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Damascus Steel - just for looks?

Jun 21, 1999
Can someone tell me if damascus steel has other advantages over other steels other than its intrinsic beauty. I'm sure this question gives away my lack of knowledge in this area, but hey, I need to know!
From my basic understanding of Damascus, it is pretty much for looks. But then again, man does it look cool.

The fact that all damascus is forged might make it better, and alot of people say that forged steel preforms better than what stock removal will turn out. But because I know very very little about forging, I'll leave the question of forged vs. stock removal for someone else.

Let me make it a little more simple. Lets say you have 2 different kinds of peanut butter. Jiffy and Skippy. Both are good. And both are different also. Now, would mixing them together make a peanut butter that is better than just one of them? IMO, not likely. It might look kinda cool with different colors of brown running with each other. But probably wouldn't be alot different tasting than just one.

If my example is way off track, than someone please correct me.


Self improvement is a hobby of mine :).

That peanut butter analogy is interesting -- the two peanut butters are each made of ingredients blended together (supermarket peanut butter, that is; real peanut butter is made of nothing but ground peanuts and a little salt). If you blended the two thoroughly you wouldn't see any swirls, but by stopping before it's that thoroughly blended you'd produce a peanut butter that looks different. Just like steels are blended of ingredients, iron, other metals, and carbon....

The popular idea that pattern-welding combines a soft strong low-carbon steel with a hard brittle high-carbon steel to produce a strong hard composite is wrong; it doesn't work that way. The carbon migrates during the heating and forging process and pattern-welded steel is uniform in carbon content. At one time the folding and forging process served a purpose, forcing out impurities, but these days it's just for looks. By the way, in the old days pattern-welded steel was often folded so many times it looked uniform, the pattern too small to see with the naked eye.

All steel knives are forged or rolled except dendritic cast blades. These days many pattern-welded blades are made by stock removal from bars the same as other stock-removal blades. It makes no difference -- "forged" means a different grain than cast so it means something when applied to tools or auto parts -- means it isn't cast steel, which isn't as strong as forged or rolled steel. Knives that are forged with a hammer before grinding are no different than knives that were rolled before grinding; forging is just a more convenient way of getting the steel into the shape of a blade if you're set up for forging. Some forgers disagree and probably at least one will post here and we'll have another iteration of a perennial controversy.

-Cougar Allen :{)
Cougar, haven't we been down this road before? I seem to remember someone saying much the same thing and having Jerry Fisk post a very different view. I think it was in a thread on Bowie Knives.

Walk in the Light of God,

[This message has been edited by FullerH (edited 01 July 1999).]
Yes and no.

Pattern welded steels was the hot ticket of bygone days before modern homogenous steel was perfected. Today, a perfectly done pattern welded blade will not surpass a perfectly done homogenous blade. But neither is it inferior.

The problem is pattern welds are way more tricky to heat treat. Too many things can go wrong. Only a few master smiths can give you a pattern weld that equal the perfectly heat treated homogenous. But at many times the cost.

Alternatively, there are many smiths that can do decent heat treat on a homogenous blade.

Regarding carbon migration: they're not supposed to happen. It defeats the whole purpose of a pattern weld. Some smiths put a layer of nickle in between the steels to prevent this from happening.

There are advantages to pattern welded blades. For example the edge will develope a micro serration that will aid in slice cutting -- not push cutting. But the advantages do not justify the price. When you buy it, you are buying an art piece, and a chunk of bladesmithing history in it's most ingenous form.
If your talking rolled ie. stock removal vs forged with hammer there is a signifigant difference. And ti depends on the material used in Damascus and the way it is hardened and or cryo treated it will preform very very well. Most people just don't take the time to treat Damascus because of the price most buyers don't want to try cutting anything harder than butter. I can produce a moderate priced damascus that preforms extremly well with two high carbon steels with very good contrast. Not bragging just been there done that.
Hugh, we have been down both these roads (the perpetual damascus flame war and the perpetual forged vs. stock removal flame war) many times before and we will undoubtably go down them many times more, except those of us who stop reading those threads.... Currently I sometimes participate and sometimes don't, depending on my mood, which partly depends on how recently I've participated in that one. There are perennials on every forum ... I've seriously considered plonking "vs." at times, not that killfiles work on web forums. Then the boredom wears off and I jump right in again. YMMV.

-Cougar Allen :{)

[This message has been edited by Cougar Allen (edited 01 July 1999).]
Yeah, we've been down this road before. I still stand by my view that it doesn't matter if you forge or grind.

Just one question about the nickel layer. Wouldn't it be too soft? I mean, wouldn't it dull very fast when it ends up on the cutting edge?


Self improvement is a hobby of mine :).

Cougar, I wasn't trying to be rude, I was only trying to point out that the question has been hashed before.

Tallwingedgoat, I think that you are on to something with your thoughts on heat treating. Paul Chen (don't ask me his fulll Chinese name) makes a beautiful Viking sword that is pattern-welded. The only problem seems to be that those testing them say that the heat treat is VERY spotty. For more detail, I believe that SwordForums.com has had tests and discussions on this that could be retrieved by their search engine. BTW, if you have the Museum Replicas catalogue, it think that the sword is there or try Twilightsdoor.com. They are imorted by CASI.

Walk in the Light of God,

Some smiths use the nickle for the contrast. But when used as a dividing layer, I'd imagine it would have to be very thin.
The cutting edge on some "Damascus" reveals a sort of serration where the boundaries change from one layer to the other. You can feel it by running the edge over a thumb nail. This has been called an advantange but I don't have much use for serrations so I find the point moot.

Desert Rat

Thanks for the insight from everyone. I guess there is great debate over the advantages of the steel, but there seems to be general consent that it is still beautiful to look at, one way or the other.
Damascus-shmascus! I am mostly anti-art in the looks over performance view-point. I like Bill Moran, his attitudes ,his skills and how he achieved great dreams. He has a logical thought on Art knives: (paraphrased) there are already enough knives out there for using and utility purposes. Mankind has more leisure time and disposable income today in general, then ever before and art knives are finally more accessible and obtainable. There is a good market for them and we as hand-makers need to fill the need.
Damascus has place in my collection only as a novelty. I have a blade blank from Dr. Rob Charlton, which I will be re-attempting to handle soon as the first was a bust in blue and yellow pakkawood.
dunno if it helps, but my father is a gunsmith and he often says that a damascus barrel is stronger and more "burst proof" than ordinary steel barrels.Does this mean a damascus knife is more resilient?

Touche? Too slow!
I can hardly wait for my Elishewitz/Crawford designed, Elishewitz made, Janus.
It is said to have a 3.5 inch damascus(stainless?) blade and handle spacer, titanium handles, and a bolster lock.
I'd hardly use a knife of that caliber for testing facilitation, but I'm sure it will be a real "looker"!

"All of our knives open with one hand, in case you're busy with the other"
Okay, I didn't want to do this, but;

Damascus and pattern-welding are not the same thing. Just because you see a pattern in damascus does not mean it's pattern-welded. Pattern-welding involves something akin to a damascus core with an edge of high-carbon steel forged-welded to it. This is not debatable. We have x-rayed many medieval swords. If you don't believe me, go read a book. Not one written by a modern smith, though Jim Hrisolaus seems to admit this fact, but an actual academic book written on Medieval European swords. Check your library or Amazon.com. Eward Oakeshot is a well-respected researcher/author.

Next order of buisness, there are many references to the serpentine pattern and colors(suggesting color-casehardening) present in a pattern-welded sword in Norse sagas. So this isn't the blended to the point of being homogenous steel Cougar is talking about, which brings me to;

Cougar, when European smiths first started forging homogenous steel blades, they took large bars of steel, enough for the whole blade, heated and beated and folded it to work out impurities and such, then forged to shape. Is this what you are talking about? Or do you mean that traditional true damascus was folded until it was homogenous?

As to layers of nickel to seperate the layer of steel from eachother, wouldn't that weaken the blade un-neccesarily? I mean, the only thin that'd be holding it together is the fact that the metals were twisted together. Or can nickel be fused to steel at forge-welding temperatures?

Forging itself is just a fetish. Most of the advantages of forging have been rendered obsolete by modern metalurgy. Anyway, even forged blades are finaly shaped by stock removal. Damascus itself has never proven to have any advantage in terms of cutting ability over homogenous steel in any of the knives I've used. In fact, I've never heard a dispassionate user say that his/her damascus knife had any special properties in that area. This is assuming we're talking abou tradtional damascus, high and low carbon folded and welded together. Which brings me to another point;

Any increased toughness in damascus would be due to the fact that the carbon content in the low-carbon steel isn't enough to harden the steel, and we all know the softer the steel, the higher the impact resistance. Within reason, obviously molten steel is as soft as it gets, but it would just splatter if you struck it. There isn't significant carbon migration in this 512 layer stuff comonly found nowadays. I guess it depends on what you mean by significant though. Anyway, that made a difference a long time ago when we had a primitive metalurgy, now it's mostly a non-issue when it comes to knives. The only thing like this in industry I can think of is eplosion-welding where you typicaly have a framework of steel you want planking of aluminum over(I encountered this in relation to shipbuilding), so you use high explosives to drive them together(it's pretty hard core!) and you can actualy see the shockwaves in the cross-section of the end product. However, this is done to take advantage of light weight of aluminum and strength of steel(so you can carry more cargo), not to make it more shock resistant.

I know I forgot something I had to say, but I guess it can wait/isn't important.

Anyway, my final word: You can make a good knife from damascus, but it's mostly a looks-thing.
Hugh, I never thought you were being rude for a moment.

People don't always notice, but I conscientiously avoid using the phrase "damascus steel." I always call pattern-welded steel "pattern-welded steel" and wootz steel "wootz steel" to avoid confusion.

Not long ago it was assumed all old blades that didn't show visible pattern were pattern-welded and folded too many times for the pattern to be visible, but recently microscopic examination has shown that isn't true for most old European blades; Europeans were making crucible steel in small quantities very early, much earlier than previously thought. Most of the European blades from the Age of Migration onward that don't show visible pattern are crucible steel.

All old Japanese blades are pattern-welded whether the pattern is visible or not; crucible steel was not made in Japan until very recently.

Nickel can be welded to steel. A few bladesmiths have recently started incorporating layers of pure nickel in pattern-welded blades. My impression is most if not all of them are pure display pieces and the only reason for using the nickel is the striking contrast, but it does prevent carbon migration across the layers of nickel, so it could be used to separate layers of steels of different carbon content in a three layer blade or a true san mai ... maybe.... If you want to cut anything with it you'd have to make sure the layers of nickel don't cross the edge, obviously, so you'd have to design to avoid that. There's quite a bit of discussion of pattern-welding in the Shop Talk forum on this website; I seem to vaguely recall a discussion about using nickel not too long ago, but the search function is temporarily out of order.

-Cougar Allen :{)
Late in the 19th century the barrels of fine shotguns were often made of pattern-welded steel in a twist pattern. They were deliberately made no thicker than necessary for the black powder of the time to save weight. By the time smokeless powder came along pattern-welding had become too expensive and there are no genuine pattern-welded barrels that are safe for smokeless powder (though there are many barrels from early in this century that were made of crucible steel and etched to look like twist barrels -- those barrels are safe for modern loads as long as the shells aren't too long for the chambers).

Because of that many gun buffs have the idea pattern-welded steel is weak, not strong enough for smokeless powder. In fact it isn't and twist barrels could be made to handle smokeless powder if anyone were willing to pay for it. I expect Musashi's father was just refuting the popular fallacy that twist barrels are inferior steel and didn't mean to say the steel is actually stronger than modern crucible barrel steel, but if he did mean that he was wrong.

-Cougar Allen :{)

[This message has been edited by Cougar Allen (edited 05 July 1999).]
Damascus steel is much more than just beautiful....it is one hell of a using steel!! I have never used a stock-removal blade steel that will come even close to it in cutting & ease of sharpening. Just my opinion!!