Damascus steel is a legendary metal that’s recognizable by the wavy, rose, or watery light and dark pattern in the metal. Blades made from Damascus steel were a big deal because they were not only beautiful, but out-performed others of the day. Damascus steel swords were tough, flexible, and maintained a keen edge. Unlike blades made of inferior iron or steel, they resisted shattering. The secret to making Damascus steel was lost until recently, yet “Damascus steel” blades have been available since the 1970s.
Here’s a look at how original and modern Damascus steel are made, the properties of the metals, and how Damascus steel got its name.
Why It’s Called Damascus Steel
Historians disagree about the origin of the words “Damascus steel” and “Damascene steel.” There are three plausible origin stories:
- Damascus steel got its name because it was steel made in the city of Damascus.
- The steel referred to any steel bought or traded from Damascus.
- The word refers to the pattern in the blade, which resembles damask fabric. The word “damas” is Arabic for “watered.”
So, Damascus steel either refers to the origin of the blade or its appearance, depending on who you ask.
Cast Damascus Steel
Original Damascus steel blades were produced in Syria from around 500-900 AD until about 1750 AD using wootz steel. Wootz steel came from southern India, Khorasan, and Sri Lanka. Production declined in the mid-18th century and the art of making Damascus steel was lost until the late 20th century.
True Damascus steel was cast steel that got its pattern from the wootz steel used to make it. Tungsten, vanadium, and carbon impurities in the metal formed carbon nanotubules and stretched cementite spheroids that gave the blades their pattern and mechanical properties. For this reason, true Damascus steel is called “wootz Damascus steel” to distinguish it from imitations. J. D. Verhoeven and A. H. Pendray successfully replicated the properties of Damascus steel by forging steel matching the composition of original Indian wootz steel. But, blades made using this technique are not commercially available. If you’re interested in learning more, Verhoeven’s article is worth a read.
Interestingly, wootz Damascus steel doesn’t always have the Damascene pattern. Thermal cycling can make the pattern appear and disappear, even though it doesn’t necessarily remove the pattern of the carbide-forming elements within the metal.
Pattern-Welded Damascus Steel
If you buy a Damascus steel blade today (unless it’s at auction for a old wootz blade), you won’t get cast steel, like the original metal.
Actually, there are two possible options. Cheap “Damascus” steel is surface-etched to form a pattern. The pattern wears away, so the blade has the properties of the steel used to make it (440 Stainless, if you’re lucky) . If the appearance of the blade is all that matters, this is fine.
The superior option is pattern-welded steel. Pattern-welded steel has been called “Damascus steel” since 1973, when William F. Moran displayed his knives at the Knifemakers’ Guild Show. Quality modern Damascus steel is pattern-welded by layering iron and steel or two types of steel and forging them together by hammering at high temperature to form a welded bond. Flux between the layers keeps out oxygen and aids seal formation. Folding the layers together produces a watery effect similar to that of wootz Damascus steel, although many other patterns are possible. Pattern-welding requires skill, so these blades tend to be forged using metals with desirable properties. Often, the resulting blades are both strong and flexible, like original Damascus metal. Because two different metals are used, the edge of the blade almost acts serrated, even though it appears smooth. You can tell you have this type of blade if its spine (the unsharpened back) continues the pattern of the blade. Also, when you sharpen the knife, its pattern remains.
- Figiel, Leo S. (1991). On Damascus Steel. Atlantis Arts Press. ISBN 978-0-9628711-0-8.
- Goddard, Wayne (2000). The Wonder of Knifemaking. Krause. ISBN 978-0-87341-798-3.
- Smith, C. S. (1960). A History of Metallography. University Press: Chicago.
- Verhoeven, John D. (2007). “Pattern Formation in Wootz Damascus Steel Swords and Blades”. Indian Journal of History of Science. 42.4: 559-574.
- Verhoeven, J.D.; Pendray, A.H.; Dauksch, W.E. (September 2004). “The continuing study of damascus steel: Bars from the Alwar Armory”. JOM. 56 (9): 17–20. doi:10.1007/s11837-004-0193-4