At the show last weekend I had a brief discussion with a fellow that started with him asking what was the best blade steel. It didn’t take long to get drawn into a circular discussion about the merits of this steel vs that steel and what you wanted to use the blade for. In short, we didn’t reach a conclusion.
When we sorted it out we both agreed there’s a ton of blade steel confusion. It’s so easy to get wound up the in the long list of alpha numeric options. You’ve got the ATS’s, CPM’s, CTS’s, D’s, N’s, VG, LC’s, 440’s, 1095, A2 and on and on. Then you can start sorting out the different versions of similar steels from different sources. And let’s not forget laminated blades, damascus…. You can get a headache just looking at the options.
While there are some excellent resources to help understand the sometimes subtle differences, it’s still confusing. You want the stain resistance of stainless but you like the ease of working with higher carbon steels. There’s a desire to have a blade that will hold an edge forever but if it gets dull you don’t want to have to send it off to a master cutler for resharpening.
A further complication comes when you start comparing prices. I recently spent some time looking through a wholesaler catalog and was fascinated by the wide range of prices for what I felt were similar products. There were fixed blade knives with micarta handles and 1095 blades that varied in price by over $100. And Damascus steel buyers, caveat emptor. There is imported crap that won’t hold an edge cutting wind and excellent Damascus that will run into the $1000 range.
In years past there was a significant bias against Chinese Blades. The main gripe I heard dealt with the inconsistent quality of the steels. A good example of a common domestic steel is 1095. We all know that not all1095 is created equally. With the correct tempering it’s an outstanding steel. Improperly tempered it won’t hold an edge worth a dime or to hard it can become brittle. This is true of all steels. Correct tempering is the heart of a decent blade.
My most recent exposure to a few of the Chinese blades left me impressed. I can’t speak for all imports but the quality and consistency issues seem to have greatly improved. So this further complicates the equation with even more good quality options.
And the question remains, what’s the best blade steel? Every knife maker out there will tell you whatever their blades are made is the best. I have my preferences and a lot of you do as well. If you ask 5 different people that actually use their knives, you’re gonna get at least 3 different answers.
The process of selection
So if you haven’t’ or can’t make up your mind here’s a suggestion. Make a list of the most common jobs you use your knife for. Is stain resistance important. Do you have a specific blade profile you like. How willing are you to spend a little time regularly maintaining the blade edge. And add any other considerations that are important to you.
Next, do some serious research. Google Blade Steel Comparisons and you’ll get a ton of reading material. Don’t depend on the forums for objective info. Too often the forums are full of bias and short on objectivity. Go to the different sites that offer blade steel comparisons. The steel manufacturers sites can be a good source of information regarding their proprietary steels, but there are sites that will compare multiple sources. At the very least you’re going to learn a lot about the different steels and get a better understanding of their differences.
Or maybe the best way to make a choice is the one I use. Commit to spending a portion of your life in the field and budget a few thousand discretionary dollars. Buy stuff that looks interesting. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and take a chance or two on a knife you’ve never really considered. Don’t discard the knives you don’t like because at some point in time you may/will have a change of heart. This approach isn’t nearly as scientific but it’s a helluva lot of fun and you’ll learn a bunch on your quest. And be willing to give up the belief that there’s a ‘perfect blade steel’. As soon as you find it, I promise there will be an even better option show up.