Damascus knives sure are pretty, aren’t they? For over 1,000 years, these blades have fascinated us, and by losing the secret to Damascus steel, we only became more enamored with it. Modern recreations create knives with stunning patterns, giving them an exotic look, but how did these blades function?
Legend has it that when King Richard the Lionheart met with Saladin during the Third Crusades, he decided to show off the might of England. Drawing his English broadsword, he cut through an iron bar taking no damage to his blade (better post this to r/thathappened…). In response to this challenge, Saladin drew his Damascus sword and, with a single motion, cut through a silk scarf. The English onlookers, astonished by the feat, noted that Saladin’s remarkable blade looked like a starry night reflected on a rippling pond, and Richard remarked that he’s never seen a blade so sharp.
To the modern enthusiast, this story demonstrates that the Damascus blade was functional as well as decorative. To the people of the age, it made Damascus steel something sought after and increased their opinion of Saladin. In fact, Saladin managed to be absorbed rather enthusiastically into Europe’s Christian tradition as a noble heathen. There were rumors that he was secretly knighted, and some even adopted his name!
The story of the Damascus sword still fascinates us today, even if we take this particular story with a grain of salt.
But what’s the true history of Damascus steel? Why did the secret become lost, and how do we recreate these beautiful blades today in Damascus knives?
Table of Contents
Damascus Blades in History
Our tale begins around 500 AD (although some say the story actually takes root during the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.) when Middle Eastern wordsmiths started to forge knives and swords with unequaled strength and cutting abilities yet seen by any civilization. Their secret? A new steel that was harder than any predecessor and could hold an edge for longer than anything the world had ever seen. With legends like the previous one I described with Saladin being able to cut through a falling silk scarf with one swipe, Europeans decided to try and recreate this steel.
Unfortunately for them, they had no idea how the Saracens were accomplishing this. The only clue they had was the wavy pattern these legendary blades bore. ‘Damask’ the patterns were called, hence the name Damascus steel.
They attempted to recreate it by etching patterns onto their blades or using filigree to recreate the effect, but it didn’t strengthen the steel. The beautiful wavy effect wasn’t the secret to the strength of Damascus steel, it was a byproduct of it.
They never did discover the secret before the Damascus knives and swords abruptly disappeared after having been forged for around 11 centuries. Because the creation of Damascus steel had been such a huge secret, within a generation the means of its manufacture was lost.
Why was it lost? Because Damascus steel was made from Wootz steel. Swordsmiths got their ingots from India, but during the 19th century, the mining region that spawned those ingots changed. New ingots had different impurities and could no longer be forged into Damascus steel. Swordsmiths didn’t quite understand the nature of the material to begin with, so when it changed, they just stopped using Damascus.
It’s a shame, really. Damascus steel was really set to take off. A Russian metallurgist called Anossoff, who knew Damascus steel as ‘bulat’, had big plans for it.”
That would’ve been cool.
But why can we buy so-called Damascus knives today? What changed? Did we rediscover the ingots?
Even though a 1981 article in the New York Times declares the mystery of Damascus steel solved, a man named Bill Moran usually is the one credited with reviving Damascus steel. This wasn’t true Damascus steel, but it was a replica that managed to reproduce the aesthetic and famed hardness that Damascus blades could once boast about. In fact, the term ‘Damascus steel’ became synonymous with the aesthetic in the 19th century, right as the actual steel was lost, than with its robust nature. This so-called Damascus steel picked up in popularity, but no one was going to mistake it for the legendary steel that produced Saladin’s remarkable sword.
It was actually England’s occupation of India that began to revitalize its popularity. Guns using damask patterns were manufactured until the 1930s, and even after they went out of style, people kept writing about the wonders of Damascus steel. When Bill Moran produced his Damascus knife in 1973, the term was finally brought back into relevance.
How was True Damascus Steel Made?
We have a much better idea of how the original Damascus steel was made now. Though it seemed to go the way of Greek Fire and Roman Concrete (we’ve just rediscovered this process), we can now say that it’s possible to reproduce the actual steel. Yay!
The first hint, the one that the Europeans of old didn’t have, wasn’t in its aesthetic. Instead, it came from writings discovered in Asia Minor that said to temper a Damascus sword, the blade must be heated until it glows “like the sun rising in the desert.” It was then to be cooled to the color of royal purple and “plunged into the body of a muscular slave” so that his strength would be transferred to the sword.
Yeah, you absolutely don’t have to do that to create a good sword. That would get you convicted of murder, and we really don’t want that. However, there was a reason why this practice was successful, though not for the reason the wordsmiths imagined.
Basically, it added nitrogen to the alloy. Certain Viking blacksmiths managed to get a similar effect by adding bone meal to their forges. They believed they were imbuing their steel and their blades with the strength and vigor of some powerful animal or a brave ancestor of theirs, but they were actually creating chemical reactions that strengthened the steel. A great documentary on this is Secrets of the Viking Sword, which I highly recommend.
That’s only part of the secret, though. Another part is the Wootz steel that was being produced in India. This steel, before the mining region changed, was malleable when heated but tough when cooled.
This is because Wootz steel was mostly pure high-carbon steel. When melted down with other steels, it created that incredible damask effect that captured the imagination.
The interesting thing is that the people of Tamil Nadu (the origins of Wootz steel) accomplished this by casting the ingots into a crucible along with both minerals and plant materials, namely wood and charcoal, creating cakes of steel that were allegedly free of slag. This made the steel stronger than others of the time. For example, it was unlikely that Europeans were producing anything with a hardness above 40 on the HRC scale.
The final secret to old-fashioned Damascus steel comes not from the weird quenching rituals or the crucible that produced the ingots. Nope, it comes from the way it was heated. Wootz, according to one Dr. Wadworth (awesome name, by the way), was processed at temperatures as high as 2,300 degrees. It was held there for days before being cooled to room temperature over the course of a day or two. It was only then shipped to the Middle East for low-temperature fabrication.
The moderate heat preserved enough carbide to produce strong but durable blades. This carbide also produced incredible patterns.
How is Modern Damascus Steel Made?
The main point of modern Damascus steel is its aesthetic. As both the Vikings and the Samurai proved, you can absolutely get blades as robust as those made from Damascus steel without inadvertently producing the wave pattern. Moreover, many modern alloys used in knife blades are comparable to old-fashioned Damascus steel, at least if they’re higher-end steels. As such, the goal of a Damascus knife is, first and foremost, to be beautiful to behold.
After Moran seemed to reinvigorate interest in Damascan steel, the race was on to make more and more intricate patterns. This eventually led to a cost-effective compromise between pattern-making, ease of forging, and overall quality by combining 1086 carbon steel and 15N20. Some are made with 1050 and 1095, too. If it’s not one of those, then you’ll likely see the steel composition somewhere in the knife’s description.
Basically, if the end goal is to create a beautiful pattern, there are many ways to do it. It depends on whether you want subtle wave patterns or exotic, robust patterns. While we go for exaggerated patterns in our blades today, swords in the past may not have been so extreme in the patterning.
For example, Man-At-Arms managed to accidentally create a beautiful sword that probably looks fairly close to a true Damascus blade when he attempted to recreate Sokka’s meteorite sword from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Modern Damascus Blade Patterns
The point of the modern blade is the pattern, so while the original Damascus swords would’ve looked similar to Man-At-Arm’s recreation of Sokka’s sword, modern swords aim for more uniform and exaggerated patterns. This section of the article is going over just four of the patterns because it would take too long to go over every last one. Moreover, new ones are being created all the time.
Most of them fall into one of these categories, though.
Random: This is more organic patterning and is more of a by-product of the forging process, as the original blades were. A lot of high-end kitchen knives (especially if they come from Japan) have random patterns.
They’re usually more subtle than you get from other, more deliberate patterns. The image to the left (or above if you’re on mobile) is one example.
Ladder: The ladder features alternative grooves that are ground on opposite sides of the bar. They’re then pressed and ground flat, creating layers of stacked patterns.
The image shows several ingots using ladder patterns. You can see how you can create multiple variations using the same basic pattern.
Twist: This occurs when the billet is heated almost to welding temperature. It’s then twisted, generating a star-like pattern in the steel. You can see in the image, it almost looks like a creation of Vincent Van Gogh, but please don’t murder me, art students. I can hear the jeers and criticisms right now, even if I’m not artsy enough to know what they’d be…
Raindrop: This is when dimples are milled into the sides of the steel bar. When pressed and ground flat, it creates shapes that look like raindrops. It’s very similar to how ladder shapes are made, just with a different overall effect.
Caring for Damascus Knives
Damascus knives really aren’t as high-maintenance as you might think. While we at Daily Knife Slice have a tendency to keep ours for decorative purposes instead of everyday use, they really aren’t that much different from other knives you own.
That being said, there are ways to keep the knife in great condition, since its beauty comes from its appearance. We love beautiful knives!
- Keep the blade clean and dry. This is no different from any other blade, but you don’t want to court corrosion.
- Wipe the blade ASAP after cutting anything acidic. As many Damascus knives are made for kitchen use, this is a tip to keep in the forefront of your mind.
- Applying a light coating of mineral oil once in a while can help protect the pattern.
- If you see rust spots, spot clean them using a mild surface cleaner and a q-tip.
- Don’t be afraid of sharpening the edge.
Is it Better, Worse, or Stupid to Compare Modern Damascus Steel to Ye Olde Damascus Steel?
We love Damascus blades today for far different reasons than people in the ancient world. I suppose this is because metallurgy and forging techniques have evolved quite a bit, and Damascus steel is no longer unique in its hardness and durability.
That being said, should we call modern Damascus knives ‘Damascus’?
Remember, we no longer use Wootz ingots when we forge Damascus blades. Patterned blades have a tendency to crop up in all crucible steels (as I’ve already shown), so why would this be called ‘Damascus steel’ when other pattern-producing crucible steels aren’t referred to as such?
Sorry to get geeky on you, but it’s a little like animated musicals. Yes, you read that right. Just bear with me.
Disney started the trend of making what are basically animated Broadway musicals. When The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance Period in 1988, many companies were eager to jump on the bandwagon. While some were equal in quality to a Disney film (Anastasia was a freaking masterpiece that used techniques in its animation that Disney didn’t get around to until Treasure Planet), most of them didn’t hold a candle to a Disney film.
When you watch movies like Thumbelina and The Swan Princess, it’s obvious that it isn’t Disney. They’re animated musicals, but they lack certain qualities you see in Disney’s films.
The animation is a little more basic, the characters flatter, and their arcs are usually more straightforward if they even exist at all.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them. I get a guilty pleasure from watching many of these knock-offs, and some of them are genuinely good and shouldn’t be written off as mere Disney knock-offs. I mean, despite the number of sequels it spawned, An American Tale still stands as a great story that too easily gets overlooked.
That’s kind of how I see modern Damascus steel. It’s not the original, it’s a knock-off. That doesn’t mean it’s worse than the original, but it’s a stretch to call it Damascus steel, just as you wouldn’t call The Secret of Nihm a Disney film.
Now, experiments to compare the functionality of ancient vs modern blades have been pretty sparse. However, experiments done by Verhoven (check out this documentary about his contributions to rediscovering Wootz steel) and Thomas have produced some interesting results.
In general, modern Damascus steel tends to perform better than Wootz steel in terms of hardness and blade retention. This is just thanks to a better understanding of metallurgy in the modern world.
I hope you didn’t get bored! I kind of jumped into a rabbit hole and then dragged you, my readers, kicking and screaming into the land of Damascus Steel with me.
Anyway, I hope you got something out of this. Damascus blades have an incredible history and have always captured our imaginations and produced a sense of awe and wonderment. Below I’ve decided to include some of my favorite Damascus knives (reviews will come eventually – so far behind!) so you can see their different patterns and uses as they apply to real knives.
Don’t forget to sound off in the comments. Do you think we should call modern Damascus knives ‘Damascus’, or do you have another name you’d like to nominate? And do you use any of the Damascus knives you own in a practical capacity?