BLADE Magazine

Why is CPM-154 So Popular with Custom Knifemakers?

john bartlow custom knifemaker
In CPM-154 stainless, John Bartlow said he found a steel that allowed for a flawless finish. At the grinder here in his shop, Bartlow uses the steel on his utility fixed blade equipped with his trademark line cutter in the ricasso. (SharpByCoop knife image)
A veteran of 30 years in the Knifemakers’ Guild, John Bartlow started out using 440C stainless steel for his knives, moved to ATS-34 and today has graduated to CPM-154. Raphael Durand uses the latter steel on his stag lockback. (SharpByCoop image)

Based in Sheridan, Wyoming, by way of Tennessee, 30-year Knifemakers’ Guild member John Bartlow uses CPM-154 for his bird and trout and hunting knives. When Bartlow first started making knives, he was also a hunting outfitter.

As a result, he gutted and skinned a lot of animals on a weekly basis. Having many of his guides use his knives, he got a lot of feedback over the years about design and function.

“I started out with 440C stainless steel a million years ago,” Bartlow remembered. “I quit that nearly 20 years ago and jumped to ATS-34 stainless and used it for years and years.”

He said that about a decade ago he started to become frustrated with the quality of the ATS he was getting. There weren’t major structural problems like chipping or breaking, but there were very subtle issues Bartlow observed under 10-to-12-power magnification.

“My customers never noticed it but it bugged me,” he continued. “I was trying to get some finishes in that stuff —and I was buying through normal channels from several suppliers—but when I would go to finish it, once in a while I’d get this little area that looked like it had pits in it, or it kind of had a little ‘road rash’ that I could not get rid of.”

He approached other makers about it at the time and they said they’d seen the same thing. That motivated him to jump ship to CPM-154, he said, which is very much a sister steel to ATS-34 and 154CM.

“They are closely related on the family tree of steel,” he said. In CPM-154, he found a material that allowed for a flawless finish. With the powder metallurgy process and the accompanying uniform distribution of carbides, it eliminated the “road rash” issue.

Here grinding a blade in his shop, David Sharp said CPM-154 exhibits excellent edge retention, sharpenability and corrosion resistance.

Custom maker David Sharp uses CPM-154, including on his reproductions of the knives of BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Bob Loveless. Since Sharp began building knives in 2010, he has specialized in fine-finished fixed blades.

“A large percentage of my knives have a very fine finish, polished or over-1200-grit hand satin,” the maker based in Hesperia, California, remarked. “CPM-154 is very fine, so when it’s finished to a high level you don’t see the steel’s grain.”

He added that CPM-154 is not quite as abrasion resistant as other of the relatively newer steels, so obtaining a fine finish is a bit quicker. He said that though steels are an oft-discussed topic online, he very seldom has customers request a steel type or brand, which could be seen as a testament that his choice of CPM-154 is a good one.

“I have not noticed a downside,” Sharp continued. “The upside is the finish and that it is, in my opinion, a balanced steel. For the majority of users it exhibits excellent edge retention, sharpenability and corrosion resistance.”

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