The riddle of steel

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s not unusual for bright yellow and orange sparks to fly at Chad Nichols’ workshop, and flare-ups happen.
“I went to talk with them at the Saltillo Fire Department one time,” he said. “They said, ‘Do you have any experience with fire?’ I said, ‘I catch myself on fire once a week.’”
He’s a modern-day metalsmith, who uses extreme heat and pressure to create Damascus steel. The process goes back to the days when men lived and died by the sword.
“They only had so much good steel, so they mixed it with the bad stuff to make it last,” 37-year-old Nichols said.
The surprising result was an alloy that was stronger than the so-called good stuff alone. Nichols failed chemistry the first time he took it, but he’s developed a real-world understanding over the years.
“You don’t think of metal being a crystal,” he said, “but it does have a grain structure and a crystal structure.”
Nichols is an on-again-off-again knife maker, and decided to make his own steel, rather than buy it from someone else.
“I was cheap that way,” he said.
He’s spent nearly a decade experimenting with different metal combinations to get steel with the right strength and aesthetic quality.
He’s after distinct patterns in the metal that go all the way through. Most of the patterns are abstract, but he figured out a way to get something resembling tiny American flags to appear in finished steel. A customer turned it into a patriotic collector’s knife that sold for thousands of dollars.
“It is a business, but it’s a hobby,” he said. “It’s a hobby that got completely out of hand.”
Before Chad Nichols Damascus was born, its proprietor was in the furniture business. He got tired of traveling to China, and decided to jump into self-employment.
“Make sure you can handle the stress, because it doesn’t go anywhere,” he said.
His former brother-in-law, Chris Dunn, 36, of Tupelo, said he “escaped” from the same furniture company, and eventually joined forces with Nichols. Dunn can forge and shape the metal, but he’s usually in charge of the grinder.
“After Chad’s done, we have to grind it down exactly to the thickness the customers want,” he said.
Customers from Texas to Germany to China have their specific needs. In addition to knives, finished steel has been used in pizza cutters, watches, golf putters, guns and tattoo machines.
“We’re not going to get into some of the weird stuff. This one guy showed me what he used it for. All I can say is I wouldn’t have thought of that one,” Nichols said, shaking his head and leaving that particular use to the imagination.
Damascus steel is a niche product, but it’s growing as people become more aware of it. Nichols’ steel has been used to make $6,000 knives and $100 bottle openers.
“Not everyone will buy a titanium bottle opener,” he said, “but somebody will buy them for $100 and sell them for $120 or more.”
Most of the orders are handled over the Internet, but Nichols and Dunn host an Ellistown gathering for some of their customers every October.
“We had two pigs in the ground this year,” Nichols said. “They’re all good guys and we’re all into the same stuff. We all like guns and knives.”
In the fire
During their stay, the visitors got to see how the stuff they buy gets made. Most of the metal comes from a Swedish company by way of Ohio, but the titanium comes from a scrap metal dealer to keep costs down.
It’s an industrial operation, not the sort of thing you’d find in a sword and sorcery film with well-muscled men in leather aprons beating fiery metal into shape with hammers.
Not that Dunn and Nichols aren’t above average in the muscle department.
“That’s just to make sure I can do it a long time,” Nichols said. “Somebody asked me, ‘Why do you work out all the time?’ I said, ‘Because I want to do this when I’m 80.’”
Work usually starts at 7 in the morning and runs until 5 or 6 p.m. Even on a December day, it didn’t take long for sweat to soak through shirts when working with metal heated over 2,500 degrees. There was a constant roar from the propane forge, which bathed Nichols in orange light when he stood close.
Hydraulic presses and hammers whined, as they forced different metals together to create the patterns customers desire.
Nichols and Dunn recently shipped 210 pounds of finished Damascus steel to a customer in Germany.
“We started with 500 pounds,” Nichols said.
“Probably more than that,” Dunn added.
“It was close to 600 pounds. You have a lot of waste,” Nichols said.
The excess ends up all over the floor and on the scorched hydraulic presses. Cleaning up does only so much good.
“Everything in here is nasty,” Nichols said.
It’s the kind of messy that gets under the skin.
“I go to the beach and my hands will get little spots of rust for the first few days from all the metal in there,” he said.
Dunn said the work follows Nichols in other ways, too.
“Chad’s very intelligent. He’s very good with numbers,” he said. “He’s wide open in a good way. He’s always thinking. He’ll come up with something and do it. He’ll just try it.”
Working with metal is an ancient craft, but Nichols doesn’t feel beholden to the old ways. He’ll use whatever modern techniques and tools give him a cost-effective edge in making a strong and visually pleasing product.
“Is it going to compare to today’s super steels? No,” he said. “Is it going to hold up to your grandfather’s knife? Yes.”
The Damascus steel business is hot, grimy, sweaty work, and sometimes Nichols’ clothes catch on fire. As he said, it’s a hobby that got out of hand, and one he expects to keep doing for years to come.
And if the work ever gets overwhelming, Nichols said he can “start thinking about being in the furniture business and I don’t feel bad.”

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