Friday, December 5, 2014

Damacus Steel and Folded Steel. Relevant in Modern Times?

Have you ever wanted to know what separates wootz steel versus folded steel and modern mono-steel?  When bringing up the idea of Damascus steel and forge folded steel versus modern mono-steel swords, one can separate them based on a few parameters.

 First, true Damascus steel is also known as wootz steel.  This ancient and intricate art of forging higher quality blades has been lost.  The only true examples are in museums or private collections. The actual specific recipes on how to create authentic wootz steel is a subject of debate, however it is probable that it was produced using a crucible.

By default, properly made crucible steel is highly superior to regular smelted steel used during the 10th century.  The reason for this was that crucible steel had far less impurities known as slag, and their chemical composition helped to create a hard and malleable steel that had excellent properties for weapons such as edge retention, flexibility, shock absorption, and of course, the beautiful patterning of the steel.

Forge folded steel is another type of steel used in making swords and other weapons, where a billet of steel is folded on itself up to 15 times in order to squeeze out slag and impurities from the steel, as well as to serve a secondary function of aesthetics.

This picture on the right shows a sample of raw steel used in Japan, known as tamahagane or oroshigane.  Many of these raw steel ingots would be forged into more manageable pieces, then sorted according to carbon content.  Those with higher carbon content were forged into the outer jacket, while the lower carbon content pieces became the core of the sword.  This resulted in a sword that had high hardness on the outside and edge, while being malleable in the core.  They exhibited many of the same properties of wootz steel, and the Japanese sword smiths became famous for taking their sword making technology further by introducing differential clay hardening to their swords.  The photo below shows how the forge folded pattern looks on a Japanese nihonto after being polished.

Lastly we get to modern-made mono-steel swords.  Since steel was first created, technology and science vastly improved steel so that it could be of the highest quality and with specific chemical compositions for various properties.  Today, many sword and knife smiths are spoiled for choice when selecting steel types.  Steels can be made to have the highest performance from being through hardened or from differential hardening, etc.  They can be made to have high impact resistance, toughness, and hardness by changing the chemicals within the steel.  By scientific standards, modern steels are vastly superior to ancient or traditional steels used to make wootz and folded steel swords.  However there is a lack of aesthetics when compared to the intricate damascus patterning of wootz steel, or the carefully refined folding pattern of forge folded steel

On the right is a sword made by premier Western sword smith Peter Johnsson.   One can argue that this is perhaps one of the finest Western-style swords made in modern times that is also metallurgically far superior to its ancestor.  Mono-steel blades have no patterning on the surface after being polished and have a clean look.  They are also usually cheaper then their damascus and folded steel counterparts, due to the labor involved.

However, if three identical swords were to be made from authentic wootz steel, iron ore forge folded steel, and mono-steel, which would be the best?  The best answer would be that it's your choice.  You may prefer the patterning of wootz steel versus forge folded steel or vice-versa.  Perhaps you are looking for the highest performance sword and lower price where mono-steel would be your best bet.  There really is no right answer, as long as you have done your research on what type of sword you wish to purchase for the appropriate task you need to use it for.

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