Hey there, and welcome back. Or should I be welcoming myself back? It has been longer than I wanted since I last rambled on here. Still, the problems of the last month or so have been beaten back into their lair, so let's be at it shall we? I thought we might take a look at that most beautiful of knife steels, Damascus today.
Now I must admit right up front that not everyone finds Damascus as beautiful as I do, though I really don't understand how any one could not be captivated by the almost hypnotic wave patterns running through good Damascus like ripples on a pond. But what is Damascus? How do knife makers get that wonderful patterns? And what in the world justifies the truly astronomical prices some pieces demand? Or for that matter just where did that outlandish name come from?
To start to understand Damascus, or at least to start to understand it if you're as fascinated by history as I am, we need to go back 1000 years or so. At the time the best steel in the known world came from India and was imported into Syria in the form of ingots of what was call Wotz steel. Much of it came through a sleepy little trade town called Damascus where mast blade smiths turned this wotz steel into knives and swords. But there were impurities in the Wotz which, while accidentally making it superior to other steels of the day, also caused wavy patterns of light and dark bands to run through the finished blades. As a result, by the time merchants got these blades to Europe, the beauty of the blades, coupled with their superior quality made highly sought after; but the often illeterate nobles who could afford them had never heard of Wotz, or often enough India. Each and everyone of them had heard of Syria though thanks to the crusades, and so steel with that wonderful "water" pattern become known in Europe as Damascus.
Jump forwards to the 1600's and 1700's and gun smiths were starting to use a technique called pattern welding to make better quality gun barrels, especially shot gun barrels. Since this technique looked so much like the old Damascus swords that had been being handed down among noble families, these barrels and the technique used to make them came to be known as Damascus as well.
So, is Damascus really better than other knife steels? Or even gun steels for that matter? The answer is, maybe and kinda sort of. It certainly was ages ago when Damascus made by master smiths were stronger and more flexible than the regular steel of the day, but I'm not so sure it's all that much better than modern steels if at all. Modern science has made tremendous strides in metallurgy over the past several decades thanks in a large part to a better understanding of chemistry, and as a result more often than not it's possible to find a type of steel with almost any quality you wish. I mean the modern blade smith can choose from 440C, W2, D2, 8Cr13MoV, CPM 9V or 15V, 5160, 1095, AUS 8 or 10, VG-10,14C28N, V2-C, and a host of others too numerous to count easily.
So why then is Damascus so bloody expensive! Mainly because of the way it's made. You see, as a general rule Damascus must be made by hand using a method called forge welding or pattern welding. What happens is that the smith making it will choose 2 to 4 different steels, stack the bars of steel up, heat them to forging temperature, and then hammer them into a single piece of metal. That piece is then often cut or folded over and hammered out again, and again, and again, until the smith has a piece that pleases him. He might have as few as four layers, or as many as a 1000 (though that's rare), and because the different pieces of steel he started with don't completely mix with each other he (or she) will have a blade with those lovely streaks running through it. "Yeah, but surely that doesn't take that much time" I hear you saying. "After all, the smith's on History Channel's Forged In Fire only take 3 hours to make a completed blade!" Sorry Charlie, but that's TV, not real life. First off, on Forged In Fire the smith's are given the steal they're going to use, so there's no time wasted on picking out the steel they're going to use or cutting it the right starting length. Secondly, most of the time they're going for low layer counts because they simply don't have time to keep folding and folding the steel to get a higher layer count. For another point, each of those smiths are experienced smith at the height of their craft who can forge blades faster than most of the smith's out there. And finally, have you really looked at most of the blades turned in after that first 3 hours? Yeah, some are almost ready to have a handle installed, but at least 95% of them require extensive grinding to get the blades anywhere near ready. That's six grueling hours spent working non-stop. It's a miracle there hasn't been more injuries than there has been on that show, and there's an injury or heat related problem on at least half the shows I've seen. So, the blade smith who doesn't want to risk an injury that might result in him or her being unable to work for a month or two will take 3 days to a week easy just to make one Damascus knife. So when he or she sells that knife, they need to make enough off that one knife to pay all the bills that will pile up during those 3 to 5 days.
"But I've seen some Damascus knives going for less than $50.00" you say. No, most of the time you've seen knives that are labeled Damascus but really aren't sell for that. In some cases, the manufacturer has etched a pattern that looks like Damascus into the blade, in others people in places like Pakistan and some parts of china have made Damascus using the cheapest steel and the cheapest labor available, and you can guess what the quality of those knives are like. They're still pretty, but any use is going to rather quickly degrade the appearance; unlike a quality Damascus where the pattern goes all the way through the blade. In other cases a machine folds and forge welds the steel into a generic blank that is then either stamped or ground into the finished blade. These knives are more expensive than plain steel knives, but no where near what a true hand made knife would cost. And since it is made using true Damascus, the pattern does go all the way through the blade. However, the pattern will never have the same "water" quality where the pattern is folded and formed by the forging of the blade. Instead you'll see the pattern just stoping at the edge of the blade.
So there you have the quick and dirty on Damascus. Is there more I could tell you? Oh hell yes! Entire books have been written on the subject, including different patterns and how to select the proper steel for the results desired. But I've reached the end of what time I have for rambling on today. If you want to find out more, there are many good sources out there. One of my favorites is the Tips For The Knife Maker YouTube series by Walter Sorrells. But for now I'll wish you smooth sailing and sunny skies until we meet again. And, as always, remember. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing with attitude!