If you're looking at this article, then you're probably interested in learning more about Damascus steel kitchen knives. What are they? How do I pick one out? Are they worth it?
If you like the looks of the knife, then they can be worth it, but you have to buy wisely, as not all Damascus steel knives are equal in quality (and some are downright fakes).
Read on to find out all you need to know to make a good decision about Damascus steel cutlery in your kitchen.
What Is Damascus Steel?
In a nutshell, Damascus steel is comprised of two or more separate layers of steel, usually a high carbon steel and a lower carbon steel, that are hammered flat and folded over several times, producing beautiful, wavy patterns in the end product:
After the blade (or other product) is made, it is typically dipped in an acid like ferric chloride. The different carbon contents in the steels reacts to the acid differently to produce light and dark areas, creating greater contrast.
However, to be technically correct, this isn't actually Damascus steel, though that is what it's commonly known as (and sold as). A more accurate term is "pattern-welded steel," and is also sometimes called "modern Damascus steel."
A (Very) Brief History of Damascus Steel
The history of Damascus steel is broad and complex. We are including the briefest of overviews to give you a basic understanding of where it originated.
Damascus steel goes back to at least 300AD and possibly earlier. Sword smiths in the Middle East, India, and possibly some other locations were able to make swords that had a similar appearance to modern pattern-welded (Damascus) steel. The patterns were somewhat incidental, though, because they used the process to tough steel, not pretty steel. This steel was resistant to shattering, somewhat flexible, and capable of being honed to a sharp, resilient edge (Wikipedia). It was far superior to the steel made by European smiths, and was prized for these reasons (and not the beautiful patterns).
According to this Quora article, the patterns on the original Damascus steel probably weren't formed from hammering layers of different steels together. Rather:
The characteristic ripple pattern was most likely, at least in part, the result of carburization, or case-hardening, using an organic material to increase the surface concentration of carbon in the steel. There is also evidence that suggests that Damascus swords contain carbon nanostructures, materials that are unbelievably strong, and are still in the very early stages of research for developing a feasible means of mass production for this remarkable material.
Unfortunately, the recipe for Damascus steel was lost to the ages. Most modern Damascus steel is a very different product from the original.
There are a few master smiths making traditional Damascus steel today (or trying to make, since they're guessing at the original recipe and process), but the vast majority of kitchen knives that are called "Damascus steel" are actually pattern-welded steel, which we talk more about in the next section.
You can find many websites, scholarly papers, and books with more detailed information about original Damascus steel. The Damascus steel Wikipedia page is a good place to start if you want more information; you may also want to look up Wootz steel, the steel used to make the original Damascus steel.
Modern Damascus Steel
Other than looking similar, most modern Damascus steel is quite different from its historic counterpart. Today's pattern-welded steel is made by working together layers of different steels--as we said, usually a high carbon steel and a lower carbon steel--then folding, twisting, and hammering them several times over to produce the beautiful Damascus patterns--thus the term, "pattern-welded steel."
According to the Santoku knives site:
There are many other factors that contribute to the overall quality of a Damascus Steel blade, however, it is important to understand that in general there are two different types of Damascus steel:
Layered steel: Which is two or more types of different steels that are forged and hammered together
Pattern-welded steel: Steel that has been combined by welding together alternating layers of hard and soft metals (and/or other materials).
So, perhaps "layered steel" is also a correct term for modern Damascus steel. We aren't quite sure which is more accurate for the Damascus-type steel seen in most modern kitchen knives.
In any case, the patterned steel you see today is nearly all for the sake of appearance. All modern steels are superior to the original Damascus steel that produced those amazing swords: stronger, more resilient, and more resistant to breaking and chipping. This is because modern steel-making techniques have far surpassed ancient techniques, with the result being steels that can be engineered to very precise degrees to produce exactly what the maker wants.
In other words, any reasonably good quality modern steel is going to produce better cutlery than the original Damascus steel.
So why do we still use Damascus steel (or, more accurately, modern Damascus steel)?
Simple: because it's beautiful.
Types of Damascus Steel Patterns
According to the HDMD Knives blog:
Damascus patterns are formed by combining different types of steel to create a single steel block. When forge-welded, the patterns appear. Generally, two opposing types of steel are combined, like carbon steel and stainless steel. These two types of steel have different appearances where carbon steel is darker in color, and stainless steel is shiny.
Since mixing different pieces of steel isn’t like blending fluids, they don’t entirely merge. Certain techniques like pressing, folding, and twisting help bring the two together and form these patterns, creating unique designs once the steel is cooled and grounded. Lastly, acid etching makes these patterns clear by giving a distinct finish.
According to this same website, the different patterns created include ladder, raindrop, feathered, twisted, cable, and spider web. Each is made by folding and twisting the steels differently.
You can read more about these patterns at the link above.
How Are Modern Damascus Steel Knives Made?
While modern Damascus steel is made by folding, twisting, and hammering different steel types together, very few knife makers actually do this process themselves anymore. Instead, they buy pre-made blocks of pattern-welded steel and fold it over a cutting core (the blade). The core is typically a harder, more brittle steel that holds an edge well but is prone to chipping. The Damascus steel is hammered to the core piece to produce what appears to be a homogenous blade--but the Damascus steel overlay provides both protection and beauty to the cutting core.
Buying pre-made Damascus steel blocks saves knife makers hundreds of hours of work and helps to keep the costs down on even very high quality knives. The steel they use is authentic pattern-welded (modern Damascus) steel, even if they aren't creating it themselves.
Is Damascus Steel Good for Kitchen Knives?
Damascus steel is seen mostly in Japanese brands of kitchen knives, including those that are Western-style knives (such as the Shun Classic chef's knife, shown above).
You will also find Damascus steel in some Western knives, but usually very high-end or limited edition knives, like these Zwilling Kramer Euroline chef's knives (about $400):
Does Damascus steel make better kitchen knives? As we said above, not really. Today, the Damascus steel used in kitchen knives is largely for appearance. Even when it's used to protect a more brittle cutting core, Damascus steel is just one of several options they can use-but certainly the prettiest.
On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with using Damascus steel in kitchen knives. It tends to make knives more expensive, but people are willing to pay more for these beautiful knives.
Are All Damascus Steel Knives High Quality?
True Damascus steel knives are high quality, both in the modern Damascus steel wrapping the blade and the blade steel itself.
However, there are many cheap knockoffs of Damascus steel on the market, too. Many "Damascus" knives made in China, Pakistan, and India aren't real Damascus steel but rather steel etched with a pattern made to look like Damascus steel.
How much should a real Damascus knife cost? A good quality 8-inch chef's knife is going to start at around $100. If you're paying much less than this, it probably isn't real Damascus.
You should also look for a Damascus blade wrapped around a harder steel core and is not 100% Damascus. Good Damascus steel can hold an edge alright, but the harder steel core is the sign of a good quality Damascus knife.
Buying a knife made in Japan is one way to ensure you're getting the real thing.
Does Damascus Steel Rust?
Damascus steel can be made from many different types of steel, and some are more rust resistant than others. But yes, Damascus steel can rust to different degrees, depending on the steels in it.
The truth is that all knife steel can rust. Stainless steel is not rust proof, it is only rust resistant.
If your Damascus steel knife contains carbon steel (not high carbon stainless steel), then it will definitely rust if not cared for properly.
Thus, take care of your Damascus steel knife like you would any good quality knife: wash and dry it by hand after use to avoid rusting. And never, ever put a knife in the dishwasher.
If you do find rust on the blade, you can clean it off with a small amount of Soft Scrub on a Q-tip. You can also oil the blade lightly (when not in use) to help prevent rusting.
Some Good Quality Brands of Damascus Steel Kitchen Knives
When we did a Google search for "good quality Damascus knives," we were surprised to find many lists that contain mediocre and even poor quality knives. These are knives made in China, India, or Pakistan, and often are not actual pattern-welded steel at all, but etched to look like it.
And the ones that are actually pattern-welded steel are likely to not be very high quality.
Here are our recommendations to follow if you want a good quality Damascus knife:
- Get one with a Damascus wrapped around a harder cutting core (HRC 60 or so)
- Go with a known, reputable brand (Shun, Miyabi, etc.)
- Get one made in Japan (if you have trouble finding the country of origin, it's probably not Japan).
Our recommendations below are for more commonly known brands that we know make high quality Damascus blades. There are many others, but it can be hard to know what you're getting when you're not familiar with the brand.
Also, here's a list of super high quality Damascus steel knives--but if you don't want to spend a few thousand dollars yet want to be certain you're getting the real deal, the following brands are what we recommend.
Miyabi is owned by Zwilling, but all the knives are made in Japan with traditional Japanese methods. Our Miyabi review goes into a lot of detail about all the Miyabi knives, several of which have a real Damascus overlay. These knives are all hand finished and have stunning attention to detail. The blades tend to be on thin, with narrow cutting angles (about 9-12 degrees).
Birchwood: Our favorite is the Miyabi Birchwood, with an HRC of 63 and 100 layers of Damascus steel overlay protecting it. About $300 for an 8-inch chef knife.
Black: If you want to move up a notch, the Miyabi Black has astonishing HRC 66 and 133 layers of Damascus steel overlay. About $400 for the 8-inch chef knife.
Kaizen: If you want to go more budget, the Miyabi Kaizen has an HRC of 60-61, depending on which model you buy (I or II) and 48 layers of Damascus steel overlay. About $150 for the 8-inch chef knife.
Shun is probably the best known name brand on this list. Their knives are high quality, with a more Western cutting angle of 16 degrees (double bevel). If you want a Japanese knife that cuts a lot like a Western knife, Shun is a good choice.
Classic: The Shun Classic line is Shun's original line. It has an HRC of 60 and 68 layers of Damascus steel (34 each side) overlaying the Shun proprietary VGMax cutting core (16 degree double bevel). About $170 for the 8-inch chef knife.
Premier: The Shun Premier line is beautiful, with an HRC of 60 and 68 layers of Damascus steel (34 each side) overlaying the Shun proprietary VGMax cutting core (16 degree double bevel). About $200 for the 8-inch chef knife.
See our Shun review for more information about these and other Shun knives.
Yoshihiro knives are made in Japan with traditional Japanese methods. The knives have a variety of handles, both Japanese and Western style. The blades are thin, with a standard Western style cutting angle of about 15 degrees. The steel is typically HRC 60 VG10, overlaid with 46 layers of Damascus steel. Individual knives come with sheaths ("saya") which is a nice touch.
The Yoshihiro chef knife pictured goes for about $175.
Zwilling Kramer Euroline
Zwilling is a German company that owns Miyabi, and the Zwilling Kramer knives are made in Japan, almost certainly in the Miyabi factory (if factory is the correct word for hand-finished knives). This knife has a cutting core of HRC 63, SG2 micro carbide steel with 100 layers of Damascus steel overlay and a Western style micarta handle. The cutting edge has 9-12 degree double bevel. It's one of the most beautiful chef's knives on the market, and being designed by Bob Kramer, American knife maker extraordinaire, it has superb design and ergonomics. About $400 for the 8-inch chef's knife (pictured here).
American-Made Damascus Knives
Is there such a thing as American-made Damascus knives? Yes, and these knives are typically very high quality. But we had a hard time finding kitchen knives made in the US, and some of the brands we found were based in the US, but were vague on where the knives were actually made--so you have to be careful when you buy. (We're not saying these knives weren't made in the US, we're just saying we don't know--and by the prices, which are low, we suspect they weren't.)
Final Thoughts on Damascus Steel Kitchen Knives
Damascus steel knives are beautiful. You can find them in high quality brands, and you can find cheap knockoffs from China, India, and Pakistan that may or may not be actual modern Damascus steel (makers can etch steel to look like Damascus).
Damascus steel is typically used as a protective and stylish wrap around a hard steel cutting core, and these are typically the highest quality, found in brands like Shun, Miyabi, and Zwilling Kramer Euroline. Damascus steel is more often seen in Japanese knife brands like Shun and Miyabi, but are also seen in some Western knife lines like the Zwilling Kramer Euroline, which is made in Japan. Some Western companies, like Dalstrong, sell Damascus steel knives made in China, but are still pretty good quality.
If you want a good quality Damascus chef knife, plan on spending $100-$400. If you just want the impressive looks and don't care where the knife is made or if it's authentic, you can spend considerably less.
If you want a Damascus knife, you're not alone--but it is more of a want than a need, because Damascus steel on knives today is largely decorative. If you do want one, we recommend going with a premium brand and avoiding Chinese-made knives unless they're a recognized brand like Dalstrong (and even then, any Japanese-made knives are probably going to be higher quality).
Thanks for reading!
If you found this article helpful, please share: