There’s something literally awesome about blacksmithing. The heat, the noise, the glowing lump of metal at the heart of it all. It’s incredible to think that people did this kind of work centuries ago without lathes or power tools or modern knowledge of chemistry.
It’s almost as incredible to think that anyone’s doing it nowadays – demand for horseshoes, weapons, and agricultural implements has dropped massively since the end of feudalism and the Industrial Revolution. For anyone to make a living as a blacksmith these days, they have to be doing something a bit special – and what Alec Steele’s doing is special indeed.
We went to speak to Alec and take pictures of shiny stuff – we weren’t disappointed. Read on for an instruction manual of how to make Damascus steel, why perfectionism gets things done, and the best reasons for making stuff that we’ve ever heard.
HackSpace First of all, tell us about Damascus steel: what is it, and how do you get those wonderful patterns in the metal?
Alec Steele The way I’m making Damascus steel now is I’m taking alloys of steel with different chemical compositions. The first alloy of steel is one that has a high carbon percentage, 0.8% carbon and not a whole lot else. There’s a tiny little bit of manganese and stuff like that, but it’s essentially plain 0.8% carbon steel. That holds a good edge, it’s good for a knife.
What we then do is we add another steel to it that has 0.8% carbon, and also 2% nickel. That nickel doesn’t affect the edge quality at all, it’s still great knife steel, but when we make something, we then polish it. We put it in acid and the nickel will resist the etch. It’s along the lines of how stainless steel is more resistant to staining because it has the chromium and sometimes also the nickel.
By bumping the nickel percentage up we increase its corrosion resistance, so we’re able to put it in acid and have the plain carbon steel etch away, leaving the nickel steel proud on the surface, and we can then polish the nickel steel. It gives us a relief where we’re able to polish and show the contrast in the patterns. That’s the general principle behind it, and that’s how we’re getting the patterns in the steel.
HS How do you go about making two different styles of steel come together in one object?
AS We stack up the bits of steel – they start as individual little coupons of steel and we tack-weld them together, so they don’t fall apart as they’re going in and out of the fire. Then we go to the forge. We heat it up in the forge until it’s a yellow or an orange temperature – not to welding temperature, but just to the degree that we can close it up so air is less likely to get in there. Then we can apply some flux. Flux is borax, basically – disodium tetraborate. The flux supposedly helps clean your welding surfaces as it welds, and helps seal it from oxygen. You don’t want any impurities in there, otherwise they’re going to end up in the final piece. If you have a void in the final piece, you’re going to have a big problem.
From there you heat it back up, to something like 1300–1400 degrees Celsius. At that point it’s a bright, high yellow, almost white. The surface of the steel can sometimes look as though it’s bubbling. It’s as hot as it gets, and it can be painful to even look at if you’re really staring at it. It’s beyond red, it’s beyond yellow, it’s white. At that point when you hammer it, or when you press it, the surface of the steel, the different layers are to some extent molten and will create a bond, but you still have the clear differentiation between one alloy and another.
Starting off, you have straight layers of steel. But when you draw it out, manipulate the pattern as you go, you cut it, re-stack it, you’re creating this interesting mosaic of steel as you continually develop the pattern and move it around to create different patterns.
There are people who will twist the Damascus, there are people who will cut into it to reveal different layers in the steel, there’s all sorts of stuff that you can do to make interesting patterns on the finished thing.
From there you forge the blade, and then you grind the blade and get ready for heat treat. The heat treat basically involves taking the steel in its normal state, heating it up, then quenching it in oil at the critical temperature. The critical temperature is where there’s like a phase change in the steel or something like that, where it converts to austenite. Then what you do is you cool it down very quickly so you can form martensite crystals (I think! I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening).
The practical reality of that is that you heat it up, you cool it down fast, it gets hard. It gets very brittle though – it can almost be as brittle as glass. So then what you do is you heat it to a lower temperature and hold it at that temperature for a certain amount of time. This is called tempering. That takes what is very, very hard and brittle, and you’re allowing it to be tough, flexible, be able to keep an edge, but not have the edge break and be too friable, too brittle. So the tempering is important. These are the things that really make a blade. You’re constantly trying to balance between cutting something really well and it not being able to cut after the first time you use it because it breaks or bends or something like that. It’s all about getting this equilibrium of hardness and toughness, and all about getting the right equilibrium of blade geometry that’s going to be cutting through well enough, but also well enough supported for the task at hand.
HS Is this the same process no matter what you’re making?
AS You don’t put on a splitting axe the same edge that you put on a straight razor, because the splitting axe doesn’t want that edge. That edge is going to roll over and chip and get damaged and be no use to the splitting axe. Whereas on the straight razor, while you still need to cut, you need a very thin edge, but you’re not going to be subjecting it to a lot of impact, so you can have the thin edge. It’s about creating the right balance. In making a blade, that’s the start: it’s the balance of the different attributes of what the steel will give you and what the geometry of the thing you’re making will give you.
So from there, you polish the thing. And it takes a long time and a lot of effort to polish it well enough that you can get a good etch. You have to take it from your belt grinder — it looks like you’re leaving a flat finish, but a belt grinder won’t leave a flat finish, there’ll be a lot of scratches, and they’ll be in the wrong direction. The scratches that a belt grinder makes are typically going laterally to the blade, which is problematic because the blade is not going to have a perfectly flat surface.
Grinding will stop at, say, 400 grit, but to be able to switch the scratch pattern around, we then have to go back to 80 or 120 grit with the hand sanding and put the scratches along the length of the blade, so that when it’s etched you can have a nice polish. It takes hours and hours and hours to build those grit scratches back up to 400 grit so you can get the clean finish. When it’s ready for the etch, we’ll then go into a 10% ferric chloride solution.
HS This is the whole blade we’re talking about here, not just the cutting edge?
AS Absolutely. We polish the whole blade and, to reveal the Damascus pattern, we then go into the etch, which is ferric chloride. You leave it in there until the carbon steel etches away and the nickel steel will stay where it is, so you’re going to get this negative. Then after the etch, and various processes afterwards, you have to take a 2000 grit over the nickel steel to polish up the nickel, shine up the high spots. You get the beautiful contrast between the two, and that’s essentially it.
Obviously you need to sharpen the blade. Sharpening a blade is complex, but it can be made a lot more complex than it needs to be. What you’re essentially trying to do is bring steel down to almost nothing, along a straight line, while making sure you don’t have a burr that’s going to mess with your cuts.
Getting back to reality, what I will do is take the edge on a secondary level, usually to a 400-grit finish, then I’ll take it to a buffer, which will then take the burr that’s created from that, get it nice and clean and finally, get a sharp edge that will make a mess out a lamb chop.
HS Sounds easy!
AS It is. It’s just really tiring.
HS We made our own little knife in issue 2, the most basic knife possible, admittedly, and for that we used 1080 steel, so that terminology rings a bell. Just a blank of steel, get a pattern on paper, cut it out with a hacksaw, file, it, heat it, temper it (if I remember rightly, we used engine oil), and that felt really cool, that you can do that with just a blowtorch and a hammer. Nothing at all like this beautiful expanse of power tools that you’ve got here.
AS I’m working on something similar right now. I’m making a blade with just basic hand tools. This here, it’s all going to be finished out with just files and some sanding, just a hand hammer, an anvil with no complex bits of tooling. I’m going to be using a power drill to drill a hole in it, but everybody’s got a hand drill right?
It can be made a lot simpler – making stuff with steel, making knives, it can be done with seriously limited tools. It’s the fundamentals that are key. I don’t consider myself a knife maker, I consider myself a blacksmith who’s just getting into knife making. It’s such a complex craft: the attention to detail that’s required to make great blades that many thousands of extremely talented knife makers and craftsmen out there have spent decades trying to acquire.
It takes incredible discipline, it takes incredible understanding of the basics, it takes incredible skill and knowledge, years of practice to be able to get to that level. The great thing is that someone who has got to that level would be able to take a bit of steel and basic tools and knock anything I could make out of the water in a similar amount of time, just because they know the basics so well. Because they know the foundational principles.
We think we need crazy amounts of tools to do anything, and it’s nice to have all the tools, and if you can have the tools, it’s great. But you can do superb work with very little, really. It’s pretty cool to see when people are capable of pretty awesome work with minimal tooling.
HS You make it sound like you’re just an apprentice to your craft, when anyone looking around here and noting all the stuff you’ve made would probably think you’re already damn good at the blacksmithing game. To me it looks like you’ve pretty much cracked it.
AS No! I’ve not cracked it at all, honestly, I’m still very much a beginner. Every single day there’s a torrent of information being thrown at my head from the material I’m working with. I’m learning so much. I am at the very beginning of my journey of craftsmanship, of learning stuff, of creating things; I like to think that’s because I’ve got high standards of where I want to end up. I want to be able to make works of art that people are going to appreciate for generations to come.
And that’s a high standard, you know. If you want to be making the best stuff that’s going to be appreciated by your great-grandkids, you’ve got to set your standards high. It might look like I know what I’m doing, but not in the details that I want to be really, really focused on. I want to be able to have a very high degree of control over what I do, so that what is made is exactly what is in my mind’s eye. I don’t want to let the material take control, I don’t want to let the tools take control. I think that’s one of the greatest things about craftsmanship, that people are able to get so incredibly skilled at a craft, to the point where there is nothing between what they imagine and what they create, other than their own sweat and hard work. That’s real skill: they don’t ever have to say “it turned out like this”; they say “I made it like this”.
Every single scratch, every single micron on this blade is exactly how I intended it. There are people who can do that – OK, so maybe not to the micron, maybe every 10 or 50 microns. But where every 100th of an inch is exactly planned for, or exactly wanted. I’m not necessarily saying they drew it out, but they intended it to be exactly like this. There’s not a single mistake in there, there’s not a single thing that they haven’t rectified to make better. There are people out there who can do that. And they do it every single day. That takes some serious discipline and an unbelievable dedication to the craft.
And that’s why I describe myself as a beginner: the material is still taking me in certain directions. It’s the ownership over the material that’s the really exciting thing, and I think one of the biggest roots of craft in all of human pursuits. It’s saying to the things around us, “I know you want to be a mountain right here, but we’re going to blow you up and put a road through you”. That’s what we do: we take ownership of the world and we make sure that we make what we want from it.
If there’s a big river and we want to drive across it we say “OK, let’s build a bridge”. Engineers make sure they build a bridge and they make sure they build in the allowances to account for heat expansion and cooling, and the different seasons and account for exactly how much load’s going to be put on it, and be sure that they build a bridge that is exactly what is required, provides what they want, and does the job to the greatest degree of perfection possible. That’s what we do. We don’t pick up an iPhone and say “Oh golly, my iPhone doesn’t work today. I guess the makers tried”. We expect it to work. We expect it to be exactly what was intended. And this is the beautiful thing about craft. Generations behind us, people have made things with unbelievably minimal tools exactly as they intended, because of skill, because of determination, because of the discipline of their craft.
The first steam engine – imagine having to make the first steam engine with the tools that were available to you then! That took some doing. That took some serious thinking, some serious willpower to make right, some serious craftsmanship.
Something that I very often fall prey to every single day in the workshop is saying “that’s good enough”. We wouldn’t have all the nice things we have in the world if people before us said “that’s good enough”.
HS Arguably. Maybe we wouldn’t have anything at all if nobody said “that’s good enough”.
AS There’s tolerance to it, right? You could say that you want a blade that’s bang on 6.253 mm thick, and I end up with 6.2531… you’re off, that’s not perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist; what there is is a degree of tolerance that you’ve got to work with. Obviously at some point you’ve got to say that’s good enough. But the standard is very high historically, it’s high in the cars we drive, of course. Tolerance is important and I don’t want to act as if I’m trying to make sure that I can craft things to a micron by hand with a file and a toothbrush, for goodness’ sake. What I mean is that the tolerance has to allow the thing to work to the best that it can.
HS What’s the closest you’ve got to this mythical state of perfection? Do you have a favourite thing that you’ve made?
AS I’ve not got anywhere near to the degree of excellence that I’d like to get in the pieces that I’ve made – again, I’m a beginner. But the best thing I’ve made so far is the kris. It’s not an authentic kris by any stretch of the imagination, but what it is is a wavy blade. It has this sinusoidal shape, and it’s a double bevel, a dagger with an 18-inch-long blade.
You have to have this bevel going up this sinusoidal shape, and you keep the bevel centred, and you make sure that you have an even finish the whole way down. It’s made in Damascus steel, which itself requires a lot of thinking to get right (and I didn’t get it as right as I wanted). It’s got this integral guard, so instead of there being a guard that’s placed on after the fact and it’s attached on, it’s forged out of the material. So the Damascus flows in and out of this guard. The transitions between these points are very difficult, it’s very easy to mess it up.
That then transitions into a keyhole handle; keyhole was invented by Rodrigo Sfreddo, who is a Brazilian knife maker. You have this cut-out in the steel that looks like a keyhole, and you have to get the wood to fit in there tightly, you don’t even have to pin it. You don’t need to use any glue between the wood and the metal. It’s so tight that there’s no air, there are no gaps, the wood doesn’t go anywhere because the pressure of the metal is holding it in there. It took ten tries for me to get the wood to fit right. I spent seven days alone on the handle of this thing. I ended up using cocobolo; it has these beautiful carved facets where I was paying more attention than I’ve ever paid to making sure everything’s straight, everything’s neat and even and equal, so that when it gets picked up you don’t look at it and look closely and go, “that doesn’t look square, that doesn’t look centred”.
You’re trying to do justice to the thing that you want to make. If you say that you want to make a nice clean piece of work, you’ve got to make sure that things are square and neat and centred, and your own two hands are to blame for every single fault along the way. Every single mistake in there is your fault. And that’s pretty fun, because you can always improve: you’re always going to be making mistakes.
I look up to incredible craftsmen who do incredible work and I go, “Oh my goodness, how could you do better than that?” But I tell you what: they’re looking at the same things and going, “Man, I messed this up”, looking at all the flaws that you or I would never notice.
There are tens of millions of craftsmen who have gone before us who have made extremely clean work with only their two hands by having an extreme mastery of the craft. I find that really inspiring, and really exciting. What’s to stop me from making better work? Nothing more than my own determination to make it happen. Nothing more than my ability to learn from my mistakes the day before. And hopefully improve and get better.