Making Damascus Steel

| 30 October 2010 | 1 Comment

As many of you are now aware I make a variety of blades in a steel that i have termed as Damascus steel. Some of you know it well and some have heard of it but never actually seen it. Then there are the rest for whom damascus is an entirely new beast. Let me take a little while to tell you about the marvel of damascus steel.

Damascus steels origins stretch to as far away as India where it was (and is to this day for those who duplicated the methods) called Wootz steel. Now, Wootz is not a true steel but more like carburised Iron. Smelted in a blast furnace made from iron and charcoal cooked up in a crucible. The carbon migration to the iron made it stronger and more suited to swords and knives. When etched after forging the steel would display a unique pattern which reflected the internal grain structure. These ingots and billets were traded through the ancient city of Damascus which became synonymous with quality steels.

However in northern Europe the viking tribes were combining smelted steel with bars of iron to imbue their weapons with both hardness and toughness. These differing layers formed more bold patterns (usually twisted) on the blades.

One of the last civilised cultures to adapt this method were the Japanese who learned it from Chinese tradesmen who in turn gained the knowledge from the subcontinent of India. What makes the Japanese so special is that they took these techniques and perfected them to a degree that was unsurpassed for hundreds of years.

Many of the damascus techniques were lost but in the early seventies a man name Bill Moran re ignited the flame of damascus which set in motion the snowball effect of todays current damascus masterpieces. Though now days what makers are producing is not in fact true damascus. Todays blades are more accurately called pattern welded steel. Though the techniques are very much similar the patterns are largely aesthetic because much of the steel produced to day is of such a sophisticated level that mixing steels adds little to the overall strength of the blade.

So what makes damascus blade look the way it does. As with the ancient vikings we are mixing two different kinds of steel. But instead of trying to adjust the performance to create a carbon balance in the steel we are doing so to make a beautiful blade that contains carefully designed patterns to show off the beauty of the knife. I use various kinds of carbon steels in my damascus blades. For my high carbon selection i use O1, 5160, 1070 and 1080. These are steels high in carbon but low in other alloys. To create a contrast we then mix any one of these steels with something that is high in nickel like L6 or K600. The nickel resists the etching process and stays polished while the carbon steel will take the etch turning it dark grey to black.

When ‘mixing’ the different steels we need to bond them together at the molecular level otherwise there is no structural strength. This bonding occurs when we heath the many alternating layers of steel to a degree when if struck by a hammer the weld themselves together effectively making a new singular solid billet of steel. We can then increase the number of layers by folding this billet by cutting and re welding at high heats each time doubling the layer count. An interesting fact about the manufacture of traditional Japanese sword is that they are folded no more than 12 times. I’ve heard people saying ít was folded thousands of times!’. This is not true. When steel is heated there is an instant cooling of the outer layer. This forms fire scale. If a blade were folded a thousand times there would be no steel left to make a sword. What actually people ere inferring is the fact that the sword has thousands of layers.
Through differing techniques we can control the pattern to create amazing patterns. This I will cover in another article.

What I have written here today is an over simplification of the process but should enlighten you all to what is involved in making a damascus blade.

By Stuart Smith
info@forgedknives.co.za
http://www.forgedknives.co.za

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