In the beginning of the nineties, Pelle Billgren is appointed CEO of Söderfors Powder in Uppland Sweden, a division formed to broaden the company Erasteels’ use of powder materials. To produce steel using powder metallurgy is not new in itself. The technology has been used for over twenty years, however, due to the fact that the innovation enhances the performance of steel, marketing the process has not been easy. The material is greatly improved, but also more expensive. Tool manufacturers have understandably been reluctant to pay for stronger steel, even though it has greater longevity.
However, Erasteel has taken a new direction in the steel world. Their marketing focuses on the tools of end users, rather than just the steel. This has created a demand for steel with higher performance.
Pelle Billgren suspected early on that the powder’s impressive flexibility was another important competitive advantage. Attending a forging event in the village of Gysinge confirmed his suspicions: Blacksmiths are a professional group that can benefit greatly from powder material in practice. After a recommendation, Pelle paid a visit to Kay Embretsen, a Swedish blacksmith and knife maker located in Edsbyn Hälsingland that is well known across the world for his skills. The meeting would turn out to be crucial for the company, which was now ready to be formed and named, Damasteel AB.
It was at Kay Embretsen’s workshop that Pelle Billgren first encountered Damascus patterned steel, a patterned steel he had never seen before or had any knowledge of, despite thousands of years of history. Pelle saw the enormous, beautiful knives that Kay manufactured and sold; exquisitely designed pieces that buyers never even used. In a world with an emphasis on functionality, clarity and ease of use, there was also a market for pure design. The price for one of Kay's knives was around SEK 25 000. Pelle Billgren had found his niche.
In the process of producing stainless steel through powder metallurgy, Pelle learned to manufacture a type of steel with the right properties. Using the same technology, he questioned whether it would be possible to create a patterned steel, even if the operations were becoming more complex. He suggested to Kay Embretsen that they work together on this idea, and without a moment of hesitation, Kay agreed to commence work immediately.
In his workshop, Kay Embretsen created Damascus patterned steel using traditional welding, a process that has been used throughout history. However, welding makes it impossible to make stainless Damascus patterned steel. To succeed with their new venture, a stainless Damascus patterned steel, with both beauty and function, the manufacturing process was crucial. They asked themselves, “How do we layer different types of steel into one steel?”
They began to sketch ideas, and after a process of trial and error they soon found they were on the right track.
They poured their steel into nearly 150 layers, a steel which could then be twisted, crumpled, marked and varied - almost indefinitely. The two men were now ready to move forward with their ideas. In 1995, Damasteel® began applying for patents for its method to create stainless Damascus patterned steel through powder metallurgy.
Dating as far back as 1835, the former stables at the Söderfors mill were used to house Damasteel’s business. A forge was built and furnaces, hammers and sanders were sourced as surplus equipment from nearby steel mills, at favourable prices. They travelled around Sweden and Germany to potential customers who were introduced to their new ideas. Reactions were mixed. Several large knife factories, WMF and Böker, saw the early potential of the new raw material, while others were more sceptical. This was something that the two gentlemen were prepared for.
Kay Embretsen decided to return home to his business in Edsbyn, but when the patent was accepted, he was included as one of the creators without question. Over the years, Kay has also served as a strong ambassador for the company and its unique steel. Without Kay Embretsen’s invaluable blacksmith and material knowledge, the road to Damasteel’s unique product would have taken considerably longer, and so would have spreading the knowledge around the world.
The workshop in Söderfors was now rather empty. Pelle Billgren decided to hire his first employee. Someone that could help him build up the fleet in the new premises. His son, Mattias, had just started studies at the Technical University when he received an offer he could not refuse. Damasteel®, now a family company, began its journey to put in place the business idea that had been there from the very beginning - to offer a steel with design, function and mystique in a unique combination.
Pelle and his son thrived together in their workshop like the father and son in the tv show Sanford and Son. At times it was a struggle, almost always a mess, and many at Söderfors were baffled as to what was really going on in the old stables.
However, suddenly Damasteel was chosen by the large knife manufacturer, Böker, for their new range of knives. At the same time many of the businesses and exhibitions they had visited started to bear fruit. More and more individual knife manufacturers began asking for the patterned steel from Söderfors. In the workshop, experimentation began to create new patterns and subsequently more employees were hired.
The process took time, and the company was often forced to pay out money during the production. For the first few years, it was not unusual to receive an order and approach the bank for a loan to purchase the necessary materials.
At the turn of the millennium, after five years of operation, a turnaround began. Damasteel® is now an established and successful family business with customers all over the world.
The year is 2010. Pelle Billgren feels that he has reached his goal, and decides it is time to step down. Per Jarbelius, working for a supplier for Damasteel®, hears about Pelle's plans and decides to make a visit to the company. Per immediately takes a liking to the business and a dream forms in his head. When he discusses the visit with his wife, Kristina, she also feels this is something the family would like to be a part of.
Per Jarbelius started his career at 15, working in the weapons workshop at Bofors hearth workshop. Since then he has had extensive experience working with several companies in the steel and engineering industry. A self taught Blacksmith, he has a genuine interest in industrial heritage and history of iron making in Sweden. Kristina stands for the continuity of the family with its roots from Valloniet.
When Per and Kristina Jarbelius expressed interest to take over Damasteel® and continue its success, Pelle Billgren had a distinctive feeling that they were the right people for the job. A new family will now have the confidence to take the business further into the future.
Even today, there are few manufacturers of powder steel on the market.
Pelle Billgren claims with pride and conviction that Damasteel® is at the forefront of producing the highest quality, due to respected steel traditions.
The homogeneous powder steel hardens quickly and produces a finer structure - a structure that provides less risk of breakage and can withstand a greater load. In other words, Damasteel® manufactures steel today that Pelle Billgren envisioned in the small workshop in Edsbyn, Hälsingland.
A steel of quality, beauty, rarity and practicality. A steel that combines beauty and mysticism with the demanding world of function. A steel to be admired and used.