Damascus Question

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Aug 25, 2008
So I'm looking at my "nothing better to do in the Winter knife project" list, and I found Damascus blanks at Smoky Mountain Knife pretty cheap. I've never worked with Damascus, is there anything I need to know? And what are the benefits of this material?
It's pretty and nothing more.

The problems are that you can be nearly finished finishing the blade and find that there's a void or delamination defect. Hours of work out the window.

You have to etch it if you want to bring up the pattern, but you don't want to etch it too much.
I've heard of some pretty cheesy blade blanks . . . .

coming from SMKW so if I were you I'd buy something that would look good as a letter opener in case its not up to being an actual knife. :scrutiny:
Ah, Damascus letter openers:


Most makers etch 5 minutes at a time but anymore I throw it in the ferric chloride for an hour - I like DEEP etches!

That one was made from the left over from this one:


I'm making a Small Skinner right now out of Devlin Thomas "Lizard Skin" - pretty neat stuff!
I am humbled by Valkmans skill. What are the handle scales on the one in the second picture?:eek:
In fact, now that I look again, what are the scales on the first one as well? Looks almost like marble.
That's "homemade" micarta-like stuff that a guy made and sent to me. Some guys make their own by layering denim or any kind of material, and each piece has to be covered in whatever epoxy they use. Then they use a press and let it dry and viola - handle material. :)

The second one is giraffe bone.

You can buy any kind of damascus you want, stainless or carbon steel (both of the above are Mike Norris stainless), and have someone like me make a knife out of it and get it heat treated and then finish it. Then you'll get the best stuff. On ebay there's a guy that sells tons of "Alabama Damacus" (I think it's called that) and it's carbon steel but good stuff - I've used it.
Are you sure about that...

Yes, I'm sure.

If you were in the 15thC or earlier damascus (or any of the composited steels from India, Japan and the Norse regions) would be better than what was being produced.

These days, it's just pretty, but that's not a bad thing.

For a using knife, stick with good quality carbon steel or the high tech corrosion resistant steels and leave the damascus to the decorative pieces.
I was under the impression that Damascus was a sort of carbon steel/iron laminate that had magical properties. Now that I think about it, nobody ever said what those properties were.

That said, I was also under the impression that the lamination ran through the whole thing, and it was just there. I did not know that etching/ acid etching was required.

If I have to do all of that, why couldn't I do it with a regular piece of carbon steel? Is there a benefit to damascus blanks, or is it a marketing ploy?
Some reading:

The "Damascus of legend": Wootz Steel
(quote taken from here):
"The damascus of legend was also known as Wootz or Bulat and was a very high carbon crucible tool lsteel. Bits of steel and iron and carbon are placed in a ceramic crucible and heated at very high temperatures until it all fused together. The high carbon content (usually above 2% - most steels used have less than 1% carbon) forms a lot of carbides, which precipitate out, forming lines on the surface of the steel. It is these lines of carbides that create the "watering" effect that damascus is so famous for."

"Damascus" today - Pattern Welded Steel:
(quote taken from here):
"What we call "damascus" today is really just pattern welded steel- smiths just weld together a few hundred layers of hard and soft steel and then etch in acid. The acid attacks the hard and soft steels at different rates resulting in a visible pattern on the steel that resembles the lines of carbides on Wootz. Neither Wootz nor pattern welded steels are anything magical though; the alternating layers of hard and soft impart a bit more flexibility and toughness to the steel than a solid homogeneous steel (see Damascus Steel mechanical properties), and the hard and soft in the edge act much like serrations and aid cutting, but it is still steel and will break if bent too far and cannot perform any fantastic feats of cutting."

Then there is also the "sandwich" style laminated steel:
(quoted from here):
"Some blades are made of laminated steel, in which a hard layer of is sandwiched between softer and tougher layers. This can be done with both stainless and carbon blades. It results in a blade that can be sharpened to a very fine razor edge, and yet is not brittle. It is also somewhat easier to sharpen, because much of the steel being removed is softer than it would be if the entire blade was hard. One disadvantage of laminated blades is that they will not resist bending as well as a solid blade of the same thickness. On the other hand, if they do bend they are far less likely to break."

Blofeld, when you grind a piece of Damascus it's very hard to tell from regular stainless or carbon steel - they all look the same at that point. Once you heat treat it and finish grind it then you etch it and the "look" comes out. Yes you can do it to carbon steel also - if if you heat treat and just do an edge quench you can get a cool hamon.

Hamon = temper line

There's nothing "magical" about pattern welded steel, these days. Prior to the development of manufacturing methods of producing consistent quality carbon steels it might have been, but it does, and always has, depended upon the skill of the smith to make a superior quality pattern welded steel.

A lousy smith will produce lousy pattern welded steel. An exceptional smith will produce very high quality steel. What's done with it after that determines if you end up with a lousy blade or an exceptional blade. That has to do with grind and heat treat.

So, you've just run smack into the disillusionment of "damascus" as some sort of magical steel. It ain't.

How do I know? I have dozens of pattern welded steel blades. Some are "magical" knives/swords and some are knife-like-objects with poor temper and lousy edge geometry. I have dozens of mono-steel blades. None of them are KLOs.
Okay, so the purpose of a hamon is to show where softer steel ends and the hardened begins. And I've seen alot of junk where the hamon is etched/ wire brushed on. Is there a way to tell if it was actually heat treated to produce a hardened edge, or if it is purely cosmetic?

And since I'm being bothersome with questions, is the laminated steel that was mentioned pretty much limited to Swedish Mora style knives? I haven't seen it used anywhere else, and thought it was a pretty novel idea, but the more I read, the more I'm leaning toward straight carbon steel.

And thanks guys. I've learned more here than I really expected. Now to save enough for one of Valkmans customs.:D
so the purpose of a hamon is to show where softer steel ends and the hardened begins

No, you've got that reversed. The hamon or temper line exists because of the differential heat treat. The fact that it can be seen is a result of polishing or etching that reveals it. Some makers want it to show and others don't care.

If you can see the temper line then you'll be paying bigger bucks because the maker had to go to considerable effort to differentially heat treat the blade. If the knife is inexpensive, under $100 for even a small knife, the bet is that you're looking at a sham.

The Japanese used laminated steel construction, san mai, on some of what they made/make.
Yes you can determine if a Hamon is genuine or fake

but do not do this to valuable blades.
Get an awl or very hard sharp instrument.
Scratch a line across the Hamon and if you can see diferent depths to the scratch on either side then it is real. If there is no diference then the steel is the same hardness on either side and the Hamon is false.
A good way to spot a fake hamon is to look at how even it is. The fake ones almost always use a general pattern that is perfectly shaped. You can also look for the wire brush marks or if it isn't a perfectly even pattern you could look for some repetition in the pattern that show you a guide was used.

This website does a good job of explaining it. Cheness makes entry level blades, some have real hamons, most are fake.

A real hamon

And a few fake hamons, the first two are wire brushed. The third is a better style of fake hamon, but still fake.
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