Monday, April 19, 2021

Product review: Two possible belt straps

For almost eight years now, I've been pondering how best to replace the veg-tan weapon belts I wore at Marathon 2011 and 2015.  Given my suspicions that the Achaemenids tanned leather with fat or oil, as did Eastern Mediterranean peoples before them, I decided last year that my best option would be a strap of buff leather.  This is made from cowhide (perhaps originally water buffalo or European bison hide, thus the name) which is tanned primarily with fish oil in a process similar to German buckskin and American chamois.

An important note:  Like "chamois" leather (named for a species of wild European goat but in the U.S. actually made from domesticated sheep), "buff" leather can be a very misleading term.  Most items sold as being made from "genuine buff leather" appear to have their top grain intact or are finished such that you can't tell.  It makes one wonder what sellers think "buff" means.  When I refer to buff leather, what I mean is cowhide tanned with fish oil in a process that gives it a suede surface and a creamy yellow color (also called buff).  This kind is rare and hard to obtain nowadays.  Most of it in the States goes to the reenactment market, where it's used to make early modern military accoutrements like sword belts.

I've found one person in the U.S. willing to sell unstitched buff by the piece:  Roy Najecki of Najecki Reproductions.  You can read up on ordering it at his Cartridge Pouch/Box Shoulder Carriage page.  Be forewarned that it's not always easy to catch Mr. Najecki on the phone or by e-mail and delivery may take a while, so if you decide to use a buff strap for your belt, order it well ahead of when you need it.

It looks good, and it's heavy and firm yet flexible.  So why wouldn't you decide to use it?  Well, in the description above, you'll hopefully notice something that I overlooked:  Modern buff leather is tanned not only with oil but also sulfur.  This may have something to do with the fact that it smells like burned rubber, and it smells strong.  When I first received my strap last fall, I didn't even want to be in the same room with it.  I've been storing it in the garage ever since then in hopes that the smell would fade.  It has, but it's still very noticeable.  Several folks offered suggestions to ameliorate it, such as washing with saddle soap, and I experimented with small bits cut from one end, but nothing appeared to work.  I'm still on the fence about wearing it in public unless it's become tamer by the next big event.

It's also not cheap, although because belts are so narrow, the $35 per square foot sticker shock isn't as bad as it sounds unless your belt is going to be enormous.  My 1.5x42-inch strap came to $15.31.  The next item I'm reviewing here isn't all that much cheaper.

Chrome-tanned leather such as this Realeather suede belt strap can make a fair substitute for fat-cured leather in appearance and texture.  What more is there to add?  Well, it doesn't smell, and its texture probably won't be be negatively affected by rain to the extent that a natural tannage would be.  The color is a bit darker as you can see, though not as yellowish as lightly-smoked braintan, but the main flaw with this strap is that it's about half the thickness of the buff.  Will it support the weight of a fully-loaded bowcase without sagging a lot or ripping?  I can't confidently state that it will, unless your bow and its case are a lot smaller and lighter than the ones I use (and the Grozer Old Scythian is already one of the smallest I've seen for sale in its price range).

So there you have it.  While either of these will probably look more correct than a veg-tan belt, both have their own major caveats.  The search for a perfect solution continues.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Tablet-woven sash by Aleksandra Zwawiak

Since Giannis Kadoglou alerted us to the idea of tablet weaving several years ago, I've wondered whether the narrow sash worn with Medo-Persian and Elamite dress was made by this method or by cutting and stitching.  I had first made some sashes in 2013 from cotton webbing, but the one I wore in 2015 was essentially a double-wide strip cut from wool yardage, sewn into a tube, inverted, and gathered at the ends.  This works well enough, but several of us at Amphictyonia have long been of the suspicion that the zigzags shown on the Egyptian statue of Darius the Great were made by tablet-weaving instead.

Over the summer, I gave a shot at tablet-weaving my own belt from hemp.  My conclusion?  Practice a lot, or leave it to the professionals.

I contacted Aleksandra Zwawiak, proprietor of SagaWeaving (UK), about the possibility of a custom belt three weeks ago after seeing that she had produced belts with apparently the same weave pattern.  We discussed the specifications and settled on a design over a couple of days.  She ordered the yarn right away and had created the belt within a few days after that, and it arrived at my door this morning.  Aleksandra was very pleasant to work with and, having some glimmer of the effort and care this technique requires, I'm impressed at the quality and speed of her work as well, as how modestly-priced it is.

I requested a solid off-white or beige as might be obtained from a white sheep, and a width of 35-40mm - it comes in at a hair under 40mm.  The belt is a bit thick, but it has to be for the weave to be visible, and the wool is very soft and easy to tie.  It differs from the Egyptian statue in not having the lengthwise stripes with apparent Holbein stitching.  It's my best guess that these represent appliqued trim rather than part of the sash's weave, so I didn't expect or request that they be included.

(I seem to be having a bit of trouble with square knots lately.)  The standard length of 135cm between the tassels is just about right for my waist (around 30 inches or 76cm); the square knot takes up more length than a simple knot would.  The loose ends of the tassels will have to be trimmed almost to nothing, but I haven't yet decided how to eliminate the risk of the knots becoming untied once this is done, so I asked Aleksandra to leave them at full length in the meanwhile.  A possible solution would be to immediately soak the trimmed knots in melted rosin-beeswax glue to turn them into solid lumps; this would be permanent and waterproof, though the discoloration might look unsightly.

It must be emphasized that this is a speculative reconstruction.  I think it's a highly plausible one, as good as any other, and fits the available evidence.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Wooden crescent shield

I started this shield close to four years ago.  Judging by period art, crescent shields were used from Thrace to western Scythia and possibly even Persia itself, but to my knowledge no archaeological example has been found.  I think - again judging by art - that most of them were made of true wicker, especially around the Aegean.  However, this one is intended for reenactment combat, and not having the luxury to replace my shield every time, I decided to start with a solid wood core.  It's made of two layers of 1/4-inch poplar planks glued up with a modern waterproof carpenter glue, and then cut on a bandsaw, with the edges rounded but no tapering.

The front is a goat rawhide drum cover attached with hide glue and stitched with waxed linen cord.  I had to spread the glue right up to the edges and weigh them down so they didn't peel away while drying.  It's painted with a simple mix of red ochre and boiled linseed oil in the area within the stitching, and commercial white oil paint on the edges.  I've found no clearly-attested shield devices from the Persian empire, so after a while spent wondering whether to use a Thracian device or a Persian motif that hasn't been found on shields, I decided to leave it plain.

Before attaching the front, I had to do the backing and then the grip and armbands.  The back is linen, attached with wood glue and then covered in acrylic paint.  Since beginning this shield, I've tried to use more period-appropriate materials; if I were starting from square one today, I would've used linseed oil and yellow ochre on the back.  The grip and armband are chrome-tanned leather attached with clinched nails, the grip wrapped in German buckskin with a wrist pad of the same held on by cut tacks.

Wrapping the upper corners with the rawhide left some gaps, which I packed with resin-beeswax hot glue and melted with the heat gun to fill in after the paint had cured.  Lastly, I rubbed the stitching, facing and facing edges with linseed oil-beeswax sealer, which is why the yellow back is slightly darker near the edges.  Total weight is 2 pounds 13 ounces (almost 1.28kg), width 20 inches (51cm), height 17 inches (43cm).  I suspect that originals were both larger and lighter (or at least proportionally lighter).  This shield is sized for me, especially the armbands and grips.  It may be difficult to use for someone whose forearms are a different length or thickness.  It's possible that the grips and armbands on true wicker shields could be re-tied to loosen, tighten or even move to a different place, though this was probably hard to do once the hide facing was attached.

As is usually the case with rawhide facings applied wet, the shield has wound up curved slightly concave as the facing dried and shrank.  The more you stretch the facing, the more it will warp; excessive shrinkage can even destroy the wooden core.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Product review: Lord of Battles forged medium spearhead

Spearheads are a dime a dozen on the reenactor market, but it's strangely difficult to find one that's quite right for our time period.  The vast majority are either too large, the wrong shape, or very expensive.  In fact, India-based manufacturer Lord of Battles' forged medium spearhead is the only one I've found in its price bracket that looks approximately right (though if you have another example, I'd be much obliged if you'd let me know!).

Judging by the finds from Deve Hüyük and elsewhere, the typical Achaemenid spearhead should be relatively small (usually less than a foot long counting the socket) and have narrow kite- or leaf-shaped blades with diamond cross sections, preferably but not always with a mid-rib.  I know of only two whose weights are published, at 196g/6.91oz. and 139.2g/4.91oz.  They may have weighed more before corrosion, but I would imagine the upper weight should be well under 300 grams or 11 ounces for an average-sized spearhead.

Lord of Battles' low prices are presumably a result of lower labor costs than in Western countries, loose manufacturing tolerances (i.e. the company will accept more pieces from workshop[s] despite pieces not being exactly what they should be) and rough finish (less labor required in absolute terms).  I say all this to explain why I think this spearhead is the way it is.

I bought mine through Kult of Athena, who list it at 11.5 inches overall, blade 6.5 inches, socket about 1 inch on the inside, weight 6.7 ounces.  The measurements of the one I received are 11.75 inches overall, blade 7.125 inches, socket 1 inch on the inside, weight almost 11 ounces.  The blade also appears to be wider and more sharply tapered.  Mine also lacks the advertised rivet hole to help attach it to the spear shaft, and the socket isn't quite circular.  Combining all this with fact that one edge is visibly concave and the centerline is curved, I'm left with a poor impression of Lord of Battles' quality control.

The size differences are minor and the asymmetrical appearance might be considered forgivable considering how cheap the spearhead is, but the weight difference (at least for someone like me) is pretty significant.  We are talking about something you affix to the end of a 6+ foot handle and wave around in one hand.  The edges are pretty thick and the point is squared-off, so thinning and slight re-profiling with an angle grinder or belt sander might noticeably improve it.  (In fact, while parts of the spearhead may indeed be forged, I suspect the blade was shaped largely by grinding to begin with.  The fact that it has a rough-ground finish doesn't help that impression.)  At this price, someone who is set up for that kind of work already might consider it a bargain, and aftermarket finishing would certainly improve its appearance.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Waterproof hot glues

IMPORTANT NOTE (3/22/21):  Since publishing this article, I have learned that pine rosin fumes have been found to cause asthma.  The process described below should always be done outdoors.  If weather doesn't permit, then postpone it.

This year I've been trying to eliminate any period-inappropriate materials from my designs.  One that's stuck with me for a long time is rubber cement, which I've used to attach leather facings to wooden scabbards.  I use it primarily because in a real military campaign you couldn't reasonably expect to stash away your scabbard every time it rained, and rubber cement is waterproof, while for a long time the only alternative that came to mind was hide glue, which isn't.  (I understand traditional hide glue is less readily water-soluble than the modern kind that I've been using, which has urea added to keep it liquid at room temperature - traditional hide glue must be kept warm to work with it.)

Anyway, I've read years ago about making varnish from pine rosin by dissolving it in alcohol.  This can be used to protect sinew wrappings on arrows from softening and coming loose.  It recently occurred to me to ask if this varnish would be sufficiently sticky to use for scabbard facings before it dried.  I was in the process of making a new letter opener, and it seemed like the right opportunity to try it out.

If you've ever touched a sawn-off stump of a pine tree, you know that pine resin is incredibly sticky and impossible to wash off with normal soap and water; you need highly-concentrated alcohol (70+ percent hand sanitizer gel works well for this purpose) or some other nasty organic solvent like acetone (nail polish remover).  Resin consists largely of rosin, the solid component, and turpentine, a natural solvent that keeps the resin liquid.  Turpentine takes a long time to evaporate out of fresh pine resin, so resin is processed commercially by heating in a still.  Those who aren't trying to collect the turpentine just cook it off in an open pot.

I ordered some rosin from Creekwood Naturals for experimentation.  This product arrives as a coarse, sandy powder.  It becomes sticky when wet, but it seems to be waterproof.

My first experiments went thusly:  I dissolved some rosin in rubbing alcohol and let it evaporate to a thick, syrupy consistency that could be painted onto a scrap of sanded poplar plank.  For comparison, I also smeared some fresh pine resin on the wood, alongside rubber cement.  On top of all three adhesives I pressed a tiny swatch of chamois, then let the substances dry.

The fresh resin took the longest to dry.  After several days, all three swatches peeled off easily.  The resin was still slightly sticky under the leather; the rosin brittle; the rubber cement, well, rubbery.

I'd heard that beeswax is often used in rosin-based pitch glues to reduce the rosin's brittleness, so my next test used a mix of alcohol-rosin varnish reduced to a syrup and a bit of Sno Seal, which is emulsified beeswax used to waterproof shoes.  This did not work out at all.  The mix took forever to dry, and wasn't sticky enough.

Giving up on emulsions, I decided to try a hot glue.  I shaved some beeswax into a metal bowl and, working by eye, added about two to three times its volume in rosin, then slowly melted the bowl's contents with a heat gun.  At first, the beeswax melted while the rosin turned into a sticky mess, but with prolonged heating and stirring with a brass rod, the mixture became uniform.  (It also released fumes that stung my eyes, and when hot enough, began to smoke.)  Then I smeared a little onto the poplar and quickly stuck the chamois swatch onto it.

I repeat:  Wow!  Once cool, the glue bonded the chamois to the wood with immense strength.  When I tried to peel it, the leather itself ripped up before the glue failed.  I can dent the glue with my nail, but it's not sticky, and even though it's mostly rosin, it more resembles very hard, dark beeswax.

It seemed perfect, but now was time for the real test.

Earlier, I'd ordered a piece of pitch glue to try to glue the wooden halves of a scabbard core together.  It was tricky.  I warmed the glue, pinched off thin bits and laid them on the edges of one half, then melted them with the heat gun and quickly pressed the halves together.  Then I had to heat each edge in turn and press it more tightly, and scrape off or press down the lumps of glue sticking out of the seam.  I also had to shoot the heat gun into the scabbard, then stick the blade in to force any inward-protruding lumps aside and keep a good fit.

When it came time to apply the facing, I melted the entire bowl of rosin-beeswax mix, let it cool to a consistency sort of like room-temperature corn syrup, and smeared it as evenly as possible on the core with the brass rod in one-inch stages.  I melted it again with the heat gun, then pressed on the leather.  When each half of the facing had been applied, I heated the whole face evenly and pressed it against a flat surface to try to smooth out the lumps of glue that had built up underneath.  The result was still somewhat lumpy.  Finally, I stitched up the facing with linen thread in a double-running stitch, and trimmed off the excess.

My heavy reliance on a heat gun does call into question the practicality of this kind of glue in period.  Trying to do the same thing over open flames might well be difficult, as may trying this method on a larger, more complex scabbard such as one for an akinakes.  Nonetheless, when the time comes, this will be what I try.

I have no doubt that this glue will prove waterproof.  Even if it becomes slightly sticky in the rain, the idea of it bleeding through the leather is inconceivable to me.  To my mind, the real test will be whether it softens after a few hours in the hot sun, for which purpose I'll have to wait for the right weather.

As for the letter opener itself:  The blade is another full-tang dagger blade from Atlanta Cutlery, with maple scales and steel pins.  I did reshape the tang to be a little more like a classic Luristan dagger, but while it affects a Near Eastern Iron Age look and I'm using it as a test bed for period materials, I don't believe this object bears sufficient resemblance to any Achaemenid-period dagger to warrant actually using it at reenactments.  (I would, however, love to be proven wrong.)

As an aside, I've bought four Windlass Steelcraft blades this year, and their geometry seems to have worsened compared to my previous purchases, with slightly thinner spines and much thicker, squared edges that will take forever to sharpen.

The scabbard, with its central ridge, straight lines down the edges (here interpreted as facing seams), and rounded tip without a chape, is modeled after those shown in Neo-Assyrian art such as the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal and at the Palace of Sargon II.  Its core is made from American commercial poplar (tulipwood), probably yellow poplar, which is simply the low-end hardwood we usually get in my part of the country.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Making a leather pocket, part II and last

Stitching on the bottom panel went faster than I expected, and by Noon yesterday I was able to get to work on the final steps.

The original had, as far as I can guess from the photos, eight slits on each side for the drawstring.  I spaced my markings out 7/8 inch (22mm) apart and wound up with nine on each side.  However, this was a miscalculation; since the drawstring should start and finish on the outside, the final pair went unused.  I made the slits with a fresh pointed X-Acto blade, pushed through against a wood "working" block.  Older blades tend to break at the very tip, leaving the point squared-off - even if the squaring is so tiny that it looks pointed, it's not as good at piercing.  Working by eye, I made each slit around 5/8 inch (16mm) tall and spaced 5/8 inch from the top edge.  After penciling a guideline on the rough side, but otherwise working freehand, I added the decorative piercings below the drawstring slits with a hobby awl.  They weren't very visible, so I enlarged them with a thicker round scratch awl.

The final touch is a drawstring, in the form of a German buckskin thong from Crazy Crow, of which I have several, so I selected the thickest (some of them seem much too thin for this purpose).  It may be better to replace it with something less stretchy later.  A wool or soft linen/hemp string about a quarter-inch thick might work well here, though I might worry that they would wear at the chamois.  The German buckskin has the same texture and softness as the chamois, so my guess is they should wear at each other at about the same rate.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Making a leather pocket, part I

About a year ago, I discussed a leather drawstring pocket found at Elephantine, Egypt, and compared it to a readymade bag from Crazy Crow that I thought would make a passable substitute.  I felt at the time that it wouldn't be difficult to make a more authentic replica, and since I have a few spare days, it seemed like now was the moment to go ahead with that.

Based on the dimensions of the Crazy Crow bag, a replica should be a hair larger to accommodate things that you wouldn't want to leave unattended, including a phone, passport, wallet and spare cash.  I turned the readymade bag inside-out and measured its full height at 6.25 inches (17.22cm) and width at 4.75 inches (12.06cm), and increased them to 7 and 5 inches (17.78 and 12.7cm).  Admittedly, this effort is a little undone by the fact that I'm leaving a wider seam of almost 1/4 inch (0.63cm) due to my leather being so thin.  By my calculations, a bag with a 5-inch bottom panel should have a circumference (and thus length of the walls) of 15.71 inches (39.9cm); however, it might've been a good idea to leave about an inch extra to account for all the seams.  We'll see what happens.

The material is chamois from Ace Hardware.  Although named after a wild goat from Europe, American chamois is made from sheepskin, double-sueded and tanned with fish oil in the same manner as true buff (cowhide) and German buckskin.  As noted before, this process is an approximate substitute for the classic braintanning and similar fat-cured leathers of antiquity, differing only in the fact that leathers tanned with fish oil require no smoking, and thus are paler and smell different.

Normally I would suggest feeling all the pieces of chamois and selecting the heaviest one.  However, Ace has now begun to package their chamois in plastic bags, so it was no longer possible to confidently make a selection by touch.  To make the most of the material I got, I laid out the lines around the middle, where the hide is thickest.  It seems to me just barely thick enough for this purpose.  The leftovers can be used for facing small knife sheaths, adding sand gussets to chukkas, and other light-duty uses.

The only compass I currently have isn't sized to hold a normal writing pen, so I just scraped the pencil lightly against the suede and then tried to re-draw it freeform.  As usual, the lines are drawn on the rougher side, though it bears mentioning that the difference in texture between the two sides of a double-sueded fat-cured leather is, in my experience, much less than that between the two sides of most chrome-tanned splits (which tend to have a nice suede side and an ugly, stringy one).

Also as usual, stitching is done inside-out, with the rougher side and its ink lines turned inward when done.  Chamois is thin enough to push the needle through without pre-piercing holes.  The original bag had a rand on only one side seam.  I started with the simpler seam, stitching with buttonweight linen thread (not multi-ply cord this time) and re-waxing as I went with a blob of Victory Brown wax that I have on hand - it's softer than beeswax, so it's easier to use for this purpose.  The original pocket apparently had a single running stitch, so I knotted the thread at both ends of the seams.

The next step, sewing the bottom seam while inserting the rand on a curve, will probably be the most difficult.  I'll work on it today and probably tomorrow as well.