Last Updated on May 20, 2022 by Matt Selfe
There is no better way to start a riot in the knifemaker and knife collector community than to discuss steel types. One person’s favourite steel will be considered a terrible choice in someone else’s view. They say that opinions are like arseholes, everyone has one. Well, welcome to mine!
This is a list of the current knife making steels that I use to make my blades.
For the first 6 years of knife making I only ever made knives from 2 different sheets of steel. And for the first 4 of them, I only ever used O1 tool steel. So let us start there.
O1 Tool Steel
O1 is also known as Ground Flat Stock or Gauge Plate Steel.
For years and years, O1 was the go-to steel for an awful lot of knife makers. It was the steel that was recommended to anyone who wanted to dabble in knife making, and it was made popular in the bushcraft community by Ray Mears with his Alan Wood Woodlore bushcraft knife.
This is a picture of one of the bushcraft knives I used to make from O1 tool steel.
On all the knife forums 10 years ago O1 was labelled as an easy to use, easy to heat treat and easy to maintain steel. The best steel for beginners and established makers alike. It gained a lot of popularity because of this and was sometimes hated in equal measures. I think that part of this was born from the fact that at the time it was one of the only steels you could easily purchase for making knives in the UK. There simply wasn’t the variety we have at our fingertips these days, so O1 became the go-to steel for pretty much everyone.
O1 is relatively forgiving for someone wanting to heat treat themselves at home, and sure my first knives were made under the adage of heat until non-magnetic and quenched in rapeseed oil. Then temper to a straw colour. However, over the years I did many tests with O1 steel and being able to maintain a consistent temperature, soaking the steel at this temperature and quenching in specialist steel quench oil makes for a much better blade.
I have found the sweet spot to be 58/59 on the Rockwell scale, and O1 knives of this hardness produce a keen edge that can be kept sharp easily. It isn’t the toughest of steels and the edge dulls quicker in use than other steels however, this drop in toughness does make it easy to re-sharpen. Again, I think that this is one of the reasons that it has gained popularity in the bushcraft world as an O1 knife is easy to maintain in the field.
So this is my favourite carbon steel. When I first used it I thought it was like O1 on steroids. It has a much higher toughness than O1 steel with great edge retention. This does mean that it is slightly tougher to sharpen, but the edge itself is easy to maintain. What I mean by that, is that if the edge is looked after during use it will remain sharp. Stropping during use will quickly bring the that keen edge back to life and you won’t have to take it to the stones.
It is now my go-to carbon steel for outdoors knives, hunting knives, camp knives and EDC knives. I love being able to draw out the temper of the spine (known as a differential heat treat) which makes for a very forgiving tool when in hard use.
My camp knife in 80crv2 with a differential heat treat
I have found the sweet spot for 80crv2 to be around 59/60 on the Rockwell hardness scale. This produces a very tough blade that doesn’t chip or dull easily in hard use, has great edge retention yet with a little practice remains easy to sharpen and maintain in the field.
I also use it for a lot of chef knives as the steel can be ground to a very thin edge whilst maintaining high Rockwell hardness. As you can see 80crv2 is brilliant all-round steel, made even better by the variety of thicknesses that this steel is available in.
This steel has only been in my repertoire for the past 18 months, but I brought it in to do some testing for my range of kitchen knives. I found during my initial testing that this steel could produce a very fine yet stable edge which was just what I was looking for in my kitchen blades.
I have found 1.2419 steel to be slightly less tough than 80crv2 which makes it easier to sharpen. This for me is a big win for the home chef who may not be quite so skilled at maintaining and sharpening a blade.
My K-Tip chef knife is in 1.2419 carbon steel.
I have found my sweet spot for this steel to be around 61/62 on the Rockwell hardness scale at which it produces a hard stable edge that sharpens easily. It can be maintained with a steel or ceramic rod with ease. I have had great feedback from both professional chefs and home cooks on knives made from this steel.
Unfortunately, 1.2419 steel has stopped being supplied by GFS Knife Supplies I generally use for my knife making steel, and I haven’t yet been able to find an alternative supplier. I do still have some in stock, so if you do want a knife made from 1.2419 get in touch with me quickly.
26c3 – Spicy White
I have been so impressed with this steel. I’ve only been using it for about the past 6 months but in that short time trialling it, I have been blown away. It is very clean steel that has a very fine grain structure. Because of this, it takes a super fine edge which is fantastic for kitchen cutlery.
This steel is capable of getting very hard, it was originally designed for razor blades, which translates well to kitchen knives where you are looking for a thin blade with a fine edge geometry. On quenching the steel it is registering in the high 60s on the Rockwell Hardness Scale.
This steel also takes a brilliant Hamon. This is the wavy line that you can see on the blade in the picture above. The spine of the knife has clay applied before heat treatment which allows for differential heat treatment. The spine cools slower than the edge and doesn’t harden. This leaves a hard edge and a soft spine. Excellent for swords or camp knives, not so much needed in kitchen knives but it looks freaking cool!
I have found the sweet spot on the Rockwell Hardness Scale to be around 63 in this steel. Although this steel gets very hard, it is not as wear-resistant in comparison which allows it to be sharpened with relative ease.
This was the first steel I played with and tested when I bought my heat treatment oven. I can honestly say that I have used and abused this steel and have been impressed with the results.
This steel takes a keen edge and keeps it. I like to temper this steel to 58 on the Rockwell scale which I have found to give a good trade between hardness and toughness. I have abused knives at this hardness in the garden and woods and have never had issues with edge damage or even the real need to re-sharpen.
This knife below is made from N690 steel, easily chopped up a pineapple, cut open a coconut and then was still able to slice paper.
Of the stainless steel, this is one of the easier to sharpen, but if you are only used to sharpening carbon steel then you may find it a little more hard work.
Niolox is niobium-alloyed steel, and it is the addition of niobium that forms hard carbides in the steel. This makes Niolox very wear-resistant. It makes it grinder resistant! This steel is hard to work and to grind, and this is reflected in the price when buying a knife with a Niolox blade. However, a Niolox blade when sharp stays sharp. It takes an amazing edge that really in general daily use will only ever need to be stropped to bring it back to a razor edge.
In the same way that these carbides give the steel excellent wear-resistant properties, it also reduces the toughness. In hard use, the steel can be prone to microchipping, and I would not suggest using knives of this steel as a crowbar ( I wouldn’t suggest using any knife as a crowbar though). “Reduces” is the operative word here though, Niolox is still very tough steel.
I love using this steel on my friction folders as for general day to day tasks this knife will remain sharp pretty much forever.
This photo is of my Goliath friction folder in Niolox steel.
The sweet spot I like for this steel is 60 on the Rockwell hardness scale.
I’ve been using this steel for a couple of years now. Originally brought in to offer a stainless steel option to my kitchen knife range, but actually, my tests so far have proven that it will be an excellent all-around steel. It seems to tick so many boxes it almost seems unreal. Following lots of testing, I now offer this steel for many of my models, including my bushcraft knife. It is a very popular option for people who will be exploring wet environments where a typical carbon steel knife would have issues with dampness and humidity. AEB-L offers the bushcrafter or explorer a knife that they do not need to be concerned about it rusting or tarnishing in these conditions.
The steel is tough and takes a keen edge. The steel holds an edge well and it sharpens with relative ease. All of this will contribute to making an excellent professional chef knife in stainless steel.
For what treatment of AEB-L I have found 61 on the Rockwell scale to be the best Rockwell hardness for kitchen knives, customer feedback is that it holds a great edge, does not chip out easily and is easy to maintain sharpness.
Damascus, or pattern welded steel as it should be called is where 2 different types of steel, one with a high nickel content are forge-welded together. The layers of steel are built up by forging out the billet of steel, cutting them up into smaller pieces and sticking them on top of each other and forge-welded together again. This process can be repeated many times to increase the layer count. Many different processes can be completed during the forging process to create different patterns such as twisting the steel, carving or drilling out sections to create a ladder or raindrop pattern. It is beautiful, but you do need to be careful of where you buy your steel or your Damascus knives.
If buying pattern-welded steel billets, or Damascus knives check with the maker or seller where the steel came from. There is a lot of this steel made in Asia that looks good on the outside but isn’t quite what it makes itself out to be. Much of this steel is made from unknown steel, much of it is mild steel that cannot be hardened, and when worked it is often filled with flaws such as unwelded areas leaving gaping holes and cracks in your knife. The price should put you off. If you’re being offered a billed of steel for £20 run away, a decent billet of steel will cost easily over £100 before you have done anything to it. Expensive, but you get what you pay for.
There are many reputable makers of pattern-welded steel, so do your research. I only use steel from reputable makers who stand by their steel, which allows me to stand behind the quality of my knives.
This steel looks amazing, it makes your knives stand out and offers a great talking point. You can pair up your handle material to complement this steel as well. I offer this option on all of my knives.
San Mai is another aesthetically pleasing steel to look at and is one of my favourite knifemaking steels. Historically it was used to allow for the best use of valuable high carbon steel. San Mai can be thought of as a steel sandwich. Soft outer steel such as wrought iron is the outer cladding or the bread and the high carbon steel is the middle piece of steel or the tasty filling. Back when making high carbon steel was incredibly hard work this was a way of making a smaller piece of steel go further, and not wasting that valuable high carbon steel in places it wasn’t needed. Today I use it because it looks cool!
Again, I only ever use San Mai from reputable makers. When etched the high carbon steel goes almost black with the outer jacket a much lighter grey. If wrought iron is used this reveals the grainy, almost wood-like patterns in the steel. it makes for a very sexy kitchen knife.
Check out my available knives section to see what I am currently making, and in what steel types!