Among knife-makers it’s called Damascus steel, or more properly, pattern-welded steel.
Bill Burke in his shop halfway between Boise and Idaho City, above Highway 21.
“You take two or more particular alloys of steel and keep folding them and folding them to create a pattern in the material,” explains Burke, “and you mix it kind of like if you were making bread. There are a few people in the world that can replicate the original wootz Damascus nowadays. It was lost for a very long time. Pattern welding is a very similar technique to what the Japanese were doing 700 years ago.”
The thin strips of nickel in the steel will create a unique pattern.
Burke's skills are a big reason the public is fascinated by what knife-makers are able to create.
The forge where the various metal alloys are heated until they're red-hot.
But Burke says people don’t realize the amount of time he spends. “The unfortunate thing is people somehow think that you can make a high quality knife in three to six hours, which is not the case. For some Damascus patterns, it takes a good solid week -- five days of 8 to 10 hours a day – in front of that forge, pounding that steel. That’s just to get the bar of steel. That’s not counting making the knife. So it’s not easy.”
This one-of-a-kind tomahawk took Burke more than 300 hours to create and contains more than half an ounce of gold.
Burke says there’s about a 98 percent loss of steel in his technique. He starts with about 22 pounds of steel. “And when I get done, I get one knife that weighs about 8 to 9 ounces. So it's not easy."
Beginning the process of pounding the red-hot metal, using a machine Burke re-purposed.
Burke was a body and fender guy, working on cars and only making knives part time; that is, until a tornado in Tennessee turned his life upside down.
The 2003 Blade Magazine issue with the story of Bill Burke's knife.
One of his five inch hunting knives saved two men trapped inside a crushed semi. A story in Blade Magazine spread the word that Burke’s small knife had cut through the steel cab of the semi, allowing the men to escape, moments before the truck burst into flame.
The article on Bill Burke's "tornado knife" in Blade Magazine.
At the next knife show in Atlanta, Georgia, Burke’s knives sold out in less than an hour. "So I quit my day job and just started to make knives full time."
"I don't know what to say about it, just that I'm blessed that people like my work enough to pay me to do it. It's phenomenal to think that people appreciate my work that much."
Bill Burke makes the cover of the American Bladesmith Journal.
Burke is in rare company; he's one of only about 120 in the world who hold the title of Master Bladesmith, accredited by the American Bladesmith Society.
To become a master bladesmith, your knife has to cut a free-hanging one inch hemp rope with one swing, cut a 2x4 in half, twice, and then still be able to shave hair off your arm. After that, you have to put your knife in a vise and bend it 90 degrees without breaking it.
Burke likes to explain to students how knives and swords can be created out of certain types of rock.
But don't get caught up in all that, says Burke. "All you really need to make a knife is a desire, some way to heat the steel, a hammer, and something to beat on. Having a grinder of some sort helps, but it's not really necessary. With a lot of work you can pound that knife right down to the point where you can harden it, temper it, and sharpen it without really any grinding. Now, it'll take you 40 years to get there, but you can do it!" he says with a laugh.
More pounding on what will eventually become a Burke knife.
Of course, what Burke does also requires a fair amount of strength, and the willingness to put up with excessive heat. It also helps to be able to re-purpose antique equipment so that it does exactly what you need it to do. Some math comes in handy, as does an understanding of chemistry. And then a whole lot of patience.
But the result is definitely worth it!