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CPM S35VN Steel Pocket Knives - Pros and Cons

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One of the most important components of high-quality knife blades is the steel used to create them. The type of steel used can significantly impact a product’s performance and durability, and it’s an important factor to consider when purchasing a pocket knife. 

In its basic form, steel is a combination (or “alloy”) of iron and carbon. It’s often enriched with different elements, depending on the purpose of its application. The way blades are heated and rolled during the finishing process can also affect the quality and desired usage. For example, stainless steel used in cutlery or professional knife blades is usually enriched with chromium and nickel, which can increase the blade’s sharpness retention and corrosion resistance. Factors like sharpness might not be as critical for steel used in other applications, such as professional tools. In these products, steel that has been enriched with molybdenum tends to be harder and can hold up to the stress and force associated with industrial work. 

When it comes to products such as pocket knives, where sharpness, durability and hardness are all equally important, the type of steel used can significantly affect the blade’s performance. S35VN stainless steel is a relatively new type of steel, created in 2009, that is often used in the finest pocket knives. 

Origins of CPM S35VN knife steel 
CPM S35VN steel was created in 2009 as a collaboration between South African-American knife maker Chris Reeves and Crucible Industries, a steel manufacturer based in New York. Like S30V steel, S35VN steel is created using Crucible Particle Metal (CPM) technology, which evenly distributes carbides (the hard particles) in the blade, allowing the blade to retain a sharp and durable edge. 

S30V steel was already well known for its high quality. By slightly tweaking the formula used to create S30V steel, Reeves and Crucible created an enhanced version, which is now arguably one of the most popular and high-performing steels used in mainstream knives and cutlery. 

What makes CPM S35VN stainless steel different from S30V? 
CPM S35VN steel uses a finer grain structure than S30V and also includes small amounts of niobium (denoted by the “N” in S35VN). Niobium (Nb) is often used to enhance the strength of metals, which makes it ideal for products where strength is critical, such as rocket engines, jets and gas pipelines. CPM S35VN’s rebalanced chemistry contributes to its improved sharpening ability and makes it more resistant to chipping. 

CPM S35VN pocket knives 
High-quality pocket knives are designed to be sharp, durable and chip-resistant. Since the blade’s steel largely contributes to the overall performance of the knife, it’s important to select a steel recognized for being long-lasting and high-performing. 

S35VN stainless steel pocket knives are some of the finest mainstream knives on the market today. While they’re often praised for their quality, CPM S35VN knife steel has also faced criticism for some of its perceived disadvantages. 

Here we’ll examine the pros and cons of this modern steel used in quality pocket knives. 

S35VN Advantages 

1. Improved toughness 
A pocket knife’s toughness relates to its ability to resist chips, cracks and other damage upon impact. This type of damage is extremely difficult to fix and can cause permanent damage to knife blades. 

The CPM process produces steels that are generally tougher than other steel grades. In comparison to CPM S30V, the niobium carbides in CPM S35VN stainless steel make it approximately 15-20% tougher, which makes blades more resistant to common wear and tear, including chips and cracks. 

2. Easier machinability 
CPM S35VN is often preferred by craftsmen because it’s generally easier to grind, machine and polish. Machinability in metal is measured by the ease with which it can be cut and still retain a good finish. CPM S35VN steel generally requires little power to cut, making it a prime choice for craftsmen looking to produce high-quality blades without wearing down the steel through heavy machining. 

3. Able to withstand prolonged use 
CPM S35VN knives are able to stand up to long-term use without diminished quality. S35VN steel usually has a Rockwell Hardness rating between 58 and 61, depending on the blade’s heat treatment. The Rockwell scale measures a material’s hardness by measuring how deep an indenter can penetrate a material under a heavy load. Very hard steel (i.e., steel used in chisels and high-quality knife blades) has an HRC rating of 55-66. To put this in perspective, axes and throwing knives generally rate between 45 and 55 on the Rockwell scale. 

CPM S35VN steel’s high HRC rating makes it an excellent durable steel for everyday use in tough environments. For pocket knife users who can see themselves using their knives every day, it’s important to choose a blade that can stand up to prolonged use and won’t need to be replaced frequently. 

S35VN Disadvantages 

1. More expensive than other steels 
CPM S35VN steel is considered to be a higher quality of steel than its counterparts, so it’s no surprise that it comes with a larger price tag. More common stainless steel in the “mid-range” category can cost three to four times less (by weight) than a CPM alloy. When you factor in the additional costs associated with grinding, machining and heat-treating more exotic steels, the end product is naturally more expensive. 

The price of CPM S35VN pocket knives can range anywhere from $100 to $300; whereas a pocket knife made from a mid-range stainless steel is generally under $100. 

2. Requires more effort to sharpen 
One of CPM S35VN steel’s best qualities is that it can be sharpened to premium levels. This makes these pocket knife blades ideal for avid hunters and outdoorsmen who rely on sharp, tough and wear-resistant blades. People who plan to primarily use their pocket knives outdoors in all kinds of weather conditions and environments will want to make sure they have the sharpest knives they can find. 

Manufacturers of pocket knives made from CPM S35VN knife steel often find that such a durable steel can be difficult to sharpen. The hard material requires special sharpening stones and expert handling. 

3. Differences between S35VN and S30V steel can be minor 
When S30V steel was first introduced in 2001, consumers were impressed with its premium quality and relatively low price point. These key factors made it an easy choice for the average pocket knife owner. 

S35VN was released in 2009 with slight enhancements to the S30V formula. Its composition made it tougher and more wear-resistant, but some might find the improvements too minor to justify the higher price. 

Knives made with S35VN steel have won numerous awards. For example, Microtech’s Socom Delta was named “American Made Knife of the Year” by Blade Magazine in 2012. However, most pocket knives made with CPM stainless steel will be high-quality, regardless of whether the blade is made from S35VN or S30V steel. The average knife-user might not even notice a difference in the performance of these two steel types. However, tactical users and avid outdoorsmen will probably feel more confident using S35VN stainless steel pocket knives.

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