Thursday, June 29, 2017

Making Scythian boots, part I

Background and considerations
Central Asian peoples from at least around 1000 BCE through recent times frequently wore tall pull-on boots.  With modifications to height and toe shape, these were used by Arians, Drangians, Parthians, Black Sea Scythians, possibly Bactrians, and others at least as far east as the Altai.  Kuz'mina ascribes tall boots to the Bronze Age people of the Andronovo culture, widely believed to include the early Indo-Iranians, so it is possible that the ancestors of the Medes and Persians also wore them.

Artwork is scant on construction details, which, of course, probably varied a lot over such a wide expanse of space and time.  Black Sea Scythian boots on several artefacts from Kul Oba are shown with a strap that appears to gather the boot leg tight around the ankle.  The women's decorated boots from Pazyryk have wide bands of woolen braiding in the same location, but these don't appear to fasten or make the boot leg tighter and instead seem to be appliqued into place (strictly, the Kul Oba ankle straps aren't shown with any obvious method of fastening either).  Otherwise boots appear to have no fastening, like wellington or cowboy boots, which are a modern iteration of the same equestrian concept.  The Chärchän Man's surviving boot doesn't appear to have an ankle strap, but is seamed between the foot and leg.  On balance, I would call the evidence inconclusive.

Since I have thin heels and wide toes, my heels tend to lift out of any pull-on boots that are wide enough to fit my toes into.  I'm making some felt mock-ups and plan to tie straps around the ankles to see if they can be left as separate pieces or need to be partly stitched down.  On Medo-Persian low shoes, the strap has to be attached, since if it rides up even a little, it will be above the top edge of the shoe, and thus fail to serve its purpose of tightening the shoe around the ankle so it stays on the foot.  It doesn't seem to me that tall pull-on boots would have such a strict requirement.  On the other hand, as noted above, stitching the strap down all the way around would make it impossible to adjust, which could well result in a worst-of-both-worlds setup in which the strap impedes putting on and taking off the boot but isn't tight enough to provide good fit around the ankle.

Sergei Rudenko states that the Pazyryk women's boots are seamed at the back, which makes them sound similar to Plains moccasins.  Some Plains boot moccasin patterns may be ideal, but the ones most readily available to me are laced and in such case, I figure I might as well wing it when it comes to fitting the leg, since lace-up shafts won't fit in the same manner as pull-on ones.  The Pazyryk boot legs were open in back, but artwork seems to show that most Scythian boot legs were closed.

The commercial cowhide split I'm using is an inexpensive substitute for a fat-cured leather, but both it and the German-tanned buckskin I used for my gorytos are quite lightweight and floppy.  I expect that leather boots had linings to stiffen the legs and prevent too much sagging, and luckily, I have some lining leather on-hand.  A double layer of the outer material or a felt lining would also work.  Whatever the material, a few rows of stitching to add a little bit of quilting effect should increase stiffness, ensuring that the lining and upper behave as one piece of material.  For cold regions and seasons, a dense shearling hide might get by without an added liner or could even be the liner for a de-grained leather outer.

Soles might have been a single or double layer of soft leather, thick felt, or rawhide.  Rudenko describes one of the Pazyryk soles as "chamois" (which may mean chamois goat or just soft suede - I don't know what the original Russian word was) and another as having "a heel of thick (2mm.) rigid leather."  However, one look at the ornamented Pazyryk soles shows that they weren't made for a great deal of walking, and were likely intended just to show off while sitting or while riding side-saddle.

I'd prefer rawhide, but it works best with special processing such as de-stretching, and most of it on the market tends to be either very thin (goat hide, drumheads), too stiff (most bleached sides and boiled chew toys) or sold in costly whole sides (heavy cowhide, bison, etc.).  There are apparently rawhide soles commercially available, but I failed to find any before just ordering some latigo pieces.  Better luck next time!  Latigo is heavy wax-stuffed leather used for saddlery and other weather-resistant outdoor equipment, and the most common material for modern "hardsole" moccasins.  White latigo looks like bleached rawhide but is much more flexible.  Moccasin-makers around the Web have opined on the pros and cons of rawhide versus latigo with regards to durability, ease of sewing, comfort, traction and so on.  But either one should be acceptable for occasional reenactment use; rawhide simply has the edge as being more historical.  I wouldn't blame anyone for sticking with soft soles, though; they would be less protective, but far easier to stitch and more flexible if you prefer that.

Hemp and wool thread (used in Pazyryk felt stockings), sinew (used to attach the Pazyryk boot soles) and linen would all be appropriate stitching materials.  Artificial sinew and other synthetics would work as well.  For the final construction, I'm currently planning to use all waxed linen, since it's the only historical material I have on hand:  heavy cord for the soles, and light cord or multiple rows of thread to assemble the uppers.

Making the pattern

Assembled materials ready for measuring and cutting, including felt for the mock-up.  The spool of artificial sinew, next to the scissors, was my initial choice for assembly before I obtained some linen cord.

The first step is to find the correct size.  I normally wear a men's size 9 wide, so this is what I initially went for in measuring and cutting.  The Missouri River pattern is unfolded, laid out, and pieces of tracing paper are laid over the desired sections and weighted with various objects.  Trace with a pencil or ballpoint pen so the ink won't bleed through the tracing paper onto the original patterns.

In Plains moccasins, the topline is not a hole but just a T-shaped cut; the moccasin extends to the ankle and has a lace running through slits, and a tongue is sewn into the front.  Here, I'll be cutting away material from the topline to make that swooping seam seen in the Chärchän and Pazyryk boots.  No tongue is needed because the foot will be protected by the boot leg.

The paper copies of the original patterns are pinned to the felt, traced in ink and cut.  The felt pattern should become the permanent pattern cut for my own feet if everything goes well.

As recommended, I added a welt between the sole and upper for the first attempt, but have since decided that this made things needlessly complicated, especially since I'm going to be using insoles.  After cutting out a nicely rounded topline, I attempted to measure its perimeter with a tape measure and then cut a big rectangle for the leg.  Then I stitched it all up loosely with dental floss.

It turns out the size 9 fit FAR too small on me, being too short, too narrow, and too flat in the toe.  It may be partly that these moccasins are designed to be worn without socks or insoles, or they may just run smaller than they should, I don't know.  Add to that, a true fat-cured leather would stretch with wear.

After two more attempts, I now have a pattern that will accommodate my stocking foot and an orthotic insole comfortably, made by combining the back half of a size 10 with the front of a size 11.  In fact, it's a bit too wide now, though a good length.  I don't know if the welt running up the back was used in period, but it's one way to accomplish a flat seam without overlapping the edges and causing a raised edge that could chafe the achilles tendon.  Of course, the welt itself could prove irritating due to being an extra-thick, less flexible part, and any kind of raised seam would be.

The next step will be to cut all the stitches I've just done, do some slight final adjustments to the foot and sole pieces, and then start tracing onto leather.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Making an all-metal akinakes, part I

One thing I've long been unsatisfied with is the fact that all my attempts at making akinakai have had to have wood hilts.  Archaeologists have found a few blades with hidden-type tangs that might have comprised organic-hilted akinakai, but most of the finds I've read about from confirmed Achaemenid sites (Persepolis and Deve Hüyük, mostly) have solid iron hilts.  This is in keeping with the fact that the akinakes seems to have developed since the late Bronze Age as a one-piece casting with perhaps only a cord or leather thong wound about the grip. In the Iron Age, akinakes hilts would have most probably have been likewise forged in one piece.  One or two finds from Persepolis are grooved in such a way as to suggest that the hilts were folded around the tangs from a thin bar, while another is an iron knife with what appears to be the bottom half of an akinakes hilt made of bronze, with a groove completely bisecting the guard.  Metal has the advantage of being less delicate than wood and so the hilt can be less bulky.

Now, hot-forging anything more complex than a tanged leaf arrowhead is well beyond my skill.  However, as last year's Elamite dagger project shows, shaping with a cheap angle grinder requires very little skill, and I happen to have access to a drill press at the moment.  With care, it may be possible to fabricate a slab-tanged akinakes that looks passably like a proper one.  Since the grip will be wrapped with leather, the use of a slab tang should be less obvious.

Right.  As before, the blade and hilt are sketched onto normal paper, folded and cut, then glued onto cardstock and cut again.  I did these while still planning another wood hilt, so they are not quite as according to the current plan.  I cut off the pommel section of the hilt tracing, then traced the rest onto a scrap piece of 1/8-inch steel, and added a straight line so as to first bisect the piece so each scale can be cut out and shaped without damaging the other.  The pommel will be made from 1/2-inch bar stock.  The blade will be from the leftover 1/4x1-1/2-inch bar from last year's Elamite dagger.

Next I glued the hilt pattern to the blade, using the folding lines and the bar itself to ensure proper alignment (as you may have noticed, the hidden tang on the original blade pattern was crooked).

It would be ideal to use a large plate so that the guard can have a corresponding full profile on the blade, but this is what I have to work with, so the sides will have to be filled with extra steel bits traced from the severed wings.  A slight gap will probably remain since this bar stock thins down a bit toward the edges.  Perhaps adding lots of solder will help.

The tang will be much narrower where it passes through the pommel.  This same method was used on the Naue type II of LBA Southern Europe and while it's not accurate here, it should mean the pommel has to be filed out a lot less.

This next step ought to have been done earlier but it's not a loss yet.  I punched a couple holes in the pattern with a hobby awl to mark the rivet holes and widened them with a thin file.

That's all the work I'm doing for today.  The holes need not line up precisely, since they'll be filed wider to fit the pins - as long as a thin round file can pass through, that should be sufficient.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Making an Elamite dagger, part V

Since one grip scale bowed outward a little (probably due to unevenness of the tang rather than the scale itself) I pressed it into place with epoxy and weights, using one pin to ensure it was sitting in the correct position.

I cut up the pins with the angle grinder and gently rounded off the ends to prevent raggedness when peened.  They should protrude above the scales just a few millimeters on both ends.  If you cut them too long, you can grind them down a bit; obviously, if they're even a little too short, you have to start over.

Any old block of metal can serve as an anvil for setting the pins.  Hammer them down until they're flush with the scales.  The hammer does unfortunately leave discolored marks on the wood which need to be sanded off and a final coat of linseed oil applied.

Here you can see that the scales were a bit too short to cover the triangular ricasso.

With handling, the slick appearance and stickiness imparted by the linseed oil will dry up.  The dagger is far more comfortable to hold with the scales in place.  The leaf shape gives it plenty of blade presence; it feels like a chopping blade despite being little more than a foot overall.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Making an Elamite dagger, part IV

I rough-cut the grip scales on a band saw months ago out of a 1/4-inch maple plank from Lowe's.  A more historical material would probably be Eurasian walnut (Juglans regia, aka Persian, English, European, Circassian or common walnut).  Unfortunately the American black walnut planks I had on hand no more closely resemble Eurasian walnut than maple does.  The maple was the remnant from the same plank I cut the scales for my letter opener from back in 2015.  I sorted through the selection at Lowe's to get one with the most visible curl.

After much dawdling and working on other projects, today I finally sanded them down to the correct shape.  The most tedious part of the process is channeling out the undersides of the scales to fit into the flanges, and I failed to get a perfect fit.

To the right are some common nails annealed by gas torch, which, when cut up, will serve as substitutes for the iron pins on the original.  I think I'll be able to get two pins out of one nail, but we'll see.

While a light brown stain might have popped the grain more and given it a slightly closer resemblance to walnut, I am awfully fond of the look of pale wood on dark grey steel (similar to the bone scales that were prevalent on similar swords in the late Bronze and early Iron ages), so instead I'm going straight to the linseed oil finish.  Sufficient coats of linseed will turn pale wood golden yellow, a color similar to antique bone.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

See you at Schinias Beach?

Discussions are up at Amphictyonia's Facebook page on the topic of the next major reenactment in Greece.  If you want to keep up with the discussions as they happen - and I highly recommend it, as it's difficult to summarize an ongoing conversation - contact Christian Cameron or Giannis Kadoglou and ask to be added to the group.  As of now, ideas are on the table for events at both Marathon and Plataea, with several people leaning toward a Marathon 2018 event and Giannis Kadoglou proposing an immersive event for Plataea, with less public time.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

If you're on Facebook, The Eastern Trader has an album of original Scythian armor.  It includes both T&Y-influenced scale as well as "tank top"-style corslets, Kuban, scale and Chalcidian-type helmets, and iron and bronze akinakai, among other objects. Thanks to Jeroen Zuiderwijk for the link.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Potential problems with wooden scabbard construction

Since I usually recommend making scabbards from wood if you have the skill and tools to do so, I feel compelled to share some information from a recent conversation I had over at SFI.

I brought up a personal project of mine where a wooden scabbard seemed to be causing rust on a sword blade.  Jeff Ellis identified a likely cause being that I may have used Titebond II or III wood glues, which have a reputation for making steel rust.  He recommended Titebond Original as well as Elmer's wood glue and, in fact, Elmer's white (all-purpose).

Another possibility we discussed was the use of linseed oil to seal the bare wood.  Thinking back, it makes sense that gluing a wooden scabbard together and then giving it a moisture-resistant finish (including such things as drying oil, paint and paste wax) could easily result in moisture being trapped inside if it isn't allowed to dry for a good long time.

As a final note, it's well-known that the tannic acid in oak can corrode steel, so it should be avoided in scabbards and hilts.  (I have not made this mistake myself, but it is worth mentioning.)