Damascus Steel is highly sought after in the knife world and rightly so. It has proven itself throughout history as a reliable, high performing steel with a unique and beautifully patterned aesthetic.
Traditionally, it has been valued for its hard and flexible structure whilst retaining a sharp edge. Its popularity has grown extensively in the last few years and the market has grown. From custom knife makers taking up the craft and as always, a few cheap "knock-offs" thrown in the mix!
Feeling a little confused about the what, how and why of it all? Let's break it down.
There are many theories of where Damascus Steel originated, but it is believed traditional Damascus dates back over 2000 years.
It's origins can be traced back to India where is was called Wootz or Ukku steel.
It later dominated the trade for knives, swords and armour in Damascus, Syria - contributing to its name. Unfortunately "true Damascus" has been lost over time along with the techniques, craftmanship and secret recipes. However its reputation for quality and its rich history has it replicated thousands of years later, making it a popular favourite for kitchen and chef knives around the world.
What is Damascus Steel?
Traditional Damascus was made using knowledge and techniques lost in the 1700's. There have been many attempts to replicate the original steel, however no-one has since been successful. What we know about the original steel is what has been passed down throughout history and has never been fully confirmed.
Todays 'Damascus' is pattern-welded and pays homage to the traditional original.
Originally, Damascus Steel was cast from Wootz steel which originated from India thousands of years ago. Steel and Iron were melted down with charcoal in an environment with very low oxygen. As it cooled, the steel absorbed carbon from the coal resulting in crystalline carbide cast Damascus.
Maintaining the correct temperature was very difficult which is why only the very talented craftsmen could create such a steel, adding to its value and exclusivity.
Today, Damascus Steel is made using a pattern-welded technique. This technique involves forge-welding multiple layers of steel together, where they are folded over and over creating the signature wavy pattern. Depending on the craftsmanship and types of steel used, this should provide a blade which is both hard and flexible.
Choosing the right steels to combine will greatly affect the way the layers bind together, aesthetics and performance. High carbon steels are essential for the performance, such as 80CRV2 and 1084. Mixing these with a carbon steel with a high nickel content, such as 15N20, provides added strength and durability, as well as the "shiny" layer to make a contrasting pattern.
"Damascus" (or pattern-welded) steel is famously recognised for its wavy patterned aesthetic. So it is easy to get confused with San-Mai steel knives.
San-Mai is a traditional Japanese technique where 2 layers of "soft" steel are laminated on either side of a very hard and brittle steel core. The outer steels add flexibility and absorb shocks and impacts, protecting the sharp core.
Making Damascus Steel is a long process which requires lots of attention and dedication, hence the price tag. Unfortunately, as with any highly sought after item there will be a few knock-off versions to watch out for. The chef knife market is flooded with cheap knives featuring the signature wave pattern. Just because there is a pattern, doesn't mean the quality has also been replicated. Cheap knock-offs often use cheaper steel which results in a soft edge, requiring constant sharpening, or brittle and likely to chip.
Another common product is a knife made from 1 type/layer of steel which has been etched in acid to create the famous pattern in the blade.
We are asked the same question about Damascus knives a lot: "are they worth it?" and the answer is always Yes...but.
Pattern-welded Damascus knives are more expensive and should be treated as an investment/treat. My advise is to take your time, do your research and if it seems too good to be true... it probably is!
Want to find out more about how pattern-welded Damascus knives are made? Check out our video below to watch the process of one of our Custom Commission Damascus chef knives coming to life.