Knives are a staple of any EDC and find themselves used in a range of applications, from self-defense to simply opening packages. Unfortunately, finding the right steel can be difficult as they are typically sold under a range of names that can make shopping confusing.
Ultimately, finding the best steel for you is a balancing act as you attempt to optimize various factors, including edge retention and corrosion resistance, but several steel variants have become extremely popular within the knife community for their outstanding general performance.
CPM-S30V is arguably one of the best examples of a steel perfect for EDC. It’s able to handle all of life’s challenges without breaking the bank, but as we’ll see, other options are available that may be better suited to your needs while staying relatively budget-friendly. In addition to CPM-S30V, think of steels such as H1, AUS8, and others.
What is Steel?
Before we look at what steel my be right for you, it is important to understand exactly what steel is so we can begin to understand the differences between different kinds of steel.
Typically, steel refers to any alloy (or mix) of iron and carbon, which makes the blade considerably stronger and more resistant to wear than if you simply made a knife out of 100% iron.
What really matters when choosing the right steel for you is the additives that are introduced to the steel during forging to improve the characteristics of your knife and make it more suitable for a specific purpose.
What Factors Should You Consider?
We know additives are introduced to steel for the purpose of changing the knifes characteristics, but what are these characteristics.
Although huge lists can be found online, the top three properties that we should be concerned with when selecting an EDC knife are:
- Edge Retention
- Corrosion Resistance
Choosing a knife that can perform well in all three of these categories would lead to a knife that is almost guaranteed to hold up well in your pocket, but unfortunately steel making is not that simple, making picking the right steel a balancing game.
One of the best examples of this can be seen with knifes made to resist corrosion, as these typically contain much lower amounts of carbon (in addition to greater amounts of Nickle and Manganese).
This makes the steel hold up incredibly well in applications such as kitchen knives but leads to a much weaker edge that will quickly blunt with use.
Balance is important in all aspects of EDC, but it means before we choose the best knife steel for us, we first need to figure out what our main use cases will be.
How Use Cases Should Affect your Choice?
It’s not unheard of for many of us to carry multiple knives within our EDC, but we often want our primary knife to be a jack of all trades. Something we can use for small tasks, like opening packages, while still being reliable enough to use for self-defense, or even in a survival situation.
With that said, even when your budget is not of concern, it is still important to consider what your primary uses are likely to be in order to choose your knife steel appropriately.
If you need a knife you can use day in and day out, without regularly stopping to sharpen your knife, then prioritizing a steel with excellent edge retention is important.
These are typically loaded with varying ratios of chromium, molybdenum, vanadium, and tungsten allowing you to always have a sharp edge ready for when you need it.
Alternatively, if you want a knife that works well for daily tasks but can also work well in more hard-use scenarios such as for prying and batoning, it makes much more sense to prioritize stronger steel.
This will often make the knife more susceptible to corrosion but will allow the knife to survive the strong forces associated with heavy use.
All knives will cut, but how they perform after extended use depends on the knife steel you choose, so it is important to be considerate of how you are expecting to use your knife in order to get the most out of your purchase.
S30V – Best in Class
While several other variants of this steel exist, such as CPM-S35VN and CPM-S90V, I would still recommend an S30V knife as it offers many of the same benefits associated with the top of the line steels without breaking the budget.
There are limitations with this style of steel, as sharpening such a tough steel can be difficult for those who have not yet fully developed the skill, but as long as you are willing to invest the time to care for such a high end steel, I could not recommend a better knife steel for the money.
H1 – Built for Water
CPM-S30V is extraordinary steel but can still suffer from corrosion if you repeatedly use it in corrosive environments, such as near salt-water or even some industrial settings.
I had this happen to my personal knife (Spyderco Paramilitary 3) after working in a biochemistry lab for a period of time, where I repeatedly had to handle very strong acids.
This is where H1 steels come in and outperform almost any other knife steel available.
H1 contains higher concentrations of carbon than other steel variants, essentially creating stainless steel similar to that found in kitchen knives, allowing your knife to perform exceedingly well in salt-water environments.
While various knife makers use H1, the Spyderco series of Salt knives cannot be beaten for their price or quality, with my personal favorite coming in the form of a Spyderco ARK, created specifically for the purpose of being worn in water as a last-ditch self-defense option.
H1 steel is an excellent choice in the right environments, however, it is important to be aware that the steel is much weaker than other knives meaning it will often require regular sharpening to keep your knife ready for anything.
AUS8 – Budget Friendly
If you choose to go with a knife made out of either S30V or H1 steels, it’s fair to say you will not be disappointed with your knife, however any knife made out of these materials often come with a significant price.
For a more budget-friendly option, AUS8 is an excellent choice. This is by no means premium steel, so it does require a much greater level of care and maintenance. But, it is still incredibly popular with brands such as Boker and Cold Steel.
Despite its weaknesses as a steel, AUS8 frequently finds itself into my rotation to use either as a loaner or beater knife as their low cost makes it much easier to justify using them in situations where I may be concerned of damaging the blade (such as when prying).
If you have the option for investing in a higher quality knife, it is worth paying for a higher end steel, but as long as you are willing to put in the time to keep your knife sharp and rust free, AUS8 can make for an extremely good entry-level knife.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Steel
Even the most quality steel, such as S30V, will require maintenance in order to have it working consistently and reliably, so how exactly can you get the most out of your knife steel?
Obviously the most important characteristic of any knife is its sharpness, so a staple of any knife maintenance should be thorough sharpening.
How you achieve this is mostly a matter of personal preference and we will explore what options are available soon, however, the Lansky system comes highly recommended.
It can be awkward to sharpen weirdly shaped knives, such as karambits, but offers a very capable range of grits and even leather strops to hone your blade after you finish sharpening.
Sharpening your knife is the minimal amount of maintenance any knife should receive, but you should also consider cleaning and oiling your knife regularly as this can go a long way to help reduce rusting.
I personally clean my knife first with either ethanol or lighter fluid before applying just a basic household lubricant such as WD-40 or three-in-one oil.
Specialty cleaners and oils do exist, but can be expensive, so I prefer cheaper cleaning options, so I am more inclined to clean my tools regularly.
Whatever techniques you choose to keep your knife operational, the most important thing to remember is that taking care of your knife regularly will help it last longer and will also make maintenance much easier.
How Other Factors Affect Performance?
Choosing the right steel for the job is important, but it is not the only factor you should keep in mind when choosing your knife.
When selecting your blade, it is also important to consider:
- Blade shape
- Locking mechanism
- Blade thickness
- Carry style
These factors are important when choosing any knife, but are particularly important when looking at a knife for self-defense as a blade that can puncture or cut skin easily will often perform horribly for more common tasks such batoning wood or even preparing food.
In general, thinner folding knifes that you can access quickly will perform better for self-defense, while thicker fixed-blade knives are more suited for utility type applications, but we’ll break down these factors in an upcoming article to help select the right EDC knife for you.
No steel or knife is perfect but choosing the right steel for you can go a long way to ensuring it is always ready when you need it.
High-end steels, such as S30V, will hold up much better than cheaper options available but it is still possible to use even cheaper options, as long as you are willing to invest the additional time in taking care of your blade.
Already picked out the perfect knife for you, but want help building your EDC around it? Check out our EDC guide to make sure you are always ready for whatever life may throw at you.