A Layman's Understanding of Damascus Steel

By Parker Brown
ARMA Denton, TX

The term "Damascus steel" can refer to two different types of ferrous (containing iron) materials characterized by the watery pattern produced from the controlled mixture and physical manipulation of the iron and steel. Western Europeans were first introduced to this material around the 3rd-4th centuries from the historical trading center of Damascus, in present-day Syria. While there are examples of this material being produced in Damascus itself, its technical and physical origins are from India and the Middle East. Damascus steel is not to be confused with damascene, which is a process of inlaying gold leaf onto the surface of steel for the purpose of decoration.

Cast Damascus steel, known as wootz, was popular in the East. It's produced by melting pieces of iron and steel with charcoal in a reducing atmosphere (lacking oxygen). During the process, the metals absorb carbon from the charcoal and the resulting alloy is cooled at a very slow rate. This produces a material with a visible crystalline structure of varying carbide contents. Forging the material into a desired shape (such as a sword blade) alters the crystalline structure into the familiar waving or watered pattern that Damascus steel is known for. This technique is extremely work intensive and requires a high degree of skill to keep the necessary temperatures constant throughout the process. The resulting volume of material produced is substantial enough for a larger-scale production house, but would be impractical for smaller individually produced pieces.

Fabricated Damascus steel, known as pattern-welded steel, was more popular in the West and produced essentially the same product as wootz with less labor and less yield. Layering two or more linear elements of iron and steel and forge welding them together produced pattern-welded steel. Forge welding requires the stacking of two pieces of metal and hammering the two together while the whole is at a high temperature. The surfaces of the individual metals are at the near molten state while the core of the metal is still solid. By forcing the surfaces together at this temperature (with the presence of a flux to seal the joint off from oxygen), the result is a welded bond, essentially forcing the two metals into one. Stretching out the length of the composite material and forge welding it back onto itself results in multiple layers that can be manipulated to produce the same watered pattern as wootz.

Besides their beautiful aesthetic appearances, both wootz and pattern-welded steels produced a metal that was harder and more flexible than traditional wrought iron. These features were critical in the making of a long bladed weapon, such as a sword. While the use of wootz steel is primarily linked to India and the Middle East, Norwegian smiths were masterfully producing pattern-welded blades in the 6th century A.D., centuries before the famed pattern-welded katana developed during Japan's Kamakura period (ca. 1185-1333). However, despite its famed durability and quality, Damascus steel is a relatively heterogeneous (unevenly mixed) material in comparison to modern high-carbon steels produced using the 19th century Bessemer process. For its time, it was a magnificent material that was costly and expensive to produce and allowed smiths to produce quality long-bladed weapons.

Parker Brown is an apprentice armorer and proprietor of Crescent Moon Armoury.


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