Where does the name Damascus come from?
The origin of the term Damascus steel refers to material made from Wootz steel in India and the Middle East during the third and fourth centuries. It was sold in the city of Damascus, in present-day Syria.
The town of Damascus was never a great producer of steel but rather the hub of the great trading network in the Middle East at the time; thus most blades of this steel came to the west from Damascus.
What is Damascus Steel?
Damascus steel, in its modern sense, is the result of combining at least two different types of steel that harden and temper in the same range to achieve the desired wavy aesthetic that comes from such a layering process.
Damascus, Wootz, San Mai, and pattern welded are all names given to different types of steels associated with Damascus steel.
Historic Damascus Steel:
Originally used in Middle Eastern sword making, the remarkable characteristics of Damascus steel became known to Europe when the Crusaders reached the Middle East, beginning in the 11th century. They discovered that swords of this metal could split a feather in midair, yet retain their edge through many a battle with the Saracens. The swords were easily recognized by a characteristic watery or ''damask'' pattern on their blades.
Wootz steel, from which Damascus was originally made, was malleable when heated, yet extraordinarily tough when cooled. It was prepared in crucibles containing cakes of porous iron plus wood or charcoal to enrich it in carbon. The Wootz was processed at temperatures as high as 2,300 degrees. After being held there for days, it was cooled to room temperature over a day or so. It was then shipped to the Middle East for relatively low-temperature fabrication. This moderate heat preserved enough carbide (in which three atoms of iron are mated to one of carbon) to give the blades great strength, yet not enough to make them brittle. The large carbide grains gave the blades their typical watery pattern.
Once blades of Damascus steel had been rough-shaped by hammering, they were ground to a fine edge. When they were hammered chiefly on one side, a curved shape resulted - the origin of the sabre.
Historic Damascus steel is a relatively heterogeneous (unevenly mixed) material in comparison to modern high-carbon steels produced using the 19th century Bessemer process. For its time, it was a magnificent material that was costly and expensive to produce and allowed smiths to produce quality long-bladed weapons. Compared to today’s standards, Damascus steel from the early centuries was in general softer, not as sharp, and inferior to steel produced today under the Damascus moniker.
Wootz held on as a quality product for some time, but even the true Damascus steel eventually became obsolete in the face of better efficiency.
Damascus Steelmaking Today:
The great majority of the layered and forged steel these days is either san-mai or pattern welded.
San-mai steel is very common in Japanese knives, and it’s literally a sandwich of 3 sheets of steel. Two outer stainless steels and a harder stainless or carbon steel core make up the cross section of a San-mai blade. No folding is done on a San-mai blade because the goal is to have a hard, protected edge that’s fused to the stainless steel but not mixed with it.
The other type of pattern-welded steel is the so-called “Damascus steel”.
Folding over a stack of different steels several times; gives many layers with beautiful, but irregular patterns. This is the kind of Damascus steel that many modern smiths make today. This folding technique was to some extent re-invented in the West after encountering "true" Damascus swords in an attempt to emulate these famous weapons.
The Damascus steel art form has resurfaced, and in 1973 blade smith William F. Moran unveiled his “Damascus knives” at the Knifemakers’ Guild Show. Ever since then modern pattern-welded steel blades have been called “Damascus knives”.
When it comes down to it, most of today’s super exotic alloys will outperform any pattern-welded steel. Owning and using a Damascus blade is about personal style and respect for the time and process of developing such a blade. A well-made Damascus blade will stay sharp for longer than most production quality knives.
Damascus Steel Special Alloys:
Besides ordinary Damascus steel in stainless and non-stainless versions, there are a variety of Damascus “exotics,” which are known for their special composition and properties. Such models are especially of interest to collectors and enthusiasts. Using Damascus steel to manufacture a unique item is about personal style and respect for the time and process of developing such a piece. A well-made Damascus steel knife blade will stay sharp longer than most production quality knives, and jewelry made of Damascus steel is something to be timelessly cherished.
Why Choose Damascus Steel?
The same indescribable pull that forces one to stare at a campfire at night is present in the lines and swirls of Damascus. And when one gazes upon it, they look back across the centuries to when a smith put his heart and soul into his creation and the warrior had an intimate bond with his trusted blade. With one of mankind's oldest crafts, the smith uses the ancient basic elements to create some of the most beautiful material made by man. This material has a most noble history with a look and feel that is timeless and ancient. And that is the true magic of Damascus!