There are eight stainless steel alloys commonly used in multi tools, but Leatherman makes their knife blades from 420HC, 154CM or S30V. We researched their properties and performance to cut through the technical jargon and understand what it all means in plain English.
- 420HC stainless is the most common blade steel for Leatherman multi tools because it delivers solid results for sharpness, toughness, and corrosion resistance. 420HC performs significantly better than 420.
- 154CM stainless is an upgraded steel that will stay sharp three times longer than 420HC and has improved corrosion resistance. 154CM is moderately difficult to sharpen. You can find 154CM steel on the Leatherman Skeletool CX and Charge+ models.
- S30V is the best multi tool blade steel currently available, only on the Leatherman Charge+ TTi. S30V has better sharpness, toughness and corrosion resistance than 154CM. Tough steel makes a long-wearing knife blade, but it is also very difficult to sharpen. S30V requires diamond or ceramic hones with precise angle control.
Stainless Steel Used by Gerber, SOG, Victorinox, and CRKT Multi Tools
- 1.4110 (aka X55CrMo14) – The famous steel used on Victorinox SwissTools and Swiss Army Knives, this steel gets its corrosion resistance from the mirror polish as much as the steel composition.
- 420 and 3Cr13 – Because of their low carbon content, these economy steels will deform and not break but they do not hold an edge well.
- 5Cr15MoV – A budget steel that is a step below 420HC for sharpness and edge retention.
- 7Cr17MoV – Very similar performance to 420HC with marginally better corrosion resistance.
Stainless Steel Performance Summary
We all want our knife blades to do it all:
• have a sharp edge that wears slowly
• stand up to abuse – flex and recover without bending or chipping
• be low maintenance and stay pretty without staining or corroding
For many years, knife makers were able to deliver two out of the three. You could have a sharp knife with good edge retention that was very durable, but it would rust (440C). Or you could have wanted a low maintenance knife that was durable, but not very sharp (420). That all changed with modern metallurgy in the 1970’s, new alloys had improved performance in all aspects but they came at a higher price (154CM and S30V).
We took all our technical analysis and research and digested our conclusions down into this one easy to understand table. Since 420HC is the most common blade steel found on multi tools we used it as the centerline for relative comparisons.
When the steel is not identified or simply called ‘stainless steel’ or ‘surgical steel’ you should assume it is below 12% chromium – the minimum for 420 or 3Cr13 grades. It is likely a 300 series or low 400 series steel because the manufacturer would surely use identify it in their marketing if it was anything better. As it stands, 420 and 3Cr13 are more suited for handle material than blade steel.
420HC Stainless Steel
The HC stands for high carbon, so as you might have guessed, 420HC steel starts with 420 steel and adds additional carbon. The higher carbon content creates a harder steel and sharper blade with better edge retention, while keeping the corrosion of 420 steel. Blades made from 420HC steel are good general purpose knives that require minimal maintenance and are easy to sharpen by the average user.
154CM Stainless Steel
Made by Crucible Industries, they tool 440 stainless steel and added molybdenum (4%) to produce a steel with great all-around properties. 154CM has slightly better corrosion resistance and similar toughness as 420HC, but with 3x better edge retention. Hitachi Corporation copied the chemical composition of 154CM and makes their own version with similar properties under their brand ATS-34.
Leatherman is the only multi tool manufacturer using the excellent properties of 154CM blade steel on two models: the Skeletool CX and Charge+. Also plan on buying upgraded sharpening equipment to go with your premium blade. Standard Arkansas whetstones will not put a fine edge on 154CM unless you are highly skilled. Get a system that controls the sharpening angle and has ceramic or diamond hones. Our favorite is only $50.
Sharpening 154CM and S30V blades is not as easy as your standard Swiss Army Knife or 420HC blade. In this article we cover how to sharpen your multi tool and which sharpeners we recommend.
S30V Stainless Steel
Just like 154CM, S30V was created by Crucible Industries and was a breakthrough improvement in 2001. Also known as CPM S30V, the CPM stands for Crucible Powder Metallurgy. By using sintered powder, Crucible created a steel that has very high purity, finer grain structure (image below), and more uniform distribution of the vanadium carbides that make the edge so sharp and tough.
S30V is even harder to sharpen than 154CM, learn how to sharpen your multi tool and which sharpeners we recommend. When you want the very best knife blade on your multi tool, S30V is the only choice and only found in the Charge+ TTi from Leatherman. We covered the Multi Tools with the Best Knife Blades in this article.
1.4110 Stainless Steel
When evaluating knife blade steel, the manufacturing process is equally important as the steel properties. Victorinox is able to make the best blade possible out of 1.4110 steel because they have worked with 1.4110 since 1885 and have optimized their process.
Victorinox makes up for the relatively low hardness in 1.4110 steel by giving their blades a thin grind. Because of this the blade takes a fine edge and still cuts effectively after use. Similarly, the corrosion resistance SAKs are famous for is a result of the highly polished surface on their blades. The chromium content of 1.4110 is middle of the pack and by itself would not be remarkable.
3Cr13, 5Cr15MoV and 7Cr17Mov Stainless Steels
The XCrXMoV series steels are made in China by various manufacturers and are commonly used in budget kitchen knives and scissors. Sometimes referred to as ‘Chinesium’, the high chromium content makes them corrosion resistant. The MoV appendix signifies the steel has added molybdenum (Mo) and vanadium (V) to increase hardness and wear resistance from the base grade.
The 3CrX and 5CrX series are low-quality budget steels that underperform. The 7Cr17MoV steel compares well on paper to 420HC, but our experience is that 420HC from Leatherman still has the ‘edge’ (pun intended, sorry) due to their excellent heat treatment process – keep reading for more details.
Stainless Steel Specs
|420HC||0.4 – 0.5||13||56 – 57|
|S30V||1.45||14||58 – 61|
|1.4110||0.48 – 0.6||13 – 15||56 – 57|
|420||0.15 – 0.4||12 – 14||50|
|3Cr13||0.26 – 0.35||12 – 14||48 – 53|
|5Cr15MoV||0.45 – 0.5||14.5 – 15||54 – 56|
|7Cr17MoV||0.60 – 0.75||16 – 18.5||55 – 57|
Carbon – Carbon is the defining element that turns iron into steel. More carbon means harder steel, but too much carbon can make steel brittle.
Chromium – Adding chromium makes steel more corrosion resistant and can increase toughness. Steel must have a minimum 11% chromium to be considered stainless steel.
Molybdenum – Adding Molybdenum
Knife enthusiasts really dive into the technical details of metallurgy and steel composition, but multi tools have kept it relatively simple with just a few steel grades used today.
Heat Treatment: The Soul of the Knife
Steels with similar compositions can have very different performance results, all because of the heat treatment and tempering process. Victorinox has taken a very average stainless steel and refined their process over 100+ years to create knife blades that outperform. Leatherman is following a similar path with 420HC, they optimized their heat treatment process to get premium results from a standard steel.
Manufacturers closely guard their heat treatment process because it prevents copycats from getting the same performance. Anyone can take a knife blade and analyze its chemical composition, but the heat treatment recipe is the ‘secret sauce’ that can’t be replicated. Heat treatment processes can get very complex in efforts to control the grain size, hardness, and toughness of the finished blade.
Heat Treatment Explained
Also known as the quench, heat treatment is the process of hardening steel by heating it above its critical temperature (1800°C for 420HC) and then rapidly cooling it, usually within an oil bath. Heat treatment changes the structural and physical properties of the steel, but not its chemical composition.
With carbon steels, the rapid cooling produces a metal with a hard structure due to the formation of crystal grains within the steel. Even small changes in the composition of the steel, combined with the specific temperatures, times, cooling material, and rate of cooling used in the quench will greatly impact the heat treatment results. Cooling steel too quickly can make it brittle and crack, not reaching critical temperature or cooling too slowly will produce soft steel that does not hold an edge.
Leatherman Multi Tool Stainless Steel
- 420HC: Free P2/P4, Surge, Wave+, Crunch, Signal, OHT, Super Tool 300, MUT, Skeletool, Skeletool SX, Rebar, Sidekick, Wingman, Micra, Squirt PS4/ES4, Style CS, Leap, Juice, Raptor (shears)
- 154CM: Charge+ main blade, serrated blade is 420HC, Skeletool CX/RX
- S30V: Charge+ TTi main blade, serrated blade is 420HC
SOG Multi Tool Stainless Steel
SOG includes the stainless steel used on all but three of their multi tools:
- 420: PowerAssist, PowerLock, SwitchPlier
- 5Cr13MoV: Snippet, Sync II
- 5Cr15MoV: Baton Q1/Q2/Q3/Q4, PowerAccess, PowerAccess Deluxe, PowerPlay, Sync I, Sync II Traveler
- 7Cr13MoV: CrossCut 2.0
- 7Cr17MoV: Micro ToolClip
- Unlisted: PowerLitre, PowerPint
Both SOG and Gerber are knife companies first (SOG Knives & Tools, Gerber Legendary Blades) and know the value and utility of quality blade steel. So it is disappointing that their multi tools use lower quality stainless steel that doesn’t perform as well as competitors.
Gerber Multi Tool Stainless Steel
Gerber doesn’t list the blade steel for any of their multi tools except the Center-Drive series.
- 420HC: Center-Drive
- Unlisted: Multi-Plier 600 (MP600) series, Multi-Plier 400 (MP400) series, Multi-Plier 800 Legend (MP800), Dime, Crucial, Suspension-NXT, Bear Gryll’s Ultimate Survival Multi-Tool, Suspension, Splice, Truss, Vice
Gerber lists USA Built w/ Global Parts on some models and most models are manufactured in China/Taiwan. It is a safe bet that Gerber is using the Chinese XCrX series steel in their tools, and likely from the lower end based on the fact that they don’t publish the grade. This is supported by our performance testing.
Why is my Multi Tool Rusting?
Many people think of stainless steel as ‘rust proof’ but this is not the case. All steels can rust, stainless steels are just more resistant to oxidation corrosion than carbon and tool steels. Chromium content is the largest factor in corrosion resistance which is why steel must have at least 11% chromium to be considered stainless.
There are two common reasons why multi tools corrode: they are used in corrosive environments, such as saltwater or cutting acidic foods like oranges, and maintenance is neglected. We wrote about how to maintain your multi tool in this article.
Best Multi Tool Steel for Saltwater
Sorry to disappoint, but none of the stainless steels used in multi tools today are rated for saltwater environments. The polished finish on the Victorinox SwissTool line holds up the best, with Leatherman a close second. If you start with a properly lubricated and protected tool, you can go for awhile between cleanings if it just exposed to the ocean air. Any salt spray or dunking requires a freshwater rinse and lubrication at the end of the day or you will see corrosion.
For blades that are truly impervious to saltwater corrosion, look at dive knives and marine rescue equipment. These tools are made from titanium or premium stainless steel alloys like H-1 and LC 200 N not found in multi tools .