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More Old Steel

Telegraph | News | Nanotube secrets of Damascus steel blade

For hundreds of years, some of the keenest minds searched in vain for the secret of how blacksmiths in the ancient Middle East fashioned a tough and flexible metal known as Damascus steel.
The search for the secret of the shimmering alloy may now be nearing an end, thanks to a study that reveals that the blacksmiths unwittingly managed to create "nanotubes" of carbon, structures at levels of a billionth of a metre....

Damascus blades are thought to have been forged from small cakes of steel known as "wootz", probably produced in India. A sophisticated treatment was then applied to the steel, but details of this were lost in the 18th century.

Prof Paufler believes that, as further details of this material emerge it might be possible to reproduce the long-lost recipe.

The "Damascus Steel" pattern we all love in our old firearms is not the original sort - for that you need to see a display of old swords. If you are unlucky enough not to have a few on the walls of your baronial hall I would recommend the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, many the afternoon I snuck off from lectures to admire its riches.

I don't know if I'm pleased that we are cracking the mystery of if I would prefer it to remain unanswered and part of the romance of the past...


I think they've already cracked it - in Japan anyhow. Essentially the steel is folded over and over with so many repeated forging that the layers multiply rapidly and the metal's crystaline structure aligns itself with minute quantities of impurities revealing the pattern. Cake on some mud here and there in different thicknesses, and quench to provide different areas of hardnesses vs. flexibility. Mind you it takes an apprentice in Japan fifteen years or somethign before he can make his own sword - so it's a difficult and very painstaking hands-on technique, easily lost.
Thieving Arabs appending the "Damascus" tag - the steel and technique came from India. Alexander the Great himself was paid a gift of steel in tribute by an Indian king (Porus, Lahore - Punjab) who lost in battle. The Hindus had been making steel swords for a long time, but their vaunted oral-tradition of reciting long passages out of an ancient text leaves a lot to be desired and is easily confused when actual meaning vanishes to be replaced only by sounds and noises of sounds.

I speak under correction here, but I believe the Damascus steel is not the folded sort at all, that is a refined technique that allowed the Japanese sword smiths to make fabulous blades from a rather poor quality ore. The Damascus steel in its true form is related to the 'watered' steel still used to make Kukris today, which is a homogenous steel forged from high quality ore. It is also my understanding that the Arab swordsmiths 'lost' the process when they used up all the ore from a particular site which by chance had the proper trace elements for a fabulous steel.

Thank you for that correction and clarification!

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