Making Damascus steel is considered to be an art form. The name comes from its birthplace of Damascus Syria. Here they were used to make swords which were known as some of the best in the world. The Japanese took and improved the process, but the art was lost altogether about 400 years ago.
Thanks to the recent resurgence of making arts over the last few decades, the art of making Damascus blanks have been making a comeback. Although we can't know exactly how the modern process compares to the older one, we know that the Damascus steel blanks are not made of the same metals used today. Nonetheless, they do appear similar, and they have the same strength and sharpness as those ancient swords.
The Process of Creating
Damascus steel is a very strong carbon-steel alloy made to hold a sharp edge without breaking. In addition to its exceptional quality, it's also known for its striking patterns on the blades. Various bands, waves or ripples have always been an aesthetic feature of Damascus blades. They are carbides that are precipitated out in sheets. These carbides are what give these blades their incredible strength.
Most modern Damascus knives are made from Damascus blanks, which aren't quite the same thing as Damascus steel. They differ in that they are made from pattern welded steel which uses a folded metal method. The resulting knife blank is made from the layers that result from the process, shaped and polished into a blade.
Sometimes acid is used to reveal the natural pattern in the Damascus blank. It doesn't create that pattern; it only accentuates it. However, a knife blank treated in this manner is not truly a Damascus knife blank anymore.
What Do the Experts Say?
Most knife and cutlery experts will tell you they are overrated. Yes, Samurai Swords were remarkable for the time, and other legendary swords of Damascus fame were well-made weapons, but modern steel manufacturing has caught up and, in many cases, surpassed the old ways and methods. Nevertheless, Damascus steel is remarkable. Blades and swords can be a collectors' items due to their unusual and beautiful patterns. Damascus knives do hold their edge better and are much more durable than their stainless steel counterparts. Most people find stainless steel plenty good enough for their purposes, and since it's much cheaper to manufacture and easier to maintain, it's the material of choice for home knife needs.
It is believed that Damascus steel blanks are one of the only useful tools surviving modern times that can be regarded as a work of art. Serious amateur chefs and professionals will often have a set of Damascus knives. For those to whom cooking is a passion, the extra performance and durability are worth the extra cost. They may not be the magical swords of legend, but they are fine professional blades that professional chefs and collectors alike can appreciate.