Damascus ("Pattern-Welded Steel")

Damascus steel is now coveted for the intricate beauty of its patterns, but the origin of this steel was almost certainly a matter of practical concern. Early methods of refining and alloying steel lacked the high temperatures necessary to reduce iron silicate completely. The result was a coarse-grained material that was unsatisfactory for implements requiring a fine edge and a polished surface. As a common practice, blacksmiths would hammer out material to refine its crystalline structure. Because the hammering thinned the stock, it was necessary to fold the steel over periodically to create enough mass to repeat the process. As the steel was continually reheated, it picked up carbon from the fire, creating a carbon "skin". When it was folded and forge-welded, the "skin" would become a layer of stripe within the steel. After dozens of foldings the steel took on the beautiful patterns we recognize today.

It appears that many cultures independently developed this layered steel all many centuries ago. Examples have been found in excavations in Scandinavia, Poland, Britain, China, Japan, and around the Mediterranean. Artifacts dated from Europe, dated as early as 200 BC, show the smith's obvious intent to control the pattern visible on the surface of the finished item. The pattern is both a guarantee that the "iron" has been worked enough to make it better, and an aesthetic expression by the maker. The steel was popularized in Europe when it was brought back from the Crusades. At the time of the Crusades, the term "Damascus steel" begins to appear in European languages to describe the swords encountered in the Middle East. Persian swords, knives, spears, etc. had a pattern visible on the surface, but the method of production differed from forge welding. The Persian swords were made by carefully forging a "cake" of "wootz". Wootz is a type of steel made by melting the metal in a small crucible and letting it solidify slowly enough to form segregated areas of high and low carbon content. Thereafter, the term "Damascus steel" was used universally to describe steel with a visible pattern, whether it was made from wootz or by forge welding different steels together. It was then linked with the city of its "source" and acquired the name "Damascus". Because it was widely produced outside that region, the term is unfortunately misleading.

The term is even less appropriate now because the process as popularly done does not involve the repeated folding of a single material. In order to create bold and dramatic patterns, it is common now to start with two or more distinct materials that will make a clear color difference. These are stacked in alternate layers and forge welded and fused together. Because the point of this process is to create a pattern, the material is properly called pattern-welded steel. The word damascus is so entrenched, however that it is unlikely to be replaced by the technically more accurate term.

In a polished blade of layered steel, the pattern is almost impossible to see. Historically the effects of corrosion, through the atmosphere and handling, wore away the component materials at different rates. This revealed the pattern. It is common practice now to use acid and/or chemical colorants to attack the steel. This hastens the action and gives the knife-smith some control over the look of the finished blade.

Toward the middle of the second millennium the popularity of knives of pattern-welded steel for knives and swords had fallen to near zero. By this time, however, firearms were becoming popular. Once again, pattern-welded steel (now called Damascus) in gun barrels and gun parts became fashionable. The industrial revolution, and inexpensive high quality homogeneous steel, brought a close to the use of Damascus steel for gun barrels. By the end of the First World War, the popularity of Damascus again had declined.

It was in the United States, in the early 1970's, that the third wave of Damascus popularity was revived along with a general flowering of contemporary crafts. Knife maker Bill Moran exhibited hand made pattern-welded knives at the 1973 "Knifemakers Guild" show at Kansas City, Missouri. These knives caught the attention of journalists and over the next few years, a profusion of articles about knife making, accompanied by photos of the knives, appeared in popular hunting, fishing, and outdoor magazines.

This same year, Daryl Meier started his exploration of this material after seeing a demonstration by Ivan Bailey, who had recently brought back the process from "Art-Smith" school in Germany. From there, Daryl went on to head the "Damascus Research Team" at the University of Carbondale, Ill. Meier was the first in the knife-making community to provide the steel to others. He has taught and influenced, in one way or another, most of today's prominent Damascus makers. Daryl Meier is truly the Grandfather of modern Damascus.

Again, the public became aware of what could be done with pattern-welded steel, and its potential. Their interest encouraged the rapid growth that has occurred. In 1974 three makers of pattern-welded steel knives exhibited at the Kansas City "Knife Makers Guild" show. By 1999 the number had grown to over 300 knife makers using pattern-welded steel. Additionally, there are at least five small factories, and one large factory producing pattern welded steel for knives, swords, jewelry, gun parts, and even golf clubs.

Modern makers have duplicated almost all the patterns found in old artifacts. Not surprisingly, developing new patterns that never before existed has been a challenge. Since about 1990, patterns that have never before existed have been developed. Blade-smiths are taking advantage of new combinations of steel that include all stainless steel mixes, and some by powder metallurgy.

The basic technique for creating pattern welded steel is to make a stack of alternating pieces of two or more different steels. The difference between the components has a lot to do with the intensity of the pattern. Very unlike materials will create the most obvious distinction between the layers. Very unlike materials are also the hardest to fuse together. In selecting steels, the smith seeks a balance of the layers and a showy pattern when the blade is finished. The stack is then forge welded and drawn out to be folded or cut and re-stacked, then forge welded again. When sufficient layers have been achieved, the bar is forged, bent, twisted, or manipulated in some way, to create the desired pattern. It is then forged, or ground to final shape. The last step in finishing the piece is usually an etching of the surface to enhance the visibility of the pattern. The possibilities of what can be achieved regarding patterns is endless, and is only limited by ones imagination.

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