What is Damascus steel, how can we tell fact from fiction?

September 04, 2019

What is Damascus steel, how can we tell fact from fiction?

 Many of today’s views on Damascus steel are not based on science and are rooted in Hollywood and literature; for example, Walter Scott describes Damascus as “a super metal” with unrealistic properties. There are movies detailing samurai swords cutting through other steel, and knives that have supernatural abilities; these movies, while fantastic, are just that, fantasy. In this article, we will explore the history, composition, and benefits of this amazing material.

Voyak Damascus knife by Olamic.

Let’s set the record straight about Damascus steel. The steel can be identified easily by the pattern etched into the face of the material, but the pattern does not always have to be present. Damascus is the composite of a minimum of two different metals forged (beaten while glowing hot) together. Usually, one metal has a high carbon alloy and the second metal is lower in carbon.

High carbon steel has a very strong, but brittle characteristic; this can be helpful (in the case of knives) for maintaining an edge. The low carbon steel is much more ductile (pliable) and helps the blade flex and absorb impact.  As a result, the forging process creates an alloy with the combined characteristics of the metals such as flexibility from one and strength from the other. The process results in a material that is actually “superplastic”, which is a state in which a solid crystalline (metal is a crystalline structure) material is deformed well beyond its usual breaking point, usually beyond 2000% during tensile (pulling) deformation.

Suna RainDrops.

Another interesting Damascus pattern: "Raindrops"
on one of Olamic Suna knives.

 The resulting material also has an aesthetically pleasing appearance on the surface that is wholly dependent on the blacksmith and the forging process. This special patterning is brought about usually by “etching” the steel with an acid, to further contrast the two steels from one another. The acid does not compromise the steel in any way, it only shows a more complete boundary between the folds of the metal. This process is not required for the strength of the steel and is only for visual purposes. This process has been replicated in older firearm barrels for shotguns, and although it is beautiful, and Damascus steel knives are very strong, these barrels are not known for their strength and should be avoided: the pressures involved in a firearm barrel are very different than those applied to a knife.

Damascus and Make together.

Unique and complicated composition:
High Carbon Vanadium Damascus,
Nickel, and Mokume. 

To further characterize Damascus steel, one needs to look at the composition and the mixing. More layers are the answer to better steel, which comes from more folding during the forging process. This will create steel with properties that lie between the two materials. By limiting the layers and proportions of the metals, the blacksmith can regulate the properties of the steel accordingly. The quality of the folded steel depends almost exclusively on the way the layers are forged together and any separation between the layers. Oxidation of the layers as they are forged together can cause enormous issues with breakage, further oxidation, and other unpredictable mechanical qualities. A research team in 2006 found, using x-ray and electron microscopy, that original Damascus steel produced long ago actually contains carbon nanotubes and cementite nanowires. These materials certainly helped give this amazing material a portion of its strength. These were made in the steel because of the annealing and forging process, rather than directly from the ingredients themselves.

There are different names for the type of steel known in the Western world as “Damascus steel”. Japanese swords were made of Tamahagane steel, which is known for being dirty initially. Using a folding method and hammering the layers to extremely thin sheets. This released the particulate matter contaminating the steel and created a very pure and structurally sound sword.

Can all laminated steel be called Damascus? Are Wootz and Damascus the same thing? Yes, laminated steels are the most practical way to use Damascus and have been used for hundreds of years. Damascus and Wootz are however very different processes that are often confused with each other. Wootz steel is an ingredient in making this material and was mined from India and Sri Lanka. According to scientific research, in many cases, the Damascus was used as a “sandwich” or scales on mono steel cores. This practice significantly changes the characteristics of the tool or weapon it is used to make.

"Sandwich" tango known as San Mai style.

San Mai style blade. in simple words - sandwich Damascus. 

Is Damascus steel a practical invention or one for merely decorative purposes? There are many modern alloys of steel that are far superior to Damascus, however, their production requires modern chemistry and metallurgy as well as modern manufacturing techniques. Many people, however, feel that Damascus steel is an art form and will always be appreciated by knife enthusiasts and artisans for its exquisite appearance. Many knives, expensive tools, and some firearms have been made with the material, as well as decorative objects.

Historians don’t know when Damascus steel was first made, however, there are some metallurgically similar metals that were found in the pyramids of Egypt, as tools, weapons, and decoration. Damascus steel is often associated with Persia and thus thought of like a Persian creation.  This is not the case, however, as Damascus simply refers to the "pattern" and is most likely referring to the market in Damask, Persia instead of the maker's actual location. The Western Europeans only received the steel in the late 1700s, in 1790 Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society was sent a sample for analysis and to this day we are still studying the techniques of these ancient blacksmiths.

Think about it, on your next camping or another outing, you can whip out your new favorite knife; showing off the detailed Damascus steel, or laminated modern steels, beautifully hand-forged. When your friends ask about it, you can accurately describe the history, research, and craftsmanship that went into your tool.

Blue Kurok by Olamic

 Damascus knives with bright handles - awesome combination!

Quick Recap

  1. The pattern is not always necessary to identify Damascus steel.
  2. Damascus has been made since before the ancient Egyptians.
  3. Damascus steel is not only from Persia.
  4. Quality depends on the mixing as well as the steel content.
  5. Laminated steel can still be called Damascus.
  6. Damascus and Wootz are different materials, one is an ingredient, and the other is the result.



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