CPM S30V and CPM S35VN Knives - A Rising Market Force
By Gary Zinn
The blade "super steels" known as CPM S30V and CPM S35VN are relatively new on the knife making scene. S30V was developed in 2001 specifically as a premium blade steel and S35VN was introduced in 2009. Not surprisingly, these premium stainless steels first appeared in high priced custom and limited production knives.
However, as I write this in July 2017, more brands, models and variants of production knives are being offered with blades in each of these steels than in long popular and relatively inexpensive steels, such as 1095, 420HC, 440C and 12C27. S30V and S35VN are making a rapid rise to prominence in the production knife market.
Over a year ago, I bought a White River Sendero Pack Knife made of S30V steel. I paid just under $200 for it, which I considered a good price for a quality production knife with premium steel.
I knew there were some S30V knives selling for somewhat less, but I did not pay much attention to these until Gerber introduced its Gerber Gator Premium hunting knives with S30V blades. I bought one, a folder with clip point blade, for under $100.
I was impressed enough with this knife that I was motivated to take a closer look at what is happening with S30V and S35VN steels in the knife market. What I learned surprised me and I believe it is worth sharing with Guns and Shooting Online readers.
S30V and S35VN overview
CPM S30V and CPM S35VN are closely related steels made by Crucible Industries. I will not get into the data sheet details on the products, other than to say that S30V is a high carbon steel alloyed with chromium, molybdenum and vanadium.
S35VN uses different proportions of carbon and vanadium, plus niobium, which is not used in S30V. The proprietary Crucible Particle Metallurgy (CPM) process perhaps has as much to do with the properties of the steels as does the alloy recipes. Crucible asserts, "the CPM process lends itself not only to the production of superior quality tool steels, but to the production of higher alloyed grades which cannot be produced by conventional steelmaking."
S30V and S35VN were designed specifically for making high performance knife blades. Custom knife maker Chris Reeve had considerable direct involvement in the development of S30V and after several years of experience building knives with it he worked with Crucible to make some improvements, which led to S35VN. Currently, all of the custom knife models made by Chris Reeve Knives feature S35VN blades.
A general understanding of the characteristics and capabilities of the two steels can best be gained by studying the following narratives from the Crucible data sheets for each steel. (The complete data sheets may be accessed at https://www.crucible.com/products.aspx):
"CPM S30V is a martensitic stainless steel designed to offer the best combination of toughness, wear resistance and corrosion resistance. Its chemistry has been specially balanced to promote the formation of vanadium carbides, which are harder and more effective than chromium carbides in providing wear resistance. CPM S30V offers substantial improvement in toughness over other high hardness steels such as 440C and D2, and its corrosion resistance is equal to or better than 440C in various environments. The CPM process produces very homogeneous, high quality steel characterized by superior dimensional stability, grindability and toughness compared to steels produced by conventional processes."
"CPM S35VN is a martensitic stainless steel designed to offer improved toughness over CPM S30V. It is also easier to machine and polish than CPM S30V. Its chemistry has been rebalanced so that it forms some niobium carbides along with vanadium and chromium carbides. Substituting niobium carbides for some of the vanadium carbides makes CPM S35VN about 15-20% tougher than CPM S30V without any loss of wear resistance. CPM S35VN's improved toughness gives it better resistance to edge chipping. Because both vanadium and niobium carbides are harder and more effective than chromium carbides in providing wear resistance, the CPM stainless blade steels offer improved edge retention over conventional high chromium steels, such as 440C and D2. The CPM process produces very homogeneous, high quality steel characterized by superior dimensional stability, grindability and toughness compared to steels produced by conventional melting practices."
I am not an expert on the technicalities of the composition and performance characteristics of various steel types. Rather, I am a practical user of knives and I judge a blade by my perception of how it performs in use and how it behaves when I sharpen it.
I have limited experience with S30V knives (two specimens) and none with S35VN. What I know is that S30V can be made very sharp, holds its edge remarkably well in use and is not substantially harder to sharpen than other steels in the same Rc hardness neighborhood. I judge S30V to be an outstanding blade steel and if S35VN is even better, then it is truly exceptional.
S30V and S35VN knives on the commercial market
The main purpose of this article is to indicate the extent to which S30V and S35VN knives have penetrated the commercial knife market. I decided to examine this at the level of all production knives and then to filter down to knives priced low enough that someone can buy them without spending the equivalent of a monthly payment on a new car loan.
I used a single Internet knife marketing website, KnifeCenter, to compile the data that follows. KnifeCenter (www.knifecenter.com) is not only one of the largest Internet knife vendors, selling many brands and models of knives, but they also have one of the best site search engines. I am confident that the filtered searches I did on the KnifeCenter site yielded an indicative picture of where knives with S30V and S35VN blades stand in the current market.
My first filter was type of blade steel, with price being a second filter. The KnifeCenter price filter can be set by $10 increments, up to $500+. KnifeCenter carries very few knives that sell for $500 or more, so I set the top price limit at $490, with a bottom limit of $0. A search for S30V knives with a price of $490 or less returned 307 items. A search for S35VN knives with the same price limit returned an astonishing 666 items.
For comparison, here are the number of items found with various established and popular blade steels, with the $490 price limit:
Clearly, knives featuring S30V or S35VN blades have become well established in the overall market for production knives. Knives made with D2 tool steel are the only ones with representation greater than that of S30V and approaching that of S35VN.
Knives with prices in the upper part of the $0 to $490 price range are likely too costly for many buyers, especially those who want a plain, functional knife and do not care about expensive bells and whistles. I re-filtered for lower priced knives. After some trial runs, I settled on a top price of $130 for S30V knives and $160 for those with S35VN blades. (S35VN knives are typically somewhat higher priced than closely equivalent S30V items.)
Search of the KnifeCenter site returned 95 items with S30V blades priced $130 or less and 97 items at $160 and under with S35VN steel. The numbers are large enough to give the buyer a generous selection from which to choose.
Here are the numbers of lower priced knives with the comparison steels listed above; all are for prices of $130 or less, except for 154-CM, where the top price limit is $160:
These results tell me that market penetration by S30V and S35VN knives is throughout the retail price range. Do not expect lower priced knives with S30V or S35VN blades to have highly tuned blade pivots, premium frame and handle materials, or other fancy touches, but you can expect them to be exceptional working knives.
Here is an example of how lower and higher priced knives compare, with the total package taken into account. The Gerber Gator Premium folder, with 3-1/2 inch S30V blade, sells for about $90. It is a conventional lock back folder and is not suited for one-handed opening (despite what the thumb hole in the blade suggests). The handle is molded glass-filled nylon with a thermoplastic over-mold and a steel front bolster, but no metal liners or frame. In other words, a no-frills product.
For comparison, the Spyderco C212CFP Magnitude, also with a 3-1/2 inch S30V blade, sells for some $290. The buyer of this knife pays $200 more for a one-handed opening, liner lock knife with opening action eased by a pair of precision ball bearing washers in the blade pivot assembly. The handle is built on skeletonized titanium liners, with machined solid twill carbon fiber scales and a scalloped G10 back spacer. Doubtless a fine knife, with premium components and features, but the add ons are costly.
Here is a list of makers who currently offer knives with S30V or S35VN blades that sell for street prices of $130 or less with S30V, $160 or less with S35VN. These are the brand names I found in my filtered searches on the KnifeCenter site. (I do not claim this list is complete; there may be a few brands not carried by KnifeCenter):
Bear OPS, Benchmade, Boker, Buck, Cold Steel, DPx Gear, EnZo, Gerber, KA-BAR, Kershaw, Kizer, Mantis, Maserin, Maxace, Pro-Tech, SOG, Spartan, Spyderco, Stedemon, Steel Will, White River and Zero Tolerance.
That is 22 brand names, among which is probably one or more of your favorites. There are also some three dozen other brand names of knives made with S30V, in the $130 - $490 price range, or with S35VN, in the $160 - $490 price range.
I did an eyeball survey, but not an actual tally, of the styles of knives available in S30V and S35VN. One-hand opening, locking folders are most heavily represented, but there is a respectable number of fixed blade models and a few conventional lock back folders.
In addition to knives with normal handles and blade lengths (roughly three to five inch blades), there are a number of small folders, some minimalist fixed blades (neck knives) and a few long blades. Blade profiles range from conventional, all-purpose drop and clip points to tactical style blades (e.g., tantos) and hunting profiles, such as skinners and blades with integral gut hooks.
S30V and S35VN have not significantly penetrated the slip joint folder market. Benchmade very recently introduced the Model 319 Proper, a single blade slip joint with S30V. Spyderco had offered its UK Penknife with S30V, but that model is discontinued. Time will tell whether these Crucible steels become popular in slip joint knives.
Blade steel cost vs. knife price
I thought it would be interesting to get an idea of the relative cost of S30V, S35VN and some other popular knife steels. The source I found with the most useful bar steel cost data is a speciality metals conversion processor and distributor, which lists over a dozen U.S. made knife steels among the specialty metals that they sell. They convert mill run sheet steel of various thicknesses into bars of various widths.
The bar conversion and dimensions I chose for comparisons were descaled and shear cut bars measuring 1.5 inches wide by 0.156 (5/32) inch thick. The standard length of processed bars is approximately three feet, but I state cost on a per foot basis below.
Here are the bar stock prices for five steels I chose for comparison. The percentage figures in parentheses denote how much more expensive each steel is, compared with the per foot cost of 440C.
The most interesting results from these cost comparisons are that the highly popular D2 steel is only slightly more expensive than 440C and there is no significant cost difference between S30V and S35VN. The latter finding surprised me somewhat, because knives made with S35VN generally retail for substantially more than those with S30V blades of comparable size.
I used the Benchmade Hunt Model 15008 knife (pictured at top of article) to assess how the cost of premium blade steel relates to the retail price of a finished knife. The full tang Model 15008 knife could be made from a piece of S30V steel 1.5 inches wide by 0.156 thick by about 8 inches long. Based on the price shown above, the steel would cost about $22.50, 20 percent of the $115 MSRP of this knife. I am sure this is by far the largest portion of material cost to make this knife.
The Model 15008 knife is a simple build, involving milling a piece of steel bar to the blade and tang dimension specs, tempering the milled blade (Crucible recommends Rc 58 - 61), grinding the bevel, polishing the blade and sharpening the edge. The Santoprene thermoplastic handle would be molded onto the tang and the knife, with a Kydex sheath, would be packaged and shipped to a distributor or dealer. The difference between the cost of steel and the MSRP or actual retail price of the knife includes material cost for the handle, cost of the sheath, manufacturing (inc. labor), packaging cost, shipping cost, maker and distributor/dealer markups.
Knives with premium handle scales (G10, Micarta, exotic wood, stag, etc.) will be higher priced, due to both higher materials and manufacturing costs. Folding knives will use less blade steel, but that cost saving will be more than offset by the higher cost of blade pivot and locking mechanism parts and their assembly, handle frames or liners, etc. The earlier comparison of the prices of the Gerber Gator Premium and Spyderco Magnitude knives is a case in point.
Given that the basic cost of S35VN steel is little more than that of S30V, one might wonder why knives with S35VN are typically noticeably higher priced than similar S30V knives. The answer is, I believe, that the buyers of S35VN knives are paying a large premium for the reputation that S35VN is a better steel than S30V.
However, everything I have learned about the comparative merits of the two steels indicates that S35VN has some slight performance advantages over S30V, but not enough to justify substantial MSRP or retail price differentials. Put another way, if well made knives with S30V are being marketed as premium products, then those with S35VN are marketed as super premium products. Expect this to continue, as long as buyers are willing to pay for the reputation of S35VN, however exaggerated it may be.
Knives with S30V and S35VN blades have carved out a significant position in the market for medium and premium priced knives. I expect more brands and models of knives featuring these steels to be introduced over time, although the pace of additional introductions may slow, as the market matures or other new premium steels become popular. S35VN may eventually overshadow S30V, especially if knife makers and marketers get over themselves and price knives with S35VN blades at levels that reflect the fact that the cost of the two steels is not significantly different.
Copyright 2017 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.