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Damascus Steel / What is Damascus Steel / Wootz Steel

Wootz Steel

Updated August, 6th, 2002

A good text from Richard Furrer, this text had been published in the Crucible forum

Wootz is an ancient steel most likely developed in India around 200 A.D.. Some say it goes back further, but there is limited research in this area. The material is a combination of iron, carbon and glass placed in a clay crucible and fired till it goes molten (thought there are a few other manufacturing methods in history). The iron will gather carbon from the charcoal and become steel and the glass will melt and act as a flux which will chemically bond with the impurities in the iron and remove them.

The molten steel is allowed to cool and the resulting solidified ingot is then removed from the crucible ( the crucible is broken). The ingot, ranging from 1/2 to four pounds, is then forged into a tool -- usually a blade. The ingot is difficult to forge and is often broken in the process which further adds to the mystery of the steel.

The steel itself usually has between 1 and 2% carbon, though there are a few examples of lower carbon contents in history. The main appeal is that the finished blade has a surface pattern. I call this pattern "salt and pepper" in appearance, but the Persian poets have likened it to wind rippling across a pond or tracks of ants. Basically the pattern results from the constituent elements nucleating out into two distinct formations -- carbides and pearlite. The carbides are white and the pearlite matrix is darker. Other structures can be formed, but historically these are the two main ones. The overall effect is that of "diamonds in pudding" (my quote) where the diamonds (carbides) do the cutting and the pudding (pearlite) acts as the matrix which supports the carbides. What makes this interesting is that the carbides form groupings which are visible with the naked eye -- much like pictures in the old newspapers. The photos in the newspaper are actually made up of tiny dots (like the individual carbides), but since they can be grouped together closely they appear to be continuous lines and shapes. This is why we can see the carbides in the wootz -- they are groupings of the tiny individual carbides into alternating "cluster sheets" of carbides and pearlite. These sheets can be further manipulated to form gross patterns like the famed "kirk narduban" or Muhammad's ladder.

What this means in function is that the carbides wear very slowly and the matrix wears faster so there is a definite saw tooth action. The wootz will chew its way through material. It therefore is very good for cutting flesh (its intended target), but not so good in cutting other things. It would make a poor wood planer blade for instance because it would leave tiny grooves in the wood rather than take a clean shaving. Very few people understand what the best uses for this material is and therefore they think that all of the legends are true and wish to think of wootz as the best all around cutting tool.

I will say that it seems to cut meat better than anything I have tried before and when you consider the historical use for the material I believe that the ancients found the same to be true. It is not a "perfect material", but it is still very mysterious. I apologies to those who wish to believe all the wonderful myths surrounding the material. I struggled for years with these myths and separating fact from fiction is one of my personal struggles with steel.

I began my study of wootz over a decade ago. What began with a few simple questions has grown over the years into several hundred very specific questions and every new discovery leads to another layer of detail requiring further investigation. Its is a wonderful challenge and my respect for the ancient craftsmen has grown with every new ingot I make.

Richard Furrer
Sturgeon Bay, WI


In Russia, Wootz Steel is called Bulat, today Serguey Lounyov pursue the work of his ancestors.

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