What Is Damascus Steel: Solving The Mystery Of This Legendary Metal

Have you ever came across a type of steel people refer to as Damascus steel? 

If you ever came face-to-face with this type of steel, then you would have noticed the pattern on its surface that resembles flowing water.

It is truly fascinating, is it?

Legend also has it that blades made from this steel are super sharp and will cut almost through anything.

If you want to know more about Damascus steel, then you came to the right place.

I am going to cover every aspect of Damascus steel such as its appearance and properties, some of its history and also several methods used to make this steel.

Let’s get going.

What Is Damascus Steel?

The best way to tell you what Damascus steel is to reveal to you it’s appearance and also its physical qualities.

Let’s get started with its appearance.

It’s Appearance

Damascus steel is high in carbon, and it has a pattern which has a swirled appearance. Blades made of this steel is very beautiful and has a high price tag.

It is also said for the surface of this steel to have patterns that resemble flowing water. When this steel was first discovered in the east by the west, it had some mysticism around it because of its appearance.

Many blacksmiths today can create knives and swords with a similar pattern, but the secret to true Damascus blades got lost during the centuries.

Modern Damascus blades are a result of when more than one type of steel alloy is forged together. The alloys are different in its carbon content which gives it a darker color.

Mixing an alloy with higher carbon along with an alloy which has lower carbon will produce such effects. The alloys are welded together, heated in the forge and then folded.

The process is repeated until the final alloy has multiple layers of both high and low carbon steel which results in the appearance of Damascus steel.

The Physical Properties Of Damascus Steel

There are many types of steel available in the market today. Steel will also have different qualities depending on its usage. When it comes to knives and swords, you want steel that is durable but can also maintain a sharp edge.

When you add carbon to iron, you get steel. The amount of carbon added to the iron will determine the physical properties of the steel. In this case, let’s look at the low carbon steel.

Low Carbon Steel

Low carbon steel is when only a little bit of carbon was added to the iron to form steel. This type of steel is not very hard and will bend easily.

This is a significant problem for knives and swords because you do not want the blade to bent. This steel is also very soft which makes it hard to keep and maintain a cutting edge on the knife.

High Carbon Steel

High carbon steel is formed when a lot of carbon was added to the iron. This type of steel has a darker appearance than the lower carbon type. It is also much harder than the lower carbon steel has one problem.

When enough pressure is applied, it will break. This type of steel ideal for maintaining a cutting edge of a blade but is very brittle which makes it non-reliable.

Why Damascus Blades Are Ideal For Making Blades

How do you solve the problems related to low and high carbon steel? The solution is simple. You combine the two types of steel in layers.

It is because of this combination that Damascus blades are the best for making knives and swords.

In history, the blacksmiths did not know how to calculate the carbon content in steel. All they knew was how to look for high and low carbon steel by their color and physical properties.

They knew that when these two alloys were combined that it will create the perfect steel for a blade. The video above will give you an animated representation between the difference between the two.

It’s History

In this section, I am going to discuss some of its origins such as where its name came from and also the role it played during the holy war of the crusaders. I am also going to go over some of the reasons why the recipe of this sought after metal got lost.

The Origins Of Its Name

No one truly knows why this steel is called Damascus steel. Currently, there are two possible origins of its name, and I will discuss each one below.

The city of Damascus

Many historians believe that Damascus steel was first made in the town of Damascus which is currently the capital of Syria.

When the Europeans first got introduced to this steel, they did not know what to call it, so they called it Damascus steel because they found it that city.

Damask fabric

There is also another theory that the name of this steel comes from damask fabric. If you have ever seen this type of material and you place a piece of Damascus metal next to it, you will notice a lot of similarities.

When you look closely, you will notice the metal will have the same patterns as the fabric. The patterns might no look 100% the same, but will have the same water like flow.

The damask fabric also originates from the city of Damascus which makes a stronger case that the name of the metal comes from the name of the city.

The Holy War

The holy war happened from the year 1096 to 1291. The Crusaders invaded modern-day Syria to reclaim the holy land.

During that time, the holy land was occupied by Muslims where the Crusaders came face-to-face with Damascus steel swords.

The European blacksmiths tried to duplicate this steel but failed. Instead, they used a method called pattern welding to create something very similar in appearance and physical properties as Damascus steel.

The Damascus blades struck fear into the European soldiers because it was devastatingly sharp. It is also known that in a later era this blade could cut through the barrel of a gun.

According to legend, the blade got its properties by quenching the hot steel in dragon’s blood.

How This Art Got Lost

It is well known that the city of Damascus only made the blades but sourced their ingots from another location.

During that time the ingots used to make Damascus weapons was called “Wootz” steel. Most historians say that the ingots created and then traded from India and Sri Lanka.

Somewhere around 1750, the production of these blades ceased and could be caused by several reasons. Nobody knows precisely why the production of these blades stopped, but here are some of the possible reasons.

  • The replacement of firearms. If you went into the battlefield, you would easily choose a firearm over a sword. It might have become unpractical to continue the production of hand wielded weapons when you can use firearms from a distance.
  • Its formula was a secret. If you are one of the few people that have the formula to make something of value where people will pay a fortune to have, will you not keep the recipe a secret? Damascus blades were of very high value, and people would spend a lot of money get their hands on it.
  • The trade routes got disrupted. It is also theorized that the trades routes between India and Syria got disrupted. This could have prevented the wootz ingots from reaching the trading center of Damascus which could have put a halt on the production of Damascus blades.
  • Loss of impurities. Most swordsmiths do not want any impurities in their blades. Impurities can make the steel weak or brittle. Sometimes you get contaminants such as vanadium that will not change the properties of the steel but will give the blade Damascus like patterns. The people responsible for creating the ingots might have gotten their ore from a different location.

How Damascus Steel Is Made

In this section, I am only going to show you how to make Damascus steel. I am not going to go too deep into creating the blades itself. I am just going to cover the metallurgical aspects of the metal and the weapons made from it. I am going to show you how to make wootz steel and also pattern welded steel.

Crucible Steel (Wootz Steel)

The ingredients needed:

  • Iron ore.
  • Charcoal.
  • Source of chromium and vanadium.
  • Calcium carbonate.
  • Pieces of glass or sand.

The Syrian bladesmiths made use of wootz steel to make their Damascus blades. In this section, I will cover the process on how to make this steel.

Making wootz steel (also called crucible steel) was a common steel making method in the middle east. They used to take raw iron ore and place it into a crucible made with clay.

They would then mix controlled amounts of carbon in the form of charcoal into the crucible along with the iron ore. In high carbon steel, the carbon content needs to be around 1-2% in weight.

Once the raw iron ore and charcoal is mixed into the crucible, you now need to add some impurities which will create the water-flowing patterns along the finished blade.

The best type of impurities to use is vanadium and chromium. A good source of these two impurities would be O1 tool steel which contains trace amounts of these two desired impurities.

Calcium carbonate can also be added to help get rid of the slag. Have you ever noticed the sparks that form when a heated piece of steel is hammered?

The sparks are the slag that is being hammered out.

Slag is an undesirable impurity in steel that makes it weak. Glass or sand can be added into the crucible to help bind with the slag and keep it out from the steel so that it does not remix with it.

The crucible needs to be sealed so that you do not contaminate the mix with additional carbon which comes from the charcoal.

The crucible is then placed in a burning furnace until the iron has melted. Iron will melt when the temperature of the furnace is exceeding 1500°C.

The ingot inside of the crucible also needs to be cooled down at a very slow pace which will help form the patterns.

Pattern Welded Steel

The difference between pattern welded steel and wootz steel is that it does not make use of impurities to create the wave-like patterns.

Instead, it makes use of stacking different types of steel on top of each other to form a similar effect. Pattern welded steel will create fabricated Damascus steel because it is not the original method.The ingredients:

  • 1080/1084 Steel.
  • 15N20 Steel or 1075 with 1.5% nickel.
  • Welding rods.
  • Borax flux.

The very first thing that you want to do is to get your hands on the right type of steel. Most Damascus knife makers use a variety of only two types of steel which include 1080 or 1084 and the second type is 15N20 or 1075 with 1.5 nickel.

You will get these steel in thin plates that you need to cut into an appropriate size to build your billet. You should also make sure to grind off any irregularities or rust on the surface before stacking.

After each 1080 steel, you want to stack a 15N20 until you have around 20 to 25 steel plates on each other. Weld the plates together with welding rods and attach it to a steel handle. The welding should not be done excessively but only enough to keep everything together.

Place the billet into a hot forge and then wait until it is glowing red. Take it out, hammer it a couple of times and then pour some flux on it. The video above will show you how to make a proper billet.

Several Interesting Videos On Damascus Steel

Below, I am going to spoil you with some interesting videos on how people make Damascus steel. Go make yourself a nice cup of coffee (or tea) and enjoy the playlist as much as I did 🙂

Video 1.

Video 2.

Video 3.

Video 4.

Anything Else?

Damascus steel indeed has a lot more mystery than most people think. Many people have tried to reproduce true Damascus steel but failed.

What is your opinion on this fascinating steel? Do you also find it as mesmerizing as I did?

Please leave a comment below to share with us your opinion.

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