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Are Damascus Steel Swords Any Good?

Posted by Ivan Jankovic on

It doesn’t matter if you have been collecting swords for the past decade or you just started, there is a good chance that you have seen the Damascus makes and models on the market. These swords are known for their beauty, but most individuals and collectors are hesitant about investing in these models because they don’t really know if they are functional or just decorative. Well, they sure do look beautiful and are modeled after some of the famous styles in history. However, if you were going to invest your hard earned money in any sword, you would be smart to ask this question. That being said, in order to completely understand the Damascus Steel Sword, you need to understand Damascus steel.

What You Really Need To Know About Damascus Steel

damascus steel billet

The theory behind a Damascus steel sword is somewhat simple, as it basically was just the joining of two or more steel alloys. While they can be forged and cast together utilizing different methods and techniques, they are usually equipped with some kind of artistic pattern. This pattern comes from what is known as the layering process and this is one of the things that truly make them so attractive and eye-catching. It is true that these techniques have been lost and somewhat forgotten about, but they are still popular all over the world. In fact, the techniques have been so long forgotten about that just about no modern sword maker utilizes them today.

If you come across a vendor or manufacture claiming that they make authentic Damascus steel swords, there is a very good chance that they are just blowing smoke. Almost 100 percent of the layered and forged steel today comes from san-mai or pattern welded techniques. San-mai steel design will be extremely common on Japanese swords and the process involves sandwiching three different sheets of steel. Two softer outer stainless plates of steel are used to sandwich a harder carbon steel core. During this process, there is no folding done, as the main goal is for the steel to settle hard.

The other type of patterning steel alloys found in today’s time is the pattern welded. Pattern welded is often times also referred to as Damascus steel. While this art form has all but died out in today’s time, it did resurface in 1973. The works mostly presented themselves in knives rather than swords.

What Are Damascus Steel Blades Used For?

Damascus Steel Uses

Most people are mesmerized by the outstanding looks of the Damascus steel blades and want to know right away what they are used for. Most people make the assumption right away that they are only for decorative purposes, but is this really so? The truth of the matter is that choosing your steel for a Damascus blade can play a role in what it is used for. Most manufacturers will choose anywhere between two to five alloys that work well together. Once the blade is formed and ground into shape, the waves of the alloys will be formed together at the edge to change the cutting performance. Manufacturers do this by tweaking the alloy during the tempering process.

For instance, some expert makers will utilize AEB-L with 304. While AEB-L is a much stronger alloy, it will be watered by some of the softer qualities of the 304. However, when these two alloys are fused together with other alloys at the edge of the blade it can really change the serration surface, which will aid in sawing and slice actions. While sawing might not be that important for a sword, the slicing action certainly is. Owning a true Damascus steel sword is really all about the beauty and appreciation of the process. The true craftsmanship and hard work that went into the creation of such a beautiful product really needs to be appreciated.

All that being said, there is no mistake that Damascus blades will stay much sharper when compared to other blades. However, if you are looking for the best possible performance on the market, you might be better off to look elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that these swords are functional and can’t be used for a variety of different tasks. It just really depends on what you are going to use them for and what you expect to get out of them at the end of the day.

Experts Say That Damascus Steel Is Just Hype

It is hard to deny that Damascus steel isn’t beautiful, but when it comes to performance and longevity most experts say that there is a lot of hype surrounding the subject. This is probably due to the fact that the manufacturers and sellers boast about the different layers that went into the creation of the blade. Sure, there might be tons of different layers that went into the creation, but this all has to do with the pattern design, not with the durability. This is something that confuses most beginners. If you are looking for a functional or battle ready sword, the Damascus steel would probably be the very worst option that you have available to you.

This doesn’t mean that the Damascus steel design doesn’t hold some unique and distinctive qualities that cannot be matched by anything else on the market.

Know The Difference Between Pattern Welded And Folded Blades

Pattern Welding

As you learned about there are two different techniques and methods that are utilized to create a Damascus steel design. These are the pattern welded and the folded blade techniques. While these two styles are somewhat similar, the end result can be seen in spades. Pattern welding was a technique that was first developed by the Celts and later utilized by the Vikings. It was something that had to do in order to make their weapons effective. Back in these times, steel didn’t contain the solid properties that it does today, as it was filled with impurities.
In order for these two civilizations to reduce the chances of their blade failing, they had to twist bars of steel together and beat them out with a hammer. Once they did this they folded the mixture, which evenly distributed the steel and minimized the chances of impurities. They were not only left with a practical blade, but the quality and appearance were quite beautiful. Folded blades are virtually created in the same manner, but each fold is doubled for the number of layers of steel that is utilized. It might not seem like it, but this technique really provides you with a much different outcome.

Understanding The Japanese Steel (Tamahagane)

If you are in the market for an ancient Japanese sword you are probably going to opt for the katana. Well, what you need to know is that most folded katana blades on the market today are created in an attempt to replicate the Tamahagane steel. Just like the Vikings and the Celts the Japanese sword makers had to deal with impure steel. This means that they also had to hold their steel times in order to work out the impurities and reduce the chances of creating an ineffective product. However, the Japanese perfected their craft in a different matter.

The Japanese creators didn’t like all the showy, swirly designs. They thought that the pattern was best appreciated if it was extremely subtle and only visible through a close-up inspection. Even though modern steel doesn’t contain the impurities that it once did, most katana blades on the market are still created in this manner. They utilize these techniques just to preserve the actual craft.
Unfortunately, this is where most sword buyers and beginners become confused. If you are investing in a katana for functional purposes, you need to completely understand that folded the blade does absolutely nothing to improve the durability or cutting power. In fact, it doesn’t help improve anything when it comes to functionality. It pretty much ruins it!

Why Is Folded Steel Such A Problem?

Most experts will tell you that the process of folding steel in today’s world does not need and absolutely worthless. Sure, it might have been an ancient practice at one time, but steel today just doesn’t contain the impurities that it once did, so the process is unnecessary. However, the real problem comes with the folding of the steel. If not properly perform the process could result in a bad weld, air pocket, and differentials in grain sizes. It takes a true expert craftsman to pull off this technique.

Differences In Carbon Steel And Damascus Steel

Many people who are not familiar with the different types of steel utilized in the construction of swords believe they are all made equal. This is a huge misconception because each type of steel is created utilizing different steels, resulting in different levels of durability. For example, Damascus steel is not really steel, even though it is classified as steel. In fact, it is created utilizing two types of steels, such as stainless and carbon. However, Damascus can also be created from a type of steel and a non-steel metal. So, Damascus is not really steel, but this says nothing about its durability.

Determining which steel is more durable is extremely difficult, if not impossible. One of the most common mistakes consumers make when investing in a sword is putting too much of their focus on the steel. When investing in a sword, there are several things that you should ask yourself. These questions include:

  • Are you looking for wear resistance?
  • Are you looking for toughness?
  • Are you looking for strength?
  • Are you looking for edge holding?
  • Are you looking for stain resistance?

If you are looking for a sword that is capable of withstanding abrasions, then you will need to invest in one with a steel construction that is wearing resistance. What makes steel wear resistance are its carbides - the type, amount and distribution.
Strength, on the other hand, is determined by the hardness of the steel matrix, which is measured on the Rockwell scale. However, just because the steel measures low on the Rockwell scale does not necessarily mean that it will not be resistant to wear. For example, weaker, softer steel measuring low on the Rockwell scale can have a higher resistance to wear that harder steel.

In order for a sword to be considered “tough”, it must be able to withstand impact, such as cracking and chipping. Some manufacturers will make a tradeoff of toughness versus strength. A general rule to remember is the harder the steel, the stronger the steel, resulting in reduced toughness.

It only makes common sense an aesthetically pleasing sword to be able to resist stains, such as corrosion. Stainless steels are most often affected by chromium that is not tied up in carbides, which is known as free chromium. Basically, this means that the less free chromium, the more chromium that is tied up in carbides, which results in less stain resistance and more wear resistance.

It is crucial to not mistake edge holding for wear resistance because these are two different qualities. Edge holding is actually a function of strength, toughness and wears resistance. Edge holding is the blade’s ability to hold an edge. Wear resistance comes into play when the sword is exposed to abrasive materials, which can cause corrosion.

What Determines How Well Steel Performs?

There are several factors that determine how well steel performs. These factors include the manufacturing process, edge toothiness and the ability to take an edge. For example, fine-grained steels are capable of taking an edge quicker than coarse-grained steel. The sharpness of the edge will definitely determine performance. Some manufacturers will utilize vanadium to achieve fine-grained steel.

The type of process utilized can also affect the performance of the sword. The purer and cleaner the steel, the better it will perform and the tougher and stronger it will be. While one manufacturer will utilize the Argon/Oxygen/Decarburization or AOD process, another manufacturer will utilize the Vacuum Induction Melting/Vacuum Arc Remelting or VIM/VAR process. While both of these processes achieve pure steel, the VIM/VAR process achieves the more pure steel.
Before investing in a sword, you should view the specifications very carefully. If you do not find the type of steel utilized in the construction, you should consider contacting the manufacturer directly.

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