A Collectors' Guide to Wootz Steel
Before we dive in it’s important to state that this article is meant to be a basic guide only—one that helps those with an interest in historical weaponry to visually identify the main types of antique wootz steel and to understand more about what is a confusing, enigmatic subject. If you’d like to read more comprehensive works on the subject please see the list of links and publications at the end of this article.
What is Wootz?
Wootz is a very hard type of crucible steel that was highly prized for a variety of reasons. Manufacturing it was lengthy and difficult, and it had an appropriate price tag—a premium still paid by today’s collectors who value both its historical significance and its aesthetic qualities. It can be a bewildering field of study and many collectors, dealers and auction houses identify or describe it incorrectly, and this can lead to a significant loss of investment for a purchaser who finds out too late that their antique wootz dagger is actually a modern pattern-welded impostor. Even the most basic terms used in association with wootz are often misunderstood and used erroneously.
Synonyms for wootz steel: wootz Damascus, true Damascus steel, crucible Damascus, watered steel, Damask, falaad, faulad, pulad, jauhar.
Damascus, Syria, is probably so closely associated with wootz due to it being a trading hub where, for centuries, wootz steel weapons and ingots from India (and neighbouring regions) were sold in the bustling markets. The resulting items would find their way into ownership throughout the civilised world, capturing many imaginations and even sparking European scientists and manufacturers to find out how this remarkable steel was made.
This research continues today, with modern blacksmiths and metallurgists now able to recreate some of the properties found in antique blades.
The process of making wootz starts with iron ore, which is iron oxide and whatever natural impurities have come to be mixed with it. This ore is crushed into smaller pieces and heated to remove the impurities and moisture, leaving behind the pure iron oxide. Removing the oxide part from the iron is then achieved in a bloomery (or furnace) by heating it with charcoal—the charcoal producing carbon monoxide which clings to the oxygen in the iron oxide and extracts it, escaping as carbon dioxide. This leaves only ‘blooms’ of low carbon iron remaining.
These blooms are then crushed into smaller pieces and fully melted in a crucible, where any remaining impurities float to the top for later removal. Green leaves are added to the crucible for their hydrogen content (this helps the iron to melt at a lower temperature than normal) as is crushed glass which quickly melts and forms an airtight seal across the mixture’s top. The crucible is then carefully sealed and the heating process begun. Completion of this stage results in a ‘cake’ that is then heated with more iron oxide (and then air-cooled and reheated multiple times) giving it a low carbon shell that prevents it shattering during the next stage: forging into a blade.
After forging, polishing and then etching with an acid the smith should be able to see a pattern within the surface of the steel. This is made by the carbides that not only create the grains and swirls vital to wootz steel but also impart their toughness to it. These patterns are key to identifying the type of wootz a blade is classified as having and they can be difficult to discern and categorise. Of course, debate continues regarding this classification and the terms used but I present below the four most well known, as described by Lord Egerton of Tatton way back in 1896.
Ladder and Rose
Popular in the Middle East, this particularly valued pattern is also referred to as kirk narduban, kirknir daban, stepped, Muhammed’s Ladder or the Ladder of the Prophet. The ‘ladder’ can have double or even triple rungs, arranged perpendicular the blade’s edge. Other variations include a ‘rose’ between the ladder’s rungs and a diagonal zig-zag linking the rungs. This rose can also be found on wootz blades without a ladder to enclose it.
Depending upon whom you talk to, this category of wootz is often split into two main types: kara Khorasan and kara taban, with kara being the Turkish word for black. These are very similar to each other, probably originating from the same source, and seeing them side-by-side makes identification much easier for the layman as the lazier swirls of kara taban can be discerned more readily against the tighter structure of kara Khorasan (which is said to be more desirable to collectors).
Debate continues about whether sham refers to the Shams area of Syria or the English word that means ‘false’. Regardless of the name’s origin, this is the least desirable type of wootz’s patterns and it can be identified by its (mostly) straight lines of varying lengths.
This isn’t really wootz at all but is instead a superficial pattern etched into the surface of the steel using acid and a resist. With wootz being costly and rare it stands to reason that a ‘budget’ version would sooner or later have been invented for those with less spending power. Despite it being classed as ‘fake wootz’ It isn’t a common phenomenon to encounter so is interesting in its own right.
Wootz can also be found mixed with normal steel or pattern-welded steel, too. Wootz can be considered brittle and the weaponsmiths experimented with composites such as the one illustrated here, with the hardness of the tightly grained wootz being augmented by the flexibility of the normal steel that can be seen in the fuller on the left.
This type of steel is similar in appearance to wootz and, confusingly, shares the Damascus name. Production of it involves the forging of multiple bars of bloomery iron together, folding and twisting them to produce a pattern. It was called Damascus steel in the 1800s and this has exacerbated it being confused with wootz. Also known as mechanical Damascus steel, the easiest way to tell if a blade has been pattern-welded is by studying the swirls within it: they are usually far more ripple-like than the granular or eddy-like waves within wootz. Because this is so often confused for wootz I have included multiple examples of pattern-welding in the gallery below.
Thanks to Jacob Holmes of Warpath Forge, Sebastian Szukalski, Runjeet Singh and Khulood al Shammari for their invaluable help with this article.
Sources and Further Reading
The Goddess: Arms and Armour of the Rajputs by Runjeet Singh
The Asiatic Journal (Volume 10)
Arms & Armour of India, Nepal & Sri Lanka: Types, Decoration and Symbolism by Ravinder Reddy
On Damascus Steel by Leo S Figiel
The Microstructure of Steels and Cast Irons by Madeleine Durand-Charre
Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour by Lord Egerton of Tatton
Arms and Armour by E Jaiwant Paul