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The Lost Art of True Damascus Steel

Damascus steel
This knife from Damasteel shows just how beautiful Damascus steel patterns can be. Dieter Stöpfgeshoff/Damasteel

It may look like something straight out of Westeros on "Game of Thrones," but the beautifully undulating lines that characterize Damascus steel have more Earthly origins. And if its appearance is striking, it's the physical benefits of this type of steel that made it so sought-after in its heyday

Once prized for centuries, Damascus steel lost prominence by the 18th century but today it's made a resurgence. So what is this mythical steel, and why can't everyone seem to agree on what is — and is not — Damascus steel?

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What Is Damascus Steel?

Let's first start with some basics. Steel is an alloy made from iron and carbon, but mostly from iron. The challenge for ancient metalsmiths was to create steel that was both flexible and strong. Early sword makers did not know how to precisely compose steel; when they melted iron, they got what they got, according to ironmaster Per Jarbelius, engineer and metallurgist with Damasteel, a manufacturer of steel produced in the centuries-old Söderfors mills in Söderfors, Sweden. Eventually, they discovered that certain ores produced one property and others produced different properties. Some ores imparted flexible material, and others strong.

"Damascus is when you combine these steels into one forging," Jarbelius says. "You take the flexible, and you take the strong, and you forge them together."

This layered forging method yields what is known as pattern-welded Damascus, and this is the type of Damascus still made today.

However, centuries ago, it was known as wootz steel and it was some of the finest steel in the world. It was first produced in India from an iron ore with a high level of carbon — about 1.5 percent — and additional trace elements, according to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Electronic Materials by J.D. Verhoeven, A.H. Pendray and W.E. Dauksch. The ingots — or cakes — of steel from India were sent to Damascus, Syria, where they were made into swords. These also had beautiful surface patterns and were lauded for their superior physical ability.

In the early centuries of Damascus steel, its most common use was for weapons, which accounts for why it was so prized. Swords were difficult to make because they are long and slender. The best steel was required to make them stable and flexible.

Early Damascus steel solved a similar problem encountered in making long guns, too, considering their narrow, long shapes. By the 1600s, pattern-welded Damascus steel was used to make gun barrels in Turkey. The practice spread through Europe and was popular in the British Isles during the 19th century. But in the early 1900s, production stopped when the Belgium city of Liege, which had produced 850 tons (771 metric tons) of Damascus barrels, fell to the invading German army in World War I in 1914.

Damascus steel
Today's Damascus steel is known as pattern-welded Damascus because it layers different ores with different properties together.
Albin Bogren/Damasteel

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Why Is It called Damascus Steel?

Although Damascus steel was named after the Syrian capital city, it was most likely developed in several locations, Jarbelius says. Some version of Damascus steel has been produced for centuries, everywhere from Indonesia to the Middle East.

"There are different traditions from different countries or different regions," Jarbelius explains. Damascus isn't one specific formula.

Verhoeven and his co-authors explain in their study that both pattern-welded and wootz Damascus were being produced by the sixth century. Not only were weapons made from these steels lightweight and strong, but they were also said to stay sharp even after being used in battle, according to Gear Patrol. It was even said that blades made of wootz steel could cut through a silk scarf as it fell.

But the formula for wootz Damascus has been lost to history. By the early 19th century, it was no longer being produced, possibly in part because the metalsmiths who made it kept some of the process secret, and possibly because the special combination of ores dried up.

By the late 1800s, modern metallurgy had improved the quality of steel. Even the pattern-welded Damascus created at the time became obsolete and got a bad reputation, according to Jarbelius. Modern refined steel simply worked better than its forbears, and today, the function of Damascus steel plays second fiddle to its good looks.

Damascus steel
Damascus steel is known for its beauty, including various patterns. Here we see several from Damasteel, a company that makes blades in the centuries-old Söderfors mills in Söderfors, Sweden.
Dieter Stöpfgeshoff/Damasteel

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The Beauty of Modern Damascus Steel

As modern metallurgy techniques improved, so have modern versions of Damascus steel. However, modern buyers still seek out Damascus steel for its appearance. After all, when it comes to swords and knives, their medieval purposes are no longer a factor.

"You got aesthetics as a byproduct in ancient days," says Jarbelius. "Today, we make similar patterns to what was produced in ancient days, but the steel technology has moved so much further."

There are various methods for making Damascus steel today. Some true artists create a limited run of an individually designed piece of steel, Jarbelius says. Other Damascus steelmakers are interested in higher volume production and repetition of specific patterns. Damasteel, the Swedish company Jarbelius works for, uses powder metallurgy to do just that.

In conventional steelmaking, you forge solid pieces together, he explains. Instead, Damasteel makes stainless Damascus-patterned steel through powder metallurgy. Working with two grades of steel for color variation, Damasteel creates a "recipe" for a pattern and is able to repeat it.

Some patterns are trade secrets, and others are just difficult to replicate. There are similar patterns that multiple blacksmiths make, although they might have different names. What one smith calls a Rose pattern, another may call a Raindrop, for example.

If the pattern names sound too delicate for the nature of the business, there are other options too. Damasteel has patterns called Thor, Odins Eye, Loki, Bifrost and Bluetongue. Or consider Snakeskin, Razor Wire and Fireball from Devin Thomas. What they all have in common is a quality of beauty.

"You are making Damascus steel types because it's pretty," says Jarbelius. "You are looking for aesthetics more than function."

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Uses of Damascus Steel Today

In the 21st century, Damascus steelmakers are not forging many swords. Nevertheless, the material has wide usage, Jarbelius says. Because it takes more work and craftsmanship to produce, Damascus steel comes with a higher price tag that traditional, non-patterned steel.

You'll find jewelry, rings, watches, spoons, belt buckles, razors, flashlights and pens made of Damascus steel. Of course, in the tradition of its earliest use, Damascus steel is popular for knives, pocketknives and high-end kitchen knives.

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