The Ultimate Guide to Damascus Kitchen Knives
Damascus Steel is renowned for its high-quality, durability, sharpness, and undisputed beauty. Hailing back to ancient times, Damascus steel was first produced for the purpose of forging special swords for combat and reliable knives for carving purposes, but today, it's become a much sought-after material for the blades of high-end kitchen knives. The process by which Damascus steel is made, however, has evolved dramatically over the years.
The impeccable quality and durability of original, ancient Damascus steel knives was no accident – it was the product of a lot of hard work and smithing expertise, combined with traditional forging methods that were complicated and time consuming. During the hay day of Damascus steel - as it was produced then - the blades that were forged according to the ancient methods truly were the sharpest, strongest, and most durable around.
However, the original process and technology by which true Damascus steel knives were made was somewhat lost during the 1700s. Later, blacksmiths attempted to revive the original technology, but when the production of the ancient steel was restablished in the 20th century, the process wasn’t quite the same as before - partly because components of the original technology was lost, and partly because new, superior methods were discovered.
Thus, the way in which Damascus steel knives have been made since the 1900s is more of an adapted version of the ancient tradition. Indeed, they have used parts of the original technology to establish the process we know today as pattern welding. The blades are now compised of a solid, inner core and an outer layer of pattern-welded steel. The knives that are produced by this method are still commonly referred to as Damscus knives, but true, authentic Damascus knives have not been produced since the 18th century.
Today, pattern welded Damascus steel kitchen knives are the ultimate weapon of choice for many chefs, both professional and amateur, and I’m going to tell you why. I'll start off by explaining exactly what a Damascus knife is, the history of the steel, and how it's made. Then, I’ll move on to practical advice, including what to look for when you’re shopping for a Damascus knife, how to identify a fake, and how to look after them. Finally, I'll get down to the nitty gritty and do a direct comparison of Damascus steel with carbon steel and stainless steel, so that you can make an informed decision.
So, without further ado, let's dive right into the ultimate guide to Damascus kitchen knives.
What Is a Damascus Knife?
When we talk about what a Damascus knife really is, the answer is twofold. On the one hand, we have the authentic version from ancient times - in fact, the only real Damascus knife, if you want to really get down to the nitty gritty.
On the other hand, we have so-called Damascus steel knives that are produced today (production of which was restablished in the 1900s) - these knives are not made in accordance to the ancient traditional process (since knowledge of the technology has long been lost), but are pattern welded knives. They also feature the characteristic Damascus patterning – the pattern is reminiscent of flowing water - but they have a solid- inner core.
Thus, in strict terms, these are not true Damascus steel knives - they're pattern welded blades with a Damascus pattern and solid steel on the inside. At the end of the day, true Damascus steel knives simply do not exist today, there are only relics of ancient times.
The exact process by which the original Damascus steel knives were made in ancient times has pretty much been lost - hence why the knives made today follow a process that only mimics the original tradition. Thus, nobody can really explain exactly how they were made. Pattern welding, which has taken the place of ancient methods, is more easy to unpack, and forms part of the process by which modern Damascus steel knives are made.
In the most basic sense, pattern welded blades are produced by forging together multiple different layers of different types of steel, often a combination of high-carbon steel and low-carbon steel or a softer iron. This is what creates the iconic wavy pattern that Damascus is renowned for! But I'll go into more detail about exactly how Damascus knives are made a little bit later.
Do remember that the term "Damascus knife" is a reference to the blade of a knife, rather than the type of knife in question – that is, it could be anything from a carving knife to a sushi knife.
But before we dive head-first into the process by which it's forged, let's take a step back in time and trace the origins of Damascus steel and where it gets its name.
How Did the Damascus Knife Get its Name?
This may not be news to you, but Damascus is the capital city of Syria, and it has become the namesake of Damascus steel and knives – for good reason.
The city has a long history of being a prominent centre for steel production and craftsmanship, since it was the home to many skilled artisans and blacksmiths dating back to ancient times. Indeed, it was in the Syrian capital that this distinct method of forgery was established and practiced, creating the much sought-after blade we know today. Thus, it wasn't long before the city itself was associated with its reputation for manufacturing top-quality steel of this specific type – thus, the term "Damascus steel" was born.
True Damascus steel was unique in that it struck combination of both hard and soft – it may sound odd, but back in the day, this was actually the perfect composition for swords. In ancient Syria, swords were important, and it was essential that they were strong, sharp, and durable, while still having a little bit of give. They were also known to stay sharp for longer than other materials and chip less too. Thus, Damascus steel was perfect for the production of high-quality swords. From there, the move from manufacturing swords to knives was a fairly natural progression, resulting in Damascus steel kitchen knives becoming a common household item throughout Syria in ancient times.
The first records of the famous Syrian steel being named after the country’s capital dates back to writings that are believed to have been from around 800-873 CE. Al-Kindi and Al-Biruni, two Syrian academics, referred to the steel in question as either “damascene” or “Damascus”. It seemed to be both in reference to the steel’s geographical origin and place of manufacturing as well as the precise method used for forging.
These days, other than relics from ancient times, true Syrian Damascus steel simply no longer exists, and pattern welded blades with Damascus patterns have taken over the name. Thus, when we refer to modern Damascus steel blades, we’re really talking about pattern welded steel.
How Are Damascus Knives Made?
The main method by which Damascus steel knives are made today is called pattern welding. Craftsmen gather multiple different types of steel – a combination of high-carbon steel and softer iron or low-carbon steel. They're all stacked together to form several different layers. Then, the layers are heated, hammered, and folded over and over again – similar to the way in which you fold and flatten croissants and other similar pastries! This is done until the desired number of layers is reached and a solid billet is produced.
Top Tip: A billet is a solid bar or block of metal that is used as the starting point for forging or shaping a blade – the blank canvas, if you will.
The process of stacking, folding and forging is what creates the distinctive Damascus layering and the subsequent pattern for which it’s become famous. Note that although true Damascus ought to be layered using a combination of different types of steel, there are some craftsmen who simply use one type and then follow the same folding, heating, and hammering pattern to achieve the flowy pattern. They are both considered Damascus, but the former is more true to the craft’s ancient origins.
From there, the unique billet that has been created is shaped, ground, and heat-treated in order to create the shape and style of the blade required and desired.
However, Damascus steel knives that we see today - even the top-quality Japanese versions - are made with a center core that then has the layered steel on the outsides. Thus, they are not made purely with pattern welded steel.
But this doesn't mean that the knife is of poor quality. In fact, it's seen by many as an improvment of the original Damascus blades from ancient times as the solid inner core strengthens the knife and contributes to its sharpness and edge retention. Thus, the vast majority of contemporary Damascus steel knives we see today, even the top of the range knives, have a solid inner core. Indeed, the use of pattern-welded steel that surrounds the solid inner core is almost entirely for aesthetic purposes.
But, let's go back a step, because even though the blades now almost always have a solid inner core, you may still be wondering what the purpose was of the layering, pattern-welding process in the first place. These days, it's mostly for aesthetic purposes, but back in the day, it was about more than just appearance.
So, why did they choose a process of continuously layering steel to create a new billet, rather than simply carving a blade directly from a solid billet? Well, there are a few reasons why pattern welding was seen as superior:So, why did they choose a process of continuously layering steel to create a new billet, rather than simply carving a blade directly from a solid billet? Well, there are a few reasons why pattern welding was seen as superior:
- The layering, heating, and hammering process eliminates impurities from the steel, increasing the overall quality.
- The multi-layered approach also makes the blade stronger.
- The use of different types of steel makes the blade's composition more complex, allowing for increased strength, durability, and sharpness, as well as less likelihood of chipping.
- It creates a unique and attractive pattern.
- All Damascus knives (and swords) are completely unique.
These days, however, the general quality of steel has improved significantly, meaning that by having an inner core made from a top-notch material, surrounded by a layer of pattern-welded steel, you can actually produce a blade that is even tougher, sharper, and more durable.
What to Look for When You're Shopping for a Damascus Knife
Unless you're an expert, shopping for a high-quality knife can be pretty difficult, especially if you have an idea of what you want but aren't totally sure how to verify authenticity. The same goes for shopping for a Damascus kitchen knife set.
There are a few different versions of so-called Damascus steel knives that you'll find on the market today - although, as we've already quite clearly established, none of them are truly Damascus steel. They’re pattern welded knives that have become known colloquially as new-age Damascus.
These days, the difference is all in quality. You'll get high-quality and low-quality Damascus steel knives that are all made by means of pattern welding, but it comes down to the difference in materials that are used as well as the correct heat treatment and freezing. Then, on top of the high and low-quality knives, you also get versions that are total replicas. They are laser etched knives that simply imitate the Damascus pattern and the process of making them has nothing to do with pattern welding.
So, to make the process less tedious and to help ensure that you walk away with the best quality product to serve your individual needs, I've put together a list of things that you need to consider when shopping for a Damascus knife.
Try and find information on the types of steel used in the construction of the blade – you should be able to find this on the knife's packaging or by researching the brand online.
If it was made using only one type of steel, then there are two options – either the classic Damascus pattern has been created after the crafting of the knife (using laser etching), or, the blade has been forged by the proper folding method, but only using one type of steel. The former indicates that the knife is simply a replica, and the latter indicates that it falls kind of halfway between a replica and a proper, modern-day Damascus knife.
However, if it lists multiple types of steel used in the construction of the blade, that's a good start. Ideally, as we've already noted, it'll include a combination of high-carbon steel and soft-carbon steel (such as iron). The high-carbon steel is what makes the blade strong and has excellent edge retention, while the long-carbon steel contributes to its shock absorption and flexibility.
Purpose and Intended Use
Much like when you're looking to buy any other kind of knife, remember that you need to bear in mind what you're planning on using it for. Damascus blades are used to make a variety of different knives, ranging from steak knives and something like a good old prime rib knife to a standard bread knife or a more delicate cheese knife.
So, remember to look carefully for the exact type of knife you want when you're shopping, rather than simply opting for any old Damascus blade.
Just looking at the blade may not be enough for you to know for certain whether or not the knife is authentic, but there are indicators that even non-experts can pick up.
Firstly, and most obviously, the blade should exhibit the classic layered pattern that looks almost like waves of water. If the blade has been made using the proper techniques, each layer will have been made from a different metal – or at least the same metal folded over again and again – so you may be able to tell by feeling the texture or just having a good look at it. However, at the same time, a really well-made blade isn't going to be rough and the different layers won't be easy to discern. Thus, it can be difficult to decide if the pattern is real or fake, so this shouldn't be the only thing you look at.
However, most important is actually the steel from which the inner core is made. Since modern Damascus steel is made of a solid inner core that's surrounded by pattern-welded steel, the quality and strength of the inner core is what will dictate how good the blade really is, as well as how sharp it'll be and what kind of edge retention it'll have.
It all depends on exactly what degree of authenticity you're after – as we've established, no modern Damascus steel knife is actually authentic these days. So, if you're looking for "authenticity", it's going to be a well-made pattern-welded knife, using good materials and the proper heat treatment and freezing, with a solid, high-quality inner core. This ought to be something you can find out by reading about the knife, so have a good look when you're doing your research. if it doesn't say anything about these things, it's probably not a good sign.
The most important thing is that you don't want to pay a lot for a poor quality pattern-welded knife, and you definitely don't want a laser etched knife, because that is nothing more than false advertising!
Pattern and Aesthetics
As we already know, the blade should have an intricate and well-defined pattern, and the layers should be easily discernible, creating an aesthetically pleasing appearance.
Remember: because of the method of crafting Damascus steel, it follows that every single blade ought to be unique. This is important to note for two reasons.
First, if you're shopping for a Damascus knife and you come across a brand you're not sure of, one way to know that they’re definitely not authentic is if you look at several blades alongside each other and they all have the exact same pattern. That means it's probably laser etched, and that's not a knife you want!
Second, the pattern is a huge part of the aesthetic, so have a look at a few different blades and select the one that you like the most!
Brand Reputation and Reviews
The brand certainly isn't everything, but being reputable and having good reviews is always a good thing when you're deciding whether or not to buy a product. Going for a lesser-known brand isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's a little bit more risky. Rather, select a brand that is fairly well known and has many reviews available – read through them carefully.
The most important part of a Damascus steel knife is the blade, for obvious reasons, but don't underestimate the value of a high-quality knife handle.
Knife handles can be made from a variety of different materials – including, most commonly, bone, wood, metal, or even various types of synthetics. At the end of the day, the knife you choose ought to have a handle that is comfortable for you to hold and suits your taste with regard to aesthetics.
Price and Value
When it comes to Damascus knives, price tends to be a pretty good indication of quality. Naturally, a good blade that has been crafted according to the proper methods is going to be far more expensive than a lower-quality replica. So, I'm not saying you should just spend more for the sake of it, but just be weary of so-called Damascus knives that are suspiciously cheap – chances are, they're not high quality.
How to Look After a Damascus Knife
If you're going to spend a lot of money on purchasing a Damascus knife, you need to know how to look after and care for it. There are five essential aspects to looking after a Damascus knife – cleaning, oiling/waxing the blade, storage, handling, and sharpening.
It's really important that you clean the knife soon after using it to get rid of any leftover food, moisture, or dirt. Start off by rinsing it with warm water and washing it with a mild dish washing soap and a soft cloth. Rinse off the remaining soap and dry the blade gently with a soft towel or cloth.
Whatever you do, don't use any kind of abrasive cleaners or scrubbing pads – anything that you wouldn't let touch your best non-stick pan should stay far away from your beloved Damascus knife!
Oiling/Waxing the Blade
Damascus steel is very sensitive to moisture, and one thing you can do to protect is to regularly oil the blade using a food-grade mineral oil. Apply it with a soft cloth and wipe off any excess afterward. This will also prevent the blade from rusting.
If you're planning on putting your knife away and storing it for a long period of time, you ought to consider waxing it to really keep it safe from moisture and rusting. It's best to use some kind of archival-grade museum wax.
The two most important things to consider when you're storing your knife is avoiding moisture and protecting the blade. With regards to the first, make sure that we're ever it's kept is dry and safe. For extra protection during storage, follow my oiling and waxing instructions above.
Equally as important is protecting the actual blade. Preferably, use a sheath or a blade guard to protect it from being bumped against other things – the last thing you want is to chip the blade.
Handling and Use
Only ever use your Damascus steel life for its intended purpose – that is, food – and avoid using it on things that are hard, such as bone, as this may result in chipping.
Remember, these blades are incredibly sharp, so it's imperative that you're extremely careful when using you’re knife so that you can prevent any accidents or injuries.
The best way to sharpen your knife is to use a whetstone. Alternatively, you can just follow the instructions that came with your knife when you purchased it. But whatever you do, make sure that you're sharpening it properly – using the proper techniques will ensure that you maintain the blade's integrity and structure.
Genuine and Counterfeit: How to Tell the Difference
I've already spoken about what to look out for when you're shopping for a Damascus steel knife, but let's get into how to tell the difference between genuine and counterfeit knives.
There is one main thing that you need to evaluate when considering the quality of a Damascus blade, although there are several different aspects of it to look at – that is, the pattern on the blade.
One of the best ways to identify a fake Damascus knife is by finding a dodgy pattern. The first thing to look out for, as I briefly mentioned earlier, is a whole range of knives that have the exact same pattern on the blade. Genuine Damascus blades are unique because of the way in which they’re made – thus, no two knives are the same.
Another thing to look out for is massive contrasts in the colours of the so-called layers in the blade. If the colours are drastically different, some very dark and others very light, it may not be real.
Finally, have a look at what the wavy, Damascus pattern looks like on the blade and compare the blade's pattern to a genuine pattern. If it looks completely unnatural, the chances are high that it is.
If you pick up any of these red flags, it's likely that you're looking at a laser etched knife.
Weighing Up the Options: Damascus Steel Knives Vs. Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel
When you're weighing up your options in the knife department, it tends to come down to Damascus steel, carbon steel, or stainless steel. They're all great materials with varying properties, each of which are ideal for specific tasks.
I'm going to do a basic comparison of these three different types of knives, taking into account seven main properties – composition, texture, appearance, price, uses, durability, and tendency to erode.
- Damascus Steel: Made up of different layers of varying types of steel, forged together to produce Damascus steel.
- Carbon Steel: Carbon steel is an incredibly hard element, so it offers great edge retention and it's good at resisting abrasion and retaining its shape.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is a combination of iron and a little bit of carbon. It's stronger than pure iron, but is still prone to rust, so to decrease corrosion, it's combined with about 10-30% of chromium.
- Damascus Steel: The blades of Damascus knives boast a swirling, wave-like pattern as a result of the folding of various types of metals into different layers, ensuring that one blade is different from the next.
- Carbon Steel: Very plain, simple texture as carbon steel is a pure compound metal.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel can be textured, but when it comes to making knives, they tend to be nice and smooth.
- Damascus Steel: As a result of the wave-like pattern on the surface, Damascus steel knives tend to be very attractive and they're all completely unique in appearance.
- Carbon Steel: Many people don't think that carbon steel knives are quite as attractive as Damascus steel knives, and even stainless steel knives, and that tends to be because they're not quite as monochromatic as stainless steel and they tend to become discoloured.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel blades are normally nice and shiny, chrome-looking blades. They can also be made in different colours – most commonly, black.
- Damascus Steel: As previously mentioned, Damascus steel knives are fairly expensive if you're buying the real thing. But you're paying for quality and durability.
- Carbon Steel: Carbon steel is fairly affordable.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel also isn't too expensive – it's probably the cheapest of the three options at hand.
- Damascus Steel: As we know, Damascus steel was originally forged and used to make swords as weapons. Later, it was used to manufacture knives, and today, it's used to craft just about any kind of knife you can think of.
- Carbon Steel: In addition to making the blades of knives, carbon steel can be and is used to create cutting tools, hot water radiators, industrial castings, "cast iron" cooking pots, and metal lamp posts. It's pretty versatile due to its immense strength.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is used to make a plethora of other tools and objects, including knives.
- Damascus Steel: One of the most important qualities of Damascus Steel is that it is super durable. This is due mostly to the fact that it's made using a combination of metals, ensuring that it has good edge retention and flexibility.
- Carbon Steel: Since it's so tough and hard, carbon steel is known for being super durable and good at resisting abrasion, as well as retaining shape.
- Stainless Steel: Carbon steel is also known for being pretty durable, and its varied composition is partly responsible for that, much like Damascus steel.
- Tendency to Erode
- Damascus Steel: One thing you need to be careful of with Damascus steel is erosion, so it's essential that it's always washed immediately, dried properly, and stored in a super dry place. Oiling or waxing it before storage is also a great idea.
- Carbon Steel: Carbon steel is also vulnerable to corrosion if it's exposed to moisture. But, much like with Damascus steel, if you just keep the blade dry and looked after, you shouldn’t be dealing with any rust.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel deals the best with moisture and corrosion, as its chrome content protects it from moisture.
What Kind of Cutting Board Should I Use with My Damascus Steel Knife?
Maintaining the integrity of the blade of your Damascus steel knife is super important (as we've noted), and one of the most essential aspects of that is using a cutting board that isn't going to be too abrasive.
Thus, I recommend using an end-grain cutting board. Not only are they the most hygienic, but they also don't show knife marks as easily as other materials, they heal themselves and they're far more gentle on knife blades. This means that not only are your knives less likely to be damaged during use, but they also won't need to be sharpened as much.
If you're not a fan of wooden cutting boards (and who wouldn't be?), your next best bet would be a high-quality rubber board. They're surprisingly gentle on your blades and don't leave knife marks as badly as plastic, so they're pretty hygienic if you wash them properly. Unfortunately, they don't look as pretty as wooden cutting boards (which is one of the reasons I'll always opt for a good, old-fashioned wooden board) and they can be quite expensive, but they certainly do the job.
Essentially, when you're using a Damascus steel kitchen knife, wood is your first choice and rubber is an alternative, but one thing you should never do is use a plastic cutting board. They're incredibly abrasive, meaning that you'll increase the risk of damaging your blade dramatically, and it'll also lose sharpness quickly.
Final Thoughts on the Ultimate Guide to Damascus Steel Knives
So, there you have it. The gist of it is that true, authentics Damascus steel knives simply do not exist anymore - these days, it's high-quality, pattern-welded blades that have replaced them and have picked up the title of Damascus steel. You get high-quality modern Damascus steel and low-quality Damascus steel - the distinction is all dependent on materials and the process used - 99.9% of which have a solid core and layered Damascus steel on the outsides. Finally, you get laser-etched knives that are nothing more than replicas with the Damascus pattern on the blade.
At the end of the day, a good Damascus steel knife is one that is made using the proper, pattern-welding process, along with high-quality materials, and the proper heat treatment and freezing protocol. It can be hard to tell the difference between a high-quality version and a low-quality knife, but if you read up on the materials that are used and use the price as an indicator, you should be able to tell the difference.
So, there you have it! Everything you need to know about Damascus steel knives.