Quality Damascus knives can cost well over 500 dollars. The signature swirl pattern comes from layering two different alloys and folding them over each other, sometimes resulting in thousands of layers. This can take master smiths several days and that intense labor accounts for much of the final price.
In a Damascus knife, Master bladesmiths twist a fusion of steels to make one of its trademark swirl patterns. But these unique swirls are more than just decorative. Successfully welding dozens, or even thousands, of steel layers creates some of the strongest and sharpest knives money can buy.
What starts as individual layers of two different alloys transforms into this: a 8-inch chef's knife that retails over $200.
So, how are swirl patterns made from steel? And why are Damascus knives so expensive?
What people tend to notice right away when looking at Damascus is that visual pattern, and it ranges from very, very bold and big layers to very, very fine and shimmery layers.
And you're going to see that pattern jump out at you, and you're going to see the way the light plays off of it, and it's going to shimmer and look almost holographic at times.
The bladesmithing community refers to this effect as chatoyance, or the shine of a cat's eye.
Aside from the striking pattern, quality Damascus knives are known to be hard but flexible and able to maintain a sharp edge.
To make Damascus steel, we start by layering two different kinds of high-carbon steel. Managing the layers means more work for the smith. And while high-end mono-steel knives may perform similarly, Damascus knives are coveted for their striking appearance and the craftsmanship required to achieve it.
After tacking the layers together, we put the stack in the forge and heat it to about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. One needs an experienced eye to judge when the steel is ready, because it's at risk of breaking off the handle while the layers are not yet forge-welded together.
One needs to consider the kind of pattern he wants to make before they can begin forging.
A bold pattern means fewer layers, and a more intricate pattern can require several thousand.
And working with so many layers to achieve his intended design means lots of things can go wrong. Out of thousands of hammer strikes, a single blow in the wrong place can ruin the pattern.
Even when the pattern is done to perfection, it has to forge the steel into a knife without distorting the design. And if forging the steel when it's too cold, it can crack and one has to start over, which for Damascus steel can mean losing weeks' worth of work.
Once forge-welded the steel into a long bar, we can begin folding over the layers.
The layer count has the most effect on the price. The more layers, the more folding and work for which means a higher price point.
But more expensive knives can have 5,000 layers, and that can take a month to complete, giving it a higher price tag.
To make a standard Damascus wave pattern, we work on elongating and thinning the steel bar using a power hammer. Larger power hammer cost about $20,000. But that's just a drop in the bucket.
At least $100,000 on specialized machinery may be required, but this large investment allows us to produce high-quality Damascus knives.
Once we forge the tip of the blade, we cross-check it with the template to ensure the knife looks exactly as it should. Now it needs to undergo a metallurgical change, which is called heat treatment.
And without doing this, the thing might be shaped like a knife, but it won't behave like a knife. It won't take an edge. It won't hold an edge.
So the heat treatment is really a critical process, and it determines the metallurgy and therefore the performance of the finished knife.
But it's the quenching that makes or breaks the knife. Sometimes a blade will fail in the quench by cracking or warping irretrievably.
If all goes well, we are now ready to finish grinding and then a handle.
The grinding operation is one of the areas where the skill is kind of most important and most obvious, and this is one of the things that really drives the cost. A single slip can ruin the piece in an instant.
The handle is also an important factor when pricing the final product. Some materials, like local wood, are more affordable, but some can cost 10 times as much.
We design the handles so they serve the purpose of the knife. We make kitchen-knife handles slim but large enough for the chef to have a firm grip. A hunting knife, on the other hand, requires different properties. It might be used with cold or wet hands, which can cause them to slip.
The final step in creating a Damascus knife is the etching, which makes the pattern bolder to the eye. Once dipped in the etchant mixture, one of the alloys oxidizes and turns darker, while the other alloy resists, maintaining its color. Now the Damascus pattern is revealed.
But we are not done yet.
We need to test the edge. We use paper for this. This is a simple test. The blade should glide through with no problem.
If the knife is razor-sharp, with no dullness that needs adjusting, it's ready to sell.