Damascus – this appealing yet enigmatic steel has captured the imagination of many bladesmiths and knife lovers. The material provides an extremely tough, strong blade that can endure gross impact with a very little degradation of the edge. Historical Damascus’s great edge retention and an inability to shatter even under severe abuse is a rare feature even by today’s standards. Many layers of a Damascus blade welded together form multiple bands and mottling patterns that are inviting to the eye and unique in each blade.
So, what is the mystical Damascus steel? Is the metal we craft nowadays exactly the same as the ancient Damascus? How exactly do today’s bladesmiths re-create the glory of the old noble metal? Here is our guide on how Damascus is crafted today.
In actual fact, the metal we produce today is not the historical casted (Wootz) Damascus steel. The today’s Damascus-like metal is crafted using forge welding which is what gives it the famous multi-patterned design like in the traditional Damascus blades. Although some types of modern steel outperform the original Damascus, they don’t possess the renowned ductility and strength of the hand-made Damascus blade.
Since late-20th century, modern Damascus-like blades have been constructed from various steels welded together to form billets. After the pile of plates has been removed from the forge, it is pounded together into one piece to draw out and fuse the plates together. The billet is then cut and folded like a sandwich to be again stretched out by forging. The process is repeated until a sufficient number of layers has been achieved. Such a structure of the blade secures solid strength and integrity of Damascus steel. Alternating types of steel within the blade structure create impressive sightly patterns that provide the renowned excellent service properties of the Damascus blade, as well as aesthetic beauty.
Each time you cut your forge-welded piece and fold it, you double the number of layers in the billet: so, it’s quite easy to reach a high number of layers with just a few initial plates of steel and several folds. With 7 plates to start with and 4 folds, you’ll have as many as 112 layers after the fourth fold. You may even take as little as three layers for the initial weld – or as many as 30. The number of layers shall be custom-tailored for the specific purpose you need to achieve in your blade.
But how many layers are ‘enough’ for a good Damascus blade? It depends on the desired pattern: you should not craft too many layers for a twist pattern, as twisting the bar will tighten them. For a twist pattern, 50 to 150 layers will do – while other patterns need at least 200 to 300 layers.
Some knifemakers say a Damascus looks pretty good with at least 200 layers. The American Bladesmith Society requires a Master Smith to forge a Damascus blade with a minimum of 300 layers, while a layer count between 300 and 500 is considered to be perfect aesthetically. However, some knifemakers have produced blades with over half a million layers!
You will need the following tools to forge Damascus steel:
Forge; Anvil and hammer; Tongs; Tempering oven; Drill or drill press; Vise; Welding tool
Also, these materials are crucial:
flux material (to promote melting), such as fine silica sand or ferric chloride; metal scrap; brass pins; rebar; quenching oil; finishing medium.
You should mind that the chief barrier for welding is the presence of contaminants, such as loose dirt, oxides and silicates between the two plates. Such impurities form a thin pitchy layer on the surface of the metal. In such a case, these surfaces shall be coated with a flux (borax, or borax and sand, or borax and clay) in order to make the impurities liquid well below the temperature of fusion of the metal. The flux also acts to protect the metal surface from loss of carbon.
A good set of steels is the primary factor. Modern pattern-welded Damascus uses high carbon steels which, apart from the high carbon level, also boast distinct additives of other elements, such as vanadium and nickel, to achieve specific properties.
A combination of 1084 and 15N20 is recommended by high-end knifemakers as the steels to combine when forging Damascus. A splash of .9 percent manganese in the 1084 steel will make your metal a deep-hardening darker steel, while a dollop of 2-to-3 percent nickel in the 15N20 provides extra toughness and etch resistance of a silver layer almost as bright as pure nickel. This combination of steels can be handled easily. Blades made of 1084 and 15N20 are known to possess excellent toughness and cutting properties.
Making Damascus blades is quite a simple procedure. Yet, it is time-consuming and requires ongoing accuracy. The common procedure is like this:
1. Collect components in a furnace.
2. Heat furnace to melt the components together. After the furnace has reached its cooling point, remove the metal billet and heat it to a required temperature.
3. Start the folding (‘sandwiching’) stage. Hammer the metal while it is hot. After the metal cools, reheat it to forge again.
4. Repeat the previous cycle as many times as you need. Don’t forget to sharpen edges and shape the blade.
5. Once the final shape has been attained, cut and hand-forge the final details of your blade.
6. Move away the carburized metal excess from the blade’s surface.
7. Insert grooves and drill holes into the blade surface as needed.
8. Reheat the blade. Hammer it flat, then polish to set the blade’s near-final form.
9. Etch the surface with acid to amplify the pattern.
10. Upon completion, clean acid carefully from the blade’s surface.
Now let’s examine the forging process in details.
Assembling the billets is the first stage. Cut the steel plates into the right (identically sized) dimensions for your blade and stack them up, alternating low-carbon and high-carbon steel, with the thickest material on the top and bottom of the billet. After aligning all of the layers together and forming a billet, create a temporary handle you can use to move the material in and out of the forge.
Your forge must be capable of reaching 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. You may use ceramic fiber insulation or a castable refractory in the forge to help resist flux and also to protect the ceramic fiber from damage.
Standard welding steps are:
1. Place the billet into the preheated forge and soak until the billet is dull red. Then apply anhydrous borax as flux.
2. Allow the billet to reach the right welding temperature, which is when the flux is bubbling quickly. Ensure even heating of the billet by rotating it.
4. Weld the billet using a press or hammer. Hammer while the billet is hot, so that the steel plates form a homogeneous block.
5. Remove the flux and scale with a wire brush. Reheat the billet and forge into a square profile, reheating as many times as needed to reach the required dimensions;
6. When the billet has cooled, remove any scale of the billet. Cut the billet as necessary to reach the desired number of layers, and fold the sections on top of each other.
7. Repeat the welding process and draw the billet out to the required dimensions. Repeat the process as many times as needed to obtain the desired number of layers in the blade.
Perform any required forming procedures by hand on the grinding belt. You may, as needed:
– precise form the blade
– fashion the heel precisely subject to blade size
After forging your Damascus you must heat-treat it. You’ll have to run three thermal cycles, heating the blade to non-magnetic and then allowing it to cool, to relieve any stresses that may remain after forging. After doing this three times, allow the blade to cool to indoor temperature. This will normalize the steel and diminish the possibility of deformation during the hardening stage.
The heat treatment of a Damascus blade usually runs like this:
1. Your furnace must be heated to a temperature between 1,500 and 2,000 ˚F.
2. Put the blade in the furnace and heat to its starting temperature.
3. After the metal has reached the desired temperature, soak the metal in the quenching oil to cool steel (until the temperature normalizes). Usually, it takes 10 minutes. Instead, you can soak the metal in water first, and then soak it in blacksmith’s quenching oil.
4. Repeat quenching two or three times.
5. Pass the blade through liquid nitrogen for about one hour.
6. Temper the metal at a temperature of 350 ˚F for one hour. Repeat twice.
The finishing and etching processes go hand in hand to define the final look of the blade. After the blade has been filed and ground to a required size, it must be treated by polishing, cleaning and etching. A grit finish is applied to the metal surface: first, rougher (e.g. 320-grit finish), then finer, 400-grit and 600-grit sandpaper, is used to burnish the blade.
The properly finish-ground and hand sanded blade shall be then etched to reveal the Damascus pattern. Etching is carried out by immersing the blade in an acid bath. You may be creative during this last and defining stage in the forging of your Damascus, but the normal procedure goes like this:
1. Dilute your etching agent (normally, ferric acid, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, or ferric chloride) according to the manufacturer’s instruction.
2. Immerse the metal in the diluted solution for a prescribed period of time as indicated by the manufacturer’s instruction (normally, a minimum of ten minutes is required).
3. Rinse the steel with clean running water and let it dry.
4. After 5 to 7 minutes, repeat the immersion process.
5. After you’ve achieved the required result, neutralize the steel by passing it through trisodium phosphate.
Your Damascus steel blade is finished!
The patterns result from the varied steel types used in the forging process. When the forged blade is submerged in an acid etch, the layers react differently, revealing the signature patterns.
Like other high-carbon steels, Damascus can be prone to rust if not cared for properly. It’s essential to keep it clean, dry, and occasionally oiled. The etched patterns can also be sensitive to abrasives, so gentle cleaning is recommended.
While certain patterns can be replicated through specific forging techniques, each Damascus blade holds its individual nuances due to the hand-forged process. This ensures that every piece is one-of-a-kind in its detailed patterning.
The art of forging Damascus steel is an age-old tradition, weaving together layers of history, metallurgy, and craftsmanship. As we’ve navigated the intricate process from raw steel to mesmerizing wave patterns, it’s evident that Damascus is more than just a material—it’s a testament to the artisan’s dedication and passion. This revered metal, with its unique blend of strength, edge retention, and beauty, stands as a beacon of legacy in the world of bladesmithing. Each fold, each hammer strike, each quenching cycle reveals a story; a dance of fire, metal, and human spirit. For those who embark on the Damascus journey, whether forging or wielding, it’s not merely about possessing a blade but holding a piece of art, history, and soul. As you admire or craft that next Damascus masterpiece, let its patterns remind you of the timelessness and beauty of this ancient craft.
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Author: Aleks Nemtcev | Connect with me on LinkedIn