buck’s S30V: You will notice a theme here—Buck’s heat treats consistently wring out the last bit of performance from a steel. Buck’s S30V steel has performed better than regular S30V and even S35VN. It holds an edge for a bit longer than S35VN but maintains its user-serviceability. If there is one thing to explain how Buck remains competitive their heat treats are it (that and a stable of classic designs). Look for another Buck heat treated knife to outperform its recipe later down the list.
M4: When steel snobs get sentimental its because of M4. This is not a new steel. In fact, by steel standards it is in late middle age, but man is it still awesome. If you don’t give a shit about corrosion or you live in a dry climate, this is the steel to go with as it is hard, tough, and relatively cheap. Its not fun to sharpen, but if you are on a budget, this is truly great. M4 has all the attributes that some old timers think D2 has.
SG2 aka Super Gold: This is an uncommon steel but a fantastic one. Performance-wise it is quite good. The only real ding I have is the price. I believe that the price has to do with Japanese restrictions on steels. Performance-wise it reminds of very good S30V or S35VN with a smidge more hardness and good sharpenability.
These are steels that are starting to show their age or are designed with value and not performance in mind. They are all very good, but not great steels.
CTS-XHP: The price of this steel has, remarkably, gone up since it was released. For some reason it has become less readily available. Nonetheless it is one of the better all-around steels, just a smidge behind the M390 family.
S35VN: It may be fun to poke at people that still call this a “premium” steel, but the reality is S35VN is still an excellent performer and an all around superior steel. Its basically S30V that sharpens easier and that is a huge plus in my book.
Elmax: Wow! What a downfall. Some backyard scientists obliterated Elmax’s reputation and as a result it basically fell out of use. It is a shame because I really like Elmax. Its edge holding is only a hair behind M390 et al. I would not balk at a resurgence in the use of this steel, Mr. Wizard findings be damned.
RWL34/CPM154: I cannot discern a performance difference between these two steels. Both are very good and both are a bit better at corrosion resistance than the normal 154CM/ATS-34 steels. I also like the fact that they both take amazing mirror finishes. If you are looking for a custom and want (for some self-punishing reason) a mirror edge, this is where to go. My Sawby Swift with a gleaming mirror edge is in CPM154 and while I know that a large part of that is Sawby’s master touch, some portion of the beauty of the blade stems from the steel.
Super Blue: Another of the Japanese limited availability steels. The knife I had with it was superb—hard as nails yet sharpened like an icicle. The Japanese iron sands are the difference maker and they have been for a thousand years. It would tarnish in a desert, but the trade off here— very high hardness and sharpenability at the expense of toughness and corrosion resistance is pretty close to unique in the steel world.
This is par for the course. Given the market and the price of steels over time, this is about the bottom of the acceptable range. Anything below this either has a niche purpose or is too far behind the technology curve to be worthwhile. Buy steels worse than this only if you have no choice.
S30V: I was never a huge fan of S30V because of its poor sharpenability. It takes a good edge and holds it, but not insanely long. Certainly not long enough to justify how hard it is to sharpen. Recent heat treats have made S30V better, but it still not my favorite. In terms of difficulty sharpening it is in the same league as ZDP-189 and S90V and it performs nothing like these steels.
ATS-34/154CM: I got burned on a knife with 154CM and freckled like a redhead in the sun. Over time I have had more experience with it without problems, but still I worry. Properly heat treated 154CM is actually more than fine for every task, though it is not great at any one thing. An Emerson in 154CM is still a damn good knife with a perfectly acceptable steel.
A2: A2 is a good. It is really good. If you don’t mind its high carbon-ness (aka prone to staining), then this is a good steel. Hard and tough, it is to fixed blades what M4 is to folders—an older steel that still really performs well.
Buck’s 420HC: This is the first of the “heat treat” winners and I can honestly say I really, really like Buck’s 420HC. Its better at holding an edge than it has any right being and it sharpens so easily. Its basically VG10 that sharpens easier and costs half as much. That’s a winner, given my priorities.
TM Hunt’s 01: Similar to Buck’s 420HC, Hunt’s heat treat protocol leaves the ole classic in a much better state. If Buck’s 420HC is a cheaper VG10, this is a cheaper 3V.
Rowen’s 1095: Having an overseas made knife in the Schrade SCH36 next to a few ESEEs and it is clear not all 1095 is the same. This stuff is tougher and significantly less chippy.
14C28N: Probably my favorite non-powder metal steel (which may change, BD1N is incoming), this is a budget steel that performs very similar to S30V.
D2: Still an acceptable steel, but at this point very long in the tooth. I have not had a Dozier D2 knife long enough to figure out if the heat treat was significantly better, but the wisdom of crowds tells me that it probably is.
These are steels that, in my opinion, are fatally flawed or have a narrow band of good applications.
VG10: This may be the steel I hate the most. Sure, it can take a great edge and yes it repels stains like wax does water, but it doesn’t hold that edge all that long and it is exceedingly hard to sharpen given its other attributes. Like S30V, its difficulty in sharpening is not made up for by anything else. And, unlike S30V there are few refined heat treats that make this older steel better. It is also a Japanese restricted distribution steel.
1095: In cheaper fixed blades, this is okay, though Rowen’s version is just straight up better. Its also decent in some folders that have NO intention of being used hard. I find this steel too be chippy and not super great at edge holding. In a small, slicey GEC its quite good, but that is a very narrow use case.
8Cr14MoV: A smidge more stain resistant than its 13-variant little brother, its not worth paying for anymore, now that the price of other steels has come down.
440C: Meh...I guess its okay, but boy does it suffer from comparisons to about two dozen other steels.
AUS-8: See above 440C.
8Cr13MoV: Absent a nicely coated 8Cr13MoV, there is no reason to delve this deep into the steel gutter. They cut about the same and are equally corrosion resistant. Ironically, very few mainline Chinese brands ever drop this far, reserving this junk steels for American companies for which they do OEM work. What a masterstroke by the Chinese brands—they off load their shite steel AND weaken the reputation of their competitors at the same time. Just no.
The following steels should be avoided if you have a choice: Case’s Stainless Steel, 420HC by anyone other than buck, 7Cr or below, O1, 1.4116.