11

Many manufacturers currently offer kitchen knives with Damascus steel blades at a premium.

Besides looking cool do such knifes have any better characteristics compared to simply good forged stainless steel kitchen knives?

  • I would prefer to spend my excess income on stone washed bluejeans, perhaps with ready made H2SO4 pinholes. YMMV, but the purpose of a knife is to cut easily and efficiently, not look pretty on the shelf. Varying alloy composition likely means varying hardness, and therefore varying rate of dulling. That's not a desirable characteristic in knife edges. – Wayfaring Stranger Mar 29 '16 at 15:17

12 Answers 12

12

At the time of my engineering degree (mid-1990s), the knowledge for true Damascus steel was lost, much like the knowledge of the recipes for the concrete used in the Roman Colosseum.

It's possible that more materials analysis has been performed since that point, as there have been a number of groups who would like to reproduce the process to determine how it compares to modern steel. (museums aren't willing to subject the known pieces to destructive testing).

With modern steel, they intentionally introduce small proportions of other metals to interrupt the crystals that form as the metal is cooled; this helps to improve the strength of the steel as there isn't a single sheer plane that could allow fractures through the whole item. They're also better able to control the cooling process, so that they can control what crystal structure forms in the steel as it's annealed and quenched.

My understanding of true Damascus steel is that it's likely two different crystaline structures, one more ductile (so it can compress to absorb more energy without failing) and the other more brittle (which can hold a sharper edge). The two work together similar to today's composite materials.

Most of the stuff sold on the market today is laminated from two or more metals. In many ways, it's more similar to the folding process of high-quality Japanese blades, but with dissimilar metals. As the sheets are mostly parallel to each other, I would suspect that the strength improvement isn't as high as the more erratic patterns in true Damascus, but this is likely countered by using metals that are independently stronger.

So, to answer the specific questions:

  • Do they have some better characteristics? Probably.
  • Are they worth the additional cost? Not likely for the type of forces they'd be subjected to in a kitchen.

Most people are better off getting some decent but cheap knives and replacing them more often. Victorinox Fibrox regularly wins America's Test Kitchen's ratings of knives.

9

Firstly, true Damascus steel is a historical artifact--I infer you are talking about knives created from steel produced by reproduction methods which are similar.

This is a subjective question--only you can deside whether you find the value proposition favorable. The thing is, the qualities that make (reproduction) Damascus steel special and important (other than aesthetics) are perhaps more important to weaponry rather than culinary application.

The two main charactaristics that come to mind for Damascus steel, in my personal opinion, are:

  • The wave-like pattern in visible in the blade. While this is a side affect of the method of manufacture, and perhaps indicative of other qualities, it is only of aesthetic value.
  • Supposed resistance to shattering while still being able to retain a very sharp edge

Cutlery is not subjected to the same stress as weaponry, where being able to absorb impact stress without shattering is a relevant virtue.

But they are pretty.

My personal subjective opinion: no, not a good value proposition compared to good quality modern knives--either forged or stamped--like Shun, Wustof, Chicago Cutlery, Victorinox, or countless others.

  • 1
    you can also add some cool effects to the blades of many knives with acids and patience. – Brendan Jan 19 '13 at 14:46
7

There is a lot of confusion between:

  • Awase knives, which use layering (2 or 3 layers) of different steels for performance reasons. Sanmai, Warikomi, Nimai are types of this technology. These can look like normal cutlery except for a visible, somewhat irregular looking transition line near the edge (looks like a hamon line on a differentially hardened sword or knife, but isn't). These will give you a blade that is soft, resilient and easy to make compared to a massive blade from the material that makes the actual cutting edge. For the edge, a much harder and more performance-optimized steel can be chosen; massive blades made from similar steels at similar hardness are expensive, hard to maintain and fragile. In the original form, found commonly in true japanese-style knives (think sushi knives. stick-like wood handles, kanji on the blade and everything :) ).

  • Highly layered steels used for decorative reasons, very often as the outer layer(s) of an Awase knife (this is what almost all quality damascus kitchen knives are. Found commonly in both japanese and western styles). Performance is usually considered being largely due to (and largely equivalent to) the Awase construction, not the visible patterned layers. Usually a western-style damascus knife, especially one mass-made by the stock removal method, will be a sanmai construction (a cutting edge layer making up the whole core of the knife, with two welded damascus steel layers flanking).

  • Differentially hardened - One steel type used, intentionally hardened more in the edge zone to get a blade that has softer and harder parts. Can look similar to a non-damascus Awase (but what looks like a hamon ... is a hamon in that case), is considerably more expensive ($500+) and fragile (though less so than making a massive, evenly hardened blade), considered very high performance if not mishandled. Also, uncommon in western style knives.

What you get from all three variations: a harder edged knife with all the consequences to that.

  • Wootz/Bulat - This is close to the actual historic damascus steel. Cutlery made from it exists but is uncommon, and according to what people write that used some, handles differently from what is normally considered a damascus knife.

Important addon: I found that the terms Sanmai and Bulat are used as brand names by some makers nowadays. They are actually Japanese resp. Russian technical terms for a certain steel makeup, and that is how I used them.

  • 1
    +1 - This is the most informed answer here and reflects the complex reality of knife-making today. I would just highlight your second category, which you note are the most common kitchen knives advertised as "Damascus" in recent years (and likely what OP has in mind). As you say, those "Damascus" patterns are for decorative reasons; the soft outer layered steel in such knives would suffer no disadvantages without the patterns. – Athanasius Jul 27 '16 at 0:59
  • I did choose the qualification "largely" intentionally - hagane material choice could have some performance impact, but certainly not what people commonly expect. And highlighting the second paragraph would make it look like "these are decorative, so uninteresting" instead of my intended meaning "these are usually sanmai knives and their performance benefits and drawbacks are mostly equivalent to that style.." – rackandboneman Jul 29 '16 at 12:55
  • meant jigane (cladding) not hagane (steel that forms cutting edge) in the above comment, sorry. hagane choice will be very relevant always. – rackandboneman Aug 1 '16 at 12:45
5

As a custom knife builder my answer is simple: Yes and no. Some damascus blades are cheaply made and consist of simple layered steel or flattened steel cable that is etched to produce the lines that many people find attractive. They are definitely not worth any extra cost and in fact are easily outperformed by regular modern kitchen knives of moderate to good quality. In fact since these damascus blades are only formed from ordinary steel they will rust quite easily, must be maintained regularly and will not hold a keen edge.

Other types of damascus steel is made from layers of stainless steel (that results in a much more subtle pattern) but also has an inner core of high carbon specialty steel like VG-10. This type of damascus is far more expensive of course but produces a blade of superior quality as well as one that looks very cool. It will hold its edge longer because of the hardness of the inner core but will also be very durable due to the layers of more flexible and stain resistant stainless steel.

Whether or not it is worth the extra cost is entirely a personal choice. If you only use your knife to cut up hot dogs and store it in a drawer with the rest of your kitchen utensils, I'd say no. But if you use your knife extensively, like the very best and want a knife that looks (and stays) really sharp, I would say the answer is yes. But do your homework and ask questions. "Damascus" does not automatically mean better.

3

Buy them for looks, not for performance

Blades marketed as "Damascus" can have very different origins:

  • Antique blades made using the lost historical art of Damascus steel making (look it up on Wikipedia but this category is not relevant for the SA forum)
  • Blades forged and hammered using layers of the same or different metals to create the layered appeaeance
  • Blades etched with acid or laser to create the Damascus appearance

Damascus steel dates back to a period where steel manufacturing was very crude by today's standards, so hammering and folding was used not only to shape blades but to remove impurities and distribute alloy metals and crystal dislocations within the steel to lower the chance of fracturing. Although some folks claim that alternating layers of steel provide some combination of hardness and ductility, I have not seen science to prove this yet and material science suggests that with modern blade making you are far better off choosing a single alloy with optimal ductility than using a laminate with all of the problems caused by structural weaknesses at the laminate interfaces.

Today's manufacturing methods yield steel that is of very high alloy uniformity with very even crystal structure, so this will handily outperform the crude (by structural standards) laminate of Damascus steel. Of course, an etched blade combines the advantages of pure steel with the decorative appeal of the "Damascus" layering, but you may or may not like the fake approach to creating this look.

So in summary, modern forged Damascus steel will tend to be of equal or worse quality than commercial high grade steel (depending on how the Damascus effect is achieved), so pay the premium for looks but not for performance.

1

Damascus steel offers no benefits over other types of good quality steel. They look cool, but don't do anything that other knives can't do much cheaper.

1

A good blade is a pleasure in your hand to use and look at.

For the last 50 yrs or so I've used the same Trident (Wustof) knives. Feel. Cut. Balance. Can't be beaten. But recently I bough a Torijo Damascus Utility. Straight from Japan delivered for $68.

Balance feel etc. Lighter but good in the hand. And the LOOK of the blade. YEP.. They worth the extra.

1

If you like the way a Damascus blade looks, it can be worth it. If you like a certain manufacturer and their high-end knives are damascus-clad, it can make sense to get those instead of their cheaper lines.

A modern "damascus" knife is simply two sheets of laminated damascus wallpaper around a hard, knife-steel core*. This core layer is going to determine how the knife works, how it cuts. So will the shape of the blade, the angle of the grind, shape of the handle, the weight distribution. Damascus cladding will not, it only changes the look of the knife, and it drives the price up a bit.

*Cladding a hard core with softer steel is a japanese invention. It enabled them to make swords with extremely sharp edges due to the hard core, without making the blade brittle. Soft steel is flexible, allowing the blade to flex without breaking. Damascus cladding has no functional differences to soft steel cladding. There are no downsides to it, other than the price.

Correction: The Japanese Sword makers clad a soft flexible core with a hard exterior. The cutting edge was produced from the exterior layers which had a high carbon content, and was additionally tempered before the final sharpening. The pattern on a Japanese sword was created by folding the metal and not by mixing it the way a Damascus blade was forged.

1

Japanese swords were made by layering the steel then forge welding it (heating and beating with a hammer). When the billet gets stretched, it is folded again, heated and beat, over and over. Good quality katanas will have 1,000 or more layers. They also created/invented the forge wekding of hard and soft metals,. as mentioned, in order to have a sword with a very sharp edge and the a body that can take the forces of striking something.

They do not twist, cut and reorient the billets to create patterns in the steel like you see in damascus knives.

As to the quality of a damascus knife, it all depends on a couple factors; The type(s) of steel used and the skill of the craftsman.

All the top makers use various steels and methods and they create various types of knives. Some of the simpler, plain damascus knives (2-3 different carbon and/or nickel steels) can be very sharp, cut well and hold an edge if it is created well.

Another technique is to sandwich a harder core metal between two layers of damascus to get a cutting edge of supreme quality with the look of the damascus pattern.

There are some who support the idea that a damascus blade is superior to a single-steel blade due to the different metals at the cutting edge either slightly chipping away or wearing to create a micro serrated edge. I'm not aware of any actual tests that show this to be true.

Modern techniques can make stainless damascus which has advantages, but even after acid etching the pattern isn't as "pretty" as what can be achieved with carbon and nickel steels.

The patterns in modern knives vary greatly and you'd be surprised at how much control the craftsmen have in defining very specific patterns. In other words, they aren't always just a random mishmash of curvy layers. A skilled craftsman can make basketweave patterns, circles, chevrons, etc. It's all in how the layers are forge welded, then cut, restacked, welded and formed using shaped dies, etc to deform the layers into the shapes they want.

As to whether a damascus knife blade is better than a single steel blade, the answer is really, no. At least not in terms of performance in the kitchen. Of course, your single steel knife still needs to be high quality and properly sharpened.

Regardless whether it is damascus or single steel, if it's cheap and poorly sharpened it isn't going to cut well.

Modern, high-end damascus knives made by well known craftsmen are more for looks than performance. Those same makers will make a single steel knife that performs every bit as good for a lot less. Making damascus steel is time and labor intensive, so that's what you mostly pay for.

Arguably, good carbon steels for knives are sharper and hold an edge better than any stainless (although I admit VG-10 is pretty darn good), but they come with all the associated maintenance requirements. You have to clean and dry the knife when you are done with it. You can't leave it sit in the sink or throw it in the dishwasher and run it the next day...they'll rust in a heart beat. Some food acids will discolor or even etch them too if you aren't careful.

If you're a professional chef, or a very avid home cook, you might like a damascus knife for the looks and "prestige"...but for the average home, most people tend not to take care of them properly.

1

Damascus steel that is available today comes in many varieties and types. It can be made from carbon steels or stainless steels. The bottom line however is that it is made from at least two different steels (some from 3 or 4, or even more).

The overwhelming majority of "custom" knife makers are making their damascus from carbon steels, primarily due to the fact that it is easily heat treated. Stainless steel requires expensive, precise temperature controlled equipment to properly heat treat (i.e. not something most blade smiths can do at home or in their shop). Carbon steel on the other hand can be heated to critical temperature and then quenched to harden without the need for extreme precision. Tempering can be done in the kitchen oven.

Typically, carbon steel damascus will be made from a plain carbon steel, such as 1084 or 1095 layered with another steel that has a high nickel content, such 15n20. Once the blade is ground to rough shape, it is dunked into ferric chloride acid (or other acids) to etch the pattern. The plain carbon steel will darken and the high nickel steel will be the shiny bright metal. This is what creates the contrast and makes the pattern visible.

As for making the damascus, it is a time and labor intensive process, which is why damascus blades typically cost more.

In terms of performance or edge holding, there are indeed other steels that will hold an edge longer, but anyone that knows knives knows that it is hard to beat carbon steel for getting a keen edge. No, carbon won't hold it's edge longer than many of the super steels out there, but it will get really, really, really sharp (it's all due to the size of the grain and crystal structures of the steels). The only real downside is that carbon steel blades have to be cared for. You can't put them in the dishwasher, you can't use them then toss them into the sink and carbon steel will react to acids in foods (after all, it was acid that etched it to begin with to see the pattern). You also have to put a light coat of food safe oil on them if they are going to be in the drawer for extended periods of time or they will rust. Never use them on glass or hard cutting boards, only wood, and for the love of God, don't go whacking it across a knife steel every time you pick it up (sorry Gordon Ramsay, you make me cringe ever time you pick up a knife and go to town on it with a steel).

Is carbon steel good for kitchen knives? You bet. If cutting performance is what you want, then it is hard to beat carbon steel. A properly sharpened quality carbon steel blade will glide through meats and veggies like a lightsaber through a sith lord. Just don't expect that edge to last forever and be prepared to spend time taking care of them (and that's usually why carbon steel knives get a bad rap, people are too lazy to properly care for them).

Stainless steel is OK at best for kitchen knives. I'm sure there will be a lot of backlash on that statement, but I've had and used some of the "top" names and supposed "best" types of stainless for knives and I was always underwhelmed. Sure, freshly sharpened they cut pretty good, but no stainless knife I've used has ever been as sharp as a carbon steel knife and they didn't hold their edge as long as carbon steel. So, while I didn't have to oil them or clean them by hand right away, I ended up losing that time into more frequent sharpenings for less cutting performance in the kitchen.

Anyone concerned about the durability of carbon steel only need watch an episode or two of Forged In Fire (a blacksmithing competition show) to see the abuse they apply to the contestant's blades, which are always made from some type of carbon steel. Properly hardened and tempered, carbon steel makes a very durable blade able to withstand shock, wear, etc without breaking, rolling or chipping an edge.

Does damascus steel make a better blade than a plain, single carbon steel? In terms of cutting performance, no. A plain 1095 carbon steel blade can be made just as sharp as a damascus blade. Will damascus hold an edge longer than a single steel blade? It depends on what the single steel is. If it's carbon steel, then actually yes, damascus will hold an edge slightly longer than a plain, single carbon steel blade. This is because the different steels in damascus will wear at slightly different rates and having them present at the edge will create a bit of micro-saw as the edge wears. This keeps it cutting longer between sharpenings. As for which is the best steel for a knife, that all depends. Stainless, for example is probably the "best" steel for a scuba diver's knife, whereas carbon steel can be sharpened to a keener edge and it will cut meats and veggies better, so it might be the best steel for your kitchen knives. However, if you don't want to take care of the knife and prefer a more relaxed manner, then stick with stainless. What's best just depends on what you place high on your list of criteria. Some of the super steels, like D2, or VG10 can make for a pretty long lasting edge on a knife, but here's the catch...that resistance to getting dull also means resistance to being sharpened. Everything has a trade off. There is no one perfect steel for every knife.

  • 1
    That is good info on actual pattern welded steel compositions on use - but do not forget that very few kitchen knives use pattern welded steel to the edge (most are, as I described, awase! mass produced exceptions: shun dual core, yasohiso coreless...), and that also only a small minority of makers even claims to layer damascus fully by hand (only japanese maker I know that unambigously claims so is Tsukasa Hinoura. Very expensive.). Read descriptions very literally! "Hand folded" can mean sekisokou folded around core once, to make a warikomi knife (performance wise, solid choice!). – rackandboneman Jul 21 '17 at 9:07
  • I'm not just considering Japanese commercially available knives. Many American bladesmiths make their damascus by hand and make high quality kitchen knives from their damascus, with the damascus all the way to the edge (in fact, many don't laminate cores or any other Japanese techniques at all). You should check out some of their knives. – EDL Jul 21 '17 at 16:58
  • The irony is - I am aware of the american and german makers, but these knives strike me as art pieces so much that I didn't even think of their relevance to actual cooking :) Quality is beyond reproach, of course. But these are very much not representative of what is usually called a damascus kitchen knife :) – rackandboneman Jul 21 '17 at 18:21
0

First of all, we are not talking about Damascus steel.
Damascus steel was made upto the end of the 18th century, at which time the technique was lost. A recent scientific study (c.2006) found that the steel possessed nanowire and nanotubes as a result of the forging technique and the content of specific minerals in the steel. What we are talking about is forged or pattern welded steel. Layers of steel with different properties are pounded together until they are welded together under repeated beating and heating and then folded and the process continues until the number of layers are achieved and the metal has bonded properly and then the metal is annealed and acid etched to make the pattern visible. Typically two types of metal are used and they are folded again and again resulting in an exponential number of layers. starting with 2 layers ->1 fold = 4 layers, 2 folds = 8 layers, 3 folds = 16 layers, etc. Properly made these knives are very sharp and keep a wonderful edge. However, the key here is "Properly made". You have to be able to trust the manufacturer, if not, then you might as well just get some ginsu knives and have at it. Of course, "Properly made" forge welded knives have a high price tag associated with them. So, in my opinion, they are not worth the exorbitant cost, unless price isn't a factor, then why not show off. In the end, it's a personal decision. With that said, my son is currently going to culinary school and I have already purchased a forge welded chefs knife as a graduation gift for him.

-1

Damascus steel has a cutting edge that is superior to all knives. Not only that, damascus steel holds a razor sharp edge longer, i.e. it's a super hard metal! Damascus steel is better used in a work place setting than in a city slicker setting. But yea it is purdy. Stainless steel is the safest to use in the household - it doesn't rust and you don't don't need a tetanus shot.

  • Welcome to Seasoned Advice. I've edited your answer to fix all the spelling/grammar mistakes/omissions. In any case, as others have pointed out, it's definitely not the case that all damascus steel knives are better than all other knives (there's a lot of variation in quality) so -1. – Cascabel Jun 19 '13 at 23:11
  • Being super hard doesn't guarantee longer edge preservation. Hard materials can be brittle and simple break when encountering an obstacle. – sharptooth Jun 20 '13 at 6:14
  • Also, not every pattern welded OR bulat steel is super hard. That is entirely HT dependent. – rackandboneman Jul 21 '17 at 9:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.