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Damascus steel knife

The Enduring Appeal of Damascus Steel

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks of Romeo, her object of desire with the unfortunate family crest. You may ask yourself that same question when you hold a fine “Damascus” knife up close to inspect the intricate patterns running thru the steel of the blade. Does it matter that real Damascus steel is only to be found in museums?

“Damascus” is a label given to modern pattern-welded steel, so named because it has a similar appearance and like properties to the real McCoy. The original Damascus steel refers to wootz, pulad or bulat steel - the name being dependent on where the steel is worked - a type of crucible steel ingot imported from India and used in Middle Eastern swordmaking. The destination was primarily Damascus, where there was a thriving weapons industry at the time.

These crucible ingots and the resulting sword blades were characterized by distinctive banding and patterning, or watering. These swords had a reputation for durability and an exceptional cutting edge and have become the stuff of legends. The earliest known crucible Damascus sword blade was excavated from a 3rd - 4th century A.D. burial in the Russian Northern Caucasus.

Inexplicably, by the mid to late 18th century, this swordmaking technique was lost and the production in India of these crucible steel ingots ceased. There has been much speculation as to the cause: that the trade routes were somehow interrupted for a lengthy period, or that the source of the minerals for making the ingots dried up – both scenarios having the effect of causing the technique to be abandoned.
There have been many studies of the properties of Damascus steel and many theories proposed as to how it was produced, but definitive, indisputable answers to the mystery of its composition are still not known. This is the enduring enigma of Damascus steel.

Modern Damascus, or pattern-welded steel, has a much shorter history. It was popularized in the 1970’s by legendary knifemaker, Bill Moran, who unveiled his ‘’Damascus knives” at a Knifemaker’s Guild show, reintroducing the technique to the knife buying public.

That’s not to say that Modern Damascus is a lightweight compared to the original Damascus of legend. In fact, pattern-welded steel has a long, important history in weapons use of its own right. The technique was in common use by the Celts in the 2nd and 3rd century AD and was employed by the Vikings in their ornate swords up until the end of their era in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The original technique of pattern-welding steel was one born out of necessity. In ancient times, the bloomeries (furnaces) were incapable of producing enough heat to smelt iron and steel into a homogenous mixture hard enough to make a good blade. To fix this, metalsmiths mixed carbon (charcoal) with thin strips of iron in the smelting process and layered these strips onto the softer iron core making a harder, yet more resilient blade.

Modern pattern-welded steel is made from two or more types of steel welded together to form a billet. The blacksmith heats the steel, draws it out, folds it over, cuts it in half, welds a billet and then repeats the process until he gets the desired number of layers (each fold doubles the previous layer count). When the desired number of layers is achieved, the blade is hammered and ground into shape and finally submerged in an acid bath which acts on the different steels and draws out the contrasts. This layering of the steel forms the banding and patterning on the blade similar to the original Damascus steel. This is the reason for the label of “Damascus” steel.

Generally speaking, the more layers a blade has, the more sought after it is and the more expensive it is. The degree, complexity and design of the patterning on the blade creates value as well. The functional value of pattern-welded steel is the formation of a microscopic serrated cutting edge caused by the grinding down of the layers.

Modern Damascus steel knives are very popular with knife enthusiasts and are carried in the product lines of most major manufacturers. As you might have surmised, making a Damascus steel blade is a time consuming process and, like anything else, you get what you pay for. Damascus knives imported from China, India and Pakistan can be hand forged or manufactured and are inexpensive by Western standards. In the mid-range, manufactured and semi-custom Damascus steel knives are available from a few major brands; the “custom” being the hand forged pattern-welded steel blades. On the high end, true custom handmadeDamascus steel knives are usually made to order by experienced knifemakers who work from a waiting list – sometimes years long.

Up to this point, I’ve been referring to Damascus steel as a material suited to making edged blades, but it has many more applications. The demand for Damascus steel is so high in the knife industry that steel producers have sprung up to meet the demand of manufacturers by forging high-quality Damascus to meet their needs, as well as manufacturers of other consumer goods.

Gun manufacturers, golf putter manufacturers, makers of tattoo equipment, the vapor industry, jewelry manufacturers and makers of motorcycle parts are all examples of companies gravitating to Damascus steel for their products,as a material with beauty, strength and that indefinable mystique.

There’s something magicalabout hand-worked Damascus steel. Painstakingly forged and finished in fire. Ground, shaped, etched and polished. Its intricate patterns brought to life to please the eye. Its multiple layers a signature in steel of the smithy’s skills. It’s ancient craftworkwith mysterious roots.

Call it Modern Damascus steel or call it pattern-welded steel, the label is immaterial. What’s important to remember is the skill and sweat that goes into creating this beautiful material.Some believe that the spirit of those long-agobladesmiths live in thefire-tested folds. Others see its essence as the artistic expression of its maker. For myself, I see both, and that is the Enduring Appeal of Damascus Steel.

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