You are on page 1of 1

Now You Know

Thermal Processing & Metals in Everyday Life

What is Damascus Steel?

ts possible you have heard of Damascus steel, particularly if

you are familiar with old swords, knives and guns. A book,
The Art and Beauty of Damascus Steel, was recently written
on the subject. While this treatment of the topic might not
do the book justice, Damascus steel is quite beautiful and holds
much mystery.
Although the heyday of Damascus steel was between 900 and
1600 AD, the origins began as early as 300 BC in India. At that
time, wootz steel was made using a new technique that produced
high-carbon steel of unusually high purity. Glass was added to a
mixture of iron and charcoal in a small, sealed, clay crucible, and
it was then heated. The glass acted as a ux to combine with other
impurities in the melt, allowing them to oat to the surface. The
result was a more pure steel. This technique spread from India to
modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan around 900 and to the
Middle East around 1000.
Modern metallurgical analysis has proven that Damascus steel
differs from pattern welding (to be discussed later). Blacksmiths
of today use pattern-welding techniques to reproduce the look of
Damascus steel.
No one really knows why this steel is so unique, but it is believed
to be due in part to its vanadium content. In addition, it is believed
that the steell was hot short due to its sulfur and phosphorus
content. Ourr theory would be that this hot shortness required a
lower and more
ore precise forging temperature than conventional
European blacksmiths
cksmiths were accustomed to. The vanadium content,
and possibly also molybdenum, could create primary carbides,
which would not be affected by the lower-temperature thermal
processing (forging).
forging). Some of the iron carbides might go into
solution during
ng forging, but the primary, vanadium carbides and
certain other metallic carbides would ow in a pattern established
by the forgingg process. These ow lines would lie parallel to the
forging planee of the blade, and the bladesmith exploited this
to create a more exotic pattern upon polishing and
etching of thee blade.
Another forging-process creation
was not known
wn until recent metallurgical analysis
nalysis revealed
the presencee of carbon
nanotubes and
nd nanowires in a 17th-centh-century sword. The
complex forging
and annealing
process is believed to have
Damascus steel
developed the
detail (right)

24 August 2009 -

nano-scale structures. These nanostructures help give Damascus

steel its distinctive properties.
The origin of the Damascus steel name is almost as mysterious
as the steel itself. The assumption is that the steel or the swords
were made in Damascus, Syria. Its just as likely, however, that
it comes from the Arabic word damas meaning water, referring
to the surface pattern that resembles turbulent water. One source
refers to swords made by a man named Damasqui, which could
also have been the origin of the name.
Damascus steel is both hard and exible, which made it an
ideal sword-making material. The primary and/or precipitated
carbides that create the pattern are much harder than the lowcarbon steel matrix. These carbides allowed the swordsmith to
make an edge using the precipitated carbides that would cut
hard materials, and the softer matrix allowed the sword to remain
tough and exible.
The beauty of Damascus steel has resulted in craftsmen
attempting to duplicate it. Present-day blacksmiths use one of
two techniques: cable Damascus or pattern welding. The cable
technique began with the availability of steel-wire rope in the
1830s. The wire rope is forged, creating repeating images along
the blade similar to the Damascus steel of old.
Pattern welding involves welding different types of steel and
iron bars together to form a billet. The billet is drawn out and
folded several times during the forging process. Historically, Japanese samurai swords were made with
this technique. Typically, the folding
and re-forging process is repeated from eight to 16
times, which

helps refine the impurities and remove excess

carbon. Believe it or not, if
you start with a single bar and fold it
16 times, you will end up with 65,536 layers. If, however, you start with a pattern-welded,
eight-layer billet, 17 folds will result in 1,048,576 layers!
rs! The resulting layers will be aligned parallel to the
fforging direction, producing superior strength properties as well as a pattern similar to the Damascus
patterns of old.
In spite of the many mysteries about Damascus
now you know what it is and how todays craftsmen
duuplicate its unique properties and beauty. IH