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  • The Truth About Damascus Steel

    April 18, 2023 6 min read

    The Truth About Damascus Steel

    ‘Nary a day goes by here at the shop when we’re not asked the most common questions - “Are these knives with the wavy pattern made of Damascus Steel? And is Damascus steel better?”

    The short answer? “No” with an “if”, “Yes” with a “but”.

    Over a thousand years ago, in the city of Damascus, the local blacksmiths were regarded as the finest in the world for their unique technique of steel fabrication. They say this method produced the most beautiful swords in all the world. How they were made is a hotly debated topic, but one thing is known for sure: they were beautiful. The blades had intricate patterns and textures originally thought to be the result of folding. Not only were they exceptionally appealing to look at, but their performance was said to be truly spectacular. There were rumours that these “Damascus” swords were able to hold a keen edge for an unreasonably long time, and were much less prone to chipping and damage.

    These stories, however, are largely unsubstantiated. The original techniques and recipes have all been lost to the ages and have, for all intents and purposes, become the stuff of legend. These legends assuredly hold at least some truth - Reports of steel quality in the year 900 AD are spotty at best, but it’s believed most steel products were about as durable as hard plastic. Plate armour wasn’t viable until nearly the 14th century, so at the time, Damascus steel must have been viewed as an incredible advancement.

    The titular home of Damascus steel

    Over the last few centuries, humans have made some serious leaps and bounds in the field of metallurgy. Steel types like VG-10, SG2, Aogami Super, or ZDP-189 are all brand new by comparison. Romantic and artistic qualities aside, it’s quite difficult to realistically imagine that centuries-old Damascus steel swords were more capable than modern high-carbon knife steels produced today. Nowadays, the appearance of Damascus steel is what most blacksmiths are trying to emulate, rather than the performance.

    As you may or may not know, most high-end Japanese knives are made using the “san-mai” technique. In a nutshell, there is a thin layer of hard, brittle steel in the core which does the cutting. This is laminated between two layers of softer steel which act as a shock absorber. Think of a sandwich with ham hanging over the edge - the ham is the core, the bread is the cladding. 'Damascus' steel is used in the cladding, not the core, so what’s the point of using Damascus steel? Let’s ask master blacksmith Tsukasa Hinora-san, a man renowned for his folded steel:

    “The pattern does not affect how the knife cuts, but… beautiful knives make people enjoy using them, and also make people want to use the knives more. Also, I think beautiful knives make people happy!”

    And why wouldn’t they? People like appealing looking things! A little bit of vanity is nothing to be ashamed of. No teenager in the entire history of teenagers had a pin-up poster of a lime green 1993 Chrysler Neon up in their room (for posterity, the 1974 Ferrari Dino was clearly the best looking car ever made. Fight me, Kevin).

    Before the comments section erupts, as is tradition, I’ll clarify one thing: many steel-purists point out that we’re not using the term Damascus accurately. They are correct - we should be calling it “pattern welded” steel. We use the term “Damascus” because most folks have come to use it as a catch-all term for knives made with layered steel, and the blacksmiths we work with even use the term to describe knives with a layered look. The term "Suminagashi" is also used sometimes, referring to a paper and cloth dyeing technique where ink is swirled on top of water, creating a similar pattern to damascus. The vast majority of “Damascus steel” knives from Japan are made out of many layers of steel welded together and manipulated by the blacksmith to make them look cool.

    Now that we've got that out of the way, how do they do it? You know what they say, “Different Strokes for Different Folks.” There are many ways to get this effect, so let’s take a closer look at a few different techniques.

    A lot of our blacksmiths will simply buy pre-layered steel. Considering how difficult their job is already, I don’t blame them! The  Masakage Kumo is hand forged by Katsushige Anryu-san using pre-laminated Damascus steel. Purchasing high-quality pre-laminated steel saves the blacksmith lots of time, so you can get something that looks truly stunning without breaking the bank. Take a look!

    After these knives are almost completed, Anryu uses a process called “acid etching” to really make the Damascus finish pop. Dunking the blades in a bath of ferric acid is what gives the steel that deep grey look, while the nickel used to layer the steel together stays silvery white. When you see one up close in person you see just how disarmingly beautiful they are. 

    Ken Kageura-san, a recently retired blacksmith from Shikoku island, took a bit more of a hands-on approach. He would hammer and cut seven pieces of steel from at least 2 sources, alternating materials in the stack, forge-weld them together with heat and hammering, draw and stretch this new piece out into a longer bar, gives it a Z-shaped fold like a pamphlet, welds THOSE pieces together, repeat this WHOLE PROCESS TWO MORE TIMES, takes all three folded up bars, stacks them up, and weld them together. Boom. 63 layer Damascus steel.

    Sounds easy, right? Well, it’s not. Simply writing down that whole process was exhausting. I need a break.

    If you thought it couldn’t get much more complicated than Kageura-san’s process, you thought wrong. Tsukasa Hinora-san takes things to the next level using an additional technique called “torsion”. First, he layers his own Damascus steel together like Kageura-san. That’s the easy part. He then welds this piece of Damascus steel to a piece of “Mono-Bar” (non-Damascus) piece of steel and puts it back into the forge. When the steel is nice and hot, he twists it. He twists it HARD. This gives the knife two different finishes on each face. The “river” “jumps” from one side of the knife to the other - hence the name, “River Jump”!

    He is the only blacksmith we have ever met who even attempts anything like this. Hinoura-san is actually recognized as a Traditional Craftsman by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as well as a Master Craftsman by the Niigata Prefectural Government. They may have boring sounding names, but these awards are actually an enormous deal. They’re only given to a select few who are truly at the top of their game.
    The man, the myth; Hinoura-san

    In recent years, several impressive blacksmiths have stepped on the scene, including Go Yoshizawa-san of Nigara Hamono. Yoshizawa-san is always dreaming up new ways to manipulate steel to form crazy, complex patterns to the point that we can't even begin to understand how he creates them. My folding, cutting, grinding, incorporating other metals, and a whole host of other techniques, he creates some truly wild blades that you can catch during our Spring and Fall 'Garage Sales'. Here's one of his crazier artworks, I honestly have no idea how he made this, but I love the subtle damascus pattern along the bevel:

    So. Damascus Steel knives. Better than non-Damascus Steel knives? Up to you. Personally, I think they look kickass. I agree with Hinora-san that a knife can be more than just a tool. It can be art. Just like a beautiful painting, sculpture, or car, a knife can appeal to you on more than just one level. If you just need a knife that can hold an edge and you don’t care what it looks like? Great! Grab a Tojiro DP. They’re amazing! But if you want something with a little bit more pizazz, Damascus steel might be the way to go - check out the  Masashi Shiroshu 240mm Kiritsuke, it’s my personal favourite. That said, there’s a whole world of these knives on the site, the fun part is finding one that suits your personal style. 

    Happy chopping!

       Owen Whitinger
    Owen Whitinger

    Owen is another ex-chef among our ranks. After Chef-ing in Edmonton for around 12 years, he gave it up to be a human being again! He moved out to manage the Vancouver shop in 2018 and never looked back. Later, nerds! He can almost definitely beat you in a game of Street Fighter. come chat with him about football, steel, and how we are, once again, living in a golden age of rap music!