Best Steel for Tools

There is no ultimate everyman tool steel but an array of different tools steels for different tasks. Steel grade standards AISA-SAE umbrellas three popular grades of tool steel O-1, A-2, and D-2. 

These general-purpose tool steels can hold their cutting edge at high temperatures (400°). What makes AISA-SAE steels ideal for many applications is that they resist wear and deformation.

best tool steel edge

Good steel is without a doubt an important step towards a good edge but it comes at a price. In this blog, I will attempt to explain the differences between Different types of tool steel. So please read on and I will go into the positives and the negatives of different steels for different tools.

Hard Steel or Soft Steel for Sharp Edges?

If a tool is to do its job then the steel it is made from must be chosen accordingly. If the steel is too soft It will blunt quickly but equally if the steel is too hard it will chip or even break.  For a tool to be usable the steel chosen for its construction has to have some tensile strength as well and adequate hardness.

What Makes one Tool Steel Better than Another?

No two tool steel are made the same. Some tool manufacturers make their tools from tool steel stock but others smelt their own. Some tool steels such as 01 are simple alloys (an Alloy is a mix of two or more metals) Some tool steels are made Without compromise. This attention to detail will Inevitably add significant cost compared to cheaper tool steel manufacturers such as Chinese imports.

Stanley Bailey no4 smoothing plane

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Best tool Steel for Hand Planes

Sheffield O1 carbon tool steel is a superior commercially available steel. This oil quenched hardened Steel is a simple Steel iron alloy which contains 1.1% of manganese. If you were wondering the O refers to the oil quenching method. The manganese aligns the steel to be quenched in oil.

stanley bailey no 7 with victor plane irons-600-338

Stanley Bailey no 7 with victor plane irons-600-338

What do A and O have to do with Tool Steel

  • A, such as A2 tool steel is Air Quenched
  • O, such as 01 tool steel is Oil Quenched

Veritas PM-V11 alloy steel

According to Veritas, their new alloy labelled as PM-V11 is a new breed of tool steel. PM-V11 has the behaviour of A2 and 01. The durability of A2 and the low effort sharpening of 01.

Best Tool Steel for Chisels

Chisels like hand plane irons are thicker than other types of blade. Chisels also can benefit from being made from 01 carbon tool steel. I suggest 01 on the basis that it is a good value and so a practical choice. There are other tool steels but 01 for most amateurs and professionals is a very good option.

Best tool steel for pocket knives.

Pocket knives unlike chisels and hand plane irons require a little bit more effort to make the best life possible. Unlike chisels and hand planes which have added stiffness such as the cap iron or the tang of a chisel and not forgetting the thickness of the steel. Pocket knives especially folding pocket knives have vulnerable areas.  On a folding pocket knife, the joint is a point of particular weakness.

Pocket knives are option abused in the field

Pocket Knives are used for multiple tasks and have to be made with that in mind. An archer would use it to dig out his arrow from a tree. A truly versatile tool and just like the swiss army knife is a must tool to carry but check local laws first.  

So which tool steel is best for pocket knives?

Unlike woodworking tool steel pocket knife steels are a massive subject and one that deserves its own article. So I will not go into too much detail as it will dilute this topic. For reference here are some of the steels marketed for knife construction.  

CPM-154

Aogami Super Blue

ZDP-189

CPM S30V

S35VN

Elmax

Japanese steel can be expensive and frankly unnecessary for most people who only need a pocket knife for some DIY tools.

Carbone 1095 Steel

This is a great steel for thicker blades such as survival knives. This hard carbon steel is brittle and not the best for thinner blades such as Opinel pocket knives.

What Steel Hardness Should I consider?

victor hand forged plane iron of sheffield

This will really depend on the designated purpose of the blade. Some steels contain more carbides making them harder.  

Hard Tool Steel

High carbide steels will hold its edge longer but take longer to sharpen.

Soft Tool Steel

Softer tool steel is easier to sharpen but blunts faster.

Mild steel

Mild steel is too soft for making blades. Mild steel does not sharpen very well and the edge will blunt. Do not confuse softer tool steel with mild steel.

Stainless Tool Steel

What is D2 Tool Steel?

D2 tool steel is a semi-stainless tool steel.  D2 has a high carbon percentage which makes it hard but also it has a high chromium content but not high enough to class it as stainless steel.  D2 semi-stainless steel resists corrosion but is not corrosion proof. due to the hardness of the D2 semi-stainless steel, it exists abrasion and where is very well.

What is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel has to have at least 10% chromium added to the alloy for it to be considered stainless steel. A high percentage of Chromium prevents the iron element from corroding. stainless steel that is used for marine purposes has to have a very high chromium element percentage. chromium is not the only element added to stainless steel.  Nickel is also added and unlike other tool steels, less carbon is added.

What Makes Stainless Steel Stainless?

Stainless steel is another complicated topic as element Chromium is added to the Iron and Carbon drastically reducing oxidation.  The use of Sandvik 12C27 stainless or inox as Opinel calls it in France. It does not rust easily so for blades that do not get sharpened too often are not rusty when unsheathed.

Stainless Steel for Marine use

The stainless for the purpose of knife construction is not the same as the stainless used in the marine industry. 316, 304 and 303 codes of stainless steel are for seawater applications … The 316 types are used widely in marine applications, but their corrosion resistance is not 100%

Stainless steel can steel rust

Stainless steel is just Steel with chromium added.  The element Chromium protects the iron from corrosion within the alloy. Cheap stainless steel can still corrode or tarnish because of poor quality or low percentage of Chromium added. It is not unusual to see rust stains on stainless steel especially when subjected to salts.

Stainless vers Carbone Steel

Practically stainless wins hands down as the fact that the blade and its edge is not affected by corrosion. Pulling the knife from its sheath clean without rust is preferred. The only grievance I have when comparing Carbone Tool Steel against Stainless Tool Steel. Is that through my experience Carbone steel provides a better performing edge than the high Chromium Stainless Tool Steel.

420 High Carbon Stainless

A good allrounder stainless steel for gents knives and can also be seen used for constructing hunt knives.  One of the great benefits is that 420HC high carbon stainless steel is very easy to sharpen.Rexon water wheel sharpening stone

Conclusion on Tool Steel

This is my conclusion on this subject and is subjective. It is clear to me that there is ultimate steel but not without compromise. And no matter how the manufacturer may sell their creation there is nearly always a compromise. Whether the time it takes to sharpen or risk of breakage. So for me, the use of simple tool steels is best due to the cost and practical use.

By Marcus Kett, Woodworking since 1989

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Malcolm the Boat ‘RIP’

Woodworking for me is in my blood as a son of a traditional boatbuilder. My Father Malcolm Kett was highly skilled and inventive individual often referred to as ‘Malcolm The Boat’.

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Marcus Kett and my Mortar!

Although I have spent a considerable portion of my life seeking further education and gaining qualifications in woodworking, electrical installations, bricklaying and to top it a degree in photography.

Yes, it is a medley of possible career choices but the one that I felt truly at home with was Woodworking. Woodworking has been my staple career choice that has given my family stability.

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Well that’s Me

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We have lived and worked here in the Limousin Nouvelle Aquitaine since 2010, building window shutters and external doors. Our Volet manufacturing business is based at our home property as a ‘Cottage Industry’. We are a small business operating partly (60%) off the grid and try our best to practice our woodworking ethically.

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By Marcus Kett, Woodworking since 1989

Based in the Nouvelle Aquitaine of France