Common Patterns Found in Damascus Steel
Damascus steel is a fascinating example of armament artistry — and a craft that has been mislabeled for hundreds of years. Its name owes to the Crusaders encountering it as they faced their Saracen foes, who wielded blades that displayed a greater strength, flexibility, and (most importantly for purposes of our discussion) beauty. These swords hailed from Syria in general and the city of Damascus in particular, and they derived their moniker from it. But did you know that the technique which gave us Damascus steel was also used in Japan, having migrated east during the 14th century?
No matter the niceties of its origin, knives made of Damascus steel are prized today for both their physical characteristics and their otherworldly designs. In this article, we’ll describe how Damascus steel gets made and the most common patterns that artisans work into it.
What Is Damascus Steel?
Have you ever sunk your teeth into a fresh croissant or bit into the rust of a hot-from-the-oven slice of genuine Chicago-style pizza? If so, you know that both dishes get their delicate, flaky feel from the lamination of butter into the dough, lots of extremely thin layers getting folded back onto each other again and again and again. That’s exactly what happens with Damascus steel.
How does it work? Originally, artisans in the Middle East would forge a specific kind of carbon-rich iron that originated in India in a crucible at varying heat levels, working it and reheating it time and again. This method required not only a very specific kind of metal, but also a careful eye toward avoiding higher temperatures, which would destroy the desired patterns. While some today use this method, most employ a process known as pattern wielding.
Pattern wielding starts with smiths stacking multiple layers of carbon-rich steel together. (Some kinds may also include trace amounts of nickel, silicon, manganese, sulfur, and phosphorous.) Next, the smith heats the forge fires to a lower than normal temperature, typically no higher that 2,000 °F. When making steel, most forges register closer to 3,000 °F, but today’s steel has a low carbon content, whereas Damascus steel contains up to 1.8 percent carbon. Hotter temperatures would cause that carbon to burn, destroying the desired effect.
As the iron heats and begins to burn, the smith adds borax or sand to it, creating a protective layer that prevents oxidation of the heated carbon. The layers are then hammered and folded before getting forged again. Every time this process transpires, the number of folds in the steel doubles, and the number of original layers used ranges from two to five. This rapid multiplication of layers followed by an acid-etching process causes the steel’s nickel content to take on a bright silver tone and its manganese content to darken. This leads to the distinctive patterns for which Damascus steel is renowned today.
Those patterns are the subject of our next section. By altering the steel-manipulation process in various ways, smiths can create distinctive patterns in Damascus steel.
What Are the Most Common Damascus Patterns?
Over time, specific variations have developed, recognizable variants that can be identified and requested if the smith follows certain methods. In this section, we’ll describe the seven most common Damascus steel patterns and how you achieve them.
Believe it or not, randomly folding the steel layers during the forging process creates a recognizable pattern. In fact, it’s the one that most people think of when they conceptualize Damascus steel. The pressures and heat inherent in the forging process create swirls and whorls and waves that look vaguely like an oil slick on water.
Like the names of most Damascus steel patterns, this category describes that the pattern looks like. Feather-style Damascus steel has a straight line down its middle from which curl feathery fronds. Smiths achieve this effect by welding together different pieces of Damascus steel and then stretching them. The weld forms what looks like a quill on a real-life feather.
Twist patterns produce regular striated ripples on the steel, and it’s not hard to understand how they’re made. During the forging process, the smith twists the metal at a particular angle and with a certain degree of force, which determines the final look of the steel. Sometimes this pattern is called the mosaic pattern.
One of the more striking Damascus patterns, ladder steel features parallel striated lines that run the length of the bar much like rungs on a ladder. Craftsman achieve this effect by pounding a second slimmer piece of steel into the original bar, then grinding it down. Many consider this one of the easier Damascus patterns to achieve.
Imagine a topographical map of an area stippled with lots of small hills, each ring revealing the rough height and depth of the surrounding countryside. That’s how raindrop-pattern Damascus steel looks. Its surface seems speckled by rings of alternating light and dark metal. The technique used in its creation is similar to that in the ladder pattern. Smiths press dimples into the hot steel and then grind it smooth once it cools.
The cable style looks somewhat similar to twisted Damascus, but it’s formed in a significantly different way. Rather than twisting piece of steel together while its hot, smiths cut cabled strips, heat them, and pound them until they’ve joined. This pattern requires careful attention by the smith so that it doesn’t unravel during the forging process.
Our final pattern is actually a subset of the twist pattern. However, instead of turning the steel, it gets cut into squares, stacked, forged, cut again, and then welded into a solid bar. This results in a regular, repeating spiderweb pattern all across the steel.
We have several different kinds of Damascus OTF available here at TacKnives. Check out our selection!