Join Date: May 2006
I did not understand that previous comments on mechanical damascus referred solely to material of Indian & Pakistani origin, I cannot comment specifically on this material because I have never subjected any of it to performance tests. However, in respect of modern mechanical damascus there are a few more things that I would like to comment on.
A lot of the more spectacular pattern welded blades that have been made in the modern era have been made purely as objects of art. They have not been heat treated. Complex welds can come apart if subjected to the stresses of heat treatment, and a lot of makers will not risk the investment of time that they already have in a piece of work to heat treat it. The buyers of these items are usually well educated in the applicable standards and are aware of what they are buying.
Very skillful pattern welding is currently coming out of China as well as India & Pakistan. I recently bought a replica Italian folding knife that has been made in China, the bench-work is excellent, the blade is skillfully pattern welded, but I'll put money on it that it is not heat treated. To me, the fact that this blade will very likely not hold a working edge is totally unimportant:- I do not expect it to. It is not a tool, it will never be used as a weapon, it is simply something nice to look at:- art.
It is possible to make extremely good mechanical damascus from material that does not cost an arm and a leg. I have only ever used two types of high carbon steel in mechanical damascus:- 01, and motor vehicle spring steel. 01 is not expensive, it is a very simple steel and ideally suited to old time forge methods; motor vehicle spring steel varies a lot in its analysis, and it usually takes a bit of experimentation to get the welds right, but once you understand the weld window, it is no more difficult to work with than anything else.
I think that the carbon content of most motor vehicle spring steels probably varies between about .06 and 1% carbon, so the edge holding ability also varies, thus if you decide to use spring steel in a piece of damascus it is best to make a blade and carry out performance tests on it first, before investing labour and fuel in a piece of mechanical damascus. The big cost in producing mechanical damascus is labour and fuel, and this can also vary depending where you are working. For example, if you are working in Asia and using teak charcoal, the cost of fuel can be extreme, if you are working in USA or some other western country and using gas, the cost of labour is the killer, along with capital outlay.The cost of the steel used is minor in both cases.
A smith working in the west usually needs a pretty heavy capital investment, not many use hand hammers, it is usually a big power hammer, or at least a mechanical hammer, something an like oliver for instance. The paraphernalia needed by a western smith costs a lot of money.
In Asia the capital investment is less, because labour is cheap, and labour can substitute for the need to outlay capital.
In respect of Japanese kitchen knives, in fact any Japanese bladed tool that has been properly made ( many are not) will really be a very, very good blade, whether mechanical damascus or unpatterned steel.
The very best knife I have ever used is Japanese. It is one of my kitchen knives, it gets used every day for all sorts of food preparation, blade about 4" long X 1mm. thick at its thickest point, san mai construction, I bought it +30 years ago in a Japanese supermarket in Sydney, it cost $12. This wonder-knife has been on a stone no more than 3 or 4 times in +30 years, the last time was more than 5 years ago. It gets touched up a couple of times a week on a Dick butchers steel, a few passes on the steel and it presents a shaving edge.
Any hand made tool depends on the maker's skill, the material, and the objectives.
I would most gently suggest that if some current era mechanical damascus has poor performance characteristics it is because the maker's objectives did not include the requirement for it to have high performance characteristics. If we are dealing with complex manipulated pattern welded blades, it is probable that some of those blades will fail under heat treatment, a blade that fails cannot be sold, and any smith with self respect will not sell a failed blade, but the cost of making that failed blade must be recouped, so if we are going to heat treat, then the price for the perfect blades that we sell must be sufficiently high to cover the cost of the failed blades. Thus, if one of our objectives is to keep price low, we do not risk heat treatment on blades intended purely as art works.
Image of the best knife I have ever used