Damascus Steel knives – a story shrouded in mystery

Damascus Steel knives – a story shrouded in mystery

You can recognise a blade made from Damascus steel with ease – the surface has a very distinctive wavy pattern, reminiscent of swirling currents of water, that’s intriguingly eye-catching.  But the unusual appearance is not the only attraction.  Damascus steel is also highly prized because it’s exceptionally hard, maintains a keen edge and exhibits a degree of flexibility – so it is perfect for making excellent kitchen knives.  Everything else about the material is, if you’ll excuse the pun, less clear cut.

The mystery of the name

Where did this steel and these blades come from originally?   There’s a clue in the name, but it’s slightly misleading.  Damascus swords and knives were first manufactured in the Levant, the area along eastern coast of the Mediterranean, around 750AD.  The steel used to make such blades, however, was developed over ten centuries earlier in Sri Lanka and Southern India.  Known as Wootz Steel, the ore was smelted in a crucible along with sources of carbon, producing a steel that had bands of carbides running through it. 

Two Islamic scholars, Al-Kindi and Al-Biruni, writing between 800-875AD, make reference to swords which lead back to the Syrian city of Damascus.  Al-Kindi mentions swords forged in Damascus (but does not say anything about the type of steel that was used).  Al-Biruni talks about a sword-smith called Damasqui who made swords of crucible steel. 

Another explanation relates to the word "damas", the root word for "watered" in Arabic.  The water-like pattern on the surface of blades made from Wootz steel is often referred to as "watered steel" in multiple languages. 

A secret lost in the sands of time

The manufacture of Wootz steel declined in the 17th century and eventually died out completely.  Managing the temperatures during the smelting process required a high degree of skill and the number of craftsmen capable of achieving this dwindled over time.   It’s also possible that supplies of the required materials also ran out.  Or that disruption of the lengthy trade routes also played a part.  Most likely it was a combination of all these factors.   The outcome, however, is beyond doubt - the secrets of this ancient craft have been lost.

Damascus Steel today

Despite the best efforts of archaeologists and metallurgists the original techniques have never been successfully replicated.  Having said this, new methods have been developed that create knife blades with the same characteristics. 

One method is to merely etch a pattern into the surface of the blade, merely giving it the appearance of Damascus Steel.  The pattern wears off over time and the steel has none of the characteristics of the genuine article.

True “Modern Damascus” steel is produced using a technique known as “pattern welding”.  This involves welding together several different types of steel and iron into what is referred to as a “billet”.   The knife-smith then draws out the billet and folds it several times to increase the number of layers.  As the blade is forged and ground to shape these layers produce the characteristic wavy lines. 

A cut above the rest

The very highest quality knives made from Modern Damascus Steel feature one further refinement.  The outer layers of steel are wrapped around an even harder steel core.  This is the technique used for Orient Knives in our Damascus Series - an inner core of superior strength Japanese steel is wrapped in 66 different layers of SUS410 steel.  This gives you an incredibly hard and sharp blade which keeps its edge, but which is also flexible enough to avoid any danger of shattering – plus, of course, it exhibits the lovely wavy effect that makes Damascus steel knives so easy on the eye. 

Beware of imitations

Damascus steel blades are a high-quality product achievable through a lengthy process of welding together different layers of alloy, folding them repeatedly, followed by hours of grinding and shaping.  That’s why a knife made from genuine Damascus steel does not come cheap.  There are less costly imitations but their performance is far inferior.  It pays to do a little research so you understand why it’s worth investing a little bit more for a considerably better product!

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