A Great Bottle – Chorley’s – 10 to 11 October (lot 786)

Holly pointed this one out tonight and I had to embloggen. It’s the leather bottle that Baker talks about on p182 as possibly one of the bottles used to collect the wine tax on the Thames.

This extraordinary bottle came from Chatham, where it had remained in the family of the owner for more than seventy years. It seems quite probable that if not actually one of the great black bottles of the Tower of London, in which the literary water-man of James I’s time was wont to exact dues in kind from every wine-laden ship that entered the Thames, it is one of those that succeeded them.

One side of it is enriched with fleur de lis raised in relief, and outlined with stamped stars, as shown in the sketch and in Plate 24. from which a faint idea of its size may be gained, by comparing it to the horn cup photographed with it.

Note the double stitching across the top , the rivets holding the metal cap and the quality of the stamping.

It’s also the inspiration for the first costrel I made. I obviously took too much time lining up the stamping. Nice to see the original weathered the 20th century so well.

I think I probably owe Holly an ale or two next time we’re in the UK as a spotter’s fee.

[Image: illustration 1 of 3 for lot 786]

Here’s the link to the auction listing: Chorley’s – 10 to 11 October (lot 786).

Lot 786 Description

A gigantic leather bottle with bung hole and hinged iron cap embossed with fleur-de-lis and punched with star, 39cm x 35cm (15.25″ x 13.75″)
Provenance: The W J Fieldhouse Collection, Austy Manor, Wootton Wawen and by decent to vendor
Literature: Oliver Baker, Black Jacks and Leather Bottles, Cheltenham 1921, illustration plate 15 and plate 24, fig 67


81A5749 finished at last

Those that have been reading since April will no doubt be pleased to hear that I finally finished the Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749, and that is has been safely given to it’s intended owner.

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749
Front as defined in BTM, although I still secretly believe this to be the back.

Observant souls will also notice that since I now have a lathe, everything will now be turned whether it wants to be or not.

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749
Back. See note for front. Also my first somewhat free-form* turned stopper.

While it’s a nice looking bottle and the new owner is very happy, I’m still disappointed with it. The problems with the pitch and having to change the colour spoiled this one for me.

*ie. Totally unprovenanced shape, the lathe was still doing most of the steering at this point. I just went along with it.

What’s Cooking?

We got back from Blacktown Medieval Fair last weekend and one of the early jobs (other than hanging the canvas) was to see what damage had been done to the leather vessels. They always end up with hairline cracks from use, sometimes the seams will weep and sometimes you get a dark, damp patch spreading from one spot on the surface.

The easiest way to fix these is to pop them in the oven at about 60-70° C for three or four hours and then let them cool down in the oven. There’s a pizza tray under the newspaper so the wire oven shelf doesn’t get imprinted in the base of things.

Here's some I prepared earlier

The gyspen in front was resealed, as was the costrel. The taller bottel, however needs to be cleaned out and resealed properly. It was knocked over a couple of times and I did see two people reach over, pick it up and squeeze as hard as they could.

Watch the temperature, leather is a natural polymer, with collagen fibres linked together with the tannin. Putting too much energy in by overheating will drive more polymerisation, resulting in leather that is brittle and can shatter if hit.

John Waterer in Leather in Life Art and Industry (pp35-6) states that jacks and bombards were hung in the smoke from the fire to cure. I reckon this is a slightly more gentle version of the same treatment.

More reading:

Brown, D. &  McMillan, M. M., The Chemistry of the Leather Industry http://nzic.org.nz/ChemProcesses/animal/5C.pdf

Mathias, L., Natural Polymers http://www.pslc.ws/macrog/natupoly.htm

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749

[The] mediaeval bottle does not differ much from those examples which still survive. It has however three perpendicular ridges up the sides, parallel to those made by the end seams. They are purely ornamental, and are not intended for hoops, because they are not continued under the bottom (which as seen from the ground level is the most conspicuous part), and also because the middle one would, if continued, have gone over the mouth of the bottle. Some actual bottles exist in which these raised bands (always on one side only) form part of the decoration, and I believe them to be all mediaeval examples.

The holes on each side of the neck in these early bottles are never round and small as if for a cord (which is invariable in late bottles), but are elongated slits as if for a thick leathern thong.

Baker, p56

This is one of my favourite costrels, as it sits at the transition point between the medieval and modern styles. It has the rectangular holes of the medieval type, but the maker then has a bet each way with the design. One side, which for consistency with the MRT, I’ll call the back (although I secretly believe it to be the front), has incised hatching enclosed by vertical lines, a vestigial form of the earlier raised ridges. On the other side is an embossed harp similar in placement and proportion to the fleur-di-lys on several later costrels.

I’m not going to go in to too much detail here, as I’ve covered the construction methods before. I did the stitch spacing entirely by eye this time, and I’m fairly happy with how it turned out although my stitching is still too regular.

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749 Moulding the ends using a wooden shape and a large hose clamp

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749 Forming the neck and shoulders (and breaking the former)

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749
Cutting the decoration on the back

Mary Rose Costrel 81A5749 Embossing the harp on the front using a butter knife, the pegs were done with a bit of 3mm (1/8″) wire

This is how I do the stitch holes at the ends.

Once the stitching was done, I sealed it with pitch

Bad pitch and everything went horribly wrong

The only solution was to re-dye the whole thing black.

Mary Rose 81A5749 The (re)finished front

Mary Rose 81A5749 The back

All that’s left to do is another coat of pitch and sew in the neck gasket.

When good pitches turn bad…

Sometimes when I’m making a leather bottel, particularly if it is for someone younger or I think they might be a little rougher with it, I’ll do a light coat of a bitumen sealer under the pitch. It is cheap, easily applied and stays slightly soft and flexible, helping to keep the bottel sealed if (when) it gets dropped or someone squeezes it and the pitch cracks. The colour shows through the honey-coloured rosin, making it look black the same as real brewer’s pitch.

Costrel 81A5749 from the Mary Rose, 1545.

That’s the theory anyway. I’m making a copy of 81A5749 for a young lady called, appropriately enough, Erin. I’d stitched one end and the top seams and sealed them with one lot of bitumen and then finished the other end. The bitumen was too thick to pour so I took a short trip to the hardware and bought another litre. I sort of noticed this one was a lot runnier than the last lot but didn’t think any more about it. I think they’ve changed the formulation, you can see what happened in the photo below. Looks like I’ll be keeping this for black ones in the future.

"Bum", he said, reaching for the black dye.

This is probably a good time to do a post on the properties of the various sealers that I’ve been planning for some time. I’ll briefly discuss the pros and cons of each of brewer’s pitch and rosin, bitumen sealers and Envriotex. Where I can, I’ll link to the product data and material safety sheets and you can make up your own mind on what to use. Remember to use this information in the context of how often the bottel will be used, and the exposure you will have to the chemicals making it. If you are using the bottel every day, or making a batch of 30, your exposure will be considerably higher than if you only make one or two and only use it a couple of times a year.

Brewer’s Pitch and Rosin

Brewers’ Pitch and rosin are chemically similar. Brewer’s pitch  is rosin extracted from pine wood using a reducing fire, turning it black. Rosin is extracted from the same type of timber using indirect heat so it stays clean rather than picking up soot. The chemical category of these products in this country is “vegetable pitch; brewers’ pitch and similar preparations based on rosin, resin acids or on vegetable pitch” and is similar in the other countries I’ve checked.

Proving that the Internet is a broad church, while this site has some “interesting” ideas, it does have a really good discussion of the various pine-derived pitches. The MSDS is on the same site, I’ve linked to it here.

The advantages of the pitches is that they are thermoplastic, so are soft when hot and harden quickly upon cooling. I can melt a pot and do two or three thin coats in the space of 20 minutes. It reflows, so can be softened with hot water or a cool oven. Minor spills can be scraped off leather without affecting the top coat of wax. They can be brittle if mishandled and do have some fumes when molten that probably best aren’t inhaled, and can cause some horrific burns if you aren’t careful. Considered to contain volatile organic compounds, use is prohibited in parts of the USA.  Pitch can also flavour drinks slightly when new (the same taste as in the Greek wine Retsina) but the flavour is easily removed by leaving your bottel or jack filled with cheap wine overnight. You can’t use pitch with high-alcohol drinks like whisky, or with hot liquids, but it works fine with wine, beer, cider and other cold drinks. As a traditional material, it hasn’t been exposed to as much scrutiny as the more recent materials, the best health advice I could find is “Probably not toxic.” Given that rosin is used as a food additive, I think it’s pretty safe for occasional use.

Bitumen-based paints

Bitumen is an organic hydrocarbon creating by decomposing organic materials, particularly pines, under pressure over a period of tens of thousands of years (or if you own the Great Flood website, somewhere around 4,000). As such, it is chemically similar to  the pitches discussed above. The commercial ones are often thinned with turpentine to a standardised viscosity. This is really a modern take on Stockholm Tar, which is black pine pitch thinned with gum turpentine. Once the turps has evaporated, they are generally approved for use on roofs and tanks containing drinking water. Bitumen has a longer pedigree than pitch, although sealing leather vessels may not be a perfectly accurate use.

As an evaporative drying process, it doesn’t carry the same risk of burns and the hot-melt pitches but otherwise has the same advantages, disadvantages and prohibitions as the pitches. It takes a day or two to dry and as I found, can leave stains that affect the appearance of the finished article. As a modern product the marketing and safety materials are more thorough and specific.


This is where it is going to get contentious…

Epoxies are synthetic thermosetting resins which have a wide variety of industrial and domestic uses. The most common one used in leather vessels in EnviroTex.This particular product cures to a thick, glossy coating in about 8 hours at 21°C, and reaches full strength and toughness in about 48 hours. This durable, resilient material requires no polishing to produce a high gloss. Proponents claim it to be food-safe, although this is only when fully cured after 7 days at 21°C. It is theoretically usable with hot and high alcohol liquids, but see the health concerns below. I’ve seen it in a few leather mugs that have cracked and leak, the only option is to remove it completely and recoat.

The price in Sydney is four times the cost of an equivalent amount of the brushable bitumen sealer. The primary health risk associated with epoxy use is sensitisation to the hardener, which accumulates over time, and can induce an allergic reaction and asthma in sensitive people. Like me. And when I say “over time”, it took me a week of once-daily exposure to glycols and DMPS to become sensitised.

Now the interesting bit. Bisphenol A, which is makes up 85% by weight of EnviroTex, is a known endocrine disruptor. The use of BPA containing chemicals is banned in any reusable food or beverage container in the state of Connecticut, and Maine will have the same ban in place from 2012. On March 29, 2010, the US EPA declared BPA a “chemical of concern”. Much of Europe and Australia have no concern as long as the compounds are used as intended. This specifically excludes the use with heated liquids, where it is known to emit oestrogen-like compounds. Environment Canada listed bisphenol A as a “toxic substance” in September 2010.

The MSDS is here. Given my status as the canary in this coal mine, I won’t use it, but given the number of times you may use it, you may find it appropriate.

Making a stopple

This is a relatively simple task to finish your leather bottle or flacket in an accurate, effective manner.  Most people simply grab a cork from a modern wine bottle (an unbranded one if they are fussy) and make do with that. But is this an accurate representation or just laziness?

The bottle was made on a wooden mould or block, which had a cylindrical projection on which to model the neck. The latter did not project above the seam and only slightly bulged on each side. It was closed with a stopple of metal, wood, horn, or leather, in early times. Some stopples were costly, judging by those bought in 1392 for the Earl of Derby, one of which cost two shillings… Corks for casks and bottles do not seem to have been used till the 17th century. In old prints of that time the bottles and phials, in indoor scenes, are generally closed with bunches of rag or paper. The  first corks met with by Professor Thorold Rogers were in 1627. … I have seen three leather bottles which had stopples of leather, but they are rare.

[Baker, p181]

So using corks in leather bottles isn’t really the way to go.  It seems cork stoppers weren’t imported in large enough numbers to leave a record until the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century and then were prohibitively expensive, until nearly the end of the century when sufficient economies of scale were created by mass production of glass wine bottles. (Rogers, T., History of Agriculture and Prices in England Vol VI, 1866. pp. 608-9). Here’s some examples of wooden stopples from the Mary Rose and from London.

Stopple associated with Mary Rose flacket 81A2218, 1545.

Stopple found with Mary Rose costrel 81A2034, 1545.

Carved stopper in the Museum of London, l 30mm; field maple. Egan, pp216-217.

Some of the Mary Rose ones, associated with both flackets and costrels, have an additional layer of leather to assist with sealing. I’ll assume you don’t want to use rag or paper as suggested by Baker, particularly if you use your bottle in re-enactment on the march, but don’t let me stop you if you do want to give it a try. As this isn’t the Reverend’s Big Blog of Wood, I’ll concentrate on copying one of the leather wrapped Mary Rose stopples from this point on.

The first step is to carve the wooden part. Take a branch, stick  or offcut of an appropriate timber and remove the bits that don’t look like a stopple with any of cutting, filing, grinding, whittling or other application of brute force until it fits the neck of the bottle in question. If you aren’t going to fit the leather sleeve, congratulations, you have finished. If you are fitting the sleeve, you need to further reduce the diameter of the stopple by the thickness of the leather. How you do it depends on the style you’re doing. Some, like the one I’m doing have a shoulder to help stop the leather slipping up when it’s being jammed in the bottle. Others have the leather sitting proud of the wood. I usually reduce the diameter using files and finish the shoulder with a knife.

In the photos below, I’m using a bit of field maple from one of my trees in the back yard. It had been a cricket stool leg until the application of brute force by a gorilla rocking back on it snapping the tenon. This is the same timber as the London example, used for it’s ultra-fine closed grain and corresponding dimensional stability when it gets wet. I also like the silvery colour and the hand feel when working it.

All the tools you need to do this job

The tool selection is fairly simple, you can get by with needles, and awl and a knife. I used a groover as well to keep the stitching flush with the surface, but a shallow knife cut would also help the stitches lie flat.

Fit the leather tightly to the stopple and cut the ends flush

Wrap the leather tightly around the wooden core and then slice through both layers with a single knife cut. This leaves a piece of leather that is an exact fit for the core. You may find you need to stretch the upper side of the rectangle of leather to get it to fit the taper, the extant originals are fairly rough fitting at the top and bottom.

Use an edge-flesh seam

Stitch the seam and tie off.

I’m using edge – flesh stitches and tieing off with overhand knots in each hole. Once finished, dampen the seam and rub it flat with your prefered slicker.

The finished item, with the sleeve pinned in place.

I’ve found that often the first time you fit a stopple to your bottle, one or other of the lower corners of the seam turns back on itself – as can be seen in the photo above. I don’t worry too much as it can also be seen in both the archaeological drawings. If it is a problem for you, use a little food-safe glue to hold the leather down before stitching.

Total time for this including the woodwork was 20 minutes. I used power tools, even with hand tools it should take less than an hour.

Diminutive Costrels

A recent comment on Destructive Testing of Black Dye finished with the remark:

Love to know your thoughts on that wee little costrel at the MOL sometime….why is it so wee?! why is it such an odd flat oval shape?

The costrel in question is this one, although others are known to exist.

Small costrel in the Museum of London.

Oliver Baker mentions it on p56 of his magnum opus of 1921, Blackjacks and Leather Bottels. I’ll quote the section in full.

One dimuntive but charmingly designed bottle is in the London Museum at Lancaster House, and has, between three vertical raised bands, lines of foliate decoration of Gothic character. It was found in the Town Ditch at the Old Bailey in 1913, and is of great interest as giving a rich example of the bottle of the Middle Ages. It measures nearly four inches [100mm] in length and three and three-quarters [95mm] in height.

Figure 22 from Baker

Baker’s drawing shows it sitting on it’s base rather than lying on it’s back as in the photo at the top, and the base appears flat and much the same shape as my Mary Rose one. It is unclear if Mr Baker was drawing what he saw, or what he thought it should be, however his detail on the decoration is very good. The larger costrel in the same cabinet at the MoL also appears to be ovoid, however looking at the ends, I think I can see that it was originally flatter on the bottom and has slumped in the conditions in the museum.

The leather is thinner than on the larger costrels, so moulding would be easier. From evidence from other sites, the decoration may have been painted.

As for use, we’re getting into Making Things Up ™ territory. Baker’s measurements give it an approximate volume of 300ml, or half a pint, roughly the same as a glass of  drink. That also translates to 2 gills, so two standard measured of gin in the 16th century.

I would love for it to have been for the 15-16th century version of high octane moonshine, but that would disolve the pitch lining. It may have been for a particular drink, or medicine or may have been a scale model to test a new design without using too much expensive leather. They could, like me have an order on the books to make a bottel for a small teenager…


Baker, O., Black Jacks and Leather Bottells, privately printed for W.J. Fieldhouse, Cheltenham 1921