Putting Damascus steel to the test

Published on December 1, 2012

I love knives. This might be one of the most politically incorrect statements I’ve ever made — if taken by readers the wrong way. Let me explain myself.

My affection for sharpened steel is nothing like what one would expect from the criminal or violent individual. I haven’t the slightest intention to ever inflict harm on another with a blade. I love knives the way I love fly rods and finely crafted reels.

Think of the way musicians fuss over instruments. They typically collect guitars and horns in numbers far beyond what’s sensibly necessary for playing their gigs.

There’s also the vintage factor. The consensus of online dictionaries attributes vintage primarily to a wine’s year of origin. In the modern context, vintage could refer to cars, motorcycles or fishing creels.

Often people collect objects that were actually made in a particular time period, like a car, and these are both vintage and antique. My daughter buys vintage dresses at online specialty shops because it suits her style and taste in clothes. They are new clothes styled from previous periods of fashion.

I think vintage is in style. That must be some sort of oxymoron, but Allison and other like-minded ladies spend lots of money to be in style, or not in style. It confuses me sometimes.

 Vintage knives are in style. Do a search on eBay and you will see for yourself. On a warm evening, this summer past, I browsed knives on my wife’s iPad, while sipping a beer on the deck. Before the beer was gone I bought my first blade on eBay. It looked so beautiful in the photo I just couldn’t resist, and the price was amazing.

It was handcrafted in India, and a sort of vintage knife that I’ve wanted for years. I own a couple of North American custom knives and they were very expensive. I was thinking the eBay knife could be junk, but for under a 100 bucks in hand, I took the risk. I ordered a Damascus steel blade with an India stag handle.

There’s both a colourful history and flourishing modern research surrounding Damascus steel. But both its origin and precise nature elude the experts, both archeologists and metallurgists alike. There’s magic and mystery swirling in the mists of time that baffles our state of the art electron microscopes and X-ray crystallography machines.

Damascus steel was used in knife and swordmaking from 300 BC to AD 1700. These blades are characterized by unique patterns of banding and mottling that resembles flowing water. Damascus swords were reputed to be not only robust and resistant to shattering, but capable of being honed to a keen and resilient edge.

It’s been said that they could cut through a gun barrel and split a falling hair, but there’s really no hard evidence to prove this. In reality, there’s no doubt that modern metals surpass the performance of Damascus steel, but for its vintage it was the absolute pinnacle of metallurgy, raw material fit for the finest artisans of the blade.

Modern bladesmiths have no Damascus steel to work with. For reasons that also allude us, the art and secrets of its production were lost somewhere around the mid 1700s. Historians think it might have had something to do with the disruption of trade routes.

Damascus steel was produced in India and exported around the rest of the world for crafting and forging implements of war and survival tools.

A lengthy breakdown in transportation could have lead to a total loss of the technology, especially considering that there was much secrecy around its production.

Attempts to re-engineer the process have been only partially successful. German research from 2006 revealed nanowires and carbon nanotubes in an antique blade forged from Damascus steel.

Nano means way too small to see, even smaller than microscopic. This was important enough to have been covered by National Geographic and the New York Times.

Microscopic chemical reactions in the production process may have been the secret ingredient. Woody biomass and leaves are known to have been used to carbonize the ingots used in Damascus steel production.

Nanotubes can be derived from plant fibres mixed into the forging process, and this might at least in part, explain the magic that hardened the steel. Maybe we will never know the full story, but who doesn’t love a little mystery?

Today’s craftsmen are now producing vintage Damascus knives, and I’ve wanted one for quite some time. Obviously they aren’t using the same steel that was used in period, but they are able to obtain the visual and maybe some of the practical elements by a different, but still complex procedure.

It’s called pattern welding, characterized by two steels being folded into hundreds of layers that end up forming distinctive patterns on the surface of the blade.

The two steels react differently to acid etching and give Damascus blades their signature look.

By using high and low carbon steel in alliance, a sword or knife is rendered both hard and tough at the same time. This has been the holy grail of knife and swordmaking for centuries.

A sword is no good razor shape if it smashes to bits upon impact with a shield. Nor is a blade functional if it doesn’t cut. In the moose hunter’s context, we want a knife that cuts effortlessly through that tough hide, but doesn’t break in two if you pry against a bone.

Or, put another way, we want blades that can hold an edge and open a can of beans. Modern hunting knives are hard and hold a wicked edge, but are a tad too delicate for more rugged survival sort of use.

On the other hand, survival knives don’t hold the keenest edge. Damascus blades are allegedly the best of both worlds.

My Damascus knife arrived from India and certainly looked the part. It’s finely crafted and exquisite to the eye and touch. I love the stag handle just as much as the water flowing pattern in its shimmering steel. It feels like a piece of history in my hand. I guess that’s why people drive vintage cars.

I’m using my new vintage knife this fall in the woods. I’ve christened it on one moose and it does indeed hold a keen edge. I’m a bit more reluctant to give it a survival mode workout. I’ll let you know after this winter’s camping session. Maybe I’ll baton some wood with it or fashion a lean-to. I’ll keep you posted.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted

at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.