Pakistan Damascus – Steel Quality

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Why all the bladed items from Pakistan?

Long before I got into axes, I was into knives. It amuses me to think that knives were my gateway blade. During the knife era of my life I often saw knives made in Pakistan being sold everywhere online, a lot of it via social media.

Before I knew the difference between Felling Axes and Hatchets, got into steel and the manufacturing process – I didn’t really pay much attention to who made what, and where it came from. Ignorance is bliss, back then everything just “looked cool”. When you are not knowledgeable, quality is more likely to be assumed, and ascetics take over. Over the past handful of years I watched more knives and axes and other bladed items be sold out of Pakistan.

Some of the sellers are pushy, rude, or unable to convey themselves or their products in English or other languages used by the people they are trying to sell to. Some are selling worthless items, gimmick tools, prop tools, etc. However this is not to say all Pakistani sellers are deviant or that their items lack quality. I’m a progressive open minded guy, everyone gets a chance with me. One bad apple does not make a bad apple tree.

Some of you may know me as one of the Moderators of the axe group, Axe Junkies (friendly) on Facebook. A while back I was messaged by an Pakistani man who wanted to join the group, I allowed it, and only had to say once, please do not flood the page with your items.

Pakistan Blacksmith Crafting Damascus Blades
Pakistan Blacksmith Crafting Damascus Blades

A few members asked about item quality of these Pakistani items. So I decided for the sake of the group to purchase a custom axe from the Pakistani man. I told him what I wanted and waited. It eventually arrived, it was good quality, good steel, not really the design I asked for and had a machined eye. But regardless it was an axe, it was cool, and it was quality. It was not hand forged as I thought it was going to be, I’m fairly certain it was machined.

So in the end the man was honest, fair, and respectful. His product was of quality though not really what I asked for (may have been a communication issue). He seemed like a pretty good guy making a living just like any of us. But this experience doesn’t explain why, why is Pakistan the place all of these things are coming from the place with all of these non-commercial manufacturers. I can’t really think of any other country where I see many sellers trying to sell to a different country.

I know a ton of US sellers, but I live here. I know a few others from around the world but it’s a mere handful. A drop in the pond compared to Pakistan. So why? It was time to do some research and figure out what this is all about.

Lets start with a little bit of information about Pakistan, see if we can begin to paint a picture, so to speak. Pakistan has a good amount of mineral resources however the main exports consist of textile products which consists mostly of cotton and clothing, leathers, and stainless steel products.

Which fall under the categories of Agriculture and Industrial. Which means it all requires time and work to create. They also have a fair but not great environment, and suffer overpopulation issues. All of this means that poverty in Pakistan is not like what we see here at home.

Due to the small amount of “jobs” and the large number of people, those left out of the mainstream job market must resort to skilled trades. A popular trade in Pakistan is in the manufacturing of spare parts made from melted down scrap metal. All done with nothing more then the experience of the blacksmith, no fancy machines or computers or even temperature guages.

 Spare Damascus Parts
Spare Damascus Parts

Some of them make spare parts for many things from cars to kitchen appliances. But guess what else is a popular trade… thats right. Knife making. With the increase in axe enthusiasm, we are beginning to see more axes coming out of Pakistan as well. So essentially what this means is just about anyone in Pakistan who is a metal worker can make and sell knives and axes.

According to my research about 30% of Pakistan live in what we consider poverty, these are the people who resort to skilled trades. With 170 million people, that means 51 million people are hard working, blue collar. Likely a few million or more of them are blacksmiths or work for blacksmiths. I doubt there is even a quarter million blacksmiths in the united states, even less that do it for a living. Throw in international social media and what you have is a lot of Pakistanis trying to sell their work.

Another great thing for these blacksmiths is the Eidul Azha Celebrations, also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice , which is in celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Ismail to express his devotion to Allah. During this celebration many animals are sacrificed, and many sweet treats are eaten.

It’s the build up to this celebration where blacksmiths professional and amateur alike make double the income during any other time of the year. This makes for great motivation to learn how to make bladed tools, as for a short period you can make a lot of money. Many blacksmiths eagerly await the celebration every year.

The stigma in regards to these products is that the quality is usually poor. Not due to lack of skill but because if inconsistency. A lot of the products are made from melted down scrap metal using low tech methods. There is virtually no quality control. There is no way of knowing the quality of the steel used, or the quality of the process.

Unfortunately the main goal is to make money rather than providing superior quality and building a brand. It’s a lot like the lottery, sometimes you will get a great blade, other times not so much. It’s hit or miss. Unless you are buying from an established company, you will never know what you are going to get until it arrives. But the old adage holds true generally, you get what you pay for. An axe that costs you $3 is never going to be good. Unless it’s vintage and you are at a flea market.

But there is another issue that looms over Pakistan blacksmiths. Damascus steel. In the tool and steel crowds…yeah they exist. There is always an on going discussion regarding what I call modern Damascus steel and whether or not it should be called Damascus steel.

The fact of the matter is what many fanatics say is real Damascus steel has not existed since the 18th century. This is not to say that the Damascus steel of today is not legitimate. The original Damascus steel was created using Wootz steel, which was crudely but expertly created using a crucible. I discuss the process a bit in my article Forge an Axe.

They heated this Wootz steel and began the process of repeatedly folding the steel over on itself and pounding it together, this lengthy process makes for a very tightly grained steel, and also creates the pattern the steel is famous for, the photo shown here is a close up of an original Damascus steel blade. When properly hardened and tempered, this steel takes and holds a very sharp edge, it is a very hard steel

Original Damascus
Original Damascus

The problem with the Damascus steel of today is nobody knows how to create the original Wootz steel. It is a recipe and process that was lost in time. However we can use modern steel and use the same process of folding the steel into itself again and again. Both tightening the grain, hardening the steel, and creating the famous patterns. It’s also fair to say that using the high quality steels of today, the process produces a superior steel than using ancient Wootz steel that was made with raw iron ore and burned wood, heated in a sealed clay pot. The process for creating carbon steel remains the same, it has just been refined.

Wootz steel used specific materials from specific regions, and nobody knows what or where specifically. A few modern blacksmiths have tried and some claim to have discovered the recipe but it is unlikely. Many people don’t understand that Damascus steel is more of a process, where wootz steel is a very specific material originally used in the process.

As you can see it’s a very fine line between whether or not modern Damascus is “real”. It is real, it is just not original or unique, during the time period of Wootz steel, Damascus steel and blades were renowned. Today they are on par with stainless steel, nothing special.

Blacksmith Helpers
Blacksmith Helpers

However, there is “fake” Damascus steel out there. Sometimes the blades or axes are not made by the folding process but instead are regular steel with an acid etch. In other words if you sand it, it goes away, it only on the surface.

I also heard a story about a guy who bought a Damascus steel knife, only to find that when heated with a torch the swirls of the steel pattern began to melt, apparently they had somehow combined, steel and a softer metal and formed a blade with it.

He believed it to be tin, I’m wondering if it was aluminum. I’ve never mixed metals so I’m not sure how that works. I suppose if they cool together into a solid billet you can just cut a knife out of it sharpen it and ship it out.

But I’m willing to bet that this scam doesn’t happen too often as the amount of profit made and the effort taken to try to make extra profit either equal out or the effort costs more so there is no logical reason to do it.

So now that you learned a bit about Pakistan and have a general idea of why there are so many blacksmiths and such coming out of Pakistan. Lets sum it all up and form a conclusion to this article. Buying a cutting tool from Pakistan is hit or miss. Don’t go into it expecting the best knife ever, don’t expect it to be completely useless.

I think it’s also fair if you keep in your mind, in the western world we have a lot of options, especially when it comes to quality of products or services. In places such as Pakistan the focus is more on whether or not it’s useful, rather than if it can cut through a brick and then slice through a single sheet of paper without a hitch after being left in a mud puddle for a week. It’s a scale.

If you want to purchase purely for show then purchase away they make a lot of cool items, just don’t expect to ever use them all. If you are purchasing for use, ask others if they know a certain Pakistani seller that they have had experience with or others.

Try to find a vendor who is active on social media and makes an effort to advertise his trade rather than just posting a bunch of knife photos and telling you to buy. Talk to the man a bit, create a little connection. A professional will usually appreciate it, a scammer will usually shy away.

Keep in mind their English might not be that good. You can also purchase Pakistani made items through bigger commercial vendors but I can’t help but feel like these companies might not quite be fair to the people who make their products, but that could just be me. In general however high quality modern Damascus steel tools are usually on the pricier side.

Yes! Modern Damascus steel is real Damascus steel, unless it is scam. Many products have fakes, steel is no different. The original Damascus steel does not exist purely because Wootz steel no longer exists and likely never will again.

Damascus steel and forge welded steel is the same thing, the difference is you are welding one piece of steel to itself, over and over, rather than pounding two pieces of steel into one. So there you have it, some Pakistani tools are great, some are junk. Just like any other product in the world, but it’s the ratio of the population that makes it seem worse than it really is. Just remember, most of the time, you get what you pay for.

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