Damascus Steel - A Brief History

By Motoyasu. Edited by WarAngel

The following is a very brief outline of damascus throughout history. I've glossed over many aspects and the dates are only approximate, but it should give you a general view of the manufacture of steel for weapons through history.

Pattern-welded blades date from near the earliest days when steel was first discovered. At that time, the technology did not exist to create homogeneous steel, only case steel - by baking iron in charcoal. Thus, smiths had to combine steels and weld them together. Early smiths learned to combine steels and iron in various artistic patterns and this reached its zenith under the Vikings, who forged elaborate patterns in their blades as early as 500 A.D.

Around the same time in India, the technology for making Wootz was developed. Wootz is the "true" damascus, but this technology tended to be confined to India, including parts of China and the Middle East.

By about 1000 AD, a form of this technology made its way up via the Moors to Spain - this technology allowed the Spanish smiths to create small amounts of smelted steel, which vastly improved the quality of their blades (this is the origin of the reputation of Spain, and the city of Toledo in particular, for manufacture of high quality blades). As this technology spread, smiths found that the homogeneous smelted steel was far superior to the folded case steels they were working with before and pattern welding in the West fell into disuse until around the time of the Crusades, when the knights brought back Wootz blades, and the smiths began pattern welding again to duplicate the appearance of the watering patterns found on Wootz damascus blades.

From that point on, we tend to call any material with a pattern on the surface "damascus".

In Japan, around 600 A.D., smelting technology was introduced from China and Korea, but instead of small pure batches of steel like the Spanish made, the Japanese went for mass-production and made large blocks of steel in their smelters which, at the peak of production, could reach several tons! (In fact, there are still many such blocks left in Japan from hundreds of years ago - they were just too big to break up afterwards, so they were just abandoned). Now when you make a chunk of steel that large, you can't avoid impurities, so they had to maintain the practice of welding and folding steel together. However they went much farther than the Western smiths did. They folded so many times that all the impurities were driven out of the steel and the carbon became as evenly distributed as modern steels we have today.

In the 1600s, Western steel and technology for smelting steel became available to the Japanese through the Dutch and Portuguese traders. However, due to tradition, the Japanese never adopted the new technology but continued in their age-old methods, and this continued up until the mid 1800s when Commodore Perry opened up Japan to the West, and Japan was forced to modernize. Thus, the Samurai class was abolished, and conscripted military forces were formed. the swords these soldiers used were machine made, of Western steel and in Western style. This continued until the beginning of World War II, when a wave of nationalism brought the Japanese back to more traditional designs and methods of manufacture. Many swords for World War II were still made of Western steel or other non-traditional steel, but there were many smiths who went back to traditional methods and made their swords out of traditionally smelted steel provided by the Army.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Motoyasu - also known as Christopher Lau - is a professional Japanese sword polisher (experienced in both togi and kantei) and is the HSG's technical backbone on Japanese swords and metallurgy. He is also a visitor on SWORD FORUM - our online discussion board.