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Damascus

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Damascus is not just a city in Syriia but is also a material made of folded and sometimes twisted steel and was once the stuff upon which dreams were built.

In the world of dreams not much has changed.

 Today it has not lost its power to thrill and intrigue though there is more of it about than ever before. No longer the preserve of Kings and champions, damascus is available to the average citizen, albeit at a price. Once upon a time a sword of such material might cost 60 cattle, today a similar sword might fetch the same price as one cow or at most a mere handfull.
 

 

Mechanical damascus is an iron based material that is layered by folding and welding. Damascus is the term frequently applied to this material though the damascus originally referred to was really Wootz which is not a laminated material at all.

Wootze is a crucible material which is formed from high grade pure ore smelted in a crucible to the point where it is almost liquid or depending on the technique of manufacture entirely liquid. Slow cooling allows the formation of massive carbide crystals which are broken down through carefull heating and forging, into smaller crystals with an even distribution of carbon throughout the mass.

 
Its mechanical properties were recognised early on. Its visual appearance was reproduced as counterfeit which is a testimony to its value in antique culture.
 
Early smelting operations produced a spungy bloom of iron and steel erratically intermixed. Forge welding was used to mix the material rather like a baker might fold a ball of dough for puff pastry.
 


 
Ron Claiborne makes the point very forcibly that every piece of damascus is unique, because every blow imparts its own pattern by pushing the layers to and fro. Skillfull smiths can weld in such a way as to produce no movement in the pattern, managing instead to get the layers in an even stack like plywood. Any hint that the resulting bar is laminated can only be discerned from the side view just like a sheet of ply. Most damascus makers work hard to impart some pattern or other to the material by denting, twisting cutting and other manipulations.
 


The Advent of modern homogenous steel.
One of the primary functions of damascus was as a means of distributing the attributes of the various constituents throughout a bar of steel. Once the industrial revolution turned its attention to steel the availability of clean homogenous steel eclipsed damascus materials. The modern tool steels cut as effectively and could be just as tough as good damascus blades. Damascus was largely relegated to the pages of history in the West from the late 1800's up until the 1970's.

American Damascus
Around 1972 Irish American Bill Moran started displaying damascus bladed knives at the shows he attended. People wondered how he did it and he promptly published a printed sheet giving the basics of his proceedure. From that moment on the floodgates were open and American smiths took to mechanical damascus in increasing numbers. From there smiths in other countries took up the hammer to make mechanical damascus in an almost endless variety of material and pattern.


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Few modern blade smiths have mastered the art of making Stainless Damascus, though the practice is growing. The chromium oxides formed on the surface have a melting point which is higher than the melting point of steel.

As a result stainless damascus is particularly difficult to make. It turns out the trick is to encapsulate the billet to exclude air and prevent oxidation. A tiny hole is left in the capsule to vent excess pressure.


Milestones in Stainless Damascus

 

 Terry Laborde
Terry Laborde was one of the early adopters of stainless damascus. Terry made large billets which he twisted and tortured into patterns.
 
He was in production for a time in the mid 1980'S then disappeared from view moving into the making of Mokume. 

 

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Rob Charleton
Around the same time Rob Charleton of DAMASCUS USA began producing regular damascus along with a reliable line in Stainless Damascus.


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Parker Cut Co marketed a Japanese made plain pattern stainless damascus tanto with 19 layers, in the late 1980's. It's 6 inch curved blade was an excellent cutter. 

Cold Steel produced a limited edition "Imperial Tanto" originally slated for 2000 units. Production ceased at 1000 because the expense of production exceeded the retail price, per unit. The knife featured a 6 inch composite blade in the san-mai style. The outer laminations were stainless damascus and the center core was stainless high carbon.
 

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Basic Patterns
 
Plain
 Its just like plywood, each lamination is evenly thicknessed and plane with the one next to it. Beveled surfaces reveal parallel lines. You rarely see this one for three reasons. It takes real skill to do it, the resulting pattern is simple and tends not to sell as well as the more active patterns and unless the welds are perfect there is a greater tendancy toward delamination. Hydraulic presses make this pattern a lot easier to produce as they can be made to hit very square and can work larger surfaces in single hits.
Random
 As the name suggests the lines seem to move freely in a chaotic manner. IE, randomly. This is probable the best all round pattern, from a functional standpoint. 
Ladder
 The bar is indented across its length at regular intervals by cutting or forging and the resulting corrugated bar is forged or ground flat again.
Twist
 The bar is twisted and then forged flat.
Rose
 The bar is dimpled by forging or drilling and then forged or ground flat.
Welded Cable
 Steel cable welded into barstock. Pattern is unique and created by the carbon scavanging that occurs during welding to the outside of each strand.
Composite Patterns
 
Turkish
 Several twists stacked together to make a single bar.
Chevrons
 Right and left hand twists are stacked and welded into a chevron pattern.
Mosaic Patterns
 
Mosaic
 Pattern is limited to the makers imagination and ingenuity. Square shapes predominate. Huge billets are made and then crossectioned. Crossections are used like barstock. Edm is used to create complex shapes. Detail can be achieved by drawing out the billet, somewhat, prior to crossectioning.

Damascus
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