Writer’s Deep Dive: Damascus Steel

Damascus steel blades have been prized for their sharpness, durability, and balance of hardness and flexibility. Throughout history, steel has been valued, upheld as a gift from the gods. Yet Damascus steel has a legendary status and to this day is ascribed near-mythological properties.

Now, let’s dive in!

What is Damascus Steel?

Damascus is a high carbon steel alloy that exhibits a unique pattern when forged. [2]

The metal was developed in southern India and Sri Lanka during the mid-1st millennium BCE and was known as Wootz steel or Seric steel. A mixture of cast iron (also known as pig iron), iron, and sometimes steel was heated to extreme temperatures in a crucible that was commonly made of clay. [1] Often sand, glass, ashes, and other fluxes or cleaning agents were added to the mixture. The charcoal or coal fires in use at the time could not produce temperatures high enough to melt steel. They could, however, melt cast iron. As the iron or steel sat in the melted cast iron, they absorbed its carbon, creating a composite. The hot metal was then poured into molds to form ingots or billets. [3]

However, the mix of metals in these ingots was irregular and the carbon unevenly dispersed. To spread the mixtures of metals more evenly, during the forging process, the billet was drawn out, then folded back on itself hundreds or even thousands of times. Rather than quenching, the blades were commonly hardened by repeated heating and air cooling in a process called thermal cycling. Filing and polishing a forged Damascus blade revealed an intricate pattern. Often the banding is reminiscent of flowing water, but other patterns, such as “ladder” and “rose” were possible. This distinct patterning is the hallmark of Damascus steel. Unlike etched metal, the swirling pattern runs through the entire blade and not just the surface. If a Damascus blade is cut or broken, the pattern is visible in the cross section. Throughout history, multiple cultures have referred to Damascus as “watered steel.” They were also called “damascene” or “damascened” swords. [6]

Detail of a 17th-18th century Indian sword. Image source.

The City that Named a Steel

There are several theories about the origin of the name “Damascus.” The most common is that it was named as the capital city of Syria that became famous for its swordsmiths. [4] The city of Damascus became the primary customer for ingots of Wootz steel from India and Sri Lanka and a leader in blade making from the 3rd to the 17th century. [5]

Other theories claim the name is derived from “damas,” the Arabic root word for “watered” and the origin of the word “damask.” There are also records of a swordsmith named Damasqui who used crucible steel. [7]

Over time, the production of Damascus swords declined. The last account is from Sri Lanka in 1903 by Coomaraswamy. [8]

A bladesmith in Damascus in 1900. Image source.

Crucible Steel Versus Pattern Welding

Beginning in the 18th century, some gunsmiths began using the term Damascus steel for their pattern-welded gun barrels.

Pattern welding involves stacking and welding hard and soft metals together to form a billet, which is then drawn out and folded. Sometimes decorative patterns are cut into the metals to create complex designs. Pattern welding dates to the first millennium BC and was used by the Celts and Vikings. [9]

Although similar in appearance, pattern welded steel is not the same as Damascus. Crucible steel is harder and more time-consuming to produce. Unfortunately, a lot of pattern wielded steel is marketed as Damascus nowadays as well as surface etched blades.

Modern pattern welded knives. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Dube, R. K. (2014-11-01). “Wootz: Erroneous Transliteration of Sanskrit “Utsa” used for Indian Crucible Steel”. JOM. 66 (11): 2390–2396. doi:10.1007/s11837-014-1154-1. ISSN 1543-1851.
[2] Figiel, Leo S. (1991). On Damascus Steel. Atlantis Arts Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-0-9628711-0-8.
[3] Pacey, Arnold (1991). Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-year History. MIT Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-262-66072-3.
[4] Goddard, Wayne (2000). The Wonder of Knifemaking. Iola, WI: Krause Publications. pp. 137–145. ISBN 978-0-87341-798-3.
[5] Sinopoli, Carla M. (2003). The Political Economy of Craft Production: Crafting Empire in South India, c. 1350–1650. Cambridge University Press. p. 192. ISBN 0-521-82613-6.
[6] Osborn, Marijane (2002). ““The Wealth They Left Us”: Two Women Author Themselves through Others' Lives in Beowulf”. heroicage.org. Department of English, University of California at Davis. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
[7] Bīrūnī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad (1989). Kitāb al-jamāhir fī maʻrifat al-jawāhir [The book most comprehensive in knowledge on precious stones: al-Beruni's book on mineralogy]. Islamabad: Pakistan Hijra Council. ISBN 969-8016-28-7. OCLC 25412863.
[8] Feuerbach, Anna Marie. (2002). Crucible steel in Central Asia: production, use, and origins. University of London. OCLC 499391952.
[9] Verhoeven, John D. (2002). “Genuine Damascus Steel: a type of banded microstructure in hypereutectoid steels” (PDF). Materials Technology. Iowa State University. Steel Research, 73 (8): 356–365. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 September 2006 – via Internet Archive.

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