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Damascus Blades

Today is the fourth anniversary of Christopher’s death, and I wanted to commemorate it in an appropriate way.

For several years before he died, he had become very interested in “Damascene blades”, a form of steel used by the Saracens to make their scimitars. He went into far more technical detail than I was interested in, but apparently the steel was renowned for being both extremely sharp and also very tough. Normal carbon steel is either hard (hence sharp) but brittle, or tough and flexible but incapable of holding an edge. The ancient metalworkers in Damascus used an almost alchemical mixture of carbon steels to get the best of both worlds, and the resulting blades were beautiful, with exquisite patterns marking the boundaries between the grains. Christopher used to enjoy going round the armour sections in museums looking out for examples of these blades, which were sometimes also called “wootz steel”.

Unfortunately, the process by which they were made was lost, and modern metallurgists have been unable to recreate it. You can get something quite close to it though – Japanese Samurai swords have very similar properties of sharpness and toughness, and are made by a process called “pattern welding”. Bars of steel of different compositions are hammered together, folded, hammered again, folded again and the process repeated. The more folds, the higher quality the blade and the greater the skill of the craftsman. The process is often referred to as “modern Damascus blade technology”.

I don’t want a Samurai sword, but I did find an on-line supplier holding a clearance sale of kitchen knives with modern Damascus blades. I bought an 8″ chefs knife, with 67 folds in the blade, at over 60% off, which made it an entirely reasonable price. It arrived yesterday, and is a thing of beauty, with patterns in the blade that look like watered silk. Christopher would have loved it. It is phenomenally sharp though – I shall have to be extremely careful with it!

{ 1 } Comments

  1. David A | 15 August 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Both practical and aesthetic! I now have kitchen-knife envy 😉

    There’s a variant called sanmei where just the cutting edge is made of high carbon steel, and is sandwiched into the edges of a blade of softer steel, rather than folding the entire blade. It’s claimed that the Chinese invented these techniques (folding, inserted alloys, and differential hardening) which then travelled to Japan, Korea etc ( though I’ve not delved into the history…