Damascus steel is a material with an almost mythical reputation. You will often hear rumors that no-one really knows how it is made, so how do you reconcile that with the fact that there are so many Damascus steel knives out there?
Well the truth is, while the techniques of producing Damascus steel via pattern welding are well known, and they are replicated even today on a regular basis in custom and high-end production knives, as well as some poor-quality copies – but more about how to tell the the difference later. It’s the materials that were once used to create Damascus steel that we don’t have access to anymore and this means that, however good modern Damascus steel is, it isn’t exactly the same as the historical and ancient original.
Damascus steel was forged from Wootz steel in the region that is now known as the Middle East encompassing parts of Western Asia, Turkey and Egypt. It is the lack of this particular Wootz steel which makes it impossible to precisely reproduce Damascus steel today.
Wootz steel was produced in Southern India and Sri-Lanka from the 6th Century onward and was exported globally and valued for the production of forged sword blades. Studies and attempts to reproduce Wootz and Damascus steel by experimental archaeologists, have revealed structures which include ‘nano-wires’ in the makeup of the steel, which could be present because of the wood, leaves and other organic material used in the production of the steel. So, while the folding of modern steel to produce ‘Damascus’ blades probably does relatively accurately represent the way Wootz steel was forged into blades it’s the making of the Wootz steel in the first place that is the real mystery.
Damascus blades made of this special steel, were extraordinary compared to alternatives available at the time and developed a reputation for being extremely strong and sharp as well as for the beautiful patterns visible on their surface. It’s these patterns which most people recognize today in what we would call Damascus steel, whether or not it truly is that from a historic perspective and/or at a chemical level.
Until chemical analysis of true Damascus steel was possible it was assumed by many that pattern welded steel was the same. While pattern welding does produce similar aesthetic results in terms of the patterns on the steel it is not truly the same as historical Damascus but is undoubtedly equally beautiful.
As in these knives, the patterns can also be seen in older gun barrels, which were forged from iron mixed with steel for strength. The term Damascus has been widely accepted and regularly applied to modern pattern welded steel blades since well-known blades smith and designer of many an iconic knives, William Moran, unveiled a series of ‘Damascus Knives’ at a blade tradeshow in 1973.
This modern Damascus is made from layer upon layer of steel, worked by a blacksmith and welded into a solid billet. The patterns in the steel from this welding process vary depending on the particular technique the blacksmith applies and by the types of steels used in the forging of the billet. It is also often enhanced by etching with acid. This is not a pattern though that only appears on the surface of the steel, so a simple way of telling whether steel is Damascus steel (even if it is just by modern standards) is to grind the surface of the steel and then re-etch it. If no pattern is revealed by the etching then it may be that the pattern is just found on the surface and the steel is therefore not Damascus. There is no need to ruin a knife to test this as the simple act of sharpening the knife will do the trick.
The Genuine Article
Bearing in mind that, to determine that Damascus steel is or isn’t truly Damascus steel by grinding it and re-etching it, you must realize that some Damascus steel knives have laminated blades with a standard steel core, forming the cutting edge, and a Damascus outer layer. This doesn’t mean they aren’t Damascus steel as laminating blades is a common practice to give a strong cutting edge but a slightly softer and therefore less brittle spine. This technique is used to create samurai swords and also a lot of Scandinavian knives such as the well-known Fällkniven, and so certainly doesn’t indicate that a knife is of any lesser quality. In fact, Mcusta, a very well-known and high-end Japanese producer of pocket knives, produces knives of laminated Damascus steel. If you were to try to grind a portion of the blade and re-etch it you should know that only the Damascus portion would retain the pattern. What some unscrupulous makers do though, is print a pattern on a plain steel blade to make it appear to be Damascus steel. If you are knowingly buying a cheap copy of a knife that you have seen in a video game, it might not be the end of the world, but there are sellers out there who will attempt to pass off fakes as genuine Damascus knives.
Proper high-quality Damascus steel is popular among custom makers and for higher end knives in general, the beautiful patterns add a certain aesthetic appeal but the work that goes into pattern welding a piece of steel is tremendous and so the cost is typically higher. The American Blades Smith Society insists that to attain a ‘Master Smith’ standard a smith must forge a Damascus blade of at least 300 layers. You can just imagine the work that goes into something like that so the cost is naturally rising accordingly. As a matter of fact, you should be suspicious of very cheap Damascus knives, as even if they pass the re-etching test it is possible to make steel with the appearance of Damascus steel without using high quality materials.
If pieces of low-quality steel are pattern welded together you will still get the typical Damascus patterns, and those patterns may even be more prominent, as some makers will deliberately choose high nickel materials for extra contrast or sometimes not use steel at all. These knives may look good on the surface but they won’t hold an edge or perform as a functional cutting tool. They may also lack a decent heat treatment, and this could be a problem for a knife of plain steel as well as of Damascus steel, but there have been plenty of cases of cheap ‘Damascus’ knives purchased online, which have never taken or retained a sharp edge and been a terrible disappointment for its buyer.
If you are going to invest in a Damascus knife make it worth your while and get a real one. Yes, it will cost a bit more but it definitely doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of really decent fixed blade and folding Damascus knives that don’t cost thousands.
There are some specific Damascus steel knives, as well as manufacturers who produce excellent quality are also very reasonably priced tools. These aren’t your custom made, one of a kind collectors’ items, but they are very classy tools to consider if you want a simple Damascus steel tool which wont break the bank.
Mcusta Bushi Sword
A really classy pocket knife with a wickedly sharp laminated Damascus steel blade and a hammer finish on the upper portion of the blade. A simple aluminium handle and a deep carry pocket clip. Some would call this kind of knife a ‘gentleman’s’ knife, the sort of thing you would put in your pocket on smarter occasions but not necessarily carry with you every day. If you want a mid-priced Damascus steel folding knife then Mcusta are probably the manufacturers to go for. They will cost you around €200, depending on the model, but that beats the higher cost of some of the big-name brands such as Benchmade, who do occasionally offer their knives with Damascus steel blades for near to the thousand euro mark.
Well, we’re obviously a bit biased here, since we are making our own knives, but if you are looking for forged Damascus knives, you can have a look at our Pattern Welded collection. Our customers are particularly fans of the raw look of our knives which have some scale left on the blade.
Known for producing rugged, affordable knives, BucknBear produce some of their models with genuine Damascus blades which are well worth a look at, if you want a decent outdoors knife with a bit more of an aesthetic appeal.
Well known German knife maker with a long history of producing excellent knives. Most of their knives are fantastic, whether they feature a Damascus blade or not, but they do produce several of their knives with attractive Damascus steel blades.
This isn’t one that jumps out at you or that has the most obvious of patterned Damascus, but all in all, it is a fantastic knife. Made using traditional Japanese methods, with super high-quality blue paper steel folded to 15 layers, this knife is razor sharp and the perfect size for a general outdoor knife or utility blade. The added value is that it is a really nice piece of traditional craftsmanship.
Damascus Blades Today
Whatever you want from a Damascus knife, whether its purely decorative, a handmade collector’s item, a high quality kitchen knife or a more utilitarian fixed blade or pocket knife, there is something out there for you. Just keep a careful eye on the fakes, the poor-quality construction of some Damascus and for poor heat treatment.
When you do find the knife for you, just remember that while properly made Damascus steel will serve you well as a knife, steel doesn’t have magical qualities or properties, and while it will serve as well as the best of standard steel knives, you shouldn’t expect it to do more than exactly that. The ancient true Damascus, which was made out of of Wootz steel, may have outperformed other blades of that era, but things have advanced since then and there are plenty of other high performing steels that can compare to and sometimes exceed the modern pattern welded Damascus steel in performance. What you will get though, is a knife that everyone will notice and which will be a unique piece, solemnly for you to enjoy.