Damascus Steel Facts - How It Got Its Name and How It's Made

What Is Damascus Steel?

This is a modern forged Damascus steel blade with the characteristic wave pattern in the steel.
This is a modern forged Damascus steel blade with the characteristic wave pattern in the steel. Anne Helmenstine

Damascus steel is a famed type of steel recognizable by the watery or wavy light and dark pattern of the metal. Aside from being beautiful, Damascus steel was valued because it maintained a keen edge, yet was hard and flexible. Weapons made from Damascus steel were vastly superior to weapons formed from iron! Although modern high-carbon steels made using the 19th century Bessemer process surpass the quality of Damascus steel, it remains an outstanding material, particularly for its day.

 There are two types of Damascus steel: cast Damascus steel and pattern-welded Damascus steel.

Where Damascus Steel Gets Its Name

It's unclear exactly why Damascus steel is called Damascus steel. Three popular plausible origins are:

  1. It refers to steel made in Damascus.
  2. It refers to steel purchased or traded from Damascus.
  3. It refers to the similarity the pattern in the steel has to damask fabric.

Although the steel may have been made in Damascus at some point and the pattern does somewhat resemble damask, it's certainly true Damascus steel became a popular trade item for the city.

Cast Damascus Steel

No one has replicated the original method of making Damascus steel because it was cast from wootz, a type of steel originally made in India over two thousand years ago. India began producing wootz well before the birth of Christ, but the weapons and other items made from wootz became truly popular in the 3rd and 4th century as trade items sold in the city of Damascus, in what is modern Syria.

 The techniques for making wootz were lost in the 1700s, so the source material for Damascus steel was lost. Although a great deal of research and reverse engineering has tried to replicate cast Damascus steel, no one has successfully cast a similar material.

Cast wootz steel was made by melting together iron and steel together with charcoal under a reducing (little to no oxygen) atmosphere.

Under these conditions the metal absorbed carbon from charcoal. Slow cooling of the alloy resulted in a crystalline material containing carbide. Damascus steel was made by forging wootz into swords and other objects. It required considerable skill to maintain constant temperatures to produce steel with the characteristic wavy pattern.

Pattern-Welded Damascus Steel

If you buy modern "Damascus" steel you could be getting a metal that has merely been etched (surface treated) to produce a light/dark pattern. This is not really Damascus steel, since the pattern can be worn away.

Knives and other modern objects made from pattern-welded Damascus steel bear the watery pattern all the way through the metal and possess many of the same characteristics of the original Damascus metal. Pattern-welded steel is made by layering iron and steel and forging the metals together by hammering them at high temperature to form a welded bond. A flux seals the joint to keep out oxygen. Forge welding multiple layers produces the watery effect characteristic of this type of Damascus steel, although other patterns are possible.

References

Figiel, Leo S. (1991). On Damascus Steel. Atlantis Arts Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-0-9628711-0-8.

John D. Verhoeven (2002). Materials Technology. Steel Research 73 no. 8.

C. S. Smith, A History of Metallography, University Press, Chicago (1960).

Goddard, Wayne (2000). The Wonder of Knifemaking. Krause. pp. 107–120. ISBN 978-0-87341-798-3.

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