Damascus Knives

Ron Duncan wears his passion for fine steel on his sleeves. Actually, he wears it under his sleeves, where his skin bears the scars of innumerable burns from hand forging Damascus-steel knives.

A resident of Cairo, Mo., Duncan is one of many craftsmen around the country who specialize in making high-quality knives featuring Damascus steel blades. Notable knife-makers who have influenced and even trained Duncan include Corbin Newcomb of Moberly, Bill Moran of Maryland, Jerry Fisk of Arkansas and the late Jim Mayes, formerly of Auxvasse.

Due to the popularity of inexpensive, mass-produced, commercial-grade knives, Damascus steel craft became what many considered a lost art. However, fine quality never really falls out of fashion, and there's no question that Damascus steel is more durable and holds a razor-sharp edge longer than any other steel. Duncan and his colleagues recognized the demand, and they have been largely responsible for bringing Damascus back into vogue.

Unlike retail grade knives, which are stamped from a sheet of medium quality steel, Damascus steel is formed by folding many layers of high quality carbon steel into one block.This block is called a billet. From one billet, a knifemaker can cut several blanks. He then forges a blade out of each blank. The craftsman then grinds the forged blade into a finished knife. Afterwards, he heat-treats it, and then tempers it. Finally, he bathes the blade in acid, which etches the beautiful patterns that define Damascus steel.

It takes about 20 hours to complete a single knife, and each one has a distinct look and feel. These qualities make every Damascus knife an heirloom.

A Brief History of Damascus

During the Middle Ages, when European crusaders invaded the Holy Land, they often fared poorly against Saracen cavalrymen swinging thin, light swords so sharp they could slice a man cleanly in two. They were also so flexible that they could bend without breaking. Those swords were made of Damascus steel, and they represented the most advanced form of weapons-grade metallurgy in existence.

Japanese sword makers also used the Damascus process to make samurai swords. Vintage Damascus samurai swords contained as many as 2,000 layers of steel, and they are extremely valuable and sought after still today. Vikings also made Damascus knives and swords, and their metalwork is considered some of the finest ever created.

Damascus artisans were so protective of their craft that most of them did not