A Simplified but Hopefully Comprehensive Overview of Damascus and Wootz Steel for People Who Don’t Read Good
Damascus steel is tie dye for knives. That’s the heart of the matter, and if that feels like enough for you then you can happily go read about some Damascus steel knife we’ve reviewed. I promise that article is more to the point than this one will be, because this article is mostly about indulging my own nerdy compulsions.
If you don’t mind a little more reading, though, I’ll try to answer questions I had personally about Damascus steel like:
- What is Damascus steel?
- What’s the difference from Wootz Damascus?
- Why is either called what they are?
- How did Wootz Damascus get confused with modern Damascus?
- Why does Wootz steel form that water pattern?
- What is modern Damascus steel made of?
- And are either Wootz or modern Damascus really better than regular steel?
The answers to those questions are a pattern-welded steel, one is a crucible steel, no one really knows, also no one really knows, steel impurities, whatever the smith put in there, and no not really. Respectively.
The problem is that there’s more history and science behind the term “Damascus steel” than any other knife steel in existence. So when you try to find anything specific about it, you end up in a sea of confused misinformation, generally propagated by idiot bloggers like myself who know more about how to manipulate an internet search algorithm than what actually goes into making a knife.
That’s not to say there isn’t legitimate information written by actual experts out there, but those experts usually dive immediately into dense historical discussions or dense metallurgical discussions that get overwhelming quickly for anyone who’s just dipping their toes into the subject.
You could just drop the next twenty minutes of your life into reading the wiki page about it, but I personally didn’t feel like it answered my questions all that thoroughly, and it certainly doesn’t provide the information specifically from the context of bladesmithing.
Also it’s kind of boring.
So I’m going to try really hard to hit a middle ground between the dense texts of experts who actually understand this topic, and the superficial guesses of internet leeches (like me) who are mostly trying to make you buy stuff so they don’t have to get a real job.
The Heads I Stepped On to Write this Nonsense
There are a lot of scholars who’ve worked hard studying this topic, and I’ve ripped off their work shamelessly putting this thing together. You could cut out the middle man by just reading them directly, though.
For a bit of history overview and intense metallurgical explanations, check out Larrin Thomas, the apparently tireless metallurgist behind Knife Steel Nerds.
For an example of one of the best Damascus steel smiths alive right now, check out Larrin’s father, Devin Thomas.
For a lot of history on the development and use of crucible steel, Anne Feuerbach is an anthropologist who studies Medieval crucible steels and has written about a million papers on the topic.
John Verhoeven and the work he did alongside bladesmith Al Pendray is possibly the most thorough and successful scientific endeavor to recreate genuine Wootz Damascus steel.
I’ll be referring to them and a few other people throughout this blog, but honestly if you’re just here to learn some history and science, the works I pull from are far more reliable sources than I am.
Update: Blade Magazine wrote a good piece on Damascus steel in 2022 called “Who Made the First Damascus” that has a pretty good discussion of the history of pattern welded steel and wootz Damascus. It’s pretty concise (although I’d argue with less damn personality), and they talk to blade smiths who have some great insight, but it still doesn’t quite give enough context or detail about history and steel composition to have satisfied my curiosity when I was first working on this haphazard blog. It’s still a good article that’s worth checking out, and probably provides as much information as most people would care to have on this topic.
Which Damascus Steel is the “Real” One
One of the first things you’re likely to realize if you know nothing about this at all is that the term “Damascus steel” can refer to two different steels:
- A pattern welded steel where two or more different steels have been forge welded and twisted together to create a distinctive pattern (Modern Damascus steel),
- A crucible steel forged from a single ingot from south India that develops a surface “water” pattern after being forged and thermal cycled (generally called Wootz Damascus).
In both cases the metal needs to be dipped in some kind of acid (a process called “etching”) in order to make the pattern show up clearly.
That’s a rough rewording of the definitions that Larrin Thomas gives in his “5 Myths About Damascus Steel” article (which is a great primer on its own). In that he also refers to modern Damascus steel as “pattern welded steel” and to the crucible version as “Wootz steel”, which seems to be the standard way to distinguish between the two for the competent people who write about this kind of thing.
That word “wootz” has a whole history of its own that I’ll touch on later, but right now we’re just concerned with the question of “which is the real Damascus steel”:
If you’re talking to an especially prickly historian, the answer is that crucible Wootz steel is the real Damascus. That’s the one that started the craze and got everyone trying to make water-patterned blades (unless you’re talking to an even more prickly historian who tells you other countries might have been making similar crucible steels around the same time, but we’ll talk about Anne Feuerbach later).
The real answer, though, is that if you ask a knife maker today for a Damascus steel knife he’s going to make you a pattern-welded steel blade. The best proof of that is probably on Bob Kramer’s site, where he explains what Damascus steel is by calling it pattern-welded steel, then giving a pleasantly concise description of making and drawing out a billet.
When you want a crucible Damascus blade with the more natural looking “water” pattern, there are actually a few custom knife makers like Peter Burt capable of making one every now and then. Whenever I see those knives pop up, though, I see them referred to specifically as wootz Damascus.
What is Wootz Damascus
Wootz steel was a very pure high carbon steel that was melted down with a bunch of other stuff that made it look cool when drawn out and etched in some kind of acidic liquid after the forging process.
The longer and slightly more accurate answer is that wootz steel was a crucible steel that exhibited a “wave” or “water” pattern when hammered out that was developed in southern India in what’s now the state of Tamil Nadu sometime around the 5th century BC.
Throwing a combination of minerals and plant materials into their crucible mixes, the Tamil people were making cakes of steel that were (supposedly) completely free of slag, which resulted in blades that were harder and tougher than most other weapons being produced at the time.
This method of making crucible steel spread through trade to places like Sri Lankan and China and eventually, of course, to Damascus.
I could confuse this issue by saying that “wootz” might be an old mistranslation of the Timal word “uruku”, but then I might go down a three day rabbit hole tracking the etymology of a bunch of words in languages I know nothing about, and come out the other end wondering what a Sumerian vampire myth has to do with Indian smelting techniques (I’ll save the armchair nerds here some time by saying there isn’t one. It’s just a coincidence. Move on before it’s too late).
It’s generally understood that “wootz” meant “pure” to some degree in some language from someplace in or around India or one of the places that had trade routes through India. I’ll leave it at that.
Crucible Steel From Other Places, Maybe
I could complicate this even more by telling you that, according to Ann Feurbach, southern Indians might not have been the only ones making crucible steels at the time, and that some of the ingots imported to Syria might have come from parts of Central Asia (Persia, western China, and as far as Russia) using a different crucible process known as “fulad” where a high carbon steel and a low carbon steel were melted down together in a crucible.
Fulad steel hasn’t gotten anywhere near the same kind of attention, and it doesn’t do much here to deepen our understanding of what Damascus steel is, because I’m not even going to attempt to synthesize her work into the discussion as a whole. But it’s worth knowing that the process was apparently more widespread than most people think.
You can thank Dr. Ann Feuerbach’s dissertation Crucible Steel in Central Asia: Production, Use, and Origins for adding this complication (or, for a shorter read, her paper Damascus Steel and Crucible Steel in Central Asia).
How did Wootz Steel Become Damascus Steel
So if wootz steel started with smiths in Tamil Nadu, why did people start calling it Damascus steel?
That was mostly a matter of good marketing and convenient geography. I think. I really don’t have the expertise to make a new claim about this, though, so I’ll just paraphrase what Ann Feuerbach said about it in her dissertation (and what has since been referenced by a handful of people who have actually read about this, like Larrin Thomas):
- The word for water in Arabic is “damas” and Damascus blades are often described as having a water pattern on their surface.
- Swords produced in Damascus city were called “Damascene” by 9th century Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi.
- The 11th century Iranian scholar, Al-Biruni, mentions a famous swordsmith named Damaqui who made swords with Crucible steel.
Regardless of which of those might be true, they all point to someone with a keen mind for marketing around the city of Damascus.
What they don’t do is suggest at all that the term started with Crusaders coming back to Europe, which seems to have become one of the big modern assumptions. The term was being used before even the first Crusade happened, and even longer before legends like the sword of Saladin cutting a piece of silk floating in the air in a competition with Richard the Lionheart started circulating.
Without getting too tied up in dates, though, the important thing here is legends like that did spread, and became overblown enough that Damascus weapons developed enough of a reputation that the surface water pattern became a sign of quality.
The Source of the Water Pattern
The original Damascus pattern came from the way the grain of the steel arranges around impurities in Wootz steel.
That’s a really dumbed down version with a couple problems, but it’s essentially true.
A less dumbed down version is that steel has things called carbides, which are compounds formed by carbon latching onto another element. The type and concentration of carbides can have a huge impact on the performance of a steel. Larrin Thomas wrote a great article called Carbon Types in Knife Steels that explains the relevant carbides in detail.
All we need to know here is that different elements and heating techniques can create different carbide structures and add or detract from qualities in the steel. For example, stuff like nitrogen and chromium at different levels can make the steel harder and more resistant to corrosion.
Thanks to decades of work by Dr. John Verhoeven and a few other ambitious people in the field, it’s been worked out that vanadium was likely present in the ore used to make Wootz cakes, and when those cakes were thermal cycled and forged in a certain way, carbides in the steel concentrated around pockets of vanadium to form little swirl patterns.
Modern Wootz Steel is Kind of a Thing
There’s an excellent documentary by Mike Loades called The Secrets of Wootz Damascus Steel that follows Al Pendray and John Verhoeven trying to develop a consistent method for creating and forging a crucible steel that produces this swirling grain formation.
Thanks mostly to those two, the claim that the “secret to making true Damascus steel has been lost” is mostly false now. While the exact method for making that pattern show up consistently is still up in the air, there are now people like Rick Furrer and Niels Provos who have worked in the past to reproduce Wootz steel with a water surface pattern with various degrees of success.
I don’t know if that means we’ll see Wootz steel in mass production at some point in the future. There are a few groups actively trying to bring the process into the laser age, but for the time being, crucible Damascus steel remains in the territory of historians, metallurgists, and tenacious smiths.
The History of Pattern Welded Damascus Steel
Pattern welding is a pretty old technique in bladesmithing, especially between iron and steel, but it wasn’t always done to copy the Damascus water pattern.
There was apparently a process for it in place on the Iberian peninsula in pre-Roman times based on some of the Falcata swords that have been found there. There’s also evidence that Celtic and Germanic tribes developed a pattern welding method, and the discovery of the Ulfberht swords shows that Europeans were doing this at least as far back as the 9th century.
Going into the 13th century, the Japanese started practicing San Mai, where they laminated a hard steel with high edge retention in a layer of softer, tougher steel.
Ian Pierce claims in his book “Swords of the Viking Age” that most Viking swords were pattern welded to some degree, but that the practice apparently fell out of fashion by the end of the Viking Age (or, from a slightly different perspective, a bit before William the Conqueror sailed into the British Isles, and around the time of the first Crusade).
Pattern Welded Steel as the Wootz Alternative
Forge welding steel to emulate the Wootz Damascus pattern is also not a new practice, but it’s harder to date exactly how far back it goes.
The wikipedia wizards suggest (without much citation) that the pattern welding already in place from the Vikings and Germanic tribes got confused with the Wootz steel coming from India, which reinvigorated the practice of pattern welding, but I honestly can’t find a straight answer about who was doing what first, and who copied who for what purpose.
It would be really easy to say that European blacksmiths saw people going crazy over these water-patterned Syrian weapons and tried to copy the pattern so they could sell their blades at a higher price. It would even make a bit of sense. But I just can’t seem to find enough reliable sources to support that claim, so I’ll jump ahead a few hundred years to the claim that can be backed up.
Pattern Welded Damascus Restarted with Guns then Moved to Knives
Bill Moran often gets the credit for “reviving the lost art of forging Damascus steel”, but that’s only partly true.
Moran got knife makers back into forging knife blades and creating their own alloys at a time when the mass production of stamped blades seemed to be pushing that art out of existence, and along with that he brought back the popularity of the word “Damascus”.
The truth is that he wasn’t even the first person in the 20th century to use the term “Damascus Steel” to describe a pattern weld.
Gun manufacturers had been making Damascus gun barrels (sometimes called “twist-steel” barrels) since the 19th century at the latest. There’s a bit of confusion even here about exactly who first started calling pattern welded steel “Damascus steel”, but the idea popped back up during England’s occupation of India, and people started bringing cakes of Wootz steel to the Isles.
The pattern got popular again, and soon smiths and metallurgists started playing around with it. In the early 1800’s, a man named J. Jones got a patent for creating a Damascus gun barrel in a way that would later be called the Crolle Damascus Pattern. Guns like this continued to be made in Britain until about the 1930’s.
People kept writing about the stuff even after Damascus gun barrels stopped being made, but it really wasn’t until Moran dropped into the scene with this Damascus knife in 1973 that the term became truly relevant to everyone again.
What is Modern Damascus Steel Usually Made Of
There was a lot of experimentation with steel combinations after Moran’s unveiling, according to Larrin Thomas.
Various attempts at making more and more intricate patterns led to the use of a lot of tool steels and eventually powder steels. It was apparently Larrin’s father, Devin Thomas, who finally hit on the combination of 1086 carbon steel and 15N20 as a cost effective compromise between ease of forging, pattern making, and end quality that became the closest thing to common practice.
When you’re looking at a modern Damascus steel knife that doesn’t have the steel composition in the description, it’s usually safe to say that it’s those two, with the possible variations of 1050 or 1095 traded in as the tool steel.
Since there are so many custom makers and large manufacturers making their own versions, though, there are thousands of combinations getting forged out in the world.
Even Devin Thomas has started using a wide variety of Swedish steels like AEB-L in combination with pure nickel for different designs, so it’s impossible to say exactly what’s in a pattern welded steel without the maker telling you explicitly. But the standard is a high carbon steel and a high nickel steel.
Wootz Damascus, Pattern Welded Damascus, and Solid Steel: Which is Better
Modern solid steel is probably still your best option for straight performing quality.
People jump to the idea that because the process for making Wootz steel is an ancient, lost technique that it must be better, because all old and lost things are better, or that pattern welded steel is better because it’s complicated to make. The truth is that most claims about any kind of Damascus steel being harder or sharper or more wear resistant are unfounded.
Wootz Damascus vs. Modern Solid Steel
Not a lot of experiments have been done in this area, but Verhoven did do a CATRA test to compare the edge on a Wootz Damascus blade to 1086 and 52100 tool steels and AEB-L stainless steel.
Ultimately he concluded that at high hardness both 1086 and 52100 cut better than true Damascus and both have better edge retention, and the Uddeholm AEB-L stainless steel, in broad terms, outperformed all of them at high hardness. Wootz steel did seem to start doing significantly better at a softer hardness, though.
Pattern Weld Damascus vs. Modern Solid Steel
Meanwhile, the Thomas family did their own CATRA test of a pattern-welded Damascus steel made up of AEB-L and 154CM against an edge on a solid piece of each of those steels (detailed at the end of Larrin’s 5 Myths article).
Shockingly, they found that the pattern-welded Damascus performed pretty much right in the middle of each of the steels it was made of: It had a higher edge retention than the softer AEB-L edge, and a lower edge retention than the harder 154CM edge, with an initial slicing ability that was equally centered.
It’s not really fair to say absolutely that Wootz steel is worse than all modern steels and a pattern-welded steel can never perform better than the sum of its parts. These were single experiments done with a small range of materials. But this should give us an educated skepticism of any manufacturer’s claims that their knives perform better because of their Damascus steel.
Wootz Steel Was Impressive for Its Time
For what it’s worth, Verhoeven also mentions in his report of the Wootz Damascus CATRA testing that the true Damascus steel blades “from antiquity” likely were better than what was being used by European Crusaders.
It’s possible that European blades were only being hardened to about 40 HRC (which is where Verhoeven said Wootz started to excel) because of the ore and techniques they were using. Pure steel could be tough to come by in the medieval era, especially on a massive enough scale to equip an army, so the ability to make Wootz ingots would have been an incredibly useful technology.
Today, though, even without getting fancy with the steel, our standards are a lot higher than they were during the medieval period of any country.
Just for context, the criteria for becoming a Master Bladesmith set by the the American Bladesmith Society are to forge a pattern welded knife with 300 layers that can slice a one-inch rope in half with one cut, chop all the way through a 2×4 without chipping, keep a sharp enough edge through all that to shave hair, and then get bent 90 degrees without cracking.
To me that sounds very much like the kind of legend that would’ve spread quick back when Medieval travelers were telling their plague-addled friends about a Syrian sword that could cut an iron helm in half.
The Various Patterns of Damascus
At this point I think it’s fair to say the pattern is the primary value of Damascus steel, so it’s worth going into what some of those patterns are.
There are a few basic patterns you tend to see in Damascus blades. You can get a pretty good sense of the possibilities from the patterns that Damasteel makes. But the sky’s the limit with highly skilled smiths. Once you start getting into mosaic patterns, Damascus becomes another show altogether. You don’t generally see that in mass produced knives, though.
Master Bladesmith Rick Dunkerley wrote a great article for Blade Mag on some of the different Damascus variations you can make back in 2011. Here’s a rundown of the basic ones he covered:
- Random: this is where the layers remain flat and a flowing, organic pattern forms during patterning (you’ll see this in a lot of the higher end Japanese kitchen knives).
- Twist: The billet is heated close to welding temperature, then twisted, generating a star pattern.
- Ladder: Alternating grooves are ground on opposites sides of the bar then pressed and ground flat to create layers of stacked wave patterns.
- Raindrop: Dimples are pressed or milled into the sides of the bar, then pressed and ground flat similar to the ladder pattern in order to create shapes like raindrops on a pond.
Dunkerley gets into more complicated stuff like the W pattern and radial mosaic patterns, but frankly I’m already way in over my head on summarizing the words of highly skilled experts. If you want to know the rest, you can read the whole article your own damn self.
Tips on Taking Care of Damascus Steel
In most cases you don’t need to take any more care with a Damascus blade than you would with any of your other knives: keep it clean and dry, and maybe put a coat of oil on it every now and then.
If you’re really concerned about it, though, think of it in terms of which steel is the most vulnerable.
Since most Damascus blades are made with a high carbon steel and a high nickel, it makes sense to treat the blade as if it was just a high carbon steel. Chris Reeve’s site actually has a good blog on maintaining Damascus steel knives (even though they don’t seem to make Damascus knives any more), so these tips are adapted from them:
- Wipe the blade as soon as possible after cutting anything acidic like fruit. Even your finger oils can pose a long term risk if you keep touching the blade without wiping it off.
- Spot clean rust spots with a mild surface cleaner and a q-tip.
- Apply a light coating of mineral oil to protect the pattern.
- Keep the edge well maintained.
Other Stuff You Could Maybe Learn
I’ve tried to reference and link to the best sources I could find available on the internet, but this is the kind of topic that really requires you to either start reading books or to go out and actually start forging to learn more about it.
In that vein, I’d highly recommend getting Larrin Thomas’ book, “Knife Engineering: Steel, Heat Treating, and Geometry” for a great, detailed primer on learning the science behind knife making. Besides the massive drop of comprehensive knife making information, he has a great section on Damascus steel in there.
John Verhoven also wrote a book about his experience trying to create Wootz steel with Al Pendray called “Damascus Steel Swords: Solving the Mystery of How to Make them”, which has a nice mix of science and history tied in with the story of his friendship with Pendray (Verhoeven wrote a bunch of other books on metallurgy that are probably worth reading, but are also crazy expensive).
For history on pattern welded blades, I already mentioned Ian Peirce’s “Swords of the Viking Age”. At this point that’s considered a pretty standard source on the topic.
There are probably hundreds of books on forging pattern welded Damascus, and since I’m not a blade smith myself I can’t say with much certainty which is a good source, but I’ve heard Jim Hrisoulas referenced by actual bladesmiths. He’s done a lot of work in historical weapon making, and written a lot on the topic, so it might be worth checking out his books like “Damascus Steel: Theory and Practice” or “The Pattern Welded Blade: Artistry in Iron” if you want to start learning how to do this stuff.
Now go. Get out of here and do something. We’ve both been inside too long.