As a kid I always enjoyed mysteries, and two of my favorite things to think about were the lost secrets of Damascus steel and the thing James Black forgot. Other people wondered about the Lost Dutchman gold mine and Blackbeard’s treasure island, but I daydreamed about the secrets of steel. Why did we lose the ability to create a sword so strong it shattered stone without breaking, and so sharp it sliced a silk scarf in half as it drifted over the blade? Some say James Black, the Arkansas blacksmith who forged the famous Bowie knives, rediscovered that secret process. His knives, like the old Damascus blades, outperformed all others. After a blow to his head blinded him, he tried to write a book about his process, but the injury and the years of illness it caused had taken his secrets as well as his sight.
A few years ago when Damascus-like steel entered the modern market, I saw the word Damascus and looked at these new blades writhing with strange markings and thought, hooray! now I can have one of those great knives! Well, maybe in a few years when the price goes down, I thought immediately afterward. I can’t spend several hundred dollars on a pocket knife, or several thousand on a hunting knife. But I’m patient.
By the time I could afford a Damascus-like blade, I’d pretty much lost interest. The sad truth about modern Damascus steel is that it falls short of the legendary blades of old. Today’s Damascus steel with its intricate layered patterns can improve a knife’s performance, but in ways many of us can’t easily detect. If you collect knives for art’s sake, you’ll love modern Damascus steel. If you use knives for work or for hunting, you might not be so impressed by the performance of pattern-welded Damascus, at least at the lower end of the price range. Try out a knife made of modern Wootz steel for a taste much closer to the tang of the real swords of ancient Persia.
The real Damascus steel remains at least a partial mystery, although some modern approaches to steel-making seem very close. The rippling layers within a true Damascus blade didn’t come from forging, according to a study published in the Journal of Mining (JOM) in 1998. Wootz steel ingots imported from mines in India provided the raw material for Damascus blades, and the ore in that particular region contained natural impurities that created carbides in the iron. Smelting techniques added more peculiar elements. Special heat-treating and forging processes added strength to the old Damascus blades, but the mysterious markings and abilities came from the carbides the old smiths didn’t understand. One reason the secret of the old swords died could be that the mines providing the carbide-laden ore simply played out.
Other swords and knives of legendary quality depended on advanced forging and good but not magically-great steel. Japanese smiths created samurai katanas by pattern-welding, something that also gives a blade that rippling appearance and greater strength. Today, manufacturers of knives often use stamped steel. With modern metallurgical processes and no shortage of rare elements for the mix, the quality of a stamped steel blade can equal that of a knife that was drop-forged from a steel ingot. Drop-forging, the process that allows a manufacturer to call a knife “forged” instead of “stamped”, really doesn’t do much more than shape a blade. If you want a knife of better quality than either stamped or drop-forged manufacture, you’ll have to do what people did before the 1900’s and mass production, and find a good smith who knows how to make good knives.
I learned my theory of steel from some old blacksmithing manuals and magazines published in the early 1800’s when people still made a living with hammer and forge. By trying out those old tools and techniques myself and seeing the results, I did come to believe in the fundamental theory they worked by, even though by modern standards it might not be entirely correct. Traditional blacksmiths looked at steel as a matrix of crystals, blending other materials with the steel as they shaped the crystalline lattice with hammering and heat. Smiths developed their own methods and used unique materials, sometimes as simple as clean metal filings accumulated by sharpening finished tools. If you mix in some magical ingredients like bones and horse’s hooves and human hair (all excellent sources of carbon and rare minerals) while reheating the steel, the composition of the steel changes slightly. Carbon content increases and carbide-forming elements enter the metal. In this old view, forging creates steel that resembles a bundle of stretched and flattened crystals, with other substances lodged in the junctions between, for good or for ill.
In modern terms you might say instead that reheating breaks up large crystals into smaller ones and increases the number of crystalline bonds in the lattice, thereby making the metal stronger. At the proper forging temperature the crystals slide over one another instead of breaking apart, allowing shaping by impact. Tiny hard dendrites among the crystals contribute the extra hardness of carbides. I suppose at some point people quit trying to figure all this out and heat some steel and start banging away. Some things help and some things don’t, and when you stumble across a combination that works, you’re an expert with a secret, even if you don’t completely understand your mystical formula.
Pounding out the steel and then folding it back creates layered or pattern-welded steel of the type used in samurai swords and many modern Damascus-like knives and swords. Every time you fold the steel back you double the number of layers. If you work at the right temperature, with the right sort of clean fuel, every time you double the steel over, the steel gets stronger. There’s also a chance that you can weave oxides into the mix, and oxides cause trouble. Working with dirty fuel and a smoky, oxidizing fire ruins what you’re making, filling it with rust particles and other impurities that weaken the layered welds. Ideally you get clean welds and a blade made of many thin, flexible layers of steel, stronger than the original alloy.
If you start with the best steel and shape the knife primarily by simple forging rather than pattern-welding, you get a knife with qualities that depend more on the steel than on complex workmanship. Old Damascus steel knives reveal evidence of that approach, although working with Wootz steel definitely required a high level of skill and probably also some heat-treating secrets we don’t know. Pattern-welded, Damascus-like blades use an entirely different approach — not a bad approach, but the result only resembles etched Damascus steel.
Today only a few companies and artisans work with something similar to Wootz steel. Dragon’s Breath Forge makes their own brand of Wootz-like carbide steel, creating steel weapons with similar quality to old Damascus, but not quite the same. Angel Forge in Texas manufactures weapons from a patented steel it calls Techno-Wootz. Scientific testing shows the products to be very similar to ancient Damascus weaponry.
Economic pressures probably helped phase out the old Damascus trade when supplies of Wootz ore ran low. Inexpensive carbon steel made ordinary weapons nearly as good as the best, and Damascus blades retired to museum collections. Ordinary carbon steel is still the best knife bargain around, and if you want to step up from that to D2 tool steel knives or a more rust-resistant alloy like S-30V, you’ll see differences you’ll probably find justifiable in price. You can get great knives in any manufacturing style, including Damascus-like products. Damascus-like construction does not guarantee a better blade, but at the highest levels of workmanship represented by companies such as Yoshihiro of Japan you will get a top quality knife — just short of legendary.
Links of interest:
Dragon’s Breath Forge: Historical Information About Wootz — http://www.dragonsbreathforge.com/historialwootz.html
Angel Sword: Techno-wootz Damascus Steel — http://www.angelsword.com/techno_wootz_steel.php
TMS: The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades — http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/JOM/9809/Verhoeven-9809.html