What is Z-Max Steel?

Spyderco Z-max Steel knife

What is Z-Max steel?

Z-Max steel is super high-speed steel manufactured by Zapp Tooling Alloys Inc, following the powder metallurgy process. It is extremely hard because it contains high amounts of Tungsten, and as a result, its blades offer outstanding edge retention and wear resistance. 

Z-Max steel is referred to as Z-Max PM steel with the PM signifying the powder metallurgy production process which enables the formation of a huge percentage of uniform carbides. Z-max steel is however not stainless steel because it only contains 4% chromium which is less than the required 13% to make steel stainless. 

Z-Max Steel Composition

  • Carbon C 2.00%: Increases edge retention, hardness, and tensile strength. It also improves steel resistance to wear, abrasion, and corrosion.
  • Chromium Cr 4.00%: Increases hardness, tensile strength, and toughness of the blade by forming chromium carbide.
  • Tungsten W 10.00%: Improves hardness at high temperature.
  • Molybdenum Mo 5.00%: It improves machinability and hardening property.
  • Vanadium V 5.00%: Increase wear resistance and toughness, it also improves corrosion resistance.
  • Cobalt Co 9.00%: Increases the strength of steel and hot hardness temperature.

Properties of Z-Max steel

Z-Max Steel Hardness

Z-Max steel has a Rockwell hardness of 68-70 HRC. This is exceptionally high hardness and is attributed to its composition’s blend of carbon, tungsten, and vanadium. Z-Max is among the hardest knife steels on the market today. 

The high attainable hardness of Z-Max is mostly attributed to the powder metallurgy production process and the tungsten in its alloy composition that enables the steel to be heat-treated at high temperatures.

Z-Max Steel Edge retention

The edge retention of steel is correlated with hardness. Steels with high hardness offer excellent edge retention, which is the case with Z-Max. With the ability to attain a hardness of up to 70 HRC, Z-Max steel offers unbeatable edge retention. 

Once it attains a razor-sharp edge, it holds the sharpness for a very long time, even with frequent use. Z-Max knives are suitable for use in environments or situations that do not give you time for frequent sharpening. Z-max blade steel edge retention can only be matched by Maxamet, Rex 121, and CPM 15V steel.

Z-Max Steel Wear resistance

Wear resistance is another steel property favored by high hardness. Blades made with Z-Max steel do not degrade or deform with wear and abrasion. With proper usage and regular maintenance, Z-Max knives are durable and will serve you across generations.

The wear resistance of Z-max steel increases with the Rockwell hardness achieved during heat treatment. Higher wear resistance can be achieved by subjecting the steel to high temperatures during heat treatment. The higher the Rockwell hardness the more wear resistance Z-max blade steel gets. 

Z-Max Steel Toughness

It is rare for steel to offer you both hardness and toughness. Being hard steel, it is expected that Z-Max provides very low levels of toughness. However, it is not very brittle. The toughness level of Z-Max steel can be described as decent. 

Z-max toughness is not the best toughness on the market, but it is enough to handle challenging applications like chopping without breaking, chipping, or cracking. Its toughness can be considered average and on the same level as the popular D2 Knife Steel.

Z-Max Steel Corrosion resistance

With impressive edge retention and wear resistance, the next question in your mind might be, does it rust? The major downside of Z-Max steel is that it offers poor corrosion resistance because it is not stainless steel. It contains 4% chromium which is lower than the 13% required to make steel stainless. 

The available chromium elements fight corrosion to a certain degree but are still prone to rust. It contains Molybdenum which also improves its corrosion resistance. However, you can prevent Z-Max knives from rusting and prolong their lifespan with proper care.


Z-Max is super hard steel, making it very difficult to sharpen. It will take you more time and energy to get a razor-sharp edge, and it will be even more difficult if you do not have the right sharpening tools and skills. 

To make the process bearable, invest in modern sharpening tools. It will cost you more to purchase these sophisticated knife sharpeners, but it will save you the time and energy you would have spent with regular sharpeners.

Z-Max Comparison

Z-Max vs Maxamet Steel

Z-max steel and Maxamet steel are both super hard steel, they achieve the highest level of edge retention in knife steels. Maxamet is slightly better than Z-max in edge retention on the same Rockwell Hardness, the difference is however negligible.

Z-Max steel powder metallurgy process enables it to be hard steel but with moderate toughness. Its toughness can be considered average but about twice that of Maxamet steel. Thus Z-max knives offer twice the toughness of Maxamet steel knives. 

Z-max and Maxamet are non-stainless steels, they offer very low levels of corrosion resistance and blades made from these steels require extra protection to prevent rusting and staining. They are not suitable to be used in humid or corrosive environments and thus cannot be termed as maintenance-free.

Z-Max vs S30V

Z-Max offers higher hardness than S30V steel and therefore beats it in edge retention and wear resistance. On the other hand, S30V is stainless steel, thus better than Z-max steel in corrosion resistance. 

Both Z-max and S30V steel are produced following the powder metallurgy process which brings about the uniform distribution of carbides compared to conventional steel. They have the same level of toughness which can be considered average.

Z-Max vs Z-Wear 

Z-Max steel is better than Z-Wear steel in edge retention and wear resistance. Z-max blade steel offers twice the edge retention of Z-wear blade steel. It is worth noting that Z-wear steel is highly similar to Cru-Wear steel and their performance is similar.

Z-wear however outshines Z-Max in other aspects like toughness, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening. Z-wear for instance offers twice the toughness of Z-max steel. Z-wear knife steel properties are more balanced and would be better blade steel for an EDC knife. 

Z-Max vs M390

Both M390 and Z-Max are high carbide steels however Z-Steel steel is better than M390 steel in hardness and edge retention. On the other hand, M390 is stainless steel that offers better corrosion resistance, both steel offer an equal level of toughness which is on average lower than that of CPM S35VN Steel.

Is Z-Max good knife steel?

Looking at its properties, we can conclude that Z-Max steel is good knife steel in edge retention. It offers outstanding hardness, which boosts its edge retention and wear resistance capabilities.

However, the high hardness makes it difficult to sharpen. Another downside of Z-Max is that it is not stainless steel and is prone to rust. You can find Z-Max steel in a few knives like the Spyderco MULE TEAM™ 29 Z-max knife.

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