Damascus steel – a millennia-old blacksmithing craft that still unfolds its fascination today. The first proof of Damascus is a Celtic sword from about 500 BCE. Even though this forging technique most likely did not originate with the Celts, they did manage to perfect the process. The first artisan Damascus blades were made by the Teutons during the Great Migration Period (300 to 450 CE). They were able to use controlled forging processes to make specific and, more importantly, repeatable Damascus patterns. Swords made from torsion Damascus were made with extremely sophisticated production methods, even by today’s standards. Artifacts like the sword from a grave near Sutton Hoo (England) posed an enormous challenge for today’s Damascus blacksmiths, until they figured out how to replicate this fascinating sword. At the time of the development in Europe, steel of excellent quality was also made in Japan, which was mainly used in the forged katana blades wielded by the samurai. For the longest time, history considered Japan to be the pioneer. Japanese swords were generally seen as superior to the European ones, although that is historically incorrect. Due to different cultural conditions, many more high quality Japanese than European swords have made it through the centuries unscathed. While Japanese swords were lovingly passed down from generation to generation, the artisan swords of Northern Europe were often sent to the grave with their owners and got lost in the mists of time. This led to an apparent “supremacy” of old Japanese swords in the present day, which cannot be matched by European artifacts in comparably flawless condition. Looking back, it can be said that forging multilayered steel was originally a means to achieve the best possible material quality. The decorative element of Damascus took much longer to come into its own. Today, Damascus steel is still very popular. However, this general enthusiasm is no longer rooted in technical consideration, but rather an expression of passion for the material and its special look that still radiates a near magical fascination. Today, there are several methods for making Damascus steel:
Classic handforged Damascus
For this oldest of all types of Damascus, at least two types of steel of different composition are forged together. After forging, the piece of steel is folded and forged again, which doubles the number of layers. The process is repeated until the desired number of layers is reached. By using steel types with different features, the blacksmith can influence the quality of the Damascus significantly; particularly hard steel, for instance, can be combined with especially resilient steel in order to achieve a balanced ratio of hardness and edge retention. Since stainless steel cannot be forged together under normal circumstances, this classic forging technique generally uses non-stainless carbon steel. This means that the resulting forged Damascus is not stainless either. Of course, the quality of Damascus steel is also directly dependent on the quality of the base steels. Damascus as such is not necessarily a mark of quality but simply denotes the production process of the material. The Damascus pattern is influenced by forging and the number of layers, but it can also be created by embossing the finished forged Damascus bar. By embossing the bar with the help of an embossing punch with a specific pattern, the layers within the Damascus shift against each other. The embossed pattern appears as texture in the Damascus steel once the embossed material is ground into a blade. On a freshly ground blade, the pattern is barely visible. It needs to be finished in a special acid bath, in which both types of steel react to the acid by darkening at different levels. This brings out the pattern created by the texture and reveals the true magnificent beauty of Damascus steel.
There are some basic differences between this forging technique and that of classic, non-stainless Damascus. Since stainless steel cannot be forged together under normal circumstances, some clever Damascus blacksmiths came up with a technique that circumvents this obstacle. The essential factor is oxygen. While classic, non-stainless Damascus is forged and folded in a regular open forge, the ambient air is the deciding factor for stainless Damascus – it prevents stainless steel layers from being forged together. Therefore, stainless Damascus is made by preparing layer packages and forging them in a vacuum. All Damascus smiths have their own tricks that fall under the heading of trade secrets, and cannot be explained in detail here. In the knifemaking community, Chad Nichols, from Mississippi, is one of the most renowned Damascus smiths who makes stainless Damascus - his top-grade material is not just utilized by various knife manufacturers, but also by many custom knifemakers around the globe as premium Damascus for particularly fine models. Nichols Damascus has a fine, rich patterning that makes it very popular, but many users also value the material’s great practical functionality, which makes his Damascus their first choice.
Handforged torsion Damascus:
One of the most sophisticated methods for forging Damascus steel is torsion Damascus. Here, a twist is added to the classic folding of the material. This creates a unique pattern and the control needed to master this forging process requires the highest level of expertise. Torsion Damascus was found in the few preserved Vikings swords, made at a time when the most sophisticated pieces were forged with outstanding skill and craftsmanship, far superior to the standard swords of the day, even in technical terms. The highly complex forging process that creates the characteristic pattern makes torsion Damascus one of the rarest and most exclusive types of Damascus steel. Boker uses such hand forged torsion Damascus, made by the German Damascus smith Andreas Henrichs, for the kitchen knife series Boker Superior - a standout in the world of kitchen knives due to their individually hand forged blades.
One modern and very common variation is San-Mai Damascus, or core Damascus. In its composition and production methods, it is very different from the other types of Damascus. San-Mai really denotes a multilayered blade that is not folded (unlike Damascus), but typically consists of three layers - a hard core as the center layer and two softer outer layers that add stability and flexibility. In the case of core Damascus, the center layer of modern kitchen knives is often made from a continuous piece of Japanese VG-10, high performance cobalt alloy steel with a fine structure and high level of corrosion resistance. In contrast to a classic San-Mai blade, the outer layers are significantly softer than the core but they consist of Damascus steel. However, this Damascus is usually not hand forged, but mass produced, by means of the rolling method. These blades can be recognized by their center layer of mono steel that usually peeks out from underneath the Damascus layers towards the cutting edge. This concept basically leads to an odd number of layers (typically 37, 67 or 69, though other numbers are possible). Since classically folded and forged Damascus doubles its layers with each fold, forged Damascus has an even number of layers (usually 200 to 300), while San-Mai Damascus can also be distinguished by its odd number of layers. The quality mainly depends on the material of the core; as a general rule, blades made from contemporary mono steel can be just as good as or even superior to a Damascus blade. This Damascus for instance is used in our Damascus Olive and Damascus Black series, where its qualities and exclusive look have won enthusiastic fans for many years.
Powder metallurgical Damasteel:
One special type of industrially produced Damascus is the Swedish Damasteel. The Damasteel company developed a procedure to combine powder metallurgical steel into a true Damascus steel in a continuous production process. The special production process of powder metallurgical steel (such as the CPM-154 in our Boker Pure CPM series) allows for higher alloys, which create a particularly fine and even structure – a basic requirement for the best cutting performance. The production process of Damasteel combines the advantages of powder metallurgical steel with the fascinating appearance of Damascus, which gives it a special place among the Damascus steel types. Despite its exclusively industrial production, Damasteel is definitely a premium Damascus that offers outstanding edge retention and a high level of corrosion resistance in everyday use. Boker uses Damasteel for the blades of our best straight razors, but also as appliqué or handle inlay for other kitchen knives (Boker Superior Damascus) and outdoor knives. In conclusion, it has to be said that Damascus steel is not a technical requirement for producing high quality blades today and that Damascus as such is not a quality guarantee. However, like an exclusive mechanical watch that always radiates a special flair even though a modern quartz watch would tell time just as reliably at a much lower price, a Damascus blade, with its breathtaking look and often tangible texture, is a piece of living history. It isn’t always purely a matter of efficiency – even in our fast paced, high-tech world, there is some space left for excellent craftsmanship and the beautiful things in life.