Think of knife steel as part of a recipe. There are many different ways to make the same dish; some will taste better than others, and some will be outstanding. Most of what makes an amazing dish are the ingredients and the skills of the chef. Making a knife is a similar process. You can’t create a winning dish without the proper ingredients and a great deal of talent.
One other thing I would like to mention is that many times a person can’t tell how much better a recipe is until they have compared it to something lesser. The same goes for a great kitchen knife. Unless you have used a knife that is perfectly sharpened and ergonomically correct, you can’t appreciate how much better it is than a typical production knife. Does any of this matter to someone that uses a knife once a week for 10 minutes? Probably not. But if you use your knife every day, all day, it is a huge deal! Having a kitchen knife that feels good in your hand and makes light work of your everyday tasks is priceless.
Steel is the main ingredient for making a knife. The composition of the steel determines the sharpness of the blade, its edge holding capability, and its toughness. The profile of the steel, edge geometry, weight, and balance determine how well the knife will do its job and how comfortable it is for the user. The composition of the steel also determines how well the blade will hold up to corrosion and everyday tasks.
So what knife steels are available and what makes them different? Steels come in three major categories: high carbon steel, Damascus steel, and high carbon stainless steel. Carbon steel will rust if left wet, but it can also be one of the sharpest blades available. A great number of chefs prefer carbon steel because it sharpens easily, forms a scary-sharp edge, and will stay sharp for a long time. Carbon steel takes on a beautiful patina over time and, with proper care, it can last as long as stainless steels. Carbon steel blades are often hand-forged. While there is much controversy about hand-forged carbon steel knives being better than carbon steel stock removal knives, I believe that there is more of a maker’s heart and soul in a hand-forged blade.
Damascus steel is usually several types of high carbon steel that have been layered together to make a pattern that is visually appealing and can also add to the cutting ability of the blade. Stainless steels can be used in making Damascus steel as well but aren’t as common due to the difficulty of welding the layers and forging the blade. Stainless steels are much more difficult to work with by hand. The priciest kitchen knives made by the best and most artistic knife makers are usually a form of Damascus steel and are priced starting around the $1000 mark.
That brings us to stainless steel. Stainless steel has gotten a bad rap in the past for high-end kitchen knives as well as sporting knives. This is mainly because there are many types of stainless steel used for kitchen cutlery. The world wanted knives that needed little care or maintenance and could be thrown in a dishwasher, without having any idea of what a good knife should be. The big knife companies answered the call, making stainless steel knives that are adored by homemakers everywhere. They were low maintenance, but the problem was they were lousy knives! Stainless is more expensive than carbon steel and harder to work with, so to keep prices down, many of the large knife companies used cheap stainless, like 440a, 440b, and 420HC. This 440/420 stainless isn’t great knife steel. It’s harder to sharpen than carbon steel, doesn’t take a decent edge, and couldn’t hold an edge worth a penny. Professionals learned to hate these stainless knives; most continued using the carbon steel knives that had worked so well for them before stainless showed up. Not all stainless knives were junk however; knives made using 440C stainless and others were decent, but many got lumped in as stainless trash. Cut to today. Stainless steels have become highly engineered “super steels.” These steels are corrosion resistant, tough, take and hold a scary sharp edge, and give many users the perfect combination of ease of maintenance and performance. The downside to the super-steels is that they are expensive and extremely difficult to work with. This makes for a high-end knife, but also a high-end price tag; many are four or five times what a good carbon steel knife goes for.
The Best Steel For Kitchen Knives
So, what is the best steel for kitchen knives? I have selected the steels that I think make the highest-performance knives.
Carbon steels are 1075, 1084, 1095, W2, 52100, and CPM M4. These carbon steels take and hold a scary sharp edge and, with proper care, should last for generations. 1095, W2, and 52100 are great for chefs’ knives, paring knives, and other knives not used for heavy chopping tasks. 1084 and 1075 are tougher than the other high carbon steels that we use, but they perform almost as well. 1084 and 1075 are wonderful for butcher knives, cleavers, and other large knives that will be used for chopping. CPM M4 is an ideal high carbon steel that could be classified as a “Super Steel.” It is used in competition cutters and other high-performance blades. It is a tad bit more expensive than other high carbon steels and slightly harder to sharpen. We use it in our top-of-the-line Pro Series blades.
Stainless steels are CPM 154, CPM S35VN and XHP, three of the “Stainless Super Steels” available today. CPM 154 makes a fine knife, takes a great edge, holds it for a long time, and can be made with a mirror finish. It is as tough as any of the carbon steel knives, plus has the added benefit of low maintenance. While it costs more than a carbon steel blade, it isn’t unreasonable for the quality. CPM S35VN and XHP are the ultimate knife steels, and in my opinion, probably the best steels for kitchen knives. They are super tough, have amazing wear resistance, take a razor edge and they seem to keep it forever. They are exceptionally resistant to corrosion and very easy to maintain. What is the downside to CPM S3VN and XHP? They are tougher to sharpen, more expensive and they are available only in a satin finish. I use both of these incredible knife steels in our top-of-the-line Pro Series blades.
So on to the big question.. Is there a stainless steel that will make a great knife but isn’t as expensive as the high end super steels? The answer is yes. Our Basic Series knives are designed to be quality, working knives at a comfortable price point. We use two different steels for our Basic Series knives, AEB-L and 440C. Both of these steels will produce a quality knife and will take a mirror finish. AEB-L is great for chefs knives, paring knives, and slicers. I love AEB-L as it performs much like a carbon steel in terms of sharpness, hardness, and ease of sharpening. 440C is great for heavy chefs knives, and cleavers.
So, what about Damascus? While Damascus is the prime steel to use for a knife that has a ton of artistic style and beauty, I am more about functionality and value. At this point, I don’t see how the price required for producing a Damascus knife is going to provide more value than the steels we offer. We do offer Damascus for those who love the artistic look in our Art Series blades however I would recommend putting the money into a high end stainless for those that want a quality “working” chefs knife.