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The lost secret of Damascus Steel

Posted March 2nd 2017

Once popularly used in the manufacture of sword blades in the East, Damascus steel has been around for centuries. The blades it produces are distinctive looking with a mottled pattern to the metal that looks almost like pooling water. As well as their beauty however, the blades made using Damascus steel were famed for having keen edges and being extremely durable. Damascus steel is said to have been named after the city of Damascus, where such swords and blades would have been used during the 16th to 18th centuries. However, it is also possible that is takes its name from damask fabric as a comparison of the patterns between the two.

Although the original method of forging Damascus steel was lost when the material fell into disuse, modern blacksmiths have found ways of recreating it to a certain standard. Billet welding, is a popular method, and employs the technique of welding steel and iron together in layers to form a ‘billet’. This is also known as ‘pattern welding’ and the technique gives a finished product that has the same patterns as Damascus steel due to the layering of the elements. This ‘modern Damascus steel’ is often used in kitchen knives today.

Traditional cast Damascus blades would have been made from wootz, which is a type of steel originating in India. Wootz steel is thought to have been made by melting iron and steel together in a crucible. There must be plenty of carbon present as this is absorbed during the melting process. As the alloy cools slowly, the swirling patterns are formed from the carbide contents giving the unique finish the material is famous for. Although some metallurgists claim to have been able to replicate the production of wootz steel, it is unlikely it has been reproduced to the same standard as the original material. Pavel Petrovitch Anosov, a Russian metallurgist, documented four different ways to produce steel with similar patterns for example, although he passed away before being able to fully record his research and findings. Anosov was looking for a way to reproduce Bulat steel, a type of steel alloy found in Russian medieval weapons and popularly associated with Genghis Khan and the Mongols – another form of Damascus steel.