American Craftsman: Forged in Flame

John DowdSpecial to the Chanticleer

For over 20 years Alabama Damascus has crafted some of the world’s finest and toughest knife and steel blanks in the world. Today, Alabama Damascus remains the top commercial producer of Damascus layered steel in the United States, and competes globally with other such producers like Pakistan, China, and India, but those who know true knives, know Alabama Damascus steel to be some of the best.

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An Alabama Damascus blade (photo by John Dowd)

Even Hitler, in WWII, fell in love with the beauty and potential of Damascus steel, and had five blacksmiths that could only make enough for his top generals. The first record of folded steel comes from 200 AD, where laminated metal combined the properties of multiple metals, into a pattern that resembled a cloth, for which the city was named. Fast forward a few thousand years, opened in the 1970s, in an old cotton mill, Edwards steel became the first and only commercial level producer of Damascus steel in the world. Edwards steel became famous for its durability, quality, and flexibility. In fact one of the properties that draws so many people to Damascus steel, even today, is that quality of flexibility. Damascus carbon steel’s molecular makeup allows it much more bend before fracturing than most alloys and steals, especially over the qualities of stainless. This steel was made using power hammers, giant pneumatic machines, some of which weigh over 50 tons, that have a striking force of more than 3000 lbs. Some of these colossal machines are nearing 100 years old, and are still being used today. Some of the machine dates, in the shop, are estimated between 1918 with the oldest, to some of the more recent being dated back to 1920. Edwards steel closed for many years, then in 1985 it reopened as Alabama Damascus, and has since remained the top producer title of Damascus steel in the country, and is in Jacksonville, Alabama.

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Machinery used for making Damascus steel blades. (photo by John Dowd)

So what does it take to make some of the world’s greatest steel blades? Put simply by and old knife-smith, Virgil Jones, “Basically what it is, you have two different types (or more) of steel, and you forge weld them together.” However, there is much more to the process than that. First, they start with several similar sized pieces of steel, of various types, welded at the ends together, then to a large carbon steel beam that has been chemically hardened overnight in lime.

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The beginning stages of production process. (photo by John Dowd)

This beam will become the handle that the smiths will later use to maneuver and turn the steel and with which they will utilize the hammer to shape and fold them. These layered pieces are the first of what will become a billet. These billets are then slowly preheated, in a propane forge, to around 1700 degrees, hot enough for the steel to act like a very hard putty.

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Billets being heated in a propane forge. (photo by John Dowd)

At this point, the steel is carried over to the power hammer, where a team of two smiths work like clockwork, if the parts of that clock, just narrowly missing each other by only a few inches, were carrying molten pieces of steel over 1500 degrees.

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A heated billet on the power hammer block. This steel is approximately 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. (photo by John Dowd)

The smiths put the heated billets onto the hammer and press down on a foot pad, causing the tremendous machine to tick… or rather smash at about 15 times the force of a sledgehammer. This force, and the combined heat, is so great that it causes the layers of steel to instantly fuse together, in a process called forge welding.

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The power hammer fuses layers of steel together in a process known as forge welding. (photo by John Dowd)

The shop uses 12 layers of metal including several types of carbon steel, and nickel. While one forgeman works with the billet, the other waits patiently at his side. Once the billet has been sufficiently flattened, the other smith places what’s called a forgeman’s axe in the center of the billet, and the hammer is made to take a few more blows to cut partially into the billet, forming a week spot for the billet to bend, or fold, in half.

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A forgeman flattens a heated billet. (photo by John Dowd)

At this point, before the billet is folded, the smith working the billet places it on a table where the other smith grinds excess grit off the billet, and coats it in a chemical called borax, which helps keep the hot metal from oxidizing before it is folded, ensuring a good weld, free of impurities. The billet is then placed back into the hammer where it is maneuvered to bend in half, forge welded again, and then the process starts over as that smith places the billet back into the forge.

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A billet gets a coat of borax before being placed back in the hammer. (photo by John Dowd)

This process in repeated up to another 4 times, to produce in the finished product with over 416 layers. They work about 12 billets every morning.

Once finished, the billets are sent off to be laser cut to the desired designs for knife blanks.

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An example of knife blanks. (photo by John Dowd)

 

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Knife blanks being cut. (photo by John Dowd)

These are then shipped back to the shop to be ground, edged, heat treated and tempered, then the blanks go through a process of acid treatment. This is where the blanks are dipped into a strong acid, which eats away at the different layers of metal at different rates, causing the knife’s layers to become exposed. The shop mostly sells these blanks as are to people or companies who put the handles on themselves and then sell them. On rare occasions will the shop do the handling process themselves. Alabama Damascus puts immense pride into their work, and is quite possibly one of the last vestiges of true American Craftsmanship left in the USA. As put by Virgil: “our idea here, is that Joe blow, the average working guy, can afford a really nice handmade knife.”

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Knives awaiting assembly. (photo by John Dowd)

 

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