Using Children’s Modeling Clay to Design Mosaic Damascus

Using Children’s Modeling Clay to Design Mosaic Damascus
At left are some patterns the author and his students developed using different colors of clay. At right are three small cut-offs from the ends of some damascus billets the author made. Note the similarity in patterns between the steel and the clay. (Lori Szilaski images)

Most beginning bladesmiths can hardly wait to forge out their first damascus blades. Making damascus is challenging and exciting, especially when you advance enough to try and create the more complex designs. I still enjoy the challenge forging intricate mosaic damascus patterns, and especially figuring out how to make new ones.

I also enjoy teaching and passing down whatever knowledge I have collected over the decades. So, in 2008 I opened a knifemaking school in Pine Plains, New York. Most of my classes are based on the forging technique.

The most exciting thrill of teaching is watching a few of my students advance to become competent bladesmiths in their own right. I can honestly say I have met a lot of very nice, talented folks over the years at my school. Some just want to be hobbyist or part-time makers, and others hope to one day become full-time knifemakers.

Tips for making mosaic damascus
Greg Cimms forged the blade for his chef’s knife of multi-bar mosaic damascus in a pattern originally worked out in clay. (Caleb Royer image)

They are talented bladesmiths who have been doing incredible work so far. These gents have only been making knives a couple of years. They have learned the proper way to forge and forge weld and have made some nice damascus. I knew they were ready for the next challenge making more complex damascus. I decided it was time for me to hold a more advanced multi-bar mosaic damascus class for them.

The class was four days. On the first day we went down to the shop and I explained what multi-bar mosaic damascus was and how it is made. I also explained how powdered mosaic damascus is made, though it is a completely different process.

The Problem: “Shooting in the Dark” with Mosaic Damascus Designs

While we were sitting around the table I gave everyone a box of different colored clays. Some thought I was making a joke with the clay until I showed them some of the damascus patterns I had made. Some of those clay designs I made in the early 1990s.

how to make mosaic damascus knives
Bill Greulich followed the same steps he used to develop his pattern in clay to forge his first billet of multi-bar mosaic damascus.

Back then I was working in an art foundry full time pushing a lot of hours, so I had very limited time to forge my knives and tomahawks, never mind work out new damascus patterns. At night I would work out damascus designs on paper. The weekends were often spent working hard at the forge making damascus from the paper designs.

Unfortunately, many times when I finished the mosaic damascus billet, even though some did turn out to be nice patterns, they were not quite what I wanted. Basically, when you work out designs on paper, at least for me, I felt I was shooting in the dark without night vision. I knew I had to find some answer or solution to my problem.

The Solution: Kids’ Modeling Clay

While I was thinking what would be the best solution, the answer was right in front of me. I was working on a sculpture using red and yellow wax, and that is when it occurred to me. I started cutting off a few slices of red and yellow wax and made a billet out of it. I folded, twisted and so on as I would do with steel. While the wax was not so pliable in the cold form, it still gave me the idea of what I had to do.

Mosaic Damascus knife
Greg Cimms forged these two blades from a billet he designed and made in the author’s Advanced Damascus class.

The next day during lunch break I ran out to the arts and craft s store and bought two boxes of multi-colored clay, the kind kids used to play with or use at school. I was very excited for my new finding and anxious to see how well it would work.

I made my first multi-bar mosaic clay billet that turned out better than expected in allowing me to preview the mosaic damascus designs. Making clay damascus does not mean you will like every pattern you create, but it is still a lot more efficient and easier on the pocketbook than forging all day long to find out the design is not what you wanted.

I could hardly wait to show my wife Lori that I had found the solution to my problem. Over the years, I probably came up with more designs in clay than I would ever be able to forge out in steel.

A Shortcut with a Long History

That is how I got started making clay damascus. I shared this technique with fellow makers. Actually, similar techniques have been done in glass beads for hundreds of years. I have many books on Indian trade beads in beautiful designs.

As kids we used to play with marbles that also had beautiful designs in them. It just never occurred to me to incorporate any of this into my knives.

Making Clay Billets

On the first day of class I demonstrated making a clay billet and explained, step by step, what to do and what to watch for.

Next I showed the group how to take the same starting multi-bar billets, and, by using different arrangements and folds, create two or three different mosaic damascus designs.

As the students started working out their designs in clay, I asked them to write down every step they took: how many layers they started with, how many times they cut the billet, how many times they folded it, in which direction they folded, in which direction they forged, and so on. This written reference is very important if you want to recreate the design in steel.

I got such a kick out of watching grownups having fun with clay, showing off to each other the designs they had created. It reminded me of back when I started making clay mosaic damascus and how excited I was.

That day everyone seemed on a diet because no matter how often I said “Lunchtime!” no one was hungry. Finally, Lori came home from work and we had dinner. At the table the only conversation was which of their designs they would choose to forge out on the second day of class.

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