Well over two thousand years ago, metalsmiths in southern India developed a steel known as Wootz. They used magnetite ores and readily available sources of carbon (and then a lot of skilled hard work) to make steel with prominent carbide patterns. This was elevated further if they then used an acid to etch the steel after finishing their blades.
The strength and toughness of their work, and the sharpness and durability of their edges meant that soon the technique spread around the known world. From the Romans to the Chinese, everyone was getting in on the act. As with so many things in the world of knife-making, there are theories aplenty as to why we came to know this as Damascus steel, but as good a one as any is that in European minds the blades became most strongly associated with the eponymous city of the Levant.
The key point here is that the pattern was a by-product of the quest to make a wonderful blade. For sure, the more skilled makers would have taken an interest in making their patterns as aesthetically pleasing as possible, but not at the expense of the quality of their function.
What we call Damascus today is a very different beast indeed, ranging from works of great beauty to charlatanry of the highest order.
How is Damascus steel made today?
Instead of continually working once piece of metal, today’s Damascus is in fact a forge-welding of two different steels. Both these steels will react to the final etching solution in different ways, leaving a pattern determined by the method used to forge the two metals together.
This is distinct from San Mai – or laminated steel – where the piece of metal that forms the cutting edge is sandwiched between other materials. Often this production is for added protection, ease of working, or just for the visual appeal.
Are you being sold a real Damascus steel knife?
Most knives being offered on the internet as Damascus are in fact laminated. If you come across a knife and can see a clear tide line above the cutting edge where the pattern stops, then it’s not a true Damascus knife. Given they’re fibbing about something so fundamental, it would be fair to say they’re probably not being entirely straight with anything else.
The most important thing to know about today’s Damascus (the real stuff) is that it offers absolutely no practical benefits over a single, high-quality knife steel. In fact, unless the welding has been undertaken with the very highest levels of attention to detail and patience, the possible presence of impurities and micro-fissures may in fact weaken the blade, and in particular the cutting edge.
Of course, there are makers who do indeed make their patterned steels to only the very highest quality – but this comes at a price. A piece of good, stainless patterned steel sufficient to make an 8” chef’s knife is going to cost in the region of £200. So, if you’re not paying well over £800 for your Damascus knife then you’re probably being sold a dupe.
Whilst we may not deal in Damascus knives, we offer customers the opportunity to create their own perfect Savernake knife. Fully customisable, you can choose from 44,380 options to design your own knife via our online knife configurator. It will then be handcrafted by us and delivered – included is our lifetime guarantee.