An exercise in basic hammerwork, finishing, and assembly
by Eric Slyter
Page 1 of 8
Spaulders are a popular and intelligent choice for a beginner's first plate armour experiments. They provide a valuable exercise in basic hammerwork, finishing, and assembly that can be done with relatively few tools (as plate armour goes) and with relatively little time (in terms of a first-timer's efforts). The techniques learned here can be applied to many other more complicated pieces. I will also preface this by saying that what I present here are not the only ways to arrive at the final result... these are merely the ones I have learned and found that work, and this is my attempt to make those techniques accessible to the beginner.
This is a barebones beginner's tutorial, starting completely from scratch and not assuming that the reader has ever done this before. For those interested in skipping ahead, I recommend Late 15th Century German Knees- Advanced Forming. (see also: An Introduction to the Skill of Making Armour, Basic Armouring- A Practical Introduction to Armour Making, and Development of the 14th C. Spaulder)
Spaulders as a defense for the arm are applicable from approximately the mid-14th C. through the 17th. The appearance of these defenses changed over time, but the essential nature was present. What is presented here is a generic pattern that does not have strict historical provenance, but one that is functional and justifiable in many cases.
This exercise will be done cold, which is to say that the metal will not be annealed (softened) using heat during forming. Period illustrations indicate that armour was worked both hot and cold (demonstrated by the figures holding the armour with tongs or not) and in this case, it will be worked cold for the sake of simplicity. Similarly, there will be no heat treatment of the finished product, as mild steel (the steel of choice for this project, as explained below) does not have enough carbon for heat treatment to have any significant effect. The actual process of creating heat treated armour is also likely out of reach for beginners. Hardening will occur naturally through the process of hammering ("work hardening").
These spaulders will be built using "floating articulations," which is to say that they are connected and move on internal leather straps rather than being riveted directly to one another. This type of articulation was historically used from the 14th to the 17th C. in different forms, though its heyday was from about 1300 to 1350. Floating articulations appear to have been the height of technology at that time, until multiple piece "shell" articulations, moving on fixed points with rivets, eclipsed them. However, the design continued to see use in subsequent centuries, with the former first-class technology being passed on over time to poorer knights as well as the common soldier (as it often did).
It will be continually stressed as you read about and pursue this craft that there are many safety measures to take when building armour. None of them should be treated lightly. Types of injuries can run the gamut of minor scrapes and burns to death. It is not within the scope of this article to address all the possibilities, but special attention will be drawn to particular dangers as they arise. Treat your own situations and tools with the respect they deserve. Figure One shows a few of the items of safety equipment I used during this project. They include safety glasses, hearing protection, a face shield, and gloves. Also pictured is a bandana to keep my long hair out of the way. I additionally keep it braided. Generally, I wear the safety glasses and hearing protection at all times in the shop. (see also: An Armourer's Basic Safety Guidelines)
I have tried to keep tools for this project relatively simple, but there is no avoiding certain necessities which may entail more costs. It is probable that lesser results can be had with lesser tools (such as doing without appropriate hammers) but invariably the better your tools are the better (and easier) the end result will be. Photos of each of the following tools will be presented in due course throughout this article. The following are among the tools you will ideally use. (see also: Finding Supplies for Armour and Handtools on the Cheap- A Scrounger's Guide)
Also known as a "dishing" or "doming" hammer (the term "sinking" comes from the jewelry trade to which a great deal of modern armouring techniques owe their existence). A hammer of about 32 oz. with a rounded, hemispherical face. These usually have to be created out of an existing hammer. Cheap, used ball-peen hammers can be turned into sinking hammers with a few hours work. Ideally, the result is a perfectly smooth, mirror-polished face on the hammer. Defects in the hammer face translate directly into the steel, so your hammer should be as good as possible. Sinking hammers are used to put the initial "dish" into the metal. Note: don't make the mistake of thinking you can just use the rounded end of a ball-peen hammer for this. It is too pointy, and will not result in a surface that can be further worked with much simplicity. (see also: Construction of a Sinking (Dishing) Hammer)
A lightweight hammer of about 16 oz. with a flat face. As with sinking hammers, these can be made from existing hammers, though they are not very expensive to purchase from metalworking or autobody sources (and are a good investment). Also as with the sinking hammer, defects in the hammer face translate directly into the steel, so the better your hammer the better your workmanship. Planishing hammers are used to tap and even out the bumps from the surface of the steel after the initial forming.
These come in varying weights, and while eventually some variety would be recommended for your shop, in this case I used a 3 lbs. version. Good rawhide hammers can be expensive, and you usually have to go to a pretty good hardware store to find one. You can probably get away with a lighter weight version (the kind usually found in leatherworking stores), and possibly a plastic or rubber mallet. All are very useful because they allow the working of the metal without leaving nasty hammer marks that have to be smoothed out later like steel hammers leave. In this case, a rawhide hammer will be used to "tweak" the final shapes in the formed metal. If you have lighter weight plastic hammers available, they are useful for things like center punching as they don't "mushroom" the heads of steel tools.
I use a lightweight 8 ox. ball-peen hammer, unmodified, for setting rivets.
While there is no pictorial or inventory references in period for sinking stumps (using the surface of an anvil appears to be the most correct method), they have become a common part of the modern armourer's shop. Essentially, a depression is drilled, carved or burnt into the end of a hardwood log which is set on end. The metal is then hammered into the depression. (see also: How to Make a Sinking (Dishing) Stump)
You will never run out of uses for a vice. In this project, it will be used to secure curling pipes, the planishing stake, and an anvil. The bigger the vice you can obtain, the better.
These are useful for curling metal around, such as shaping the lames of spaulders. I have 4.5", 3.5" and 2.5" diameters. I use them all for varying things, and it wouldn't hurt to have more variety. In this project I use the 3.5" diameter.
A "stake" is an object that you form metal over instead of into. In this case I sanded down and polished the end of a railroad spike and clamped it in a vice. It will be used with the planishing hammer to smooth the rough hammered surface of the metal. As with the hammers, the planishing stake is smooth and polished to prevent defects from its surface from being transferred to the workpiece.
...but not the kind you think. I consider an "anvil" to be any heavy block of steel that you can work your metal over. In this case, it is a sledgehammer head that I picked up for $5 at a swap meet. I clamp it in my vice, and suddenly I have an anvil to set rivets on. I also have a length of railroad track that I use for more intensive activities. I would like to have a genuine, real hardened steel anvil at some point, but it won't be necessary until I get started in hot work/blacksmithing.
This is not required piece of equipment, but you'll find all sorts of ways of making use for it if you have one. In this case, I use it to even out the edges of the formed spaulder "cop."
This is another tool that will become indispensable once you have it. For this project, it can be used in conjunction with a 5" buffing wheel and 6" sanding discs as a flexible backed tool to sand and smooth the rough surface of the steel prior to assembly. I don't think you can make do without at least a 1/2hp grinder... in my particular case I actually use a 3/4hp buffing motor. I have heard that angle grinders can be used also (which has the advantage of not having the nut in the way), and if you have nothing else you can always sand by hand (though it takes forever). These are all basically improvised substitutes for more expensive equipment that does the same thing.
Note: grinders and related motorized tools are extremely dangerous. They are basically designed to destroy anything that touches them, and they don't care if that is steel or your clothing, hair or skin. Treat them with profound respect and caution or you will learn the hard way.
You will need something to cut the metal. You don't necessarily need a shear, but something that is adequate to cut the thickness of metal you choose to work. There are aviation shears for thinner gauges, and for thicker gauges you can use a power shear, nibbler, jigsaw, or even a cold chisels. The ideal tool for cutting sheet metal is a throatless shear such as the Beverly B-2 (which I use here).
You will need something put holes in the metal. A drill is the most easily obtained option, but a better choice is a hand-punch like the famed Roper-Whitney #5 Jr.
Sanding discs and a buffing wheel are used in conjunction with the bench grinder as noted above, or for hand sanding you can simply use sandpaper. 2x4s can be used in the vise along with the 3.5" pipe for metal curling (this will be demonstrated later). A finishing pad, such as the green variety available at most stores, or the purple metal finish pads available at hardware or automotive stores, is used to put a matte finish on the sanded metal. Black fine point markers are ideal for tracing your posterboard patterns on the metal. You will need nails and/or rivets to connect the parts together. For rivets, I used brass rivets with a 1/8" thick, 1/4" long shank and 3/16" diameter round head for attaching the bicep straps, and brass rivets with 3/16" thick, 3/8" long shank and 1/4" diameter round head for the tops of the spaulders. For nails (ie "armyng nayles") to connect the internal leathers to the steel, I used 3/4" long galvanized roofing nails that are about 5/32"-9/64" thick in the shank. I have a 5 lb. box that I picked up for a couple dollars at a hardware store.
The best choice of metal for a beginner is cold-rolled mild steel. This is suggested in opposition to hot-rolled mild steel, which is softer but has a layer of stubborn black scale; stainless steel which is expensive, tough to work, and far from authentic; and high-carbon steel, of which the heat treatment techniques used in later period are probably out of reach for a beginner. The most correct material to use in most cases (especially earlier periods) would be iron, but this is so unattainable as to be nearly hopeless. Cold-rolled mild steel is a readily available substitute, and is similar enough to the iron of the 14th C. and earlier to be an adequate substitute.
It is also recommended in favor or brass or bronze which, though essentially correct for some parts and pieces (brass being so at least, a similar alloy known medievally as latten) have working properties of their own. Copper is often recommended for beginners practicing hammer technique since it is so soft, but not very practical for armour for the same reasons and not correct in period for actual defensive properties (as a base for gilding notwithstanding). Other non-ferrous metals (tin, aluminum etc.) will not be covered here, and cannot be considered for their authenticity as armour in any case.
Cold-rolled mild steel is relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. Larger hardware stores keep small sheets of it on hand, though the cost is exhorbitantly more than if you buy in bulk from a steel house. It is a forgiving material... it is possible to correct mistakes with it. It work-hardens slowly, which is to say that you can do a lot of shaping to it before running the risk of stress fractures, and without having to soften it with heat. Like hot-rolled or high-carbon steel, it is subject to rusting and therefore maintenance should be considered for the finished product.
In terms of thickness using this material, 18 gauge (thinner) and 16 gauge (thicker) are the most popular choices. Thicker than 16 gauge will probably be too thick for a beginner to work comfortably (and it is largely unnecessary for defensive armour to be this thick in that area of the body), and thinner than 18 gauge is usually condsidered "costume" thickness and will be more difficult to sand and finish without creating thin spots. (see also: Wire and Sheet Metal Sizes)
In general, if buying a small sheet from a hardware store, it is advisable that you take your pattern with you and lay it out on the steel you are considering buying. Make sure there is room for the entire pattern twice, including repeated parts that there is only one pattern piece for. It is better if you have enough steel to cut more parts out of, in case you make a mistake and need to cut out more pieces.
It is also possible to scrounge sheet metal cheaply from a scrap yard, but you are at the mercy of availability both in material (ie, "mystery metals"), thickness, and quality (it might be covered in stubborn, pitted rust that will have to eventually be sanded away).
These spaulders will be built using simple "floating articulation" construction. The different parts will be held together with internal leather straps. I usually use 6 or 7 oz. "latigo" leather for this, as it is both strong and flexible. Straps can be 1/2" or 3/4" in width, and you must place the holes inward from the edges on your plates according to this width or the internal straps will stick out over the edges. The pattern offered with this article is designed for 1/2" straps.