Damascus steel is a type of steel easily recognisable by its wavy patterned design. Aside from its sleek look and beautiful aesthetics, Damascus steel is highly valued as it is hard and flexible while maintaining a sharp edge.
Weapons forged from Damascus steel were far superior to those formed from just iron.
Where Damascus Steel Gets Its Name
The origin of the name “Damascus Steel” is contentious: two Islamic scholars Al-Kindi and Al-Biruni (from circa 800-873 CE) both wrote about swords and steels for swords based on the appearance, geographical location of where they were produced or forged, or the name of the blacksmith. And there is a mention from both scholars of ‘damscene’ or ‘damascus’ when describing the swords to some extent.
Drawing upon these references, there are three possible sources from where the term Damascus originates from in the context of steel:
- Al-Kindi called swords forged in Damascus in Siberia as ‘Damascene’, but it is important to note that these swords were not described as having a wavy pattern appearance on the surface of the steel.
- Al-Biruni refers to a sword-smith called Damasqui who made swords of crucible steel.
- In Arabic, the word ‘damas’ means ‘watered’, and Damascus blades are often described as having a water-pattern on their surface.
The most common explanation is that steel is named after the capital city of Syria, Damascus, the largest of the cities in the ancient Levant. It may either refer to swords made or sold in Damascus directly, or it may just refer to the aspect of the typical patterns, by comparison with Damask fabrics which are also named for Damascus.
Cast Damascus Steel
Anyone who claims their knives are Damascus steel is not referring to the original method that was used to produce this steel as this technique and knowledge were lost in the 1700s.
The original method for making this steel was cast from wootz, a type of steel originally made in India over 2000 years ago. Weapons and other items made from wootz gained popularity in the 3rd to 4th century in the city of Damascus, now known as modern Syria.
Although people have gone to great lengths to reverse engineer the process to replicate Damascus steel, no one has been successful to cast a similar material.
Melting iron and steel together with charcoal under conditions with little to no oxygen produced cast wootz steel. The metal then absorbed carbon from the charcoal, and slow cooling of the alloy resulted in a crystalline material containing carbide.
Forging wootz into swords and other weapons lead to the creation of Damascus steel. This process was exclusive only to the elite, as it required considerable skill to maintain constant temperatures to produce steel with the infamous characteristic wavy pattern trademark.
Pattern-Welded and San-Mai Damascus Steel
Almost all layered and forged steel these days is either San-mai or pattern welded.
Many steels may be labeled as “Damascus” steel, however, this type of steel has merely been etched which a light/dark pattern. This form of pattern welded steel is more of a mock imitation, as the pattern can be worn away and it by no means carries the true characteristics of Damascus steel.
A San-mai blade consists of two outer stainless steels and a harder stainless or carbon steel core. No folding is done on a San-mai blade as the goal is to have a hard, protected edge that’s fused to the stainless steel but not mixed with it.
Choosing Steel for a Damascus Blade
A key element in the process, many makers choose between 2-5 alloys that work together nicely and make for a beautiful pattern. Once the knife is forged and ground to shape, the waves of steel allow meet at the edge and you can alter the blade’s performance by tweaking the alloy and its heat treat process.
Ultimately, most of today’s super exotic alloys will outperform any pattern-welded steel. Possessing and utilising a Damascus steel blade is more about personal style and respect for the time and process to develop such a blade.
A well-made Damascus blade will retain its sharpness for longer than most production quality blades, but if the goal is to use the best performing blade steel, you may find it elsewhere.
In saying that, quality is largely determined by how much it costs. True ‘name brand’ Damascus steel is of the highest quality. Knives made from these steels make for fantastic knives. Unfortunately, cheap knock offs from China, Pakistan and India flood the market and often show up on Ebay and other online retailers. Stay away from these as they are junk – as the say goes, if the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
If you are looking to buy a Damascus steel blade of true quality, do your research and treat it as an investment.