“When I got this sword, it was completely covered in blood rust.” Sword maker Francis Boyd is showing me yet another weapon pulled from yet another safe in the heavily fortified workshop behind his northern California home.
“You can tell it’s blood,” he says matter-of-factly, “because ordinary rust turns the grinding water brown. If it’s blood rust it bleeds, it looks like blood in the water. Even 2,000 years old, it bleeds. And it smells like a steak cooking, like cooked meat. I’ve encountered this before with Japanese swords from World War II. If there’s blood on the sword and you start polishing it, the sword bleeds. It comes with the territory.”
Blood rust: I hadn’t thought of that. I guess it would turn water red, but the steak comment is kind of creeping me out, as is the growing realization that if these swords could talk, I couldn’t stomach half the tales they’d have to tell.
“I went to my safe and got $700 cash. I didn’t even argue the price. I had waited 30 years for that sword.”
I’ve been hanging out with Boyd for almost four hours now, squirreled away inside his cramped and, to my untrained eye, disorganized shop. Behind me, tools appear to be piled one on top of another, on surfaces that were once worktables but now function as shelves. Nearby, two vintage Vincent motorcycles—one black, one red with a matching sidecar—gather dust. Did I mention the Packard Special? I’m guessing it’s from the early 1940s, but I’m careful not to ask Boyd too much about it. If I do, he’s going to tell me, and I’ll never get out of here.
“This particular sword,” Boyd continues, oblivious to my neurotic inner monologue, “belonged to the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, around 200 BC. His name was Liu Bang. But the reason I’m dragging it out is not because of who owned it. It’s what inside that counts.”
Reverently, Boyd unsheathes his prize. “This is made from hundred-layer metal,” he says. “See the pattern?” I do. “It looks like the spots on a leopard.” It does. “This is hundred-layer metal,” he repeats. I believe him.
Boyd’s been doing this all afternoon, pulling gem after gem from his safes. As long as I’m careful not to touch the blades, lest the oil in my skin stains Boyd’s meticulously polished surfaces, he’s even been letting me handle a few of these ancient treasures, like the one he’s showing me right now. I take it in my hand, feeling its weight, its extraordinary balance, and try to imagine what it must have been like to wield this weapon as if my life depended on it.
Obviously, I can’t even begin to imagine such a thing; these pieces are way, way out of my league. Meekly, I hand the 2,000-year-old sword back to Boyd. As he carefully wipes it with a tissue before returning it to its sheath, I prepare myself for whatever is about to be revealed next.
I have come to Francis Boyd to get the answer to what I thought would be a simple question: What is the difference between Damascus steel and wootz? I have long heard the name of the Syrian city used to describe certain types of hard steel with complex patterns on their surfaces, but only recently was I introduced to the term wootz, which seems to be supplanting Damascus in auction catalogs and the popular press to describe the metal used in ancient swords and other edge weapons.
“There’s a lot of confusion in the realm of what they call Damascus and wootz,” Boyd says with a good deal of understatement. “There are all these different variations of pattern-welded metals that are called Damascus. Some use wootz, some don’t. We call the whole group Damascus, but the current dogma to call them all wootz is way off base.”
Francis Boyd should know: He’s been around swords pretty much his whole life, falling in love with them when he was still a teenager in the late 1960s. “The first time I met Helmut Nickel I was like 17,” he says, referring to the legendary arms and armor curator, who was a fixture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1960 to 1988. “A Japanese-sword collector took me over to The Met and introduced me to him. I spent an afternoon basically getting recruited.”
Boyd remembers that fateful day as if it was yesterday. “Helmut took me down to the dungeon,” he says, referring to The Met’s basement. “They had this workshop there and another area that was storage, with stuff just laying on shelves. And Helmut pulls out a broad sword from about 1350, 1400, with this fluted fishtail pommel [the pommel is the tip of the sword’s handle or hilt]. And he goes, ‘Well, this is just the stuff that isn’t good enough to put up in the galleries upstairs. We just throw it on the shelves here.’ And he whips out this sword on me. I’m like, ‘If you’re going to throw it out, throw it my way!’ And he goes, ‘No, I’m just teasing you. We rotate them.’ But he was jerking my chain. He admitted it, too. He just wanted to see how I reacted. Beautiful piece.”
Soon after that encounter, Boyd moved to California, and in 1971, he got a job blacksmithing at Klockar’s in San Francisco, where he worked for the rest of the decade. During this time, he also apprenticed with the master Japanese sword maker Nakajima Muneyoshi. From 1982 until 1990, he and his late business partner, Ken Fireman, had a knife shop in San Francisco, where they made high-quality blades. And since 1999, Boyd has made frequent trips to the University of Science and Technology Beijing to work with China’s top scientists in the field of ancient Chinese and Mongolian weapons. In China, where tradition is everything, Boyd, the kid from New York, is a recognized enough authority on swords to teach what he’s learned to aspiring Chinese sword makers.
“One of my sword-maker students in China is a living national treasure,” he says proudly. “To be fair about it, I’m one of three teachers this man has. I’m not his only teacher, but I am one of three men who have trained him.”
In short, Boyd would know the difference between Damascus and wootz.
In swords, Boyd told me, wootz was often used as the high-carbon layer at the center of a sword to create its hard edge, but it was not used by itself. “Laminated metal is much stronger than a single piece of metal,” says Boyd. “If I made a sword only out of the edge metal in the center of a sword, it would be very hard, but it’d break the first or second time you hit anybody with it. A laminated structure won’t break. It’s much stronger than a single piece of metal, no matter how hard that single piece is.”
Importantly, wootz is not a laminated product. It is produced via what’s called a crucible-ingot process, which basically means metal is heated in a container (the crucible) until it is molten. When the metal cools, the resulting solid piece is called the ingot. “Wootz was made this way in India and Persia up until about 100 years ago, maybe a little more,” Boyd says. “They would forge out thin plates of wrought iron, which has no carbon, and pack it with crumbled cast iron, which has too much.” Carbon is the element that makes a relatively soft piece of steel hard, creating the sort of material you’d want on the cutting edge of a sword. “Then they’d seal it in a crucible and melt the whole thing.”
As the temperature in the crucible rises, the cast iron, Boyd says, wicks into the wrought iron. “The wrought iron soaks up the carbon like a sponge. Cast iron melts at a much lower temperature than wrought iron, so it melts in between the plates, forming a semi–but not completely–homogenous structure. The whole point is that it’s not completely homogenous.”
The crucible process and the lack of homogeneity, says Boyd, creates a dendritic structure in the ingot. The shape of the dendritic structure reveals itself on the surface of a finished piece of polished and acid-etched steel as an intricate pattern that resembles everything from the leopard spots Boyd had shown me earlier to wood grain, the surface of water, Chinese landscape art, and the wavy serendipity of moiré silk.
“Now, here’s where the confusion comes in,” Boyd continues. “Ancient Middle Eastern Damascus, like you see in the weapons at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul and places like that, are not made of wootz per se. In those weapons, wootz is the high-carbon component in a pattern-welded material.” As the name suggests, pattern-welding also produced a pattern on the surface of the finished metal, which is the biggest reason why the words Damascus and wootz are used interchangeably, if imprecisely. “Pattern-welded blades go way back, too,” Boyd says, “but when they made wootz weapons, they just sawed up the ingot and removed a blade out of it. A really big wootz ingot is maybe 12 inches long, so they’re always short weapons like daggers, things like that. They’d just cut it, grind it, and it’s got the pattern right there.”
But can’t pieces of wootz simply be hammered out and forged into sword-length sections, like any other type of metal? “If you heat up a piece of wootz above about 2,000 degrees and start hammering it out, it will homogenize completely,” Boyd patiently explains. There goes your wootz pattern. “Now, if you wanted to make a sword or a suit armor out of this stuff, and people did, you actually had to laminate the wootz with other metals to create the pattern you finally see. I’ve seen armor no thicker than a dime, with a beautiful Damascus pattern in it, and there’s no way you could hammer one of these wootz ingots that thin. It would either crack or the pattern would dissolve. You get what I’m saying? It has to be a piece that was folded and twisted, that mixed hard and soft materials until it ultimately created the pattern.”
A true wootz piece, then, and hence a true wootz pattern, is the exception rather than the rule. “There is only a very small group of pieces made from actual wootz,” Boyd asserts. “Probably 95-plus percent of all the weapons and armor that are referred to as Damascus are pattern-welded, using wootz often, but not necessarily. True wootz pieces are quite rare.”
To better understand what wootz is, it helps to also understand what it isn’t—a pattern-welded metal. In ancient Japanese sword-making techniques, the metal was folded to create the layers that resulted in the pattern. In India, a stack-welding process similar to the one used to make wootz was employed. In China, sword makers did both, which is how they were able to create swords like that blood-rusted 100-layer beauty Boyd had shown me earlier.
“If you just fold the metal,” Boyd explains, “the math doesn’t work out because you’re just folding the same metal over and over again. The number of layers would go 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128. How do you get 30, 50, 80, or 100? Well, you take a piece of lower-carbon metal and weld a hard layer of high-carbon steel on the top of it. Now, you got two layers. Hammer it out, cut it into three pieces, stack it, and weld it: Now, you got six layers. Draw it out, cut it, stack it, and weld it again, and now you got 12 layers. Then you take that, draw it out, notch it, and before you fold it, you add another thin layer of a soft material between the two hard layers that you’re folding back on themselves. Now you got 25 layers. Fold it one more time, and you’ve got 50 layers. Put a hard cutting edge in the middle of that and fold it one more time and you got 100 layers [by convention, the cutting edge is not counted in the total number of layers]. So it was a combination of both stacking and folding.”
“What’s in this bag is worth a fortune, and it’s a total piece of junk.”
Which is why, if someone tells you they have a wootz sword, “the odds are it’s pattern-welded Damascus,” says Boyd. “Anything longer than about an 8- or 10-inch blade has a very low probability of being a true cut from a bar of wootz. If they’re calling swords wootz, there’s no way. There are no 24-, 28-, 30-inch swords made of wootz. Wootz is fairly fragile. It breaks easily. They have to make them in a fairly thick section because it doesn’t have the rigidity of structure for any real length.”
Okay, so I think I understand what wootz is and how it differs from ancient pattern-welded metals made in Japan and China. But what about Damascus? Where did that romantic-sounding term come from? I’d always heard it was the word given to the patterned steel (which I now know is not necessarily the same thing as wootz) the crusaders encountered in Damascus, which was an important trading stop on the southern Silk Road. But it couldn’t be that simple, right?
It’s not, as Donald LaRocca, the current curator of arms and armor at The Met, confirmed. “Some writers will use Damascus steel, watered steel, or wootz steel interchangeably,” LaRocca sighed. “The term Damascus is used pretty loosely.” Pleading his limited expertise in this area, LaRocca suggested I speak to Ann Feuerbach, who has a Ph.D. in Archaeological Science and has written extensively about wootz and other types of crucible steels.
“There is a great deal of misinformation out there regarding crucible Damascus steel (aka wootz, pulad, hinduwani),” Feuerbach says. “Basically, don’t believe any of it.” Feuerbach has spent much of her career trying to pin down the terminology. For example, in a 2005 post at vikingsword.com, much of which was used in a subsequent article for the May 2006 issue of JOM, the technical journal of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, she wrote about the origins of the word Damascus:
“If there’s blood on the sword and you start polishing it, the sword bleeds.”
“The origin of the name Damascus steel is frequently attributed to the crusaders, who, as the legend goes, were introduced to these blades in Damascus and brought the word and the legend of the steel back with them upon their return to Europe (e.g. Sherby and Wadsworth, 1985, 112). Although this assertion is common, no reference to crusaders having used the term has ever been reported in any of the literature. There are more credible roots for the origin of sword names. The Islamic writers al-Kindi and al-Beruni name swords based on surface appearance, place of production or forging, or the name of the smith. There are three likely sources for the term Damascus in the context of swords. The word for water in Arabic is, damas (Sachse, 1994, 13) and Damascus blades are often described as exhibiting a water-pattern on their surface. Al-Kindi called swords produced and forged in Damascus as Damascene (al-Hassan, 1978, 35). Additionally, al-Beruni mentions a sword-smith called Damasqui who made swords of crucible steel (Said, 1989, 219-220).”
So, according to Dr. Feuerbach, Damascus steel was not named for the city where Westerners are thought to have first encountered it. Not only is Damascus steel not wootz, it isn’t even named after Damascus. I like the water explanation best since it dovetails nicely with terms like watered steel—I’m going with that.
Back in his workshop, Boyd leans into a safe, pulling out sword after sword, each carefully wrapped in soft cloth. Boyd’s got a lot of swords, so in some cases, he uses tube socks to protect his precious pieces. “The Japanese make these nice sword bags,” he says longingly. “Everybody gives me a bad time about my socks, but I got so much stuff, I ran out of sword bags.” Still, Boyd has his standards: “It’s got to be a Hanes sock.”
Finally he finds the one he wants me to see next.
“I call this the Mongrolian,” he says. “Now, this sword is absolutely original, untouched. I repainted its scabbard and re-etched the blade, but that’s it. The reason I call it the Mongrolian is because it’s got Chinese fittings to here, it’s got a Mongolian hilt from the guard up, and the blade is Middle Eastern Damascus. At the end of the handle is the head of a shaman, and it’s got a washer in the shape of a wolf skin. In Mongolian history, the ancestor of Genghis Khan was Blue Wolf, the father. So, this is a piece of iron carved in the shape of a wolf skin. It’s really the symbol for Genghis’s tribe.”
Boyd has other swords associated with household names, but don’t expect him to be impressed by that.
“One of the things about antiquities is that sometimes the nicest looking stuff is not necessarily the best historical stuff. For example, what’s in this bag is worth a fortune, and it’s a total piece of junk.”
He lifts the bag off the end of another sword to reveal a weapon that almost looks like a cheesy prop in a 1930s Hollywood swashbuckler.
“See? It’s nothing to look at. It’s a cheap Italian sword from about 1250, 1260 A.D. The blade’s been all polished down over the years. Somebody hung it somewhere. See, they put notches in it, and it was hung with a wire like that, probably an iron wire because it seems to have rusted into the damn sword.”
Well then, why is this sword worth “a whole lot of money,” as Boyd puts it? “Here’s why, right there,” he says, pointing to a circle of metal with what appear to be Chinese characters on it, affixed to the sword’s pommel. “This piece, this seal, was added in Asia. It’s stuck on the end of this cheap Italian sword. But what matters here is what it says, and it took me years to get all of it. This is actually one word, and then there are two more words. And what it says is, ‘Present From Polo’.”
Polo, I ask? Oh, right, Polo, as in Marco, the famous 13th-century trader.
“Right, that Polo,” Boyd confirms. “Well, there were actually three of them, the father, the uncle, and Marco. But this says ‘Present From Polo.’ It’s not even proper Chinese. It’s kind of a bastardized or Mongolized Chinese. So the historical value of this piece is incredible because of who it was from. It’s nothing to look at, believe me.”
One can imagine that Marco, his uncle, or father might have found it useful to pass out a few gifts in the course of doing their business. Boyd won’t speculate, though, about something he can’t ever know. “The sword’s made in Italy, and they stuck this on for whoever they gave it to. Somebody wanted something from Polo, that’s all I know. It isn’t a great weapon, but it is from Italy and it came from Polo.”
Naturally, there’s more. “Now, the most interesting part of this whole deal,” he says, “is how they wrote his name in Chinese. It’s actually Pa-olo. In modern Chinese, it would’ve been Polo because dialects change. The second word means to rake or gather. You know like we say, to rake it in. See the rake? That’s part of the picture. This word means to rake or gather, and that word means treasure. It’s close to the word for gold. Polo, or Paolo, is ‘treasure gatherer.’”
During our afternoon together, Boyd returned to the theme of appearance versus quality frequently. He was particularly exasperated by the 2012 sale of a Qianlong sword from the 18th century. “Qianlong was a nut,” Boyd allows. “His grandfather, Kangxi, and father, Yongzheng, were extremely frugal. By the time his father died, China was the richest empire in the world. They were worth untold amounts of money because of the tea trade. Qianlong pissed it all away. This happens a lot in good families. The grandpa makes the money, the dad hangs onto most of it, and the grandson is the wacko deadbeat in the ’60s who just goes through it. You’ve seen this story before. It happened in China, too. By the time Qianlong was done, they were broke.
“The grandfather, Kangxi, collected Mongolian weapons,” Boyd continues. “There’s a collection now of some 630 weapons in the Forbidden City that they attribute to Qianlong, but it’s actually the family collection. On October 30th of last year, they sold a Qianlong sword. It was originally sold in 2006 for $5.9 million. Last October it went for $7.7 million, same sword. It’s one of the few ones that Qianlong actually owned, and it’s a gaudy piece of shit. Trust me.”
Boyd prefers simpler swords, like the one he saw so many years ago in the basement of The Met.
“In Chinese history there was the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty,” he says, unwrapping another weapon. “Between the two was the Five Dynasties period called Wudai. This sword dates from that time, around 900. It’s not necessarily the most valuable sword I own, but it’s my favorite. This sword has a hilt very much like a European sword from centuries later. They call this part a fishtail pommel.”
Just like the one Helmut Nickel showed him when he was 17 years old. “The scabbard looked a little different,” he says of the sword at The Met, “but the hilt was just like this, only it was all bronze instead of Indian rosewood.”
Boyd found his favorite sword through the network of connections that only a life in “Swordland,” as he calls it, can produce. “The guy that owned this sword brought a Polish guy around who had some Chinese swords,” he remembers of the day when he first saw his treasure. “He piled them up on the floor, about 10 of them, and said, ‘Do you want to see some more? I have a van parked out front.’ He went out, came back, and literally piled 100 swords on the floor. And while he’s pulling them out of boxes and piling this stuff up, he pulled this one out. I said, ‘How much?’ He says, ‘About 700 bucks.’ I said, ‘Wait right here.’ I went to my safe and got $700 cash. I didn’t even argue the price, put it in his hand. I had waited 30 years for that sword.”
Boyd moves the sword into the light to give me a better look. “The reason for the fishtail,” he explains, “is that when you thrust, you can throw it out and catch the fishtail, got it? It’s like suddenly you got a longer sword. But what’s really cool is the carving. That’s the Big Dipper. That’s the Little Dipper. And that would be the Bow Constellation. But you got to understand stuff in Chinese. They don’t call it Big Dipper, Little Dipper. This is the Big Dragon Constellation, and that’s the Little Dragon Constellation. And here’s the dragon on the blade.”
Like a little kid showing off his favorite toy, Boyd turns the sword over to reveal the most marvelous dragon you’d ever hope to see (see first image at top), reverse etched into the bottom of the sword just above the sword’s guard.
“Years later,” he continues, “I’m in a show in Los Angeles, and I have this sword up on a rack on display. And this rich guy walks up and he goes, ‘How much is that?’ I go, ‘It’s not for sale,’ and he goes, ‘No, I’m going to write you a check. How much is it?’ I said, ‘You put your damn checkbook away. You ain’t getting it.’ He went away hurt, bent out of shape, mad at me. I don’t care. I had waited 30 years to get a sword like this, and I don’t care what it’s worth. That hunk of junk that says Polo on it is worth 10 times what this thing is, but I saw one like this at a young, impressionable age, and I still like it, even now.”
(Thanks to Oliver Pinchot of Auctions Imperial, and Jeffery Forgeng of the Higgins Armory Museum for providing background on the cultural history of swords.)