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I get asked this kind of question a lot lately and I also hear things like, Jeez Damascus is a lost art, isn’t it? Or Damascus is sharper than ordinary steel and on and on. Well these are valid questions and can not be answered in a few words like yup sure is or nope it aint.The problem of a short answer is also due to, what is Damascus steel?
Many folks have heard the term Damascus, have heard of Japanese swords and have been subject to some misleading information along the way. I sometimes hear people say things like; Samurai Japanese swords are folded a million times and can cut machinegun barrels. Or how about the story of the blade that cut the anvil in half that made it. Or the Japanese sword that is so sharp that it will cut a leaf in half upon contacting the sword edge as it floats down the creek. And then there is the old falling silk scarf story. Hey Kevin Costner showed us that one in a movie, right.In a way, I hate to lift the veils of lore and let the bright rays of enlightenment shine in, but some of us are taking these things a little too serious, aren’t we? And yet we can’t help but wonder at times if just maybe there may be a very small glimmer of truth somewhere in one or more of these tails.In June of 2002 I held a Damascus symposium here at the shop and one of the featured speakers Dr. Sung Beck is a Grandmaster Swordsman.
He delighted us with his exquisite collection of Chinese and Japanese swords and also with his finely tuned wit and story telling abilities.His humorous stories had a point though, pun not intended, and gave us just a little insight as to what it was and is all about. His stories told us how to straighten a bent Japanese sword by banging it over a log or using a monkey wrench and how to pick out a good one for battle; they were truly enlightening and gave us all something to think about. Dr. Beck made many comments from his observations from his past training of cutting numerous things for practice with Chinese and Japanese swords over the years and some of them made perfect sense and others I will have to think about for a spell.OK, before we get rolling let’s start with just a smattering of background to pave the way. Damascus is a place in Syria and is where westerners first observed the famed swords of the Far East. Actually they were made in India from a steel called wootz and only discovered in the city of Damascus. Wootz steel is melted in small sealed clay crucibles from steel scraps and carbon bearing materials and after solidifying, were then forged at a very low heat into sword blades. Sword remnants tested for content were often found to contain a fair amount of sulfur and phosphorous.
It is believed that this made the cast ingots red short, difficult to forge and is very likely the governing secret to the success of Damascus blades. The higher heats that the European smiths were accustomed to, would have crumbled the steel and it also would not have produced the kind of steel that made them famous. Although the task of forging at such a low and narrow band of temperature was difficult, the first side-affect or benefit was tougher and springier steel with superior edge holding properties. The second benefit was the pattern formed by the ghosting of the dendrites which were formed during the slow initial cooling of the ingot. It was discovered recently by Al Pendray and Dr. John Verhoeven that the trace amounts of vanadium were responsible for forming the Damascus patterns because they aligned along the grain boundaries of the dendrites and due to forging at a reduced heat, retained the image throughout the forging process. Although it was the dendrite pattern that gave rise to the Damascening, they soon learned also how to enhance the patterns mechanically.
During this same time frame the Japanese were discovering the methods of producing fine steel blades from iron ore panned from the rivers. This panned ore was smelted in a wood coke furnace and the crude metal was broken up into pieces, forged flat and stacked into billets. These stacks were forge welded together and forged to length. Then it was folded first length wise and after welding and forging again folded sideways and welded again. This process was repeated from 8 to 16 times in order to refine the impurities out of the steel and to remove excess carbon. If you will get out your calculator, you will find that 16 folds will give you 65,536layers of steel if you start with one single layer, if you started with an 8 layer stack, 17 folds will give you 1,048,576 layers. How many layers would you get if you folded the steel one million times? Now this is assuming that you would have the time or, due to material loss from scaling, any thing left to work with.Now when the sword is forged out of this steel, all of the layers will be lined up and going in the same direction. Any flexing of the blade sideways will be stretching half of these layers and compressing the other half. For sure, this would be as strong and resilient as a modern day forged blade of solid non layered steel. In fact I think that it can be argued that the layered steel would be more resilient because any stress cracking may be stopped as it reaches the next layer. Flexing the sword blade up or down would be the same as any other homogenous blade as each layer is undergoing the same stresses.
Modern day Damascus or Pattern welded steel is manipulated in various ways to produce some very striking looking patterns. Many of these layers will be aligned in such an order as to produce a sound blade, but some of the layers will be running contrary to that which will produce a good blade. In other words some layers will weaken a blade because of an adverse alignment of weld lines. In such a blade, if you flex the blade sideways, the layers do not just stretch or compress, they could pull apart at the welds. A multi bar composite blade or a sanmai blade will have built in factors favorable to the strength of the blade if done in the right way.A many layered blade will likely have weld lines running across the edge and this will give the edge a micro serration edge. This edge will feel sharper than a homogenous blade and will out cut a conventional blade using a slicing motion. By folding the steel billet like a paper airplane, according to Dr. Beck, the Japanese could improve the swords cutting abilities on the tip’s first couple of inches. This is the working part, the rest of the blade is there to put the first two inches into proper reach. He also suggested that the sword could be made to cut either on a forward slice or on a rearward slice depending on the way the folds were made.When you boil it all down, cutting is a function of blade geometry, hardness, toughness, sharpness, micro edge serration and technique. Yes Damascus can be stronger, no it sometimes isn’t.
Yes Damascus does feel sharper and for many cutting tasks will out perform a conventional blade.It is interesting to note that Damascus swords and the Samurai swords had a parallel history a world apart from each other and both had an impact on the rest of the world. It is also interesting that both art forms were very nearly lost, indeed, one had to be reinvented. The modern day Damascus or (pattern welded blade) is a blend of both ancient arts and has taken on a life of its own. According to Dr. Verhoeven, pattern welding predates both of these technologies.Today’s patterns have transcended those of ancient times, but are they as battle worthy? I believe that many modern day smiths have the capability of producing a blade just as battle worthy as their ancient counterparts and better. And yes there likely are a some blades that although very beautiful will not stand up to battle conditions.
If art is truly, “form follows function”, then where does that leave some of today’s stunning looking blades? I would suggest that the really true art form is in both beauty and functionality.
Author: Lyle Brunckhorst