The fairytale-like name of “damascus” steel most likely goes back to the time of first Crusades, when, for the first time, European knights came into contact with oriental artisans that had been forging metals in those cities for an immeasurable amount of time. We can imagine that such a technique evolved from the blacksmith traditions of an ancient people, the Hittite, who are considered the discoverers of iron. With the first iron blades they were able to bring down the millennial Egyptian empire, which knew only bronze arms. Nevertheless, even before the Crusades, Europe could also boast about one of its own steel traditions called “packaging” or “multi-layer”. In fact many swords that were used by the numerous populations called “barbarians” were forged using this particular type of steel. Archaeological finds show damascus steel weapons in both the Germanic and Celtic populations, as well as the populations that settled in central Europe as early as the second century A.D. It is not so strange then to add the damascus technique to the causes that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire, a factor that is not shown in history books. The Lombard swords, called “spatha”, were tougher, sharper, and more resistant than the “gladi” that were used in battle by the Legions of Rome. And so, the damascus technique is extremely difficult and also rich in secrets of the craft that have been passed down orally for generations. This secrecy meant that in the face of serious historical upheavals, the art form was forgotten, such as what happened during the Middle Ages. Only to be rediscovered around the 12th century when as we have said the Crusaders brought it back to Europe, along with an enormous amount of ancient knowledge gathered, from their expeditions to the Holy Land. But what exactly was so extraordinary about this material? How was it able to render weapons in common steel obsolete? To understand this, we must first take a look at its technology.
Damascus Steel: Technology and Decoration
“Damascus” steel, or more specifically “packaging”, is prepare by starting with a few steel sheets with different degrees of hardness. The sheets get placed on top of one another, alternating between layers of softer and more resistant metals and other very hard, but brittle layers. Damascus steel is therefore a synthesis of two opposites — hard and soft. The blade that is achieved with this technique therefore offers the characteristics of both a soft and a hard metal: the high resistance to breakage of a soft metal and the reliability of a harder metal. That is why the Lombard “spatha” would split, weaken, or break the Roman “gladi”, which was also inadequate at penetrating shields or armour made of damascus. The synthesis of these opposites is of Masterpiece quality, something that elevates the work above its mere functional considerations. In fact, over the centuries, the science of metallurgy has been able to produce single-component alloy steels with better performance that are much superior to those of ancient damascus steel, but this boost in functionality has not caused a loss in its aesthetic appeal. Particularly in the last decade, forgers and artisans have engaged themselves in a competition to search for more elegant and refined decorative effects. Starting with traditional iron and steel, layers of other metals are interspersed, creating a wider range and different shades of colours under the final affect of acidity or other chemical treatments. Something that is exceptionally interesting aesthetically is when damascus is produced using more than one type of stainless steel, creating an elegant chromatic and volumetric contrast. The most recent experiments concerning damascus created with various layers of titanium alloys are capable, by means of thermal treatments, of producing a metal with a rainbow colours. The American blacksmiths Tom Ferry, Bill Cottrell and Chuck Bybee have developed this technique have called the new compound “Timascus©”. This material is being used by the best knife makers, above all for blade accessories such as cheek pads, folders and guards. Walter Fornasier has developed his own technique to produce titanium damascus, different from that of Ferry, Cottrell, and Bybee.
Note 1 - Boiling forging is a metal welding technique that is done by bringing together the pieces that need to be united in tight contact at a temperature of 1300 degrees, at which point metal takes on the so called “welding white” colour. At this temperature, the pieces are subjected to homogeneous hammering, which means that the surfaces that are in a “pasty” or semi-liquid state are joined together permanently. Note 2 - “Billet” means a slice of metal rod that is to be subjected to forging operations.