What is Damascus steel? The term has several meanings, but for cookware, modern Damascus steel is a type of layered material that’s simultaneously sharp, hard, and flexible. These are all valuable traits in kitchenware, especially when frequent high-speed work can dull knives and make them hard or even unsafe to use.
I’ve evaluated many knives in the kitchen, but I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about Damascus steel. Today, I’d like to correct some misunderstandings and talk about things like its history, what to look for, and what modern Damascus steel is all about.
Damascus Steel History
The metal we use today, modern Damascus steel, isn’t the same thing as the original metal that the name comes from.
“Real” Damascus uses Wootz steel, a type of crucible alloy made from smelting iron and wood chips that added carbon. The alloy usually had about 1% carbon, though it could go higher, making it very high-carbon even by modern standards.
We roughly know the process for making Wootz steel today, which includes sealing it with wood chips in an airtight container. But the original technique was a closely guarded secret meaning the exact method used has been lost with time.
Many scholars believe that genuine Damascus steel has certain trace elements from the original iron ore that provide a specific balance to create better blades.
Blacksmiths across the Ancient World all had different techniques when it came to forging blades with a laminated pattern, these include Japanese tamahagane and Viking steel. In common with Damascus steel, the pattern wasn’t the important aspect as it was the toughness and cutting edge that mattered.
The old types of Damascus steel have some of the same characteristics of modern-day blades, including sections that are sharp and brittle or softer and tougher. Layering these sections together results in blades with all of the good properties and minimized negative properties, making them fundamentally superior to regular steel, much less iron or bronze blades.
The name itself likely comes from how Damascus blades and other equipment were made and sold in Damascus, currently located in Syria. The ore itself came in ingots from India, though.
Some people prefer referring to it as Wootz steel to distinguish it from other metal items made and sold in Damascus. Many people also object to calling modern steel Damascus because it has different properties than the original blades, even if the surface pattern is similar.
Damascus is also known in many languages as “water steel,” thanks to the ripple-like patterns on the blades.
How Is Damascus Steel Made?
Today, Damascus steel is made with several processes.
The worst process is etching, which creates a ripple-like pattern on kitchenware. This is a cosmetic technique that doesn’t improve the actual knife, so I don’t think it’s worth looking at. However, it can be hard to tell if a blade is just etched or has solid ripples throughout, so amateurs often get fooled into thinking etched steel is real Damascus.
Yet, beware, Damascus steel made by other techniques can be etched to reveal the layers. This is fine as the etching isn’t creating the pattern which is already in the knife itself.
A modern Damascus process, involves mixing iron and steel with charcoal under an oxygen-reducing environment. This believed to be as close to the original process as possible.
The steel is then folded together in layers–creating the signature wavy patterns and increased strength.
This technique has several versions, even today, and you can see a Japanese version in this video:
The other modern technique is known as pattern-welding. This also uses high-quality steel and iron, but instead of mixing the ores in a sealed environment, they’re hammered together at high temperatures to weld the metals together throughout the body.
Pattern welding gives the appearance of Damascus, but the primary quality of Damascus comes more from the steel than the forging process. Bad metal still produces bad blades, no matter how fancy you make it look.
Some companies take things a step further by trying to create advanced alloys for smelting or pattern welding. Creating these usually involves testing different ratios of trace elements, which in this context means anything besides iron and carbon atoms.
We often call trace elements “impurities,” implying they are undesirable, but in metallurgy, small additions of certain elements can modify the properties of the metal in certain ways. If done right, this can increase strength and durability.
One of the most popular elements to add is vanadium. This element can increase the strength, toughness and wear resistance of a blade.
Molybdenum is a frequent modern alternative. This element tends to add hardness, toughness, and resistance to corrosion when it’s present at 1% or below.
Chromium is an element often added in much greater quantities. Steel that’s 13% Chromium or more becomes stainless steel, which exhibits outstanding corrosion resistance and serves as the heart of many modern tools.
Modern metallurgists often include several different elements, in addition to carbon and iron, when making a steel alloy, then pattern-weld various alloys to create a Damascus-like blade.
The Rockwell Scale
A key attribute for understanding the quality of Damascus steel is the Rockwell Scale. This is a widely-used rating for kitchen knives and other materials that indicates their overall toughness. Note that higher is not inherently better. Some people prefer the feel of softer blades, so you shouldn’t buy something based exclusively on this rating.
Regular knives tend to fall in the 54-56 range on this scale. Premium kitchen knives can go as high as 66, which is noticeably tougher. Carbon steel can go up to 68, but most people don’t want to go that high because metal above 64 on this scale is too brittle for most uses and prone to cracking. Hardness is not the same thing as toughness in a knife.
Genuine Damascus steel from the past is usually 62-64 on the Rockwell scale, which is excellent performance. Modern versions of this steel are probably 58-60, which is still appropriate for most kitchen needs. Anything below 52 on the Rockwell scale is too soft for a kitchen knife, so you probably won’t even see those on shelves.
Modern Damascus Steel
Typically, modern Damascus steel uses either the forging or pattern welding processes described above. Both of these produce viable blades for the kitchen, and they’re primarily the result of ongoing attempts to replicate the original high-quality blades.
There is a third, less common, type of truly modern Damascus steel called “layer powder metallurgy.” This takes some of the principles behind Damascus steel and applies modern science to them.
Finally, etching a wavy pattern onto a blade is decorative and not true Damascus Steel. It’s just made to “look” nice.
This isn’t to be confused with the etching that is done to reveal the pattern of folds. If the pattern is etched on it is decorative, if etching is applied to reveal it, it is functional.
It’s worth noting here that Damascus steel isn’t necessarily the best option these days. The blades were exceptional for their time, but some modern options and alloys outperform Damascus. That doesn’t make Damascus a poor choice in the kitchen, but I want to dispel the mystique that it’s always going to be the best choice. That’s not true.
Layering has a significant effect on modern Damascus steel. In most cases, having more layers is better, though it’s possible to go overboard and get so many layers that they’re functionally indistinguishable from each other.
This type of Damascus steel mixes ingots of different characteristics to get a pattern weld, then folds it over to spread the characteristics throughout the knife better. A blade with several hundred layers is usually good enough for modern cooking.
Advantages Of Damascus Steel
The Damascus steel process has several advantages in modern kitchens. For clarity, most of these are well into the “optional” category for cookware rather than anything you absolutely need.
Damascus steel, both original and modern recreations, has a distinctive wave or ripple pattern. Most people claim, and I agree, that this makes a knife look better and more interesting than having a single solid color along the entire length of the blade.
Aesthetics matter in professional cooking, but they can also influence you at home. We like things that are fresh and new, but we dislike things that seem old or worn out. Top chefs don’t want to work in a cramped, dirty kitchen with a set of half-broken tools unless they have to.
Damascus steel also tends to look nice when the knives are hung up or attached to a magnetic board rather than hidden in a cutting block.
Here, I’d like to point out the distinction between laser-etching and true modern Damascus. Many knives sold as Damascus these days are purely aesthetic, with a surface-level treatment that creates a wave blade pattern. They’re functionally no different than a regular knife, so aesthetics is the only thing setting them apart.
Almost any sort of knife can have a pattern like this, including high-quality carbon steel.
Modern Damascus knives maintain this aesthetic but have genuine layers that give the knife different characteristics. This is harder to find but worth pursuing if you want anything besides a nice look for your knife.
The best bet for corrosion resistance is stainless steel. This is chemically formulated to include chromium thereby reducing the likelihood of rust.
Some manufacturers claim that their Damascus blades have a higher corrosion resistance. Since the blade itself has layers, any corrosion has to work through different materials instead of penetrating through one material.
Chemically I don’t believe these layers affect corrosion but, however Damascus stainless steel blades will have higher corrosion resistance than carbon steel which lacks chromium.
Some Damascus steel knives have an outer stainless layer which helps protect the blade from rusting.
On the other hand carbon steel blades can develop a patina which appears to protect the steel. The patina is dark blue / grey and is a type of corrosion, but with a different chemical formula to rust. If you see red or orange spots-that’s rust.
Quality Damascus blades tend to stay sharp for a long time. They certainly outperform regular steel, especially when the pattern welding extends down to the edge itself. This isn’t a minor consideration because sharpness is a significant factor in the kitchen.
Sharp blades cut faster and easier than dull ones. That puts less stress on the chef and makes it possible to make more meals in less time. Home cooks don’t need to worry about this quite as much, but it’s still a good idea to sharpen your knives at least once a year.
If you do sharpen a quality kitchen knife, consider either sending it off to a professional sharpening service, or investing in an oil stone. When sharpening yourself it’s important to select the correct angle.
What To Look For In Damascus Steel Knives
The primary things to look for if you want to buy Damascus steel knives are the metal content and the forging process. Remember, many knives sold as “Damascus” these days only have an etched surface. They’re just regular knives modified to look better and give you the impression that they’re somehow harder, sharper, or more durable than they are.
Avoid knives like those unless you’re buying them as decorations, in which case they’re a cheap way to get an attractive blade.
If the pattern goes through the blade and it’s not merely etched onto the surface, you’ve found an actual modern Damascus knife. These are especially useful if you want a knife that’s just a little softer and more durable than carbon steel. If it’s stainless Damascus then it comes complete with better corrosion resistance for working in wetter environments.
You now know far more about Damascus steel, and especially how it affects kitchen knives. We’ve discussed the history of the metal, how chemical composition affects things, forging techniques, and even some processes that create “fake” (albeit attractive) Damascus steel.
What I hope you learn from all of this is that it’s important to pay attention to the details when you’re buying kitchen knives. The forging process has a huge effect on the overall quality of a knife. Different people enjoy different things, so if you just want a cheap but attractive knife, that’s fine. Don’t hesitate to investigate a blade if you’re looking for quality or specific characteristics.
If you haven’t tried a high-quality knife lately, go look for a true modern Damascus steel blade today and try it out in your kitchen. You might be surprised by how much better it cuts.