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THE ANCESTRY, ARTISTRY,

AND METALLURGY OF WOOTZ DAMASCUS STEEL

Emily Yocom
Colorado School of Mines
July 1, 2005
INTRODUCTION

The hard-edged blade with its woven patterns quivers and trembles;
grasped with terrible sureness, it flashes into changing hues.

- Cassiodorus, from the Anglo-Saxon poem Elene -

The name “Damascus” is somewhat a misnomer as it refers to the location where


Europeans were first exposed to the legendary swords during the Crusades, as opposed to
their place of the steel origin. Damascus steel blades, because of their superior strength
and durability, became legendary as they provided considerable tactical advantages in
medieval warfare. However, they also achieved a somewhat mythical status for the
feeling of invincibility that they imparted to those Muslim warriors that wielded them - a
feeling attributed to the strange and magical patterns on the blades, one of which can be
seen in Figure 1. Tales of the blade sharpness - they were said to be capable of cleanly
slicing a piece of silk falling through the air - also traveled, elevating their fame.

Figure 1: Mohammed’s ladder patterned blade forged from wootz3.

For centuries, mystery lay in the making of these beautiful swords and no
European blacksmith was able to successfully replicate the Damascene strength and style.
The art had even been lost in the land of origin, as long ago the ingot composition had
likely altered (due to the use of a new of ore deposit) and the damask pattern could no
longer be created by traditional methods. Lacking the necessary metallurgical
knowledge, ancient sword makers were unable to explain this phenomenon and
eventually, the practice died out completely. Consequently, high quality wootz
Damascus blades have not been made since somewhere around the 17th and 18th
centuries.

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Since this time a number of techniques have emerged to imitate the surface
patterns of the ancient art and the term “Damascus” has evolved to encompass not only
the genuine damascene blades forged from wootz steel, but also those produced by
various pattern welding techniques, some of which actually date back to Roman times.
Despite the fact that they share the characteristic “water marking” surface appearance,
wootz and welded blades are distinctly different in both the mechanism that causes such
markings and their fabrication. The focus of this paper will be on wootz Damascus
blades, however, a brief description of pattern welding will be included.

DEVELOPMENT AND CONTROLLING FACTORS

The method of producing wootz Damascus steel has long been contended and
many researchers have undertaken massive trial-and-error testing procedures in attempts
to match the microstructural characteristics found in the ancient blades. Recently, much
of this work has come to fruition, particularly since several museum-quality artifacts
were donated for sacrifice to scientific examination. Extensive investigation had been
difficult prior to this donation due to the destructive nature of the testing and the high
value of the rare blades. As such, a number of separate groups have been able to not only
explain the mechanisms responsible for this unique material, but make successful
reproductions as well.
It is believed that the Indian wootz steel that was traditionally sent to the
bladesmiths in Damascus was produced in small cakes or ingots (weighing around 2.3
kg) that were roughly 4” in diameter and around 2” high and contained approximately 1.5
wt% carbon1. Iron charge, to which some sort of organic material - such as wood or
green leaves - was added, was melted in a closed clay crucible and then slowly cooled.
This cooling rate would be comparable to a modern furnace cool and was crucial to
attaining the microstructure necessary to generate the famous damask pattern upon
forging. Although, the cooling rates have yet to be studied in great depth, research has
shown that slower cooling will result in a coarser dendritic microstructure and the
carbides will exist as spheroidal cementite at the prior austenite grain boundaries. A
more rapid cooling rate, however, will yield a finer dendrite spacing and Widmanstätten
cementite2. The ingots were directly forged from these cakes, as was noted by several

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18th century English observers, and depending on the technique used, a variety of patterns
could be produced3. These patterns will be discussed in further detail. It is important to
note that forging a material that was slowly cooled will cause the spheroidal carbides to
grow, whereas Widmanstätten cementite particles become increasingly fine with each
cycle2.

Banding Mechanisms and Forging Cycles


The undulations that characterized these damascene patterns have been ascribed
to carbide band formation during the many forging cycles. Professor John D. Verhoeven,
a preeminent researcher of Damascus steel at Iowa State University, began a unique
collaboration with master blade-smith Alfred H. Pendray in 1988, to investigate this
mechanism and to create a system for reproduction. Through their work, Verhoeven was
able to hypothesize that clusters of carbide particles within a pearlitic steel matrix result
from the microsgregation of alloying elements that occurs during cooling. Slowly
solidifying the metal results in a coarse dendritic microstructure, in which the austenite
rejects carbon and impurity elements into the liquid interdendritic regions4. This dendrite
spacing corresponds directly to the band spacing in the final product and is typically in
the range of 30-70µm (depending on cooling rate)3.
By systematically forging and evaluating a series of blades from this steel,
Verhoeven and Pendray*, determined that on the order of 50 forging cycles were needed
to achieve a band spacing and blade size (~ 45mm wide by 5mm thick) similar to that of
ancient swords. During the first twenty of these cycles, carbide particles are distributed
randomly. However, with each additional cycle they become more and more aligned
along the latticework of points within the interdendritic regions and bands appear parallel
to the forging direction. Figure 2 shows this banding in transverse sections of two
different reproduced wootz Damascus blades. Upon each heating (reaching a maximum
temperature of approximately 50-100°C below the Acm1), smaller particles of the carbide
dissolve while impurities within the material decrease the rate of dissolution so that the
larger carbide particles remain and selectively coarsen. Because these stable carbides
grow only slightly with each cycle, many cycles are needed to obtain the 6µm diameter
particles found in most of the original blades3.

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Following the forging of the blades, the surface must be dressed in order to reveal
the damask pattern. This is a three-step process where (1) the decarburized and oxidized
outer layer is removed by grinding, (2) the exposed surface in cleaned and polished, and
(3) an etchant is applied. Historical and ethnographic accounts have shown that a
multitude of cleaning and polishing media was used in ancient times including: wood ash
plus water, chalk and water, as well as dry lime, water, and tobacco ash2. Modern day
etching techniques involve using dilute nitric and sulphuric acids, copper sulfate baths,
and often ferric or ferrous sulphate. These preferentially etch the blade contrasting the
ferrite as a white or light component against a dark, pearlitic background (this is what is
typically produce by etching, however, variation does occur depending on the
composition and processing of the blade, in addition to the specific etchant used)2.

Figure 2: Banding in a transverse sections of a reproduced wootz Damascus blades5,6.

*NOTE: Appendix A includes a step-by-step procedure, authored by Pendray, for making a


wootz Damascus steel blade3.

The Role of Impurities


Verhoeven believes that the critical element to the banding phenomenon
responsible for the damask pattern is the presence of carbide-forming impurities such as
V, Mo, Cr, Mn, and Nb. Upon examining a series of old blades, many were found to
have traces of vanadium, which has been shown to be a particularly effective in
producing the bands of clustered carbide particles. As mentioned above, these impurities
segregate to the interdendritic regions where they selectively reduce the

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cementite/austenite boundary mobility, allowing for preferential occurrence of large
carbide particles within those regions1. Juha Perttula from the Tampere Institute of
Technology in Finland, came to a similar conclusion, however, in his investigation he
replaced the small amount of vanadium (~ 0.03 wt%) with a larger addition of chromium
(0.5 wt%) to produce the banding effect5. In addition to serving as catalysts for band
formation, impurity elements also prevent graphite formation, to which hypereutectoid
plain-carbon steels are greatly susceptible5.

Wootz Ingot Control


Further investigation into the wootz ingots themselves has shown that in order to
generate the highest quality blades, the chemical composition (i.e. the appropriate
impurity content) and combination of time/temperature firing during ingot production
must be optimized. Perttula demonstrated that bands could be produced prior to forging
by applying a thermal cycle directly to the ingots themselves. Figure 3 shows a thermal
schedule applied in an electric furnace. The first heating step up to 940°C serves to
dissolve all of the smaller cementite particles within interdendritic regions and retain
those carbides that are enriched with stabilizing impurities (in this case, chromium).
These larger carbides hinder grain boundary movement during cooling making available
a greater number of cementitite nucleation sites. Reheating to 890°C removes any
undesirable grain boundary cementite. If removal is not sufficient, subsequent cycling to
850°C may be beneficial. After slow cooling from this temperature, the microstructure
will generally be characterized by coarse pearlite and spheroidite between carbide rich
layers. In order to transform this softer spheroidite to harder pearlite and decrease the
pearlite lamellae spacing, an additional reheat to 850°C for 20 minutes followed by a
more rapid air cool was performed4.

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Figure 3: Thermal cycling treatment as applied directly to ingot4.

Verhoeven et al. performed similar heat treatments on their wootz ingots


(containing vanadium), shown in Figure 4. In addition, this thermal cycling was applied
to already banded blades to confirm microsegregation theories by dissolving then
reprecipitaing the carbide bands7.

Figure 4: Thermal cycling performed after austenitizing at 1100°C and water


quenching7.

Many studies have also noted the importance of avoiding hot shortness during
ingot production as it makes forging extremely difficult due to the very low temperatures

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at which it must be performed. Hypereutectoid wootz steel is highly prone to hot
shortness due to its typically high phosphorus content and the corresponding formation of
the phosphorus intermetallic phase steadite. Verhoeven et al. completed a rimming
treatment in order to create a pure iron casing around the ingot to enable the hot short
interior to be successfully forged. Evidence has suggested that makers of ancient wootz
steel performed similar treatments before forging7. Experiments have also shown that
this rimming treatment becomes unnecessary once phosphorus levels drop to the 0.02-
0.03wt% range so naturally ultra-clean steels are preferred.

PATTERN WELDING

Pattern welding, is a unique process whereby an intricate composite is created by


forge welding alternating sheets of high and low carbon steel (or even two entirely
different metals). Once these sheets are fused together, the piece is folded in half and
forged again (Figure 5). This fold/forge process is repeated numerous times to achieve a
very-finely spaced laminate structure. Once many laminations have been formed (often
numbering in the hundreds), elaborate patterns can be created by either manipulating the
surface of the material or the entire billet itself so that the pattern runs the depth of the
material. Some classic patterns include:
o Ladder – obtained by cutting grooves on either side of the blade and forging it flat
(Figure 6a)
o Butterfly – variation of ladder where and x-shaped cut is made on the surface
instead of a cut straight across the billet (Figure 6b)
o Pool and eye – a somewhat random pattern that begins when the first fold is made
and involves drilling a series of holes along the blade, forging flat and folding,
and repeating this process as many times as desired (Figure 7)
A variety of twisted patterns, as opposed to flat laminations, are also extremely popular
and are characteristic of many Samurai swords. Here the different layers of materials
(usually in the form of small square bars) are forged together and then twisted as a whole
as can be seen in Figure 8. Following twisting, the composite is forged in a number of
ways to get different patterns. Often, twisted and laminated material is combined to

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fashion blades such as that seen in Figure 9. After forging, as with wootz Damascus
blades, the surface is ground, cleaned and polished, and an etchant is applied9.

Figure 5: End view of a folded forge weld. This process will be performed repeatedly to
attain many fine laminations9.

(a) (b)
Figure 6: Two classic patterns, (a) the ladder and (b) butterfly, achieved by cutting grooves
into the surface of the blade and then forging it flat9.

Figure 7: Pool and eye pattern created using a combination of hole drilling and
forge/folding9.

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Figure 8: Twisting technique used in many pattern welded blades10,9.

Figure 9: Detail of a 18th or 19th century blade showing three bands of pattern-welding
between laminate layers8.

WOOTZ DAMASCUS PATTERNS

Unlike pattern-welded blades, the variety of patterns on blades made from directly
forged wootz steel are slightly more limited due to their non-laminate nature. Therefore,
cutting and drilling techniques, as discussed previously in the forging of the ladder and
pool-and-eye pattern welded blades, are the primary methods for creating complex
surface designs. This is of course in addition to simple manipulation of the blade (with
respect to the band direction) while forging. Figures 10 and 11 show two of the most
popular patterns, Muhammed’s ladder and the rose pattern.

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(a)

(b)

Figure 10: Combination of Muhammed’s ladder and rose pattern generated by (a) cutting
grooves into the surface of the nearly finished blade and (b) forging grooves into the
surface of the nearly finished blade1.

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Figure 11: Close-up showing detail of the Mohammed’s Ladder (also known as kirk
narduban) pattern on a wootz Damascus dagger from the middle to late 18th century8.

CONTRIBUTIONS OF WOOTZ DAMASCUS STEEL

In addition to being a legendary relic of ancient times, wootz steel also qualifies
as an advanced material, one that fulfills the description by having such properties as
high impact hardness and superplasticity. These characteristics, combined with its
historical influence and reputation, have triggered a great deal of research into wootz
composition, mechanical behavior, and microstructure, and have in fact spurred a number
of developments in modern metallographic study. For example, documentation of
Damascus structure led the Swedish chemist Tobern Bergman, in 1774, to the
understanding that carbon plays a dominant role in the properties of iron and steel11.
Historians also note that wootz Damascus steel was studied in detail by Michael Faraday,
the renowned physicist.
The very recent work of scientists such as Verhoeven, and Perttula, as well as that
of master blacksmiths like Pendray, has also contributed much to the field of metallurgy.
However, despite the abundance of research available on Damascus steel there is still
much to learn, and as modern technology permits, increasingly advanced investigations
can be performed.

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REFERENCES

[1] Verhoeven, J. D., and A. H. Pendray. "The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient
Damascus Steel Blades." JOM 50.9 (1998): 58-64.

[2] Feuerbach, A. “The Production of Crucible steel and the Damascus Pattern.”
http://home.att.net/~moltenmuse/Production.htm

[3] Verhoeven, J. D. “The Mystery of Damascus Blades.” Scientific America, (January


2001): 74-9.

[4] Perttula, J. "Reproduced Wootz Damascus Steel." Scandinavian Journal of


Metallurgy 30.2 (2001): 65-8.

[5] Perttula, J. "Wootz Damascus Steel of Ancient Orient." Scandinavian Journal of


Metallurgy 33.2 (2004): 92-7.

[6] Verhoeven, J. D., and A.H. Pendray. "The Mystery of the Damascus Sword,"
Muse, 2 (2) (April 1998), pp. 35-43.

[7] Verhoeven, J. D., et al., A.H. Pendray, and E.D. Gibson. "Wootz Damascus Steel
Blades," Mat. Char., 37 (1996): 9-22.

[8] Jones, L. “Wootz Steel: True Damascus.”


http://www.vikingsword.com/ethsword/pat05.html

[9] Hrisoulas, J. “Damascus Steel.” The Complete Bladesmith: Chapter 16-17.


Paladin Press: Boulder, Colorado (1987).

[10] Perret, J.J. “Method of making Steel in the style of Damascus.” L'Art du Coutelier
"The Art of the Cutler" (1771). Translation by Bernard Levine.

[11] Srinivasan, S., and S. Ranganathan. “Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the
Ancient World.” Department of Metallurgy, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
http://www.tf.uni-kiel.de/matwis/amat/def_en/articles/wootz_advanced_material/wootz_steel.html

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APPENDIX A

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