What is the Worst Knife Steel? (My Uneducated Opinion)

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Last updated on July 14th, 2023 at 03:07 pm

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Knife enthusiasts and collectors know that not all knife steels are created equal. In fact, there are significant differences in performance, corrosion resistance, and edge retention depending on the specific type of steel used in a knife’s blade. In order to make an informed decision when purchasing a knife, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the various steel compositions and their respective drawbacks.

One of the most crucial factors in determining the quality of a knife’s blade is the type of steel it is made from. The worst knife steel, by some interpretations, can be considered as having poor edge performance, low rust resistance, and overall durability. While there is no universal agreement on which specific steel is the absolute worst, it is important to evaluate each steel type on its merits and consider how well-suited it is for the intended use of the knife.

By evaluating the qualifications of various steels we can assess their overall performance and characteristics, allowing us to make informed decisions about which steels to avoid, especially for specific applications or purposes. Keeping these factors in mind will help ensure that you choose a knife with a blade that meets your needs and expectations without compromising on durability and performance.

However, enough being wishy-washy, here’s the best answer I came up with (still nuanced of course):

While there isn’t a definitive answer to the worst knife steel, we can analyze the properties of certain steels to determine which may be less desirable for specific applications. Among these, 420HCAUS-8, 420J2, and AUS 6 have certain drawbacks such as reduced edge retention or toughness, compared to best knife steels.

Defining the Worst Knife Steel

Steel Composition

The composition of a knife steel significantly affects its performance and properties such as toughness, sharpness, and corrosion resistance. Generally, the worst knife steel will have an unbalanced composition of elements, with either too little or too much carbon and other alloying elements. This can result in poor performance, making the steel inferior in terms of edge retention, toughness, and resistance to rust.

For example, knives made from low-carbon steels, such as 5Cr15Mov or 7Cr13Mov, tend to have poor edge retention due to their low carbide content. Similarly, high-carbon steels with limited chromium content can be more prone to rusting, while steels with insufficient amounts of elements like vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten can exhibit weaker overall properties.

Performance Factors

When discussing the worst knife steel, it’s essential to consider the key performance factors for knives. Generally, knife steels can be evaluated based on their:

  1. Edge retention: How well a knife preserves its sharpness after performing cutting tasks. A poor-quality knife steel will dull quickly, requiring more frequent sharpening.
  2. Toughness: The ability of a knife steel to resist fracturing or chipping when subjected to stress and impact. Low-quality steels are more prone to breakage or chipping, posing safety hazards and limiting the knife’s functionality.
  3. Corrosion resistance: A measure of how well a knife steel resists rust and degradation. Stainless steels with high levels of chromium or steels with added elements like nitrogen are typically more corrosion-resistant. However, the worst knife steels lack sufficient levels of these elements and may suffer from rust and corrosion problems.

In summary, the worst knife steel will likely be one with an unsuitable composition for the intended use, exhibiting poor performance in terms of edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance. By examining these factors, you can make informed decisions when choosing the best knife steel for your specific needs.

Common Types of Knife Steel

Stainless Steels

Stainless steels are a popular choice for knives due to their corrosion resistance and ease of maintenance. Some common stainless steel grades used in knives include:

  • 420: An affordable and widely used steel with moderate hardness and corrosion resistance. It is easy to sharpen but doesn’t hold its edge as well as other stainless steels.
  • 440C: A higher-end stainless steel with excellent corrosion resistance and edge retention. It is harder than 420, but also more difficult to sharpen.
  • 8Cr13MoV: A Chinese stainless steel found in many budget knives. It offers a good balance of corrosion resistance, edge retention, and ease of sharpening.
  • VG-1: A Japanese stainless steel known for its good edge retention and corrosion resistance, comparable to 8Cr13MoV.

Carbon Steels

Carbon steels are known for their superior edge retention and toughness but can be more prone to rust. Here are some prominent carbon steel grades used in knives:

  • 1095: A high carbon steel widely used in affordable knives. It holds a sharp edge well and is easy to sharpen but has low corrosion resistance.
  • 5150 and 5160: These two carbon steels are more tough and shock-resistant than 1095, making them ideal for heavy-duty applications like large knives or sword blades. However, they still have low corrosion resistance.
  • 52100: A high-carbon steel with excellent edge retention and toughness, but low corrosion resistance. It’s often used in high-performance cutting tools and knives.

High-End Steels

There are also several high-end knife steels that provide exceptional performance in terms of edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance. Some of the most renowned high-end steels include:

  • D2: A semi-stainless steel known for its excellent edge retention and wear resistance, though it can be challenging to sharpen.
  • S30V and S90V: These high-end stainless steels are highly-regarded for their exceptional edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance.
  • 154CM: A premium stainless steel with great edge retention and corrosion resistance, although more difficult to sharpen than some other steels.
  • N690: An Austrian stainless steel with excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance, often compared to VG-1 in terms of performance.

Other high-end steels include CTS-XHPM390Elmax, and ZDP-189, which are known for their exceptional edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance. Some knives also use Damascus steel, which is prized for its unique patterns and aesthetic appeal but usually has performance comparable to the underlying steels used in its construction.

Factors Affecting Knife Steel Performance

Hardness and Toughness

Knife steel performance relies heavily on a careful balance between hardness and toughness. Hardness refers to a steel’s resistance to deformation, which can contribute to a knife’s overall durability. Meanwhile, toughness refers to the ability of the steel to absorb impact and resist fracturing. Typically, high-carbon steels are known for their hardness, while more flexible alloys, such as 5160, offer increased toughness.

Higher hardness can lead to better edge retention but may also result in a more brittle knife. Alternatively, a knife with increased toughness can resist chipping and breaking but may not hold a sharp edge as well. It’s essential to strike a balance between hardness and toughness for optimal knife performance.

Corrosion and Wear Resistance

Corrosion resistance is another significant factor in evaluating knife steel performance. Different types of stainless steels, which contain higher amounts of chromium, provide better corrosion resistance. Chromium forms a passive protective layer on the steel’s surface, preventing oxidation and rusting.

Wear resistance refers to a material’s ability to withstand abrasive wear, which contributes to extended edge retention. This attribute is often determined by the presence of alloying elements such as vanadium, tungsten, and molybdenum, which form hard carbides in steel and promote wear resistance.

Edge Retention

A key aspect of knife performance is edge retention, or how well the knife can maintain its sharpness after extensive use. The CATRA test is an industry-standard method to evaluate a knife steel’s edge retention. A balance of hardness, toughness, and wear resistance contributes to a knife’s ability to hold an edge, resulting in extended performance between sharpening sessions.

Other elements, like carbon, influence edge retention by increasing the hardness of the steel. Carbon can also combine with other elements like vanadium and tungsten to form extremely hard carbides, which are responsible for enhanced wear resistance and edge retention.

Finally, ease of sharpening should be a consideration, as even knives with excellent edge retention will inevitably require sharpening. High-carbon steels with minimal alloying elements tend to be more straightforward to sharpen, whereas stainless steels and more advanced alloys can demand more skill and specialized equipment for proper sharpening.

Heat Treatment and Manufacturing Processes

Heat Treatment Effects on Steel

Heat treatment is a crucial factor in determining the performance of a knife, as it affects the balance of hardness and toughness in the steel. This process involves heating the steel to a high temperature, quenching it, and then tempering it to achieve the desired properties. A poorly executed heat treatment can result in suboptimal performance, even in premium steel.

Nickel, for instance, is often added to steel to improve toughness and corrosion resistance. However, too much nickel can have a negative impact on the hardness of the steel, making it more prone to wear and losing its edge quickly. Thus, careful heat treatment is essential to strike the right balance between these properties.

Powder Metallurgy

Powder metallurgy is a manufacturing process that involves the production of steel by compacting metal powders and sintering them under high heat and pressure. This process yields finer grain structures and more uniform distribution of alloying elements, resulting in a higher-quality steel.

Maxamet, a popular knife steel developed by Carpenter Technology, is an example of a steel produced through powder metallurgy. The fine grain structure achieved through this process allows the steel to have a high level of hardness and wear resistance while maintaining a reasonable level of toughness.


Rolling is another manufacturing process that can impact the properties of knife steel. It involves passing the steel through a series of rollers to reduce its thickness and improve its mechanical properties.

This process can result in steel with improved tensile strength and wear resistance, as well as a more even distribution of carbides throughout the steel. Kobe Steel, a well-known steel manufacturer, uses rolling techniques in producing knife steel, ensuring consistent quality and performance across their product lines.

In summary, heat treatment and manufacturing processes such as powder metallurgy and rolling play critical roles in the characteristics of knife steel. Proper control of these processes can help produce steel with a balance of hardness, toughness, and wear resistance, enabling the creation of high-performance knives.

Beyond Steel: Other Factors to Consider

Blade Geometry

When selecting a knife, it is crucial to consider the blade geometry, which can have a significant impact on the knife’s performance. Edge geometry refers to the shape and angles of the cutting edge, and it plays a vital role in determining how the knife slices through materials. Different edge geometries are suitable for various tasks, like a thin edge might excel for slicing while a thick edge can withstand the stress of heavy chopping. The grind of the knife, which refers to how the blade’s primary bevel transitions into the cutting edge, is another element of blade geometry. Common types of grinds include flat, hollow, and convex, each offering unique benefits and drawbacks.

Ease of Sharpening

Another critical aspect to consider is the ease of sharpening your knife. While some steel types, like 154CM, offer good edge retention, they might be more challenging to sharpen when the time comes. The hardness of the blade materials, as well as the grind, can influence how easy or difficult this process could be. Maintenance is an essential part of knife ownership, so having a blade that is simple to sharpen when it becomes dull is a noteworthy factor to keep in mind.

Budget Constraints

Your budget is an indispensable part of the decision-making process when selecting a knife steel. Although some high-tier, premium steels offer fantastic edge retention and corrosion resistance, they can also come with a higher price tag. If you’re on a budget, consider other blade materials that can offer a good balance between performance and cost. For example, Carbon V is a more affordable option that still delivers reliable performance.

To sum things up, when evaluating knife steels, it is essential to look beyond the steel itself, taking into account factors such as blade geometry, ease of sharpening, and budget constraints. These elements can help you make a well-informed decision that meets your specific needs and preferences, ensuring a high-quality knife experience.


While there isn’t a definitive answer to the worst knife steel, we can analyze the properties of certain steels to determine which may be less desirable for specific applications. Among these, 420HCAUS-8420J2, and AUS 6 have certain drawbacks such as reduced edge retention or toughness, compared to best knife steels.

It’s crucial to consider steel ratings and their balance between factors such as hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance. For instance, high-end steels typically maximize performance in these areas but may come at a higher cost. Examining the micrographs of different steels can provide insight into their composition and performance.

No knife steel can be considered the best or worst for all applications. Therefore, it’s important to choose a steel based on your specific needs and preferences. Factors like the presence of elements such as sulfur, silicon, phosphorous, and nitrogen play a role in a steel’s characteristics and the determination of its appropriateness for certain tasks.

To make an informed decision, consider consulting resources like the ultimate guide to knife steels and be mindful of relevant test results that provide a better understanding of steel performance. As a knife user, carefully choose your steel based on its strengths, weaknesses, and how well it caters to your requirements.

When you visit a merchant by clicking a link on this site we may make a commission on anything you buy (at no additional cost to you).   Affiliate programs and affiliations include, but are not limited to Amazon Associates and the eBay Partner Network.”