If you’ve dipped your toes into the world of everyday carry knives, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve laid eyes on Damascus steel. You know, those beautiful blades with the wavy and seemingly patternless lines – like a topographical map of a mythical realm – that are nearly always attached to a rare knife handle and a rather high price tag? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about.
If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably wondered a time or two what the deal is with this mysterious blade material. While not as ubiquitous as other steels, it still appears commonly enough to have piqued our curiosities – yet it is still rare enough that the knowledge of its history, benefits, and purpose are not what one might call pedestrian. In fact, we’ve come to realize that even some well-versed folks in the EDC community are not cued into the story. As such, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do a bit of research and answer the begging question: What, exactly, is Damascus steel?
The History of Damascus
The history of Damascus steel (Damask, alternatively) actually dates back centuries – as far as the 400s CE to be precise. And though, in one way or another, it derives its name from the Syrian capital city, the steel that Damascus is crafted from doesn’t come from Syria or the Middle East at all. In fact, it was imported from either India or Sri Lanka and wasn’t even called Damascus.
Wootz, so it’s called, is a crucible steel characterized by a series of bands (which resemble topography or waves of water) formed by the creation and/or inclusion of ferrite, martensite and/or pearlite in steel. Ferrite is a crystalline form of iron; martensite is a form of crystalline steel; and pearlite is a combination of ferrite and cementite (AKA iron carbide). It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but what you need to know is this: Wootz steel is an impure form of steel. But, in this case, they are far from a draw back, as It is from impurities that this steel derives its legendary strength and appearance.it is from impurities that this steel derives its legendary strength and appearance. But, we’ll get to that later.
There are thought to be two reasons why Wootz steel was referred to as Damascus here in the western world. First, many of the world-renowned Wootz steel swords used by Syrian warriors in ancient times were crafted in the city of Damascus, so it was easy to title them as such. And two, that it was called Damascus steel for its resemblance to Damask fabrics, which were – in turn – named after the Syrian capital. Although the material itself and the method of creating this type of blade steel is now considered a legendary part of history, the original technique behind its creation was actually lost sometime around the mid-1700s. There are a few theories as to why this happened – the breakdown of trade routes, a lack of documentation, or cultural suppression by western imperialism – but the fact remains: we no longer know how Damascus steel was traditionally created.
Improved or Imposter?
The loss of the original technique hasn’t stopped people from trying to craft this legendary material, however. In fact, there are people who have dedicated their entire lives to trying to recreate or reverse engineer the stuff. It’s even considered a subfield beneath the larger study known as experimental archaeology – a field dedicated to approximating the technological feasibility of ancient cultural practices to gain a better understanding and deeper knowledge of said cultures. Now, There are two commonly used methods for approximating what we will continue to refer to as Damascus steelthere are two commonly used methods for approximating what we will continue to refer to as Damascus steel: billet welding and crucible replication.
Billet Welding: Pioneered by William F. Moran (a now-famous knife designer and the founder of the American Bladesmith Society) and introduced at the Knifemakers’ Guild Show in 1973 – this method is also known as pattern welding. The technique requires a knifesmith to take several different alloys of steel and/or iron, weld them together into a billet (a bar or cylinder of steel), and then work and fold that steel until it forms a desired patterned appearance. This version of steel is commonly (and erroneously) referred to as “Damascus.” Though it is a clever technique and can create both incredibly gorgeous and unbelievably strong blade alloys, it is not, in fact, the same technique originally used in ancient Syria.
Crucible Replication: There are a couple of different historical examples of Damascus steel crucible replication, though it is still impossible to say whether the methods are correct or not. In 1981, for example, an article was published in the New York Times stating that two Stanford metallurgists (by the names of Jeffrey Wadsworth and Oleg D. Sherby) had rediscovered the technique via the creation of a “superplastic” metal alloy. Using contemporary methods, these researchers claim to have almost exactly replicated the ancient Wootz-based steel. A similar technique was discovered and published in a 1998 article by J.D. Verhoeven, A.H. Pendray, and W.E. Dauksch titled “The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades.” Like we said, it’s hard to determine if they were, in fact, successful in their replication. It’s possible that one or both of these methods are correct. It’s also possible that they, too, are simply close enough. Whatever the case, this variety of Damascus probably more closely resembles the original than billet welded Damascus steel does.
What's The Point?
What we know of as Damascus steel today is still widely used for the same applications as it was back in ancient times – namely in the creation of bladed tools. And that’s probably because the benefits of the material are also largely the same. If you are at all familiar with blade steels, you already understand the reasoning behind this. Those ‘impurities’ we mentioned earlier – the ferrite, martensite and/or pearlite – are spread throughout the layers of steel, imbuing it with a greater resistance to chipping and shattering and allowing an extreme edge to be honed across the blade.
There’s also a level of craftsmanship associated with this type of steel, because there is such an involved and difficult process to create it. So, if you find an EDC knife with a Damascus steel blade and it’s attached to a very high price tag, remember that’s not just because of the quality of the material (like the edge retention, strength, etc.)a “Master Smith” Damascus is required to have at least 300 layers of folded steel., but also because of all the work that went into creating the sometimes dozens of layers of tempered steel. For reference, a “Master Smith” Damascus (a rating offered by the American Bladesmith Society) is required to have at least 300 layers of folded steel.
The types of blades that are created with Damascus steel are also quite varied. It’s possible to find everything from small tactical fixed blades to ornate high-end pocket folders. It can even be found, fairly commonly, as a material used in the creation of specialty chef’s knives. But, just because Damascus steel is most commonly found in knives, it’s not relegated exclusively to that application. It can be crafted into literally anything that steel can be made into – including multi-tools, everyday carry pens, wallets… the possibilities are practically endless.
Tactile Turn Damascus Steel Slider Pen
Though the most common application is knife blades, Damascus steel is hardly limited to that use. Take, for example, Tacticle Turn’s Damascus steel Slider Pen. This beautiful 2-ounce writing instrument is made from the same gorgeous mythic material, features a smooth bolt-action deployment, and comes equipped with a Schmidt Easy Flow 9000 cartridge. [Purchase: $299]
Marvel or Myth?
While the original techniques will forever remain elusive, it doesn’t mean that modern varieties aren’t worth your time. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most of the products out there that boast “Damascus steel” in their construction are of extremely high qualityMost of the products out there that boast “Damascus steel” in their construction are of extremely high quality. – so long as they come from a reputable source. Much of that is because these brands and makers already have a reputation to uphold. Or because folks in the world of metallurgy are wont to share any space-changing breakthroughs in technique or technology. It can even be said that sub-par imposters are generally kept in check by the larger everyday carry community.
Still, it’s important that you stay as vigilant with Damascus steel as you would with any other knife blade steel or handle material, because unworthy offerings can still slip through the cracks. Do your research, trust the craftsmen that deserve it, and stay far far away from anything that seems too good to be true. And remember, even the original technique for crafting legendary Damascus steel was lost to history, there are still plenty of ingenious metal workers making magic in their forges.