Sparks fly as Don Hethcoat grinds an edge on a billet before folding it over and forging it at his shop Tuesday. Hethcoat will fold over the metal in some cases up to eight times. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Michelle Seeber
Don Hethcoat, 60, of Clovis makes knife blades out of a type of steel alloy that was developed and used in the Middle East between the years 1000 and 1300.
Called Damascus steel, it was encountered by Europeans during the Crusades, according to a Wikipedia encyclopedia. They said it could chop through normal blades, or even rock, without losing its sharp edge.
Quality isn’t the only reason Hethcoat makes knife blades out of Damascus steel, however.
This type of steel has patterns in it, like curls and sprays or even squares created during the process of making it.
Each knife Hethcoat makes is unique and cannot be copied. A knife made of Damascus steel is like owning one’s own fingerprint.
“You have to be dedicated to make it,” Hethcoat said at his home last week. “If you aren’t dedicated, you can’t do it.”
Hethcoat makes the Damascus steel from scratch through a blacksmithing process that requires a combination of high chromium steel (or nickel steel) and high carbon steel.
To do it, he puts together bars of the chromium and high carbon steel to form a small block called a billet.
He then heats the billet in a forge (a type of furnace) until the pieces of steel melt together.
He stretches the steel while it’s hot, and folds it over a number of times, blending the types of steel.
“Manipulating the steel creates designs in the metal,” Hethcoat said.
He heats it again, pounds it out and polishes it.
There are more steps to the process, including dipping the steel in acid to bring out designs and patterns, but in the end what Hethcoat has is a flat piece of Damascus steel from which he cuts knife blades and pieces used in the creation of knife blade handles.
Carl Reid of Clovis, a knife collector who is familiar with Hethcoat’s work, said, “It’s amazing what he’s able to do. He’s known worldwide. The people of Clovis don’t know what they have. You’ll never find a flaw in a Hethcoat knife.”
Hethcoat is a master of the American Bladesmith Society and has been since 1985.
“Fewer than 100 members have qualified to join this organization,” Reid said. “He’s very creative, and he’s certainly a perfectionist in everything he does.”
Hethcoat also is a member of the Knife Makers Guild and has been since 1976, but it’s the American Bladesmith Society that advocates Damascus steel.
The finished products are evidence of Hethcoat’s creativity.
The knife blades become knives that fold into handles made of blue mastodon bone, giraffe, ivory, coral, pearl and many other types of material.
“The mastodon handles are made of bone older than 40,000 years,” Hethcoat said.
Hethcoat, who makes the handles as well as the knife blades, creates Bowie knives, skinning knives, pocket knives, gutting knives or just about any type of knife a person could want.
“Never is one pattern the same on any blade,” Hethcoat said of the designs in the Damascus steel. “The patterns aren’t even the same on both sides of the knife blade.”
Hethcoat said he became interested in making the knives because of his dad’s smokehouse.
“There were a lot of knives around the smokehouse, and I used to grab one and put it in my belt and head for the mesa,” he said.
Having been around knives, he wanted to learn to make them.
“There’s a lot of work to making the knives,” Hethcoat said. “It takes an average of 40 hours just to make one knife.”
Most of the knives he makes are used for show, but Hethcoat does occasionally sell them. The money from the sale of one knife always goes to material to make another one, he said.
“It’s not a business,” Hethcoat said. “It’s an art.”
Secret of Damascus steel lost for centuries
During the long years of the Crusades, the armies of Europe often found themselves badly outnumbered. Not only were there more Saracens than Crusaders in the Holy Land, the armies of Islam were much better equipped, according to a Web site on Damascus steel.
The Saracens rode sleek, swift horses bred for the hot, desert climate and wore chainmail light enough to provide maximum mobility yet strong enough to stop European blades.
They used weapons made of a steel so well forged, it bent under pressure without breaking. The edge was so sharp it could cleave a man in half with only the force behind one arm.
The steel was called Damascus steel, a term used by Crusaders to describe the metal used by artisans and swordsmiths in Damascus, Syria.
Steel manufacturing was carefully studied and documented by Islamic scientists. Their texts were available to swordsmiths throughout the Islamic world, who jealously guarded their secret.
Damascus steel was expecially valuable, because it combined hardness with elasticity and would hold an edge for a long time.
According to a Wikipedia encyclopedia, the exact process of making Damascus steel was lost about 1300.
The exact process still is unknown today. Even with 21st century equipment and techniques, apparently one in four batches still fails to become the modern equivalent of Damascus steel.