When it comes to knife steel, the options out there today are downright dizzying. From cheap and utilitarian but still serviceable steels to modern “super steels” that have no weaknesses beyond their incredible cost, there’s sure to be one out there that can fit any use requirement and any budget. But there are only a few kinds that are whispered about with awe and reverence. One of them is Damascus steel.
This legendary, quasi-mythical steel has the admiration of every knife aficionado that lives and, depending on who you talk to, for very good reason. But one thing is for sure: the stuff is spendy! Just why is Damascus steel so pricey?
Damascus steel is expensive because it’s a special steel formula that’s very labor-intensive to forge. The skill and time investment required to successfully create it means that legitimate Damascus steel always commands a high premium.
Damascus steel might not be the best on Earth any longer, but it is still an unmistakable and highly coveted variety, and one that discerning blade aficionados are willing to pay for.
And if you want the pride and pleasure of owning a Damascus steel knife, you’d better brace yourself for sticker shock. Keep reading and I’ll tell you more about this beguiling and beautiful steel.
“Damascus” steel is actually a unique type of steel characterized by its instantly recognizable, unique, and beautiful patterns.
This steel, Wootz steel, shows patterns of bands or swirls that are formed by microscopic depositions of carbides and other elements in a high-carbon composition, or else by pearlite and ferrite in a low-carbon composition.
Often said to resemble smoke, swirling water, teardrops, and other shapes, in ancient times it was considered to be the best steel in the world for swords and other bladed implements owing to its superb durability, flexibility, and edge retention. It was quite vulnerable to rust, though.
Today, it‘s predominantly enjoyed as a unique expression of the blacksmiths’ art and is recreated in its original or near-original form for all sorts of high-end functional and decorative works.
Yes, technically. Although the secrets to making Damascus (Wootz) steel were considered lost for a very long time, tapering off near the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, modern reproductions coming out of the United States, Scotland, England, India, and Russia have shown to be essentially identical in all important characteristics compared to the historical stuff.
This has been proven after careful analysis from such agencies and organizations as the Royal School of Mines, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and others.
Surprisingly enough, arriving at this point, or I should say arriving at it again, required considerable experimentation.
The historical record shows that, for whatever reason, the exact processes for producing Wootz steel, including the recipes for the correct additives at the correct time of the forging process, were lost concurrently as other, better steels emerged to take their place.
Whether this move away from this steel resulted directly from a breakdown in trade, the loss of access to various kinds of ore, or through the loss of expertise and lived experience is likewise unknown. It might have been a combination of factors.
What’s important is that this loss of knowledge and subsequent puzzling over the precise procedure to make it certainly lent Damascus steel a mystique in the modern era that drastically drove up the price, at least at first.
No. It’s still a dependable and high-performing steel, but doesn’t stack up favorably against modern alloys, and particularly these so-called super steels. M390, CPM-154, 10xx-series steels, and others will all offer dramatically better durability in terms of hardness and toughness, edge retention, sharpness, corrosion resistance, and more.
A Damascus steel knife can still be a wonderful tool and stack up quite favorably, but generally speaking, it’s no longer considered the absolute cream of the crop for working blades.
Still, you are just as likely to see a “Damascus” steel knife today that is made from these modern, high-performance steels, and will inherit their benefits.
This is because this type of steel often refers to a crafting technique rather than a specific type of steel these days- a quirk that has been around in the US since the late 20th century. See the next section for more info.
No. That swirly look you see in the metal of a Damascus blade is characteristic of, but not unique to, the type of steel that it historically was, specifically Wootz steel.
However, certain types of knifemaking processes, namely pattern welding, can produce a similar or near identical look! Referring to pattern welded steel as “Damascus” steel has been a common parlance in the United States since the early 70s.
You might see such a term used earnestly or somewhat cheekily, even disingenuously, to describe the steel, manufacture, or finish of a knife.
In any case, despite the confusing nature of the term, it doesn’t mean that a pattern welded or decoratively finished blade is inferior or not up to the same tasks as Wootz, but it must be pointed out that they aren’t the same thing.
That depends. If you want a knife or other blade made from a traditional, ancient steel that’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and can still put in good work today, Damascus is still a good choice. Likewise, if you want to support a bladesmith or manufacturer that works with it, by all means, go ahead.
But if you just want the best possible knife for the best possible price, or rather I should say a hard-working knife that can provide more value regardless of the aesthetics, genuine Damascus is not a good value.
It is tough and hard, holds a good edge, and is relatively easy to sharpen, but it does not exceed many modern steals in this category. It’s also highly prone to rust without constant maintenance, like every other high-carbon steel.
Contrary to the assertions of some, it’s a lot more than just a pretty blade…
There is no denying that it commands a significant premium for those good looks, even if those looks come by way of honest achievement in metallurgy rather than fancy finishing processes that just make it look cool.
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