Damascus steel is a material of almost mythical reputation, you will often hear rumours that no-one really knowns how it is made, so how do you reconcile that with the fact that there are so many Damascus steel knives on the market? Well the truth is while the techniques of producing Damascus steel via pattern welding are well known and are replicated today on a regular basis in custom and high-end production knives, as well as some poor-quality copies (more about telling the difference later). It’s the materials that were once used to create Damascus steel that we don’t have access to anymore and which does mean that really however good modern Damascus steel is it isn’t exactly the same as the historical original. The History Damascus steel was forged in the region that is now known as the Middle East encompassing parts of Western Asia, Turkey and Egypt from Wootz steel. It is the lack of this particular 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 including ‘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 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 recognise today and will call Damascus steel whether it truly is from a historic perspective and at a chemical level. Modern Damascus 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 at the chemical level it is not truly the same as historical Damascus but is undoubtedly beautiful. As well as in knives these patterns can be seen in older gun barrels which were forged from iron mixed with steel for strength. The term Damascus has been accepted and regularly applied to modern pattern welded steel blades since well-known bladesmith and designer of many an iconic knife William Moran unveiled a series of ‘Damascus Knives’ at a blade show in 1973. This modern Damascus is made from layer upon layer of steel worked by the smith and welded into a solid billet. The patterns in the steel from this welding process can be varied depending on the particular technique of the smith and by the types of steel used in the forging of the billet and is 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 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 the simple act of sharpening it will do the trick. The Genuine Article Bearing in mind the potential to determine that Damascus steel is or isn’t truly Damascus steel by grinding it and re-etching it you need to be aware 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 truly Damascus steel, laminating blades is a common practice to give a strong cutting edge but a slightly softer and therefore less brittle spine the technique is used to create samurai swords and also a lot of Scandinavian knives such as the well-known Fällkniven series of knives, and so certainly doesn’t indicate that a knife is of 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 you’ve seen in a video game this might not be the end of the world but there are sellers 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 Bladesmith 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 going to be higher. In 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, in fact those patterns may even be more prominent as some makers will deliberately choose high nickel materials for extra contrast or even 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 treat, now this could be a problem for a knife of plain steel as well as of Damascus 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. If you are going to invest in a Damascus knife make it worthwhile, get a real one, yes it will cost a bit but it doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of really decent fixed blade and folding Damascus knives that don’t cost thousands. Some Recommendations There are some specific Damascus steel knives, as well as some manufacturers who produce excellent quality but also importantly reasonably priced tools. These aren’t your custom made one of a kind collectors’ items but they are very classy tools which you could consider if you want a simple Damascus steel tools 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 every day. If you want a mid-priced Damascus steel folder Mcusta are probably the manufacturer 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 nearer the thousand euro mark. BucknBear 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 aesthetic appeal. Boker 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. Sentou Irodori This isn’t one that jumps out at you or that has the most obvious of patterned Damascus but 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 e general outdoor knife or utility blade but has the added value of being a really nice piece of traditional craftsmanship. Damascus Blades Today Whatever you want from a Damascus knife whether that’s something 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 out for 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 it doesn’t have magical properties and while it will serve as well as the best of standard steel knives you shouldn’t necessarily expect it to do more than that. The ancient true Damascus made of Wootz steel may have outperformed other blades of the era but things have advanced since then and there are plenty of other high performing steels that can compare to and exceed in performance modern pattern welded Damascus steel, what you will have though is a knife which everyone will notice and which will be unique to you, enjoy it.