train proteges or employ assistants. When a sword maker died, he took his secrets to the grave. In time, the number of Damascus artisans progressively dwindled. By the 1800s, the art was all but extinct. The last place it was used extensively was in the manufacture of shotgun barrels. However, Damascus twist barrels were built for the low pressures generated by the ignition of black powder. When smokeless powder became the standard as a firearms propellant, Damascus was "laid to rust," so to speak.
Hard Steel, Soft Steel
Modern knives are judged by the amount of carbon and other components in their steel. The higher the carbon content, the harder the steel. However, too much carbon makes the steel brittle. Too little carbon, and the steel is too soft to hold an edge. Discount store knives generally are made from low quality stainless steel, or some steel with too little carbon to make a good blade. Also, the carbon content is uniform throughout the blade. Thus, the steel is just as hard on the edge as in the middle and at the top.
Damascus steel, on the other hand, exhibits many different qualities. For example, a good Damascus blade contains different steels with high nickel and high carbon content.
An avid outdoorsman, Ron Duncan got frustrated with discount store knives while elk hunting in Colorado. He had a brand new hunting knife made by a well-known company, but it dulled well before he'd finished field dressing an elk.
"A good knife should be able to field dress three or four elk without resharpening," Duncan said. "You can do that with the knives I make."
To find the right combination of qualities, Duncan has used steel from an amazing variety of sources. Automotive leaf springs contain good knifemaking steel, but he also loves to use large circular saw blades or large bandsaw blades discarded from sawmills. Woven steel cable makes a good knife that will have a unique, highly desirable pattern.
Standing in the Furnace
There's a hard frost on the ground in Cairo, but it's mid-summer inside Ron Duncan's workshop. The fire in the gas forge is roaring, and soon I have to remove my jacket. Within minutes, sweat breaks out along my forehead and along my collar.
As the inside of the forge approaches 2,300 degrees, Duncan carefully stacks 10 steel wafers to form a rectangular billet. These wafers