Damascus steel first existed more than 2000 years ago in medieval western cultures. It was attractive and mysterious and named after the city of Damascus. The original Damascus steel resulted from casting wootz steel, while today, it’s made by pattern welding several steel types together.
The metalworkers combine pure metals to their preference and need to produce Damascus steel with varying patterns. The process is a combination of chemistry and metallurgy to form a tough and very durable steel mixture. The forge-weld pieces form billets.
The good thing is the process of making a modern Damascus knife is known, and you can try it at home. But Damascus steel is challenging to forge, and you require tons of patience. Below is all you need to know to make a Damascus steel blade.
What You Need To Make Damascus Steel
- Two or more high carbon steels, for example, a 1095 and 15n20, will suffice.
- Flux(borax from the local store)
- Long scrap rod to be welded onto billet to form a temporal handle
- Wood for handle
- Brass pins
- Oil finish for the handle
- Quenching oil
- Ferric chloride
- Protective wear
- Anvil or any hard and flat surface
- Welder or simply a wire to wrap the steels together before forge-welding
- Belt grinder/files
- Oven for tempering
- Drill/ drill presses
The Process of Making Damascus Steel
The process involves forge-welding several steel types to form billets. The billets are then folded to create a multi-layered sandwich-like steel block. The layers ensure the steel gets a solid density for strength and durability. This process of making Damascus steel is known as pattern welding. The process is as follows:
- Clean your steel bars thoroughly to remove all the oxidation from all sides
- Put on your protective gear; the process involves hot steel and lots of noise. Protect your body accordingly using welding goggles, leather gloves, and cotton clothing.
- Cut the steel bars into desired dimensions. Remember, the big cuttings are hard to form with a hammer. Hence cut reasonably sized pieces, 0.5″x 3″ works fine. Cut 5 to 7 pieces.
- Suppose you have a welder, tack weld the layered steel bars to form one steel bar. Alternatively, use a wire to stack the layers together firmly. You can weld a temporal handle or use a tong to lift the steel while forging.
- Preheat your forge, and put it in your billet. Heat the billet to a cherry-red color, remove it from the forge and sprinkle the borax on the billet. Let the borax melt and cover the whole surface and spaces between the layers. Borax prevents oxidation and dissolves scales on the layers, resulting in a clean forge-weld. It also keeps oxygen away from interfering with the forging process.
- Put the billet back in the forge and repeat the borax application several times. Brush off any scales that form. Repeat until the billet can’t take any more borax.
- Replace the billet into the forge and heat to forge-welding temperature, around 1,5000F to 2,0000F. The color of the billet should be a very bright orange-yellow.
- Set your tongs, hammer, and working area ready for the forge-welding process. You have around 9 seconds until the billet loses heat to below welding temperatures. Put the hot billet on the anvil and quickly strike light hammer blows evenly on the billet’s whole surface. This hitting sets the initial weld.
- Repeat the forge-welding process while varying blows from moderate to hard. Be sure to strike fast while the billet is still at peak welding temperatures.
- It’s time to fold the billet to increase the layer count. Roughly hammer the billet to lengthen, spread it to twice its size, and precisely half cut it into equal halves using a hot-cut chisel or other available methods. Bend the billet along with the half-cut center point, and gently hammer-tap it to align the two sides well. Repeat the forge-welding process. Then repeat the folding process to achieve your desired layer count. Remember, every fold doubles the initial layer count. Four folds will have enough layers to form a lovely pattern. If you had an initial seven layers, the total layers after four folds are 102.
- Once satisfied with the layer count, reheat the billet to forge-welding temperatures and twist it on a vice to an octagonal or circular shape. Then forge it back to a rectangular billet. Note: cutting off the corners makes the folding process easy.
- Cool the now rectangular billet off, and grind one side slightly to check if the billet is homogenous. When the forging process is done below the recommended temperatures the layers may tear apart, otherwise called delamination. And delamination may mean the process has to start all over again.
- Forge the billet into your preferred knife profile. Be as accurate as possible in forging the shape and angles for an easy time grinding and doing finishes.
- Grind the profile to a fine finish. Grind some more and file to the most refined finish possible.
- Sand the finished profile on high grit and drill holes for pinning the handle.
- Normalize the blade ready for heat-treating. Normalizing involves heating the blade until it loses magnetism and then air-cooling it. Keep a magnet around to ensure you get the normalizing temperatures right. Normalize 3-5 times to release all the pressure built on the blade while forging and twisting. A well-normalized blade won’t warp during heat treatment.
- Heat treatment/quenching: Put your quenching oil (regular vegetable oil will suffice) in a trough and warm it. A simple way to warm the oil is by throwing in red-hot scrap metal. Heat your blade to critical temperature and quench it in the warm oil, edge-first. Gently move the blade in stirring motions to quench it evenly. Caution: Don’t use water in place of oil to quench your blade. Water cools the high carbon steel too quickly, resulting in cracks. The quenched blade is very brittle, and a drop may end your hard work in tears, hold it with care like a piece of glass!
- Carefully place the treated blade in an oven for tampering. The process involves using heat to soften the blade slightly to increase durability and strength. Set the oven temperature to 4000F, heat the knife for 2 hours, and then let it air cool.
- Etching: Dilute the Ferric Chloride as directed on the container, and then insert your blade into the solution for the specified time; 3-5 minutes gives excellent results. If you did the process right, the results here would be reward enough.
- Attach a handle to your knife, and sharpen using your preferred tool; a whetstone is just fine. After a thorough cleaning, your Damascus steel knife is ready for business.
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Damascus steel has distinctive watery or wavy patterns of different shades. It’s beautiful to look at but very hard and with a good edge retention ability. Though the actual process of making it is unknown, forging modern Damascus steel involves pattern welding several steel types.
Forging Damascus steel at home is possible but under a lot of care and patience. The results are a unique blade with artistic patterns. Damascus steel handles basic cutting excellently and is popular in making chef knives meant to take severe beatings. Producing Damascus steel is an excellent way to take your knife-forging hobby a notch higher.