Thursday, May 29, 2014

Hide glue paint tests - preliminary results

Achaemenid motifs on glove suede painted in acrylic (left), hide glue with added alum (top) and hide glue without added alum (bottom).

In the first batch (without alum), it took a water-glue-pigment ratio of about 5:3:2 to get the consistency I wanted.  I am just now realizing that I scaled the mixture down wrong and added twice as much alum to the second batch as I should have, which accounts for why it was somewhat thicker than the first batch (premature gelling - the alum content was probably around 3-4 percent instead of 1-2).

The thick consistency of the second batch - also probably caused by stirring up as much of the pigment as possible, as I noticed the first time that it tended to settle - meant that it didn't soak into the leather as readily, making for a blobby-looking design.  Since these test designs are very small, I think in more practical use it won't be much of a problem.  You can try different amounts of water and find what you prefer.

The acrylic paint is very slightly glossy, while the hide paint isn't, but I wouldn't say the acrylic looks too bad.  As for flexibility, the acrylic is far more flexible, but I think the hide paint has adhered well enough to the suede that it won't flake off.

Another issue is that the only pigment I had in the house was raw sienna, which when added to the glue, gave it a color almost identical to the leather itself - you can only see the faravahar on the top swatch because the painted areas reflect light differently.  This will make the last test hard to judge; I may try again with some food coloring added just to mark clearly where the paint is to begin with.  The last test is to soak the swatches and see whether the paints run; this will hopefully show us how our stuff will handle rain.  The acrylic paint manufacturer suggests "air-curing" it for one week before cleaning, so I'll be trying this out in a week and will probably report the results on Friday.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hide glue paint tests - gearing up

It is possible to paint soft-tanned leather goods using basically period materials.

Animal glue is one of the oldest-known adhesives in the world, second only to plant resins.  Archaeological evidence dates back to the Neolithic, written references back to the Bronze Age.  It's made by cooking down animal tissues that are high in collagen, a connective protein; these tissues are typically bone, tendon, or particularly skin (strictly, hide glue is only that made from skin).  Today it's still widely used by woodworkers, especially those engaged in making and repairing stringed instruments.

Animal glue is also used as a paint sizing, the substance in which the pigments are dissolved and by which they adhere to the canvas.  Plains Indians used a thin solution of glue for painting buckskins.  It's supposed to soak partly into the hide, remaining semi-flexible - the rough, "open" finish on brain-tan probably helps with the absorption.  Since the most common leathers of the ancient Mediterranean were similar to brain-tan, this sounds like a plausible solution for us.

Standard "hot" hide glue must be held at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit while working:  colder and it will gel, much hotter and the collagen will begin to break down, weakening it.  However, hide glue can be kept liquid at room temperature by the addition of an anti-gelling agent, commonly salt or urea.  While I can't prove that it was used historically, urea was always readily at hand in the form of urine.  That may sound disgusting, but when you think about some of the things people had to do to make leather, adding pee to glue suddenly doesn't sound that farfetched.  Thankfully, we don't have to trouble ourselves with that, because premixed liquid hide glue is already available at some hardware stores.

While liquid hide glue has a lesser reputation than hot hide glue due to the urea weakening its bonding power, and unused portions will break down over time, Stephen Shepherd of Full Chisel has argued that fresh liquid hide glue is still one of the stronger glues available.  In any case I'm not sure whether the strength of the glue is as critical in painting as it would be in woodworking.

There is one other consideration:  While Greece is pretty dry in the summer, most of our stuff would have been exposed to rain sooner or later in ancient times.  Hide glue isn't waterproof by itself, but can be made highly water-resistant by the addition of a small amount of alum.  Again I have no reason to think this was done, but alum was used as a mordant and leather tannage, so it was at least available.  The containers and brushes used with glue that has alum added, must be washed thoroughly before the paint dries or it will be difficult or impossible to wash out afterward.

Materials and methods

Liquid hide glue
Water for diluting glue
Alum (aluminum sulfate)
Earth pigment
Suede leather scraps

Alum is recommended in amounts of 1-2 percent.  Too much can cause the glue to gel prematurely.  Assuming it has a similar weight to salt, for one ounce of glue (before dilution), I estimate one twentieth of a teaspoon would be the correct amount, but since it's so hard to measure in such quantities, I'll try it by eye - slightly less than half of an eighth of a teaspoon ought to be close.

In order to mix the alum thoroughly into the glue, it should probably be dissolved in the water first.  An exact ratio of water to glue is not given in the Crazy Crow instructional, so I'll begin with a 1:2 ratio which hopefully won't make it too dilute to begin with.  Let's start with a tablespoon of glue, a teaspoon and a half of water, and half of a half of an eighth of a teaspoon of alum.

The bottle on the left is a modern acrylic leather paint I have on hand, which I'll be comparing to the hide paint to see whether it's acceptable as a more convenient substitute.

Does hide paint remain flexible enough when dry for use on soft leather goods (gorytoi, bags, clothing)?
Does waterproofing with alum affect the paint's flexibility?
Does acrylic leather paint provide a similar appearance and degree of flexibility and water-resistance to alum-treated and alum-free hide paints when used on the same leather?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Easy improvements for the Minnetonka ankle boot

In the past I've suggested the Minnetonka fringe hardsole boot as a quick option for Medo-Persian shoes.  These are what I wore at Marathon 2011.

As noted previously, they tend to pick up dust and the two-piece construction (vamp and quarter) leaves side openings that let sand in the sides (not present on Medo-Persian shoes, which were probably like Plains moccasins in construction, i.e. one-piece uppers).  Since I'm now aware that period leather likely had a rough finish more often than not, the dust is not an issue.  The side openings are but I'm looking into stitching them up or perhaps adding fabric panels.

In the meantime, another quick way of improving the boots' appearance, after you've cut the fringe off, is to replace the laces with flat suede thongs.  Art stores such as Michael's (in the U.S. and Canada) sell strips of 1/2 by 36 inches, which is just about right for our use.

Undo the laces and pull them out.  With a seam ripper or a craft knife with an angled blade, cut the stitches holding on the upper strip of leather forming the "tunnel" through which the lace was inserted.  There are two seams, one inside and one outside of the shoe.

To the now-exposed upper part of the quarter, add vertical slits through which you can insert the thong - not, of course, too close to the upper edge; about a third of an inch away should be safe.  I find a double slit at the back of the quarter and a single slit on each side of the front to be sufficient to hold the thong in place while leaving most of it exposed (as was the case with the thongs on Achaemenid shoes).  Tie the thongs in square knots rather than bows, and trim them as you see fit.