If there is a Mount Olympus of knifemakers, few would argue with giving the role of Zeus to Bill Moran. Al Pendray would almost certainly be Vulcan. The son of a Florida farrier, he leaves a legacy in the knife world beyond his beautiful and highly sought-after blades. Al Pendray is known as the Father of modern wootz, having participated in several metallurgical studies on the historic steel. Combining the science with his experience as a smith, Al reintroduced the process for making authentic wootz.
He was an ABS Master Smith, a Hall of Fame Member of that organization,as well as a former President. Al Pendray passed away today following years of declining health.
Al co-wrote (with materials scientist JD Verhoeven) the seminal work on the chemical and physical properties of wootz steel, “The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Blades“. In it they examine the trace elements in historic pieces, and document how important these were, when combined with secret forging techniques, in producing a superior steel with with the archetypal wave pattern. The work is highly technical, but an interesting read nonetheless.
Within the piece is this historic-anthropological nugget. I always wondered how an historic technique (making true Damascus) was lost within recorded history. The authors explain:
One of the big mysteries of wootz Damascus steel has been why the art of making these blades was lost. The vanadium levels provide the basis for a theory. Based on our studies, it is clear that to produce the damascene patterns of a museum-quality wootz Damascus blade the smith would have to fulfill at least three requirements. First, the wootz ingot would have to have come from an ore deposit that provided significant levels of certain trace elements, notably, Cr, Mo, Nb, Mn, or V. This idea is consistent with the theory of some authors30 who believe the blades with good patterns were only produced from wootz ingots made in southern India, apparently around Hyderabad. Second, the data of Table IV confirm previous knowledge that wootz Damascus blades with good patterns are characterized by a high phosphorus level. This means that the ingots of these blades would be severely hot short, which explains why Breant’s9 19th century smiths in Paris could not forge wootz ingots. Therefore, as previously shown,15successful forging would require the development of heat-treating techniques that decarburized the surface in order to produce a ductile surface rim adequate to contain the hot-short interior regions. Third, a smith who developed a heat-treatment technique that allowed the hot-short ingots to be forged might still not have learned how to produce the surface patterns, because they do not appear until the surface decarb region is ground off the blades; this grinding process is not a simple matter.
The smiths that produced the high-quality blades would most likely have kept the process for making these blades a closely guarded secret to be passed on only to their apprentices. The smiths would be able to teach the apprentices the second and third points listed, but point one is something they would not have known. There is no difference in physical appearance between an ingot with the proper minor elements present and one without. Suppose that during several generations all of the ingots from India were coming from an ore body with the proper amount of minor elements present, and blades with good patterns were being produced. Then, after a few centuries, the ore source may have been exhausted or become inaccessible to the smithing community; therefore, the technique no longer worked. With time, the smiths who knew about the technique died out without passing it on to their apprentices (since it no longer worked), so even if a similar source was later found, the knowledge was no longer around to exploit it. The possible validity of this theory could be examined if data were available on the level of carbide-forming elements in the various ore deposits in India used to produce wootz steel.
The whole piece is worth a read. Through this work, as well as through the many makers he mentored, Al’s vast knowledge lives on and will continue to benefit the knife world for generations to come.
Requiescat in pace.
I would like to thank Mike Crenshaw for passing along this news as well as providing me background of Pendray’s impact on modern knifemaking.