Table of Contents
- 1 What is Damascus steel?
- 2 Where did Damascus steel come from?
- 3 How do they make Damascus steel?
- 4 Here’s a great video: Making Damascus Steel
- 5 Damascus steel knives
- 6 Damascus steel pocket knives
- 7 Damascus steel hunting knife
- 8 Damascus steel kitchen knives
- 9 Does Damascus steel rust?
- 10 Why choose Damascus?
- 11 Conclusion
What is Damascus steel?
Many newcomers will probably ask that question first. The problem is, nowadays the topic is still open and even the most experienced knife makers argue about it. Some people consider crucible steel to be true Damascus, others think pattern welding is the right way to produce fine and beautiful knife blades. The truth (if ever there was such a thing) is always somewhere in between. And to understand it we have to dig into history and the origins of the Damascus steel. But that is something we’ll get to in the following section, so for now let’s just draw the overall idea of this peculiar blade material.
According to most resources, Damascus steel is a type of steel for making swords (and rarely armour) long ago in the Near East, and was made specifically from the wootz steel ingots. Now, the wootz steel (also known as Ukku, Hindvi Steel, Hinduwani Steel, Teling Steel and later Bulat) is a crucible steel made from a lower carbide combined with a higher carbide steel. Sometimes it was bamboo and leaves from plants that added carbon (carburizing) to alloy. The resulting banding of micro carbides with ferrite gave a beautiful and distinctive pattern along with decent flexibility and hardness. In the end, the production of pattern swords declined and the process was lost. Although many tried to reproduce the pattern, it is not certain whether ancient smiths used the same technique. As a result, many types of ladder-pattern steel emerged with time: red, black, blue, twisted and folded Damascus. However many people still continue fighting over the term Damascus. Therefore, “Can we call it crucible or pattern-welded?” is the question I will answer in the next part.
Where did Damascus steel come from?
Up to these days historians are not certain where the Damascus steel came from or who actually created it first. What we know for sure is the steel was named after the capital of Syria – Damascus. Indeed this city had long been the trade center where many goods along with armor, shields and swords were sold. Additionally, the blade pattern is similar to that on the Damask fabrics, which in turn was named after the city. The weapons were then supposed to be forge welded from ingots of wootz. The wootz steel was made in India around same time (500 A.D.). However, legend says that armies of Alexander the Great first discovered it in battles against King Porus. They found swords of white metal that easily cut through armour and could bend around one’s vest without harm to the blade.
Whatever the myth, it is known for sure that the method has been lost since about the 16th century. Later similar forge-welding methods were used in hi-end European guns. Back then, W. W. Greener used the term “Damascus” in reference to forge-welded steel in gunmaking. The book was The Gun and Its Development and the year was 1881 (first issue release). You see, in the 19th century western culture there was no such term as pattern-welded steel or wootz. Instead, people used word Damascus only. Additionally in 1973 knife maker William F. Moran presented his “Damascus knives” at the Knifemakers’ Guild Show. Ever since then modern pattern-welded steel in both cutlery and gunmaking have been called “Damascus”.
So, if you ask me whether it is appropriate to call crucible steel modern Damascus, the answer is no. Wootz has never ever been true Damascus steel (not even talking here about the country of origin). The Syrian ancient steel was probably made from Wootz ingots imported from India. But it was definitely forge-welded (in ways we are now not aware of). Can we call modern pattern-welded knives Damascus? Absolutely yes, we can. Not only the term has been used for about two centuries by knife and gun makers, but the actual production is similar to that in the old times. Speaking of the devil, now we will talk about the method of making the most beautiful ladder pattern damasteel knives.
How do they make Damascus steel?
Modern pattern-welded or Damasteel is made by forge welding. Basically this means the sheets of different grade steel are heated, welded, cut into pieces and again heated-welded-cut. Several times. It is a long and tiresome process, trust me, I’ve seen people do it. So to get into the soup of welding Damascus, stay awhile and read this section.
First thing you need are the tools. Like my grandpa said, tools are secondary, skills are primary. Yet, without proper devices you won’t be able to create beautiful ladder pattern steel, let alone any Damascus at all. You need an anvil, a forge (24-25K Fahrenheit) and a power hammer. Now let’s talk about materials. Damascus blade has to consist of several steel grades (usually two) that will contrast with each other visually when polished of edged. Usually modern professionals use high carbon steel (like 1080 or 1095) along with nickel steel (like 1520). The carbon parts of the blade become dark, while the soft steel areas resist acid and stay shiny bright. The key is – two steel grades should just have different carbon levels in them.
First thing to start with – we clean off the scale from the stock on the belt grinder. Iron oxide will not weld so the raw materials have to be perfectly preparednot to ruin the finishing product. The stock is then cut to length. All the pieces have to be exactly the same, although you shouldn’t worry about extra 1-2 mm. The amount of pieces is different depending on the pattern you want to get. One of the friends of mine used 24 pieces for making a Japanese sword (12 pieces of hi-carbon plus 12 pieces of nickel steel) for example. So you stack up the pieces alternating layers and mig-weld them. You should also attach a thick metal rod as a handle to the billet.
The billet is then put into the forge. Another thing I didn’t mention is the flux. Basically it protects your material from ever forming oxide. In a nutshell, note this: oxide is bad for metal when forging. And you need perfect steel to steel contact (damascus steel strength depends on it). So you need a lot of flux (anti borax or forge borax). The billet is covered in flux when heated and shining hot. When the steel reaches the forging temperature, it’s… well, it’s forging time. Visually your metal billet turns from red to white.
Forging is tricky, it requires a lot of skill and should be fast. The temperature is dropping so there is little to no time to gently press the metal sheets against each other. The layers should not sheer, so the first forging is in fact the hardest one. And if the welds don’t hold together – you did something wrong. Anyway from here on you forge a long piece of metal, cut it into pieces (layers), let them cool and repeat the steps above. In the end we get a beautiful patterned piece of Damascus, ready to be sharpened and finished.
Here’s a great video: Making Damascus Steel
Damascus steel knives
Like with any type of steel grade, various manufacturers make knives for different purposes – folders, fixed blades, kitchen knives, kerambits, stilettos, katanas and such. With Damascus it’s even harder, since it utilizes various types of steel forged together. Therefore, you never quite know what to expect from it. But don’t worry, we’ve tested several good quality knives and are ready to revise them for you.
Damascus steel pocket knives
My favorite knives are folding blades – small, compact, still firm and edgy. They are the core of any EDC suite. So what are the best Damascus steel pocket knives? Number one on the list is Ken Onion’s Kershaw Scallion. Apart from being my beloved everyday carry small knife in general, this model can also be found with a black steel handle and Damascus blade. This 2.3 oz. cutter with a closed length of 3.5 inches is a real jewel to find. And the recurved ladder pattern blade that flies open with Speed Safe system is beautiful and dangerous. It’s handle is slim and for the price I dare you find anything close to that charisma. Of course you can also try Kershaw Skyline, but that is a horse of another color. Being a mid-sized blade it is a true gentleman’s choice. A lightweight construction and strict design is something that makes it very attractive.
Next on the list is the Boker Plus knife. Finding a reliable German folding knife has never been that easy. Just take a look at Boker Plus Exskelibur I. Another knife I’ve been long looking for to make a review. The first cool thing you notice about it is the absence of thumb studs or Spyder-holes on the blade. Instead there is this tang (or monkey tail like on razor blades) that is used for opening. Additionally it serves as a thumb rest due to the gimping. The blade itself is the classic drop point – very beautiful and easy to use. And with the pattern-welded steel and wood handle scales it looks just gorgeous. The cutting is good, easy to hone and maintain.
Boker Plus Damascus
Of course, I couldn’t miss Spyderco knives. Now this will cost you more, but who else makes best folders if not Spyderco? The best and top selling knives Delica 4 and Endura 4 also come in Damascus steel versions. Technically it has a flat-ground blade with a VG-10 stainless steel core flanked on each side by 15-layer Damascus. And with the lightweight Titanium handles, these are the knives to carry and enjoy.
Spyderco Delica 4 Damascus
Spyderco Endura 4 Titanium Damascus Folding Knife
Damascus steel hunting knife
With hunting it is hard to miss Bear&Son Cutlery knives. Particularly their Pro Skinner model with India Stag Bone Handle. Made in the USA, this hunting drop point knife comes at a very pleasant price. It is medium sized and has very comfortable handle. Although I’d prefer Kydex sheath on all my fixed blade knives, the leather sheath on the Pro Skinner functions surprisingly well and just adds points to the looks. The only drawback is the moisture, which you have to consider using Damascus steel with leather holster. Otherwise it is a good and reliable heritage skinner.
Bear&Son Pro Skinner
Another fixed all-round blade is ESEE Izula. Duuh, I know it is not a typical hunting knife but it still is a little monster to cut and destroy. With a Damascus steel on the blade (and the handle) it works better than ever. I remember owning a standard Izula and not sharpening it for weeks of extensive hard use. Imagine what this 3 ounces neck knife can offer with a Damasteel. Not only it looks cool but it works like crazy. Tried it, dulled it, even batoned sticks with it. As always – it’s a 10 out of 10 neck knife experience.
ESEE Damascus Izula
Damascus steel kitchen knives
Cutting carrots, apples, fruits and vegetables is not skinning game or chopping wood. Still owning a good reliable kitchen knife is something I advise everyone. So here we go with a list of the top chef knives for professionals and amateurs like me.
I’ve always loved Santoku knives. Not only because they are multi-purpose cutters, but also because of the beautiful shape and wide blade. It cuts, it shovels, it does 90% of my kitchen work. And so I present to you Shun Classic Santoku Knife. Usually they make flat grind Santoku blades, but here we have hollow grind. Which means less friction and more slicing’n’dicing. Fruits, vegetables, proteins, you name it. Besides, when first introduced the knife was named “Kitchen Knife of the Year” by Blade magazine. So, I guess, we already knew who the winner was.
Shun Classic Santoku
Chopping and cutting the greens is ok, but when we talk real hardcore kitchen stuff it’s difficult to miss Boker Damascus Black Paring Knife. The blade is made of Stainless 37 layers Damascus with VG-10 core steel. The 8 inch version is one of a seven kitchen set, but is ideal for working with meat and precise cutting. So if you are looking for a reliable small sized kitchen knife – go for Boker Damascus Black Series.
Does Damascus steel rust?
Yes, true Damascus steel knives do rust. Even those with “Stainless” engravings on the blade. Stainless means stain resistant, not stain proof. And there is nothing surprisingly shocking about that. From the definition of a Damasteel it becomes clear that high-carbon steel layers of the pattern will oxidize faster. Therefore special precautions have to be taken. I personally recommend WD-40, vegetable oil or Vaseline on the blade to prevent rust. If it’s a collectible knife not on a display try wrapping it in cloth soaked in oil. Otherwise try and stop even the slightest hints of rust. Kitchen knives should be washed and dried without oiling. Anyhow, the blade made of Damascus will change colors with time like any good carbon steel knife. It will darken with time and the beautiful ladder pattern will gain contrast. After all, that’s why we love Damasteel, isn’t it?
Why choose Damascus?
Since the price tag on all Damascus knives is not small, a reasonable question to ask is “Why choose these knives?” Well, the first and major point in favor of buying a good Damascus knife is the look of it. I know, basically, all knife-crazed people are either those who love or those who hate them. After all, this rule can be applied to everything. But with Damascus it is not that simple. The cool thing you get along with the overall Eastern-heritage aesthetics is uniqueness. Like I said, the production process is labour-consuming. It is hard not only to make a good and firm blade but also to achieve the planned ladder pattern. In the end, every knife blade is definitely going to have a unique pattern effect.
Secondly, all Damasteel knives have good edge retention and cutting performance. With a combination of soft and hard steel particles on the cutting edge it is like having a forever sharp serrated blade in a pocket. With sharpening it is like honing a Swiss army knife or any other budget blade. No need to bother buying huge expensive sharpening systems or paying a specialist to do the job. A compact ceramic rod is enough and will help your Damascus knife gain edge pretty fast. Another option is the old good leather strop glued to a flat board. Just cover it with diamond paste and easily sharpen the knife. The mild steel on the edge wears away faster than the other high carbon components. Hence you get a miniature saw that goes through material like knife through butter.
That takes us to the next very important point – the durability. It is not a secret that hunting requires reliable companion tools like knives, guns, boots, that sort of things. And it’s the tendency I’ve been following for the last few years. More and more hunters switch to Damascus hunting and bushcraft knives. For those familiar with the forge-welded steel we’ve been talking about, it is nothing new. Knives utilizing Damasteel are firm and easy to sharpen. They will not break on you, they are good skinners and they stay sharp for quite a long time. What else do you need from any knife at all?
Finally, the price. I know, many of you will say: a cheap Damascus steel knife is a crappy knife. And I do agree with you. But, like any other pocket or fixed blade, it should not be necessarily custom-made and super expensive. There are many good and functional knives at reasonable prices. Boker, Spyderco, Bear&Son, Kanetsune, ESEE, Kershaw, Al Mar – they all make good quality knives with Damasteel. Of course, the price is higher on average, but the looks and the bonuses you get are worth a few bucks on top.
All things considered, the topic of Damascus is still a mystery for many. With this review, however I tried to fill some blank spots, dig into history and terminology, the process of forging and making of one of the most beautiful blades ever. Hope it will help you make up one’s mind and choose the Damascus steel knife that suits your needs and lifestyle best. As usual, stay sharp and wait for more articles.