If you’re anything like me, chances are you’ve had this unexplainable attraction to things medieval since you were a kid. Maybe it was spawned from a childhood toy, a fairy tale, or perhaps a movie. One day you happened upon a demonstration put on by some re-enactors, or perhaps you were just surfing the web, when you made a monumental discovery: “Wow! People still MAKE THIS STUFF!” This is usually closely followed by the thought, “Hey! I want to do this, too!” So in a glorious rush you have searched the Internet high and low, and found an armouring bulletin board, where you feverishly post to your newly discovered world of armourers something to this effect:
“Hi guys! I’m new to making armour, and I want to learn how to do it! Any help would be appreciated.
- Armour Newbie”
To your dismay, a week later there are no responses. “What gives?” you ask. “Doesn’t anyone want to help out?”
Well, the problem is the question. You see, asking “how do I make armour” is about as nebulous a question as asking, “How do I write a book?” or “How do I build an airplane?” A proper answer could fill volumes, which most folks aren’t willing to type up on a bulletin board. Why not? Well, the experienced folks who are capable of answering your question can tell right off, from the way you worded it, that you don’t know much, if anything, about making armour. That’s O.K., of course – all of us started out not knowing anything about making armour. However, before the experienced folks are going to invest the necessary time to compose well researched and cited responses to your questions, they want to know that it’s going to be worth it. In other words, they want to see from your questions that you have done some homework already.
This article was written to help folks like you get started!
The nice thing about most “hobbies” that revolve around an ancient craft, such as making armour, is that if they had the technology 500-1000 years ago to do it, the chances are that it can be done relatively easily today, assuming you have the skill. So the good news is that YES, you too CAN make armour. The bad news is, boy is there is a lot to learn before you can say that you can “make armour”. You see, the skill of “making armour” is actually a whole family of a bunch of other skills. Some are fairly easy, and require few tools. Others are fairly difficult, and take many, and expensive, tools. The armourer is a combination of artist, scientist, toolmaker, metallurgist, chemist, and engineer. A good armourer will have an understanding of mathematics, geometry, metallurgy, woodworking, and leatherworking, just to name a few skills. The modern armourer is also highly skilled at the art of improvisation, for nearly every tool at his disposal started out as something else and was converted to his needs.
Not only is there much to learn, but the prospective armourer should also know that armouring is an extremely expensive hobby. Now you don’t always have to pay with money – sometimes you can pay with time. Either time or money, you can be guaranteed that you are going to invest a considerable amount of both into this hobby, especially if you have dreams of constructing that full suit of gothic armour that we all have buried in our heads.
O.K.! Let’s get started!
Set Your Sights Reasonable To Start With
Almost certainly, you, like all of us when we started out, had your eye caught by some full suit of finely etched, engraved, gilded full plate harness, and have already decided, “I’m gonna make THAT!” Well, that’s a great goal to shoot for, but if you set out on your first day on the floor of your apartment with a used road sign, some metal snips, and a carpenter’s claw hammer, you are going to set yourself up for disappointment and probably failure. So my advice is this: start small. A full suit of armour has too many things in it to learn for it to be a first project.
Before you get too depressed over your newly deflated balloon, you should know that this is exactly they way medieval masters became masters of their craft. They had to audition their works on specific parts of armour harnesses; gauntlets, helms, breastplates, etc. Some masters never produced entire suits — they only made specific parts of harnesses as their specialty. So there’s no shame in starting small – the skills are still applicable to the whole of armouring.
Find An Armourer To Learn From
Armouring, without a doubt, is definitely a “hands on” skill. You can, and should, read all you can about armouring, but nothing will teach you to do it like actually doing it. For this reason I highly recommend working in another armourer’s shop if at all possible. I cannot overstate the value in learning this way. The reasons are numerous.
First of all, if you attempt to “go it alone”, you will be learning by the “school of hard knocks”. Now, that’s not to say that you won’t have your share of learning mistakes even working under another armourer, but at least you will have the benefit of someone who’s likely made all those mistakes already and can help you with the solutions. What’s more, by working in an existing armoury you will get a sense of how a shop should be set up and stocked with tools. You will learn what tools are absolutely necessary, and which ones only get used occasionally. You will also learn where to acquire these tools, and when necessary, how to make them. And finally, by trying your hand at making armour you will have a chance to decide whether this hobby is for you or not before you shell out lots of money for your own equipment.
Unless you live in the boonies, chances are there may be an armourer nearby. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) has chapters all over the world, and certainly covers all of the continental U.S. There are certainly many other medieval reenactment groups. If you are reading this, chances are you are already on the Internet – so search around and see what you can come up with. Most armourers are more than willing to teach new folks how to make armour, as long as you are willing to pull your share.
What does “pull your share” mean? That means you respect the armourer and his shop. It means you always offer (and follow through) to pay for materials used. It means bringing your armourer a case of beer now and then. It means doing armour chores for the armourer, like spending a Saturday dishing shield bosses for him. It means always staying after working and helping clean up the shop. It means treating the armourer’s tools like gold – always ask which tool is appropriate for the job if you aren’t sure – if you ever want to piss off an armourer use one of his mirror-faced hammers for peening a rivet. It means listening to what he has to say even if you think you might know a better way. Now, this doesn’t mean you two won’t have gab sessions about what the best way might be (you’ll have hundreds of them). However, when the armourer hands you a hammer and says, “Do it this way,” have the respect to try his way. They way I consider it is this: When you are in an armourer’s shop you are on his “holy ground”. Remember, he is teaching you a skill and turning you into a possible competitor in a market that isn’t that, well, essential anymore!
What if you actually do live in the boonies, and have no armourer to work under, you ask? Well, you can still do it. But like I said, I can’t stress enough how much faster you will learn under another armourer.
Let’s talk about some of the things you will need if you want to work in your own shop.
A Place To Work
The first thing you need, of course, is a shop! Let me say, right up front, as an apartment dweller myself, that if you live in an apartment most plate armour is going to be out of the question – you will not be producing suits of gothic armour. And if you live in an apartment where you can, let me know – I want to move there!
Seriously, though, an armour shop space needs to be pretty rugged and tolerant of dirt, grime, fire, and dust. You can liken an armour shop environment to that of an auto mechanic’s garage. An armour shop in full-tilt production probably ranks amongst the 10 dirtiest places on earth. It’s also generally a very noisy place. Not only that, but the hazard of fire is quite real. Trust me – as someone who has incinerated a patch of carpet (and very nearly his crotch) in front of his TV while playing with red-hot maille rings, armour work is not the sort of thing that lends itself to living quarters. So you can pretty much forget about using the corner of your dining room as an armour shop for making plate armour.
The ideal shop should have enough room for a workbench, a tool rack, and a chair. Even a small space can work, you just won’t be able to have all your toys out at once. The floor should ideally be hard-packed dirt. Cement floors are good, too, though some folks have cautioned me about allowing molten metal to drip onto cement. Supposedly, this causes water in the cement to flash into steam, potentially blowing craters in the floor. Whatever your floor is, you can count on the fact that you will have literally buckets of metallic dust strewn upon it, as well as numerous metal, wood, leather, and other bits. Likely as not, you’ll also have red-hot chunks of metal thrown on it, too. A garage makes an excellent armour shop.
A shop should also have adequate ventilation. Many of the jobs than an armourer does (acid etching, welding) results in the production of noxious fumes. Good lighting is also important.
I Live in an Apartment!
If you live in an apartment, don’t despair. Even though you may not be producing suits of gothic armour there are still many armour items that you can make. Apartment dwellers are limited by two major constraints: noise and dirt. These conspire against the armourer in that you basically cannot form sheet metal as needed to make armour without making copious amounts of both. However, if you are working relatively simple metal shapes, or better yet, you can get your plates cut somewhere else, you can do simple metal forming and riveting in an apartment. Riveting will still be noisy, but not too bad if you use a large chunk of metal to support the rivet.
Chainmail is ideally suited for the apartment dweller. Butted maille requires almost no more tools than a wire cutter and a couple of pairs of pliers. Armed with these and a spool of wire you can produce some of the most labor intensive and lusted-after armour available. With a few more tools and a small workbench you can even make authentic riveted maille, which is even more lusted after and even more labor intensive!
Leather armour can also be done in an apartment environment, though one needs to be careful because it can be messy. You may be playing with large containers of very hot water, molten wax, and leather dye. Carpets, furniture, and landlords don’t particularly like any of these.
Coats of plates are another style of armour that lend themselves to apartment armourers, and represent, as far as I am concerned, about as ambitious an armour project as should be undertaken in such an armour shop. Coats of plates require leather and/or cloth work, sewing, simple plate cutting (can be done with hand shears), simple plate forming (almost no dishing), and riveting. A relative of the coat of plates, splinted armour can also be made with an apartment shop. Splinted armour is a form of limb defense made of steel slats riveted to a heavy leather backing, and requires similar skills to build.
Play it Safe!
The second prerequisite to making armour is safety equipment. You will need, as a minimum, safety goggles; earplugs; a respirator that can filter metal particles; gloves; and a fire extinguisher. None of these are negotiable. Now, I know exactly what you are thinking… “Aw, I don’t need all that stuff.” Yup – I used to think I didn’t need safety glasses just for this quick little job until I ended up at the eye doctor letting her pick a rusted bit of metal out of my eye. Some of the injuries, like hearing loss and lung damage, you won’t even be aware of until it’s too late. Don’t take chances.
I will provide images of many tools to provide you with an example. These are for reference only, and are not suggestions or endorsements. That is not to say that they wouldn’t work just fine – just don’t come crying to me if you buy something and it doesn’t work for you. (The Arador Armour Library makes no direct claim to the fitness or suitability of any example pictured here) (see also: Finding Supplies for Armour and Hand Tools on the Cheap- A Scrounger’s Guide)
Now that you have a place to make armour, and the safety equipment, it’s time to decide on what kind of shop equipment you are going to need to start out with. This is going to depend largely on what kind of armour you want to make and what kind of shop space you have. Most types of armour will fall into one or more of these categories:
More properly called “maille”, or “mail”, chainmail is one of the least tool-intensive armours that can be made. It is also one of the most labor-intensive armours that can be made. At a very minimum, maille can be made with a couple of pairs of pliers, a pair of wire cutters, and a piece of round steel stock. However, most maille makers, especially those who make authentic, riveted maille, have a few more tools than that. (see also: Beginner’s Guide to Maille , Demystifying Chainmail and Ringmail)
Because of the minimal tool requirements, maille, especially butted maille, can be made almost anywhere, even in a college dorm room.
A listing of a few tools that a maille maker might need are:
Pliers, End Nippers, Side Cutters
You will want at least 2 pairs of pliers. Butted maillers usually use them for opening and closing rings. Usually the maille maker will grind the teeth off of the face of the jaws so as not to mar the rings. The various cutters are useful for cutting wire.
Die grinder with various bits and stones
A die grinder has countless uses. It can be used for grinding, cutting, and polishing. I find that it comes in most handy during the construction of other armour-making tools.
Propane or MAPP Torch
If you are only making butted maille, you probably won’t need a torch. However, if you are going to make riveted maille, you will likely need a torch for annealing your tools before you can machine them, as well as for normalizing the maille rings before working them. MAPP torches are more expensive than propane torches, but they burn hotter, and thus you get your work done more quickly.
A hand drill can be used during the construction of other armour-making tools. It can also be hooked up to a coil winding jig to speed the winding of coils of maille.
While not essential for making maille, a drill press becomes an essential item if you find you need to make tools (like for riveted maille) or fixtures for making armour.
Again, a bench grinder is not essential for making butted maille, but is almost essential for making the tools necessary to make riveted maille.
Many people use snips for cutting the individual maille rings from the coil. However, other cutting tools may also work.
A hacksaw is needed any time you need to cut metal.
Hand saw (for wood)
If you want to construct a winding jig, you will need to be able to cut wood. There are power tools that can do the same job faster, but the hand saw is the least expensive.
Leathercraft can be used alone to produce armours made entirely of leather, but the craft of leatherwork spills over into just about any of the other armouring areas. Nearly all plate harnesses require leatherwork of some kind – straps and articulations are common examples.
Leather has an advantage in that it is fairly easy to work, and does not require much in the way of tools. However, the levels of effort put into finely crafted leatherwork can rival that of the best plate armour. Leather armour also has a disadvantage in that leather itself can be quite expensive.
Like maille, leather armour has only minimal tool requirements. However, leatherwork can be a bit messy. Since you will likely be working with bottles of dye (which stain everything, including leather), hot water, and sharp knives, working with leather armour requires a bit more of a shop than working with maille. (see also: Beginner’s Tips for Leatherworking and Water Hardened Leather Technique)
Some of the tools you might encounter while working with leather are:
Leather hole punches
Working with leather always requires punching holes in it. There are two types of punches. Hand-held punches that you use with a hammer, punching into a soft surface (nylon cutting boards work well); and rotary punches, that work like tongs. The advantage of the hand-held punch is that the punch can be brought to bear anywhere on the work surface, whereas tong punches can only punch near the edges of a piece.
Razors and Utility Knives
Razor kits come in a variety of handle and blade styles. They are very useful precision knives, and extremely sharp with new blades. Utility knives can be used for cutting out larger pieces.
Swivel knives are a special kind of knife used for cutting out patterns on the face of leather.
Like the name implies, this tool makes quick work of cutting strips or straps out of a large piece of leather. You can do the job with a straight edge and a utility knife, but a strap cutter will pay for itself the first time you use it.
Most leatherworking punches and dies should not be struck with metal hammers. Use a rawhide mallet instead. Wooden or plastic mallets can also be used.
Ball peen hammer
When you need a little more “oomph” than the rawhide or wooden mallets are providing, ball peens come in handy.
If you want to tool your leather, there are some stamps available. Unfortunately, most leatherworking stamps are geared towards the country and western crowd, and not the medieval armourer. Nonetheless, some can be useful.
Similar to stamps, modeling tools are used for tooling leather. However, modeling tools are mostly used to mold designs into the face of leather after the desired patterns have been cut into it.
To give your straps and belts a finished look, you should bevel the edges.
Awls are handy for piercing (not punching) holes through leather and fabric. Generally, when you put a hole into fabric, you want to pierce a hole in the material, rather than punch. The reason is that punching actually removes material, and cuts the fibers that pass through the area where the hole is. Piercing the hole with an awl simply spreads the fibers and results in a stronger finished piece.
Leather hand needle
You’ll need one of these if you are going to do any sewing of leather.
These tools come in a variety of sizes, but they all look like funny-shaped forks. They are used for punching evenly spaced holes in leather, for lacing.
If you don’t wear rubber gloves while dying leather, you will dye yourself as well, and it can take weeks for the dye to wear off. Unless you want to explain your hobby to everyone you meet for weeks on end, wear rubber gloves while dying leather.
Electric frying pan
Many leather objects, including armours, are made of cuir-bouli, or “boiled” leather. While not actually boiled, this type of leatherwork involves immersing a leather object in very hot water, shaping it, and allowing it to dry. As a modern convention, frequently after the object is dry it will be impregnated with molten wax to add additional rigidity. An electric frying pan or wok is an excellent way to melt wax. Just be careful not to set it on fire. (see also: Wax Hardened Leather Technique)
The allure of plate armour is what draws many of us into the hobby of making armour. Many would consider it the pinnacle of armouring achievement. Constructing plate armour requires mastery of many disciplines, and requires many tools. One of the curses of the plate armour task is that it requires many specialized tools, usually tools that the armourer must make himself. Thus there are a handful of common tools which the plate armourer uses every day, and yet a shop cannot run effectively without the obscure specialized tools – there is always some task that requires just that right tool to do.
You can buy on the cheap for some of your tools (especially hand tools) if you baby them and take care of them. The way I see it, chances are the cheapest Chinese set of chisels is probably hell-and-gone better than what the medieval smith had at his disposal. However, some of the cheaper power tools are known to not last very long (bearings go out, etc). Likewise, the knock-off tools, like the knock-off Beverly Shear and the knock-off Roper-Whitney punch have been shown to be inferior to the “real things”. That’s why they are cheaper. Do not expect them to perform like the real things would. I personally would start to be worried if I were cutting/punching at the published limits of the knock-offs themselves. (see also: 18 Things I’ve Learned About Sheet Metal)
The following list is by no means inclusive:
An anvil, per se, is almost not needed at all for armouring work. Most modern armourers do not do any real smithing, and for this reason a traditional blacksmith’s anvil, though almost always found in a plate armourer’s shop, is not an absolute necessity. What is an absolute necessity is a flat, hard metal surface to pound metal on. This flat surface should have one sharp straight edge to it, and one rounded straight edge to it. These edges are used for folding metal over. If this block of metal is an anvil, great. At the least you will need a section of railroad track. One of my favorite tools to work on is a monstrosity made up out of a fork-lift tine. Come to think of it, I do not think I have actually worked any plate on an anvil yet. One advantage a real anvil does have, though, is a “hardie” hole – a hole in the face on the anvil used to hold stakes. Good anvils, even used ones, are very expensive.
Stakes are specially shaped pieces of hard steel used for forming metal over. Some will fit into the hardie hole of an anvil, while others can be held in a vice. A well-equipped shop might have a dozen stakes of various sizes and shapes. While many stakes can be bought, because they are specialty tools they often command a high price. Sometimes one can find good deals at scrap yards or flea markets. Because of the price and/or difficulty in finding stakes, many armourers fashion their own. Chisels, axe heads, and railroad spikes can be converted for use as stakes.
A good machinist’s vice is very helpful in the shop. It can be used to hold an item being worked on, but just as often it is used to hold a tool or fixture to work an item over. Vices also are very useful when constructing custom tools.
Most modern armourers that produce deeply dished items, like helms and some elbow and knee cops, make use of a welder. This is because, in ancient times, the armourer made use of a forge in order to heat the metal being formed to red heat, where it could more easily be worked. Because most modern armourers do not have access to a forge, they form such deeply dished items by constructing them out of two halves and welding them together. Wire feed or MIG welders appear to be a popular choice among many armourers.
Generally speaking, there is very little “smithing” that goes into making armour using modern techniques. “Smithing” generally implies “blacksmithing”, which implies working with a forge. Very few armourers today use a forge, instead choosing to work the metal cold and using a welder to build the necessary pieces. If you want to make exact historical replicas, however, a forge is a necessity. (see also: Helmet Construction/Period Metalworking)
A metal working shop may likely have more hammers than any other type of tool in the shop. The plate armourer will have a few general purpose hammers, for peening rivets or otherwise “pursuading” metal. However, he will also have quite a few specialty hammers used for special purposes. Many of these hammers will have to be fashioned by the armourer, as they are not available anywhere else. Small tack hammers, hammers with spherical faces, square-headed hammers, round-headed hammers, and dishing hammers are all examples of hammers an armourer might have. (see also: Construction of a Sinking (Dishing) Hammer)
Bench grinders come in very handy for quick metal removal. They are often used during the construction of custom-made tools. Can also be used with a sanding disk for finish sanding before moving to the buffing wheels.
Angle grinders are hand-held power tools that have a replaceable grinding wheel that protrudes from the side of the tool at a ninety degree angle (hence the name). These are often used for grinding down weld beads or otherwise shaping plates. They remove material extremely fast.
Dishing forms are shallow bowls used for beating flat sheets of metal into bowl shapes. The most common (though least historically supportable) dishing form is the dishing “stump” – quite literally a wooden log with a slight depression carved, beaten, or burned into one end. Metal dishing forms are also popular, though more costly. (see also: How to Make a Sinking (Dishing) Stump)
Hand drills and/or drill presses come in very handy for making holes, both in armour pieces and during the making of tools.
Various pliers always come in handy for holding or forming metal. You’ll need some of the locking variety as well.
These are always useful for providing a “third hand”.
These are sometimes used for marking or forming metal, but most often are used to locate the start of holes, either for drilling or punching.
A metal-punching hole punch, such as a Roper Whitney #5 Jr., is another important tool. You can do without one, using a drill instead, but hand punches are fast and precise.
If you intend to polish your armour, more than likely you will want to invest in a bench grinder mounted on a stand with buffing wheels attached to it, or a dedicated buffing motor. You can polish armour by hand, of course, using sandpaper, but a buffing wheel will do in minutes what could take you days to do by hand. You will need the appropriate buffing compound for the degree of polish you wish to attain.
Metal Cutting Tools
A well-equipped shop will likely have a few ways to cut metal. I will present some of the tools used, in order from least to most expensive:
A cold chisel
Used correctly, a cold chisel can be used to cut very thick plates of metal with surprising precision. Some edge clean-up is often needed afterwards, however.
Equipped with metal cutting blades, a jigsaw can be used to cut sheetmetal. However, it is noisy, slow, and can consume blades quickly.
An Electric or Pneumatic Shear
Handheld metal shears, powered by air (need a compressor) or electricity can also be used to cut metal. However, many power shears are limited as to how thick a sheet of metal they can cut, and ones that can cut the thicker gauges can be quite expensive. Expect to pay $200 or more for a quality power shear.
An Electric or Pneumatic Nibbler
Nibblers cut metal by using a tiny die to cut small bits of metal out of the sheet. It essentially “nibbles” a cut. Like shears, nibblers are also often limited as to how thick a sheet of metal they can cut. They are also somewhat noisy. They also waste metal, as they remove material as they cut. Additionally, the edges of a nibble-cut piece of metal usually need to be cleaned up.
The throatless shear is, as far as I am concerned, the tool that allows a shop to work sheet metal. Specifically, the Beverly B2 throatless shear. Throatless shears allow one to cut complex curves in even thick metal. There are imitation Beverly shears for considerably less money, but there is no substitute for the Beverly. Expect to pay around $600 for the Beverly B2, and around $100 for the knock-offs.
So there you have a very incomplete list of tools, to hopefully give you some idea of what is involved in making armour. If that looks like a lot of stuff, well, it is! Don’t worry, though – you can get started making armour with only a few basic tools. Remember, the medieval armourer didn’t have Black & Decker or Home Depot!
Now that you have an idea of the tools you might need, you are probably now wondering how to use them. Well, it’s far beyond the scope of this document to even begin to teach how to make any particular kind of armour. However, I will attempt to provide you with some clues as to how to get started.
Most serious armourers have extensive libraries. For those that are out of print, try going to your local library. If they don’t have it they can probably get it on intra-library loan. Reading not only educates you about the armours you want to reproduce, but more importantly, it allows you to learn the lingo so that you can ask specific, to-the-point questions on armouring bulleting boards – the kinds of questions likely to generate answers. Most books available on armour are not very helpful for actually making armour, though they are often considered indespensable by folks who make armour. One “bible” for armourers is Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight by David Edge and John Miles Paddock. It is a fantastic overview of the history of European armour and also has a few essays on its construction in the back. Modern books on armour are great sources of inspiration and seeing what your work should end up looking like, though. Plus they will give you the details of what types of armour are appropriate for what times in history, as well as what kinds of armour are appropriate to be worn with one another. (see also: Arador Book Reviews)
As I said above, your best bet is to hook up with someone who is already making armour. But failing that, make use of the Internet – it is a powerful tool for asking questions and sharing ideas.
Cut paper before metal. It’s tempting, once you have your tools and sheet metal in hand, to go straight to work, cutting and forming. Even if you have a pattern, unless you know it works for YOU (or whoever you are making armour for) you would be wise to try making it out of poster board first. Poster board won’t provide an exact pattern for anything that involves dishing, but it’s better than nothing. Measure twice, cut once. (see also: Facts and Myths About Armour Patterns)
There is just no substitute for experience. And eventually, no matter how much you have read, how much you have asked, or how much guidance you have, you are going to have to put hammer to metal and just see what happens. Do not be discouraged if your first pieces don’t live up to your expectations. Don’t be afraid to start off with just small things. There’s no shame in that. That’s what medieval armourers often did – they “earned their mark” on making a specific kind of armour. Sometimes that’s all they did (gauntlets, helms, etc.). So you might want to try something simple, first, like a set of spaulders. Spaulders are nice because they teach many basic skills. You will need to learn to develop a pattern, cut, bend, and dish metal, work with leather for articulation, and set rivets. Helms of all-riveted construction are also good learning projects, but cutting and forming the metal will be more difficult than many other projects. (see also: Building Spaulders- An exercise in basic hammerwork, finishing, and assembly, How to Build a Spangenhelm, Great Helm Pattern and Construction, and Basic Armouring- A Practical Introduction to Armour Making)