What’s The Best Steel For Kitchen Knives?
By Bobby B. | Updated July 23, 2020 | Blog
One of the absolute most important items to consider when choosing a kitchen knife is the steel that is used to make the blade. I realize it sounds funny to boil it all down to that, but it really is very important. The blade steel will determine the cutting properties of the knife as well as how resistant it is to corrosion, chipping, and losing sharpness. These are the reasons that finding the best steel for your kitchen knives is so imperative.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just telling you which steel is best. There’s not one perfect steel that is the best fit for all knives and that’s because there are trade-offs. For example, additives that increase hardness in steel can also make knives brittle. Other elements that might help with something could also reduce the blade’s ability to retain an edge, therefore requiring more frequent sharpening. It’s finding the right balance of these properties (hardness, strength, edge retention, corrosion resistance, and wear resistance) that will help determine which is the best steel for your knives.
Most Popular Steels For Kitchen Knives
There are tons of different steels used in the manufacturing of knife blades around the world. This list includes the most commonly used and best steels for kitchen knives. As you’ll see in our synopsis, each and every steel has a different set of properties and cutting characteristics that sets it apart from the others. Some are good and others aren’t. We’ll tell it to you straight so you don’t get stuck buying junk!
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 55-57 / Series: AUS
AUS-6 Steel is not that common in kitchen knives. It’s very inexpensive, but really doesn’t have good cutting characteristics or hold an edge very well. It’s comparable with 420 series steel. For this reason, it’s mainly used in cheap knives and perhaps wouldn’t even be advertised in marketing materials. For this reason, it’s actually quite difficult to find knives made with AUS-6 Steel.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 57-59 / Series: AUS
AUS-8 Steel is a much more popular knife steel. it provides a superior balance between price, hardness, and corrosion resistance. It’s primarily used on mid-range Japanese-style kitchen knives and consumers tend to be pretty happy with it due to the low amount of maintenance required. AUS-8 Steel is used on Dalstrong Phantom and Zelite Razor-Edge series knives.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 58-60 / Series: AUS
AUS-10 Steel is the top-dog of the AUS-Series steels. It is quite similar to the ever-popular VG-10 Japanese steel, but not quite as hard, so also less brittle and delicate. Just like AUS-8, these stainless steel is mainly used in mid-range Japanese-style knives. You may also see a designation of AUS-10V. This “V” is added when the steel is Vacuum heat treated, which further enhances its durability and performance characteristics. A couple examples of knives AUS-10 and AUS-10V are used on are the Zelite Alpha-Royal and Dalstrong Shogun series knives.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 58-60 / Series: VG
VG-1 Steel was the original of the VG-series. For many years, it was the go-to option for Japanese stainless steel knife blades, and for this reason is often referred to as a Japanese Super Steel. Similar to AUS-10, VG-1 has roughly 1% carbon and 14% chromium. It is hard, but blades are prone to chipping and rust if not handled correctly. However, VG-1 was replaced in most cases with the better VG-10 steel (see below), so it’s not longer commonly used in kitchen knives.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 60-62 / Series: VG
VG-10 Steel has all but completely taken over for its predecessor, VG-1. Also considered a Japanese Super Steel, it is one of the most popular steels used in top-of-the-line Japanese kitchen knives. VG-10 is synonyms with sharp edges, durability, and edge retention. Made with 1% carbon, 15% chromium, 1.5% cobalt, 1% molybdenum, 0.5% manganese, and 0.2% vanadium, its fine steel structure makes it relatively easy to sharpen, yet capable of holding that edge longer than most. It is nearly always uses “clad” with other stainless steels that help improve the blade’s corrosion resistance. There are tons of kitchen knives that use VG-10 as their core steel. Popular knives that use VG-10 core steel are Tojiro and Enso HD Series knives.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 60-62 / Series: VG
VG-MAX Steel is the latest in the VG series, but is proprietary to Shun Cutlery. Based on VG-10, they’ve added more carbon to increase strength, more chromium to increase corrosion and wear resistance. They also made the steel more fine-grained by adding more tungsten and vanadium provides carbides. Both of these allow the blades to become extremely sharp! Shun uses VG-MAX in both their Classic and Premier series knives.
X50CrMoV15 / Krupp 4116
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Germany / Hardness: HRC 54-57 / Series: N/A
X50CrMoV15 (Also goes by Krupp 4116 – specifically made by the brand Thyssen-Krupp) is the most common among German knife makers, and really probably the best option for the widest range of users. With 0.5% carbon, it’s not near as hard as the Japanese steels listed above, but between this and the 15% chromium, it is more stain resistant. The softer steel isn’t sharpened to quite an acute angle and doesn’t hold an edge as well, but in exchange, it’s very low maintenance and it much heavier-duty. It really is a great compromise between rust resistance, toughness, edge retention and cost. This is why it’s the perfect fit for German knives! So many top brands use this steel. A couple examples you’ll recognize are Wusthof and Cangshan, who both use X50CrMoV15 in many of their kitchen knives.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 50-ish / Series: 400
420J stainless steel is widely considered to not be a very good performing steel for kitchen knife blades. It has two things going for it, it’s cheap and it’s very corrosion resistant since it has very little carbon content. This inferior steel is primarily used on cheapie knives and while the blades are easy to sharpen, they won’t retain the edge very long at all. The only decent knife that comes to mind with this steel is Ginsu’s Chikara series knives.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: United States or China / Hardness: HRC 50-55 / Series: 400
440A and 440C are both stainless steels. They are used in low to mid-range knives since they’re inexpensive. They are both highly corrosion resistant due to their large amounts of chromium, but that’s about it. 440C has more carbon, so it’s harder than 440A, makes better blades, and at one time was considered a good steel for knives. These steels won’t hold a very sharp edge and I assure you, you’ll find better options for your kitchen.
Type: Stainless Steel / Origin: Germany / Hardness: HRC 55-60 / Series: N/A
Cronidur 30, also called X30CRMoN15, is a stainless steel that came out of the aerospace industry. Some knife makers advertise their knives, saying something like, “our knives are made with the same stainless steel NASA uses.” I hate to tell you, but that doesn’t mean it makes good knife blades, am I right? Cronidur has a low amount of carbon, and subs in nitrogen to get the extra hardness. This is not a widely used steel in kitchen knives. There are some Zwilling J.A. Henckels knives that do use it, and consumers seem to like it.
Type: Stainless Powder Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 63-64 / Series: Powder Steel
Powder steels like SG2 are extremely hard due to the very fine grain structure in the powderized stainless steel. This gives it increased scratch resistance and edge retention over top stainless steels like VG-10, but they’re also more prone to chipping. It’s critical that you don’t use blades using SG2 powder steel on frozen foods or around bone. Both can quickly and easily cause damage to the blade. Due to the high carbon content, SG2 is almost always used laminated, meaning it’s wrapped with one or more stainless steels to give it increased corrosion resistance. Some of the most popular knives that use SG2 powder steel are Shun’s Premier knives and the Miyabi Mizu & Artisan Series knives.
Aogami / Blue Steel
Type: Carbon Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 62-65 / Series: Blue Paper Steel
Aogami, also called Blue Steel or Blue Paper Steel, is considered a “carbon steel” rather than a “stainless steel”. Aogami is some of the hardest steel on the planet and is similar to what is used in many swords. It is very pure and has few flaws in the structure, so it can hold extremely share edges for an extended period of time. Blue Steel comes in 3 types: Blue Steel #1, Blue Steel #2, and Blue Super Steel. It’s common to see very high-end Japanese knives, especially sashimi knives, that use Blue Steel. As an example, Yoshihiro has many Blue Steel knives.
Shirogami / White Steel
Type: Carbon Steel / Origin: Japan / Hardness: HRC 60-65 / Series: White Paper Steel
Shirogami White Steel is separated into 2 categories: White Steel #1 and White Steel #2. White Steel #1 is the hardest of all at HRC 65+. It also has the most carbon and can hold the sharpest edges of nearly any steel in the world, but be careful, it will corrode! White Steel #2 has more of a mid-range hardness for “carbon steels” at HRC 60-61. It’s much more common and less expensive than White Steel #1. Again, the best example of a knife brand that uses White Steel knives is Yoshihiro.
Blade Steel Notes
- AUS Series Steel: The AUS series of steels is produced by Aichi Steel Corpration in Japan. They differ from the 4xx series steels by adding vanadium. This improves toughness and wear resistance, and also makes the blades easier to sharpen.
- AUS -A: AUS steels that are preceded by an “A” mean that they’re annealed. Annealing is a heat treatment process that improves hardness and ductility. Examples are AUS-6A, AUS-8A, AUS-10A
- AUS -V: AUS steels that are preceded by a “V” mean that they’re vacuum heat treated. This is a process that gives the steel more durability and increased performance.
- VG Series Steel: The VG series of steels is manufactured by Takefu Special Steel in Japan. The “G” stands for “gold”, insinuating that it is high-quality or the gold standard of steels in Japanese knives.
- SG Series Steel: SG steel was also developed by the Takefu Steel Company. Little unknown fact… “SG” stands for “super gold”. Similarly to above, it’s a hint towards the high quality of the steel being produced.
And, as we’ve already mentioned, different cultures and types of chefs use their knives in a different fashion, and therefore prefer a different set of performance characteristics. This is why there is no one “perfect” kitchen knife steel type for everyone. Sushi chefs that like ultra-hard and super-sharp sashimi knives know what needs to be done to keep them chipping and corroding. These same knives would be a horrible choice for a butcher that on occasion might cut into a bone. That said, here are the top knife steels and their characteristics, along with some of the more popular kitchen knife brands that typically use each one.
Steels can be classified into a few different buckets as you saw above. Understanding the differences will help you quickly identify which type you should be choosing from for your kitchen knives. It should be fairly easy to narrow it down after reading through each of their properties below. The 3 categories are stainless steel, powder stainless, and carbon steel. There’s also Damascus steel, which is a slightly different animal all together. You can read more on it below.
Most kitchen knives use stainless steel. This is primarily because they require the least amount of knowledge, skill, and maintenance to keep them in good condition. Steel can only be considered “stainless” if it has at least 10% chromium, making it corrosion and rust resistant. This is another reason it’s so popular! The average home chef probably shouldn’t have a knife that will rust easily, so stainless is a good choice. There are also several affordable stainless steel options, meaning something for everyone. The types listed below might be considered for more “specialty” applications, but stainless steel is perfect for most users. If you don’t have a reason to choose powder stainless or carbon steel, this is likely the type of steel you need in your kitchen.
Powder Stainless Steel
Powder stainless steel is still considered “stainless” due to its chromium content, but it’s a bit different. The stainless is powderized to give the steel a very fine grain structure. This is also called powder metallurgy, and along with the high carbon content, it makes the steel extremely hard; as much as 64-65 on the Rockwell hardness scale! This is debate on powder steels among knife aficionados though. There is one camp that says powder steels like SG2 are the best. They’re super hard and can produce thin blades and sharp edges. On the flip side however, if not handled correctly, they can chip easily on things like frozen foods and cutting around bones. For this reason, these high-end thin bladed knives with lots of carbon in them aren’t for the average home chef. They are for top chefs that know what they’re looking for and understand or have the skills to ensure no chipping.
Carbon steel is exactly what it sounds like. Steel with lots of carbon in it, and not “stainless”. Carbon steels will corrode and can easily rust if not properly cared for. Even more critical than with powder steel, carbon steel knife usage should be reserved for very experienced chefs that are looking for an extremely sharp knife that they plan on taking care of, with an understanding that there will be more maintenance. Many of the top sushi knives are made with carbon steel.
Damascus steel is not really a type of steel, but rather a process in which multiple steels are pattern welded together. This high temperature bond produces a light/dark wavy affect and pattern on the blade. A flux seals the joint to keep oxygen out. This welded steel is then wrapped or clad over a core steel. Such is often the case over popular Japanese steels like VG-10 and AUS-10, with each knife’s pattern being unique based on the steels used. A quick word of caution: Be careful with super-cheap Damascus knives. Some of them are not true Damascus steels, but rather a surface treatment that “appears” to be Damascus.
Steel Alloy Additives / Elements
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Japanese knives, German knives, or just any old cheapie knife found at Wal-Mart. All steel knives start with just two main elements: iron and carbon. Iron alone is far too soft to make a good knife blade. For that reason, steels are tweaked to either make them harder, more durable, have better wear resistance, or in some cases, just to make them cheaper to manufacture. It’s important to understand what these additives and elements are and how they each affect the knife’s characteristics differently.
Carbon: Carbon provides the steel with added strength. As more carbon is used, the hardness also increases. Steels that claim to have high carbon content typically have between 0.5% and 15% carbon in the steel.
Chromium: To be called “stainless”, steel must have chromium in it. An amount of roughly 12% or more is needed protect the blade from corrosion as it prevents oxygen interacting with the iron to create rust. It also increases wear resistance for the blades.
Molybdenum: This material helps increase blade toughness, especially in situations where there is high temperatures like cutting hot food for instance.
Manganese: Manganese is a double-edged sword (PUN intended!). It makes the steel harder and increases tensile strength, but at the same time, it can also make it brittle and susceptible to chipping if the blades aren’t properly cared for.
Vanadium: This carbide has a couple of benefits when added to a steel alloy. It can both increase wear resistance and harden the steel. Its perfect for increasing the ability of a blade to be sharper and stay sharp longer.
Nickel: Nickel adds toughness to your kitchen knife blades. Toughness could be defined as its ability to resist chipping or cracking the blade during heavy-duty cutting.
Tungsten: Tungsten is another additive that helps increase the resistance to wear. It will assist in reducing the frequency in which you need to sharpen the blades and also reduce abrasion during cutting.
Cobalt: Cobalt has a similar affect on steel as carbon in that it adds strength to the blade, allowing it to cut through a wider variety of foods with ease.
There’s one more topic we need to cover before listing out the best steels for kitchen knives, and that’s hardness. Hardness is the blade’s ability to resist permanent deformations. In other words, typically the harder the steel, the sharper you can get the edge and the longer it will remain sharp (i.e. it will have good edge retention).
Hardness is measured using a Rockwell Hardness Test and its value is reported in HRC (Hardness Rockwell C scale). The higher the number, the harder the steel. In knives, you’ll see values range somewhere between HRC 50 and HRC 65.
Hardness is one of the most apparent differences between German knives and Japanese knives. Japanese knives typically use very hard steels (HRC 60+). This is what gives them the ability to sharpen the blades to a much sharper angle and helps them retain the edge longer than a German-style knife.
So, does this mean Japanese knives are automatically better than German knives since they’re harder? You’ll see hardness values in marketing materials of kitchen knives and this has unfortunately become the perception, but it’s not necessarily true. As we eluded to in the opening paragraph, with hardness can come brittleness. And, while hardness in knives is good, a blade that’s brittle can chip if cutting into other hard objects like bone, so precautions must be taken.
For this very reason, the Germans choose a different balance between hardness, durability, and corrosion resistance. By using less carbon and more of the other elements above, their knives are sharpened to a more shallow angle and they need to be sharpened more often. However, on the other hand, they are very heavy-duty, robust, and durable against damage.
All this to say that hardness, while a good thing, is in the eye of the beholder. Chefs from different parts of the world or from different backgrounds and different cultures use their knives in a multitude of ways. This is why we say no one steel is “perfect”… again, there are trade-offs.
Knife Steel Comparison: Which is Best?
There is no universal “perfect” knife steel. They all just have a slightly different balance between hardness, durability, corrosion and wear resistance, visual appeal, and overall cost. The best knife steel is in the eye of the beholder. It really comes down to who’s using the knife and what’s more important to them. Is it hardness and sharpness or is it low maintenance and less worries of damaging your knives? Performance versus price is also a common consideration. Most home chefs don’t care enough about their knives to spend hundreds of dollars a piece on them, but some clearly do. What camp do you fall into?
There’s no hard or fast rule of thumb here, but making a general statement, we’d suggest either AUS-10 or VG-10 (we’d also consider VG-MAX and VG-10 basically equivalent) if you’re considering Japanese-style knives in your kitchen. They both have great performance characteristics and are highly considered “the standards”. When it comes to Western-style knives, German steels are king and that basically includes X50CRMoV15, 4116 Krupp, or DIN 1.4116. While not exactly the same, they are virtually equivalent and all do a great job as knife blades. Think heavy duty and rust-free.
AUS-10 vs VG-10
AUS10 and VG10 are both very popular blade steels used in Japanese knives. They’re VERY similar and you’ll actually find very little difference between these two high carbon stainless steels. VG-10 is ever-so-slightly harder and can have a better sharpness than its AUS counterpart, but the difference is minimal at best.
Since some Chinese knock-offs have claimed their knives are made with VG-10 Damascus steel, the perceived value of VG-10 has decreased, making AUS-10 stand out a bit from the crowd. However, there should be no concern buying either of these great Japanese “super steels” from any reputable knife manufacturer.
VG-10 vs Sg2
The Takefu Special Steel company developed both VG10 and SG2 steel. Comparing the differences between VG-10 and SG2 is as easy as considering what makes stainless steel and powder stainless different. Due to the finer grain structure further refinement in the SG2 powderized steel, it’s able to be hardened to HRC 64 vs a couple points lower for the VG-10. While this hardness gives the SG2 superior edge retention properties, it does make it harder to sharpen the blade than VG-10. Both steels are stainless and contain the same percentage of chromium so that you’ll get good corrosion resistance with either of them.
SG2 is the better fit for a more experienced chef since it could chip if not used correctly and precautions are not taken around bone or frozen foods. Whereas VG-10 makes more sense for someone with less experience or knife-handling skills. It’s more a more forgiving and durable material in those areas.
VG-Max vs VG-10
A few years back, Shun Cutlery changed the blade material used in several of the knives from VG-10 to VG-Max stainless steel. As you know from above, VG10 is a very popular blade steel for kitchen knives. It’s highly refined, has good edge retention properties and stain resistance.
So why the switch and what’s the difference?
The VG-Max adds a bit more chromium and vanadium than VG-10, giving it even better corrosion resistance and edge retention, although the difference is minimal.
Our opinion is two-fold. First, VG-10’s perceived value had diminished in recent years after poorly-made Chinese knock-off knives claim to be made with it. That doesn’t make it bad, but perception is everything, right? So going to something else isn’t a bad idea. And the second reason? Shun hold exclusive rights to use VG-Max at this point in time so they can say they offer a steel that no one else has, along with their claims of how much better it is. In all reality, these two steels are very similar.
440a vs 440c
The 440 series of stainless steels are used to make some of the most corrosion resistant blades around. For this reason, they are commonly used in military-grade knives since they’ll often be used in the elements. However for kitchen knives, 440A has kind of a low carbon content (around 0.65% – 0.75%), leaving a bit to be desired in the hardness category.
440C has increased carbon, more like 1%, making it a much harder, higher-end stainless steel. Because of this, it has much better edge retention properties and wear resistance. In addition, it still has all the rust-resistance of 440A, so there’s really no contest here as to which is the better material for kitchen knife blades, it’s 440C.
What if the Steel is Not Listed?
So you’ve found a knife you like. It’s priced well, looks great, and you want to know if the steel is any good, but you can’t find it listed anywhere! While it’s not ALWAYS the reason, it is common practice by manufacturers to not provide the steel designation on cheaply made knives.
Just think about it for a second… if you were going to sell something, the last thing you’d talk about in the classified ad is every way that it’s inferior to others. More than likely, you’d list all of its good qualities (looks great, priced well, etc), and leave off that it’s made of some lower-quality steel.
For this reason, we recommend staying away from expensive knives that don’t list the type of steel used in the blade. If you’re looking for cheap knives, that’s one thing. Just expect to get cheap steel. But, if you’re spending good money on a good knives, they should be made with good steel.