Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fitting the Greenwich armour

   Crafting a suit of Armour is equal parts;
 Metal Smithing, Sculpture, Engineering and Tailoring. Most people making armour today either underestimate this, underestimate the level of skills required, or in some cases lack one or more of these skills completely. The result is armour that may look good to the untrained eye, but is found wanting.
...from the front, it clearly would not
fit a human head correctly.
Perhaps the armour is close in form, but isn't the correct proportion to the human body. As an example, with a trained eye, 19th century fakes can be instantly spotted by this error.
While this Sallet look "OK" from the side..
Then, some armour is much closer to their historic examples, and it is harder to spot the issues. But with a the experience of looking at hundreds of surviving examples, these are often reveled by their poor function, minor atheistic errors or a "gut feeling".
While other armour doesn't even bother to be critical of form or historical function and is built as "sport" armour, which requires or is given little "tailoring". This results in an armour that looks very little like it's historic counterpart and often has a sloppy look.
Then there is movie armor, but we won't go there.

While "shinny" and perhaps "cool looking",
 most sport armour is not very close
 to it's historical counterpart.
Even good armour, which is very close in form to extant examples, functions well, but is not as comfortable as it should be and sometimes "bites" the wearer.
Getting all of these right, is what is required to make armour "correct".
A few modern armourers have recognized the necessity of these skills and have worked at rediscovering and developing them all. (The internet has helped with this immensely)
When armour was being used on a regular basis, (Full armour pretty much fell out of use in the mid 17th century) these skills were handed down master to appentice, or sussed out work shop to workshop in the same way automotive technology is today.

As a contemporary example; In less than 50 years, a modern sports sedan, has higher performance, than a purpose built prototype race car of the 1970's. This is because lessons learned are remembered, developed and built on with each new generation. With armour, these lessons have been lost and are not easily divined from just looking at pictures, and only a little more apparent, when studying armour first hand. It really takes careful analyses of armour mechanics, while possessing a good understanding of human physiology, to even start to understand what our ancestors knew as matter of fact, through hundreds of years of development.

In the modern age of armour making, 99% of modern armourers are not using techniques used by our ancestors. We have the luxury of machine made sheet metal at our disposal. The medieval or renaissance armourer, did not. He started with thicker plates, that he worked it into shape by thinning areas that didn't need to be as damage resistant, in order to save weight, while keeping some areas extremely thick (By today's standards). The modern armourer starts with a uniform sheet of metal and either stretches or shrinks it into shape, but in the end, each piece is still fairly uniform in thickness. Also, the modern armourer, generally does all the work himself, while our ancestors often used specialist workshops to polish, heat treat, create padding & linings or decorate their work.
So in addition to figuring out the sophisticated mechanics and tailoring of historic armour, the modern armour has to develop techniques for moving the metal precisely and efficiently into the forms he requires, then learn heat treating and polishing. Not to mention, riveting, strapping, padding and decorating.

Then, once you think you have a little understanding of all of this, and you have made some armour, you need to be self critical of the pieces you build to learn even more, by looking for what isn't right and figuring out how to improve all the above mentioned skills. Many armourers are happy to make a piece, sell it and make another, as long as it sells. However, with the world wide web, the demand and therefore the availability of better quality reproductions has gone up considerably. So has the quality. Ten or twelve years ago, I could count on one hand, what were considered the "skilled" armourers, now there are three or four times that many. (So much good armour, so little time!)

The Greenwich armour;
The A62 "Buckhurst" armour
Wallace Collection London
With reproducing an armour of this type, with all it's decoration, it is common to see modern examples, with extensive etching and gilding, but with poor form and function. In the modern vernacular, "Lipstick on a pig"!

As I talked about in my last post, I made this mistake with my first Vendel helmet (and others) poor form covered in decoration. On a project of this scope, I really wanted to make sure the form and functionality of this armour was as good as it could be, before, I invested the required time and money to decorate it.
When I started this project, Robert MacPherson was one of those armourers you could count on the one hand. Mac started the garniture, crafting it from a steel that we feel is a modern equivalent of renaissance hardenable steel,  AISI-1050.  Mac built most of the main armour, but before he could finish, and start on the exchange pieces, he hurt his elbows and needed to retire form the heavy metal forming required for these pieces. The project was "on hold".
After a number of years sitting in my shop, I commissioned Jeff Wasson, of Wasson Artistry to complete the armour. Jeff is extremely talented and I feel he has the skills required to complete this in the manner it requires.

What is a garniture?
In the late 16th century, a number of English armours were produced for the the English nobility in preparation for the defense against the Spanish armada, these garnitures had "exchange" pieces so the base armour could be configured for different military requirements, but also for use in the sport of jousting.
An illustration from the book
"Arms & Armour in the Collection 
of Her Majesty The Queen: 
Volume I: European Armour"
      My Garniture would consist of the main armour like the Buckhurst armour, cap-a-pie (head to toe), plus:
 Reinforce breastplate; A second breast that fits over the main one, to make it proof against firearms for use in battle.
 Close helm with 2 visors; 1 for field (more openings) 1 for tilt (jousting, less openings)
 Grandguard; An additional plate mounted to the breastplate and helmet, to lock the two together for jousting.
 Passguard; An additional large elbow piece that mounts over the left elbow and arm.
 Manifer; A heavy gauntlet with flared cuff for the bridal hand.
 Locking Gauntlet; Like it sounds, a mitten

gauntlet for the right hand with an extra long last finger plate that latches to the cuff, to "lock" the sword in your hand. (Which when you wear it, it feels pretty scary, since you have this big extension locked to your hand and wrist, you cant let go of!)
 Vamplates; The bell guard on a jousting lance. (I have just added these to the list)
I sent all the pieces to Jeff and he and both gathered all the research on this type of armour we could find. Jeff also had a conversation with Robert MacPherson, who had started the project.

As you can imagine, it's tough enough to make the basic armour fit and work correctly, but when you add the jousting exchange pieces it starts getting into new territory that few today have experience with. Too make it even more difficult, I live in California and Jeff lives in New York. We would have lots of fittings.

 I'm sure this project was a little daunting to Jeff, in not only it's complexity, but the fact he was taking over from Mac. (Mac has a reputation as one of, if not the best modern armourer in the world) Jeff had come up to speed on the project and had started to make the missing pieces of the main armour. The first of our fittings happened at a medieval event I attend every year in Pennsylvania know as Pennsic.

Fitting #1


Mac looking over the new pieces.


 The pauldrons (shoulders) were pretty tricky and we learned from the first fitting they were not correct and would need to be remade. 
Our next fitting was the following year at Pennsic. This time we were doing the fitting in my early 16th century house.

Fitting #2




Jeff had the oppertunity to handle the A62 at the
 Wallace and is showing me some of his findings.


Jeff looking over the A62, thanks to the
generosity of  Dr. Tobias Capwell.
Getting a chance to handle and examine the original armour is always a treat and is an opportunity so rarely available to most armourers.  Along with the the increased acsess to better images and research, the internet has also allowed many museum curators to find the serious amateur researcher and dedicated reenactor, so they can share these pieces with those people.

Later in the year I was in London, so I took the opportunity to visit the Wallace, but also the Tower of London and the Royal armouries in Leeds.  (Many thanks to Jonathan Ferguson and Bob Savage for their generosity in sharing their day with me.)

While at the Tower of London, I took photos of one of the only "plain" Greenwich armours, lacking in the usual decoration found on virtually all other surviving examples. In some of these picture, i positioned my iPad showing my armour from the same angle for comparison.

It had now been about 12 years since this armour had been started. While the fittings were yielding positive results, but because the distance between us, and Jeff's other commissions, it was a slow process. To add to the issues, I am not getting any younger. 

 With the additional research and Jeff refining the pauldrons, the main armour was progressing nicely, so it was time to tackle the jousting pieces. This is the first time for Jeff making anything like this and I am unaware of anyone else who has tackled a full garniture, so, I knew I needed to be patient. 
In early 2016 I was in NYC filming a commercial, so I took the opportunity to set up a fitting with Jeff.

Fitting #3


This was the first time in the full set with the jousting pieces in place. It was pretty good. It became apparent that the grandguard needed to sit right on the breastplate at the bottom, to keep it rigid, but strategically move away from the breast further up, to allow a bit of movement in the shoulders.

We were both pretty happy an excited at the results, but there were some issues with the grandguard that needed further development.

Come August, it was time for Pennsic again and another opportunity to fit the jousting plates.
The main armour seemed pretty close, but the extra pieces were a little more trial and error.
Along with finishing the individual bits for fit and function, there was the task of "sinking" all of the boarders where the etched and gild decoration needed to go. This involves stepping the steel surface down about a sixteenth of an inch using a fluting stake and a hammer, so when the decoration is complete, this area is recessed enough to help protect the gold from undue wear.

This fitting happened in the Bardicci great hall under it's Sistine chapel ceiling.

Fitting #4


Life, the race car and paying bills....

After Pennsic, in late 2016 I realized I was going to live longer than my father, and being the youngest of his sons, it made a bigger impression on me than I expected. I also realized the race car he and I built, which he never got the opportunity to race, was going to have it's 40th anniversary in 2017 and the track it first ran on was to have it's 60th. So I told Jeff I was going to take a year off from the armour and rebuild my dads race car. (Here is that project) Plus, I knew he had other projects that needed to be completed.

Over the years I have gone up and down in my weight and "letting out" armour is not so easy. The weight change has affected out fittings a couple of times.
So in addition to making sure I fit in the armour, I have to start thinking about not only finishing it, but using it. If I want to joust in this, I have start improving my equestrian skills.
Now that I'm getting closer, I need to get the weight off and keep it off. Because our most recent fitting has shown I am going in the wrong direction on that front.

The process and the work to get to this point...

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Things I've made: Tale of the two Vendel helmets

    This is a project I did a number of years ago, but was recently asked about it, so I thought I'd post something about the helmets I made.
Years ago I made a pre-Viking age, or "Vendel" decorated helmet for a TV producer as a private commission.  At the time, I was pretty happy with it. It was only the second time I did "repousse', the tooling of metal. The first time was for the "Viking" box used to hold the Loki Mask in the movie "The Mask"
However, as time goes on, hopefully, one learns more, and sees things in a new light. As I became more educated in the Vendel period, the light came on, and I realized this helmet was not very good.
Now, of course, I was compelled to make one that was better. But my life is a busy one, and was many years before I would make the time to do this.

just as I started gathering materials on the Vendel period together and planning what I would make, a friend who was managing my rental department, expressed his desire of owning one of these decorated helmets or "field crowns". Skip, who, was heavily into Viking history,  had been doing a great job running the department and I always felt I couldn't afford to pay him enough. I felt this would be a nice thank you. Plus, if he knew I was making one of these, he would be jealous, so I thought, I'll just make two!
This is how my life often goes; No time to build one of something, but two of them, I'll figure out how to do it. (Although, I'm still trying to figure out how to get those two Ferrari's!)
The trick was, how to keep Skip from discovering what I was planning.

The Vendel period is a modern scholarly classified age in Sweden from 550 to 790 AD. Many of the extant swords and helmets are highly decorated and had similarities to late Roman ridge helms.
There are around 26 helmets or helmet fragments that have been found across Scandinavia, Northern Europe and eastern Russia. I don't know how many swords have been found.
Finds from graves at Vendel and Valsgärde show that Uppland, or the east-central part of Sweden, was an important area during this time and many of these finds are very well documented.
Although detailed documentation was difficult to come by, back in 2004 when I started, but I did manage to find a couple of Swedish publications that had some excellent photos.
Eventually I decided to make a helmet for myself similar to the Valsgärde 5, but I had to find out what Skip fancied.  Skip is a stickler for authenticity and I had planned on letting him see what I was making for myself, but I needed to keep him in the dark about the second one for him, while still get feed back on what he was dreaming of. After some surreptitious questioning, I found out he always liked the Vendel 14 helmet.
Interestingly, when I showed him an image of the Vendel 14, as it is now in a museum, he said, no, not that one. As we flipped through the book, he spotted a drawing of the one to which he was referring. The helmet he had admired for all those years was an early archaeological drawing of what they thought the Vendel 14 helmet would look like, once it was removed from the dirt and rust in which it was entombed. Once it was cleaned and reconstructed however, it looked very little like this drawing. (This incorrect drawing is still being published as a depiction of the "Vendel 14" helmet.)
Skip was pretty bummed because he realized he was in love with a helmet that was not a real thing. But I pointed out, the drawing is in keeping with the style of other helmets that had been found and it was still a viable choice. I really hoped he agreed with my assessment, because I really didn't like the real Vendel 14 helm. (Although, now it's grown on me a bit) He did and so I continued my research and planning.
Valsgärde 5
Vendel 14

I would make the helmets from modern sheet steel, and since we were likely to use these in reenactment battles in Europe, I chose to make them in 1050 spring steel, so the steel could be hardened. This process was all pretty straight forward, although the lattice work on the Valsgärde 5 turned out to be a little tricky. I needed to make sure all of the small bands lined up nicely with each separate panel. (Now, new research I have found, suggests that these areas were covered with fabric, and not visible!)
The decoration was more unfamiliar to me, so that was the biggest hurdle on this project.

First, I had to find out how these were made in the period and then see if I had a way to make them with the skills and tools I had available to me. The main decorated panels were made of thin "foil" sheets of metal, pressed over bronze relief plates. The center crest seemed to be fabricated or cast and the eyebrows and crest terminals were cast. All of the helmets I have researched have some type of copper alloy for these decorations, but Skip wore tons of really nice silver Viking jewelry. So I planned to make his decorations with fine silver.
To save time, I came up with a technique of making the pressed decorative panels by using a etched magnesium plate. These were used for creating rubber stamps and in the printing profession. The advantage to the acid etched magnesium, is the magnesium cuts extremely fast with the correct acid, so fine details can be made right next to deep, large details. If you are interested in this process, here is a nice video on how these mag plates are made.
Once I drew the artwork, I scanned it into the computer and did some corrections and scaling. I then printed out full size artwork to check porportion and spaceing of the design elements.
I would need to test metal thickness for the finished foil plates and how the size and depth of the etching worked with this foil.
There were a lot of tests. But, eventually, I decided to use .005" fine silver and brass pressed into the mag plates. People have asked, why not Sterling Silver; Sterling is a harder alloy that contains  92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% of other metals, usually copper, so it is harder. Fine silver is 99.9% silver, so it can be made softer. This turns out to be critical with my process. To impress the foil, I used wet leather and my 20 ton mold press. The wet tooling leather (flesh side down) was chosen over rubber, because the rubber acts as a "single surface" and would bridge certain fine detail. The wet leather on the other hand was more granular and pressed into these details nicely. Once the foils were pressed, I used small metal ball and spoon shaped tools to press or "sculp" more dimension into the foils by working the backside of each foil panel, while it was supported in pitch. Another element is the ribbed strips that boarder the panels. This was made by turning a rolling die on my lathe and rolling each strip through the mill. This of course required a few steps, annealing, straightening and re-annealing.

For the cast details I carved waxes instead of carving the mold from soft stone, like the originals had been made. Part of my job making props is to figure out techniques that can achieve a specific look, but can produce the item faster or in a way more familiar to my skill set.

Since Skips persona in the living history was more Viking then Vendel, I formed the fine silver eyebrow pieces from thick sheet and did punch decoration, which was more the style of Viking work in later centuries. These pieces were placed in pitch for support and I made a variety of steel punches with the needed shapes.

The other trick piece to make was the support for the mail drape across the back of each helm. This needed to be a hollow tube, curved in a semicircle, with a set of flanges sticking up, in order to fit the "tubes" to the lower rim of each helmet. In addition, each tubular section needed to have slices cut in at intervals in which to fit each ring on the top edge of the mail. The links of the mail are then held in place with a wire threaded through the links inside this tube. Nearly all the edges have a rolled boarder of brass or silver. This was fabricated by starting with strips, then pulling them through a draw die so they curl up like a tube, Once annealed, the can be formed around the edge of the plate.

The last task, was making rivets for the silver helmet, since I never found a source for silver rivets.

In the end, I finally did get both helmets completed. Here they are.

I told someone that these came as a kit: All flat material, no instructions and one of them was missing the rivets!....their response......"Where did you buy the kits?"

Thanks for looking.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Decorating a full Greenwich garniture: Part 4: The Aha moment.

At this point I have done well over 60 tests of formulas and application times of this period etching paste, but I'm still very frustrated by the inconsistencies of my results. Something is affecting the cutting ability of the paste, and I have not pinpointed what it is. There have been very few times in my 40 year career of learning a craft, that I have encountered something that, while it works, it does not work as well as my gut tells me it should or as constantly as it should, within obvious parameters.
 In all of these experiments, I have been guided by research originally done by Jonathan Tavares and Robert MacPherson (Mac). In  Mac's research, he has gathered together many sources and recipes here. While Mac's research shows a variety of recipes, with a wide range of ingredients, it seems the copper sulfate / salt & vinegar shows up a often. It is also the one that Jonathan Tavares used for his etching, for the Nova special "Knights In Shinning Armour".

 Mac's research shows one of the additional ingredients for the C.S./salt & vinegar recipe is charcoal, so this is why I have been trying it in the more recent tests. So far, I have been creating my paste batches using volume as a measurement. With the inconsistent results I had been getting, perhaps I'm not being as accurate as I need and I'm sure my notes have been insufficient.
For the new tests, because I was going to make very small batches, and in an effort to be more accurate and consistent, I switched to proportioning my ingredients by weight.
In switching to weight, I overlooked the fact that C.S. and salt are much denser (heavier), than an equal volume of charcoal. As a result, these small batches, now proportioned by weight, ended up with significantly more charcoal than my past mixes. At first I thought, this was way too much charcoal, but I figured, since they are already in the cup, I may as well test them as they are.

Turns out, of the 15 different formulas in this test, the best results came from the recipe with the large proportion of charcoal:
This is the formula that etched the deepest:
20g - Copper Sulfate
20g - Salt
5g - Bone charcoal (same granular size as the CS)
5g - Activated charcoal (Powder)
15% vinegar (to wet to damp sand consistency)

This paste etched deeper and was less damaging to the resists than the others.
In hindsight, this was nearly 4 times the volume of charcoal than my previous recipes.
I did another small test and got the same results, so I decided to etch my next piece of armour, the right cuisse.
Here are all the pieces "masked" off with the vinyl and asphaltum dots.

With the amount of surface area and the necessity to apply three consecutive batches of paste,this meant I would be mixing up one of the largest batches I have made. So I estimated a volume, 40 times my sample batch.
800g - C.S.
800g - Salt
200g - Bone charcoal (same granular size as the CS)
200g - Activated charcoal (Powder)
600g - 15% vinegar
Outside temp was 92f / 30c
(While the pieces were initially in direct sun,
I put up a piece of plywood to shade them.)
3 - 90 minute etches

The results were fantastic!
Very deep etch, very little damage to the resists (In fact no repair required)

EDIT-Current formula (as of July 2021) After over 100 tests and 99% of the armour complete, the formula I'm using now with satisfactory results is:
100g fine salt (Salt flour)
100g Copper sulfate fine crystals
25g Bone charcoal
13g activated wood charcoal
Distilled water to make it a thick paste.
The reaction with the salt, will cause the material to freeze, so after mixing, you need to let the paste sit for and hour or so, and then t\remix it. NOTE: Do not make your initial mixture too wet, as after you remix it, the salt gives up some water, and the paste gets wetter.
If it is too runny, you can add charcoal to thicken. I have found 3 or 4 90 minute etches (fresh paste for each) gives you considerable depth, equivalent to late 16th C armour.

Now this etch depth is more in line with the real armour. Because the Buckhurst armour has a painted background, behind the central gilded area, a very deep etch makes adding paint to these backgrounds much easier.

While I'm delighted with the success, I'm still not 100% convinced it is only the charcoal content that is giving me this great result. I also suspect the temperature may have something to do with it. Because of my scant notes, I'm not sure if my earlier successes were a result of a warm sunny day.

But, given these stellar results, I started on the left cuisse.

Of course, as soon as I get the left fully masked and ready to etch, the weather in Southern California is overcast and drizzly, for the whole week. Then, we get some nice warm days and I get tied up with real work. Finally a sunny warm weekend and I'm able to etch the other leg. Using the same formula I apply the first batch. But this time the asphaltum resist, is not surviving perfectly as it did previously. WHAT THE H#$@!^

I'll have to reapply dots. While I have gotten pretty quick at this, there are 2400 dots just on the knee. This puts me back another day so I can make sure the dots are fully dry. The second two applications go well.
But, during the cleaning of the paste, I change my approach. I had been carefully scraping a majority of the paste off with a tongue depressor into a bucket, and then rinsing the remaining paste off under running water. I had been doing this to avoid washing too large a volume of CS and salt onto the ground or into the drain. However, I was now concerned with damaging the resists and was not enthused with the idea of another ten thousand dot repair job. So I used just water on a couple of pieces to see how this affected the outcome. While one of these pieces was under the running water, I saw a glint of copper within the volume of paste. Upon closer inspection, I could clearly see metallic copper crystals forming up into the paste, away from the steel.
That was the aha moment.

What is the most important part of a sponge? The holes.
I had been adding the charcoal as an "ingredient", but now, with the increased volume, it was more of a "filler". The result was, the metallic copper was no longer forming directly on the steel surface, blocking the effectiveness of the paste. The copper was now being drawn up into the "holes" the charcoal was providing, keeping the steel surface clear, allowing the paste to remaining active and aggressive. I had not noticed this earlier, because I was scrapping this formation off. When the copper is drawn up into the paste, it also means the paste can be left on much longer and still be effective. This now explains the other thing Mac's period sources say, which is too apply the paste a small fingers width in thickness. When the copper was forming on the steel, and keeping the paste from working, it was clear to see this extra paste thickness was being wasted, something one wouldn't expect from a period process, the wasting of material. Now, all of the "finger thickness" of paste was being utilized. The second aha moment.

Other than why the asphaltum dots came off on the second leg, and not the first, I feel I finally have a handle on making this paste work consistently and effectively. I plan to test the limits of paste application times by doing multi hour tests, but for now, I'm confident I can move on.

 Both legs are now completely etched and I'm pretty happy with the results.


The etching I see on extant armour seems to show etching depths increasing over the 16th century and by the 1580's the etch depths are significant. There also seems to be less etch depth on Italian armour than on German armour. With my findings, of what the charcoal is doing, I'm wondering if this same "discovery" happened over many years in the development of this paste. Or the different workshops handing down what they knew, resulted in one formula being more effective than another.

On to the gauntlets......