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.

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A small disaster…

By the total lack of information in the week since Blacktown Medieval Fair, you can safely assume things didn’t go to plan. It had rained intermittently during the week before the fair, resulting in damp ground and humidity well above 90%. It was damp enough to soften any unsealed leather and I learned another important lesson about moulding leather. In the right conditions, it will unmould.

In the rush to get things done in time, I didn’t pay proper attention to the angle at the egde of the front piece of the flacket near where the inner row of stitches go. Where it should be ninety degrees, due to insufficient clamping during the moulding stage, it ended up closer to 100 degrees. The back didn’t have this problem and as the curved front is stronger than the flat back, the front won the stress competition and distorted the back to the point where the back became concave. The photo below sort of shows the problem.

The tension caused by the front not being flat has caused the back to curve in.

There’s more photos of the fair here if you are interested.

I finished stitching it as part of the display, but I’ve since pulled it apart and will remould the edge of the front and see what I can do with the back. I promise to post the results, but have two pair of shoes to fix by next weekend so it will have to wait a couple of weeks.

Flackets – the other leather bottle

A flacket is a type of leather flask or bottle made from only two pieces of leather, one for the front and one for the back. It has no base, but may additionally have a welt or gasket piece between the front and back. Depending on your cultural prejudices, these are sometimes also known as pumpkinseed- or pear-flasks.

Examples are few, pointing to it being an older design than those we more commonly see, such as costrels and the two- or three-piece leather bottels. Most of the surviving examples come from the Mary Rose (1545) and are regarded as among the last exemplars of the form. Accordingly, Baker is of little help other than on p59, remarking “Flasks (Flascones) as well as bottles are mentioned in Alfric’s Colloquy in the 10th century as being made by the shoe-wright…”

Designed mainly for upright use such as hanging on saddles or being worn on the hip, in common with the three-piece upright bottle, this type of bottle is almost universally asymetrical. The outside face is always deeply curved, accounting for most of the volume, with the back being raised but flat so that it sits comfortably when worn and provides a flat surface for when it needs to be put down.

Flackets from Gardiner

Line drawings of some of the flackets from the Mary Rose. Click on the image for a full page version that might do it justice.

No information about the manufacture of this type of bottle survives, so the usual divide between the rammed sand/grain/shot moulding and the wooden core moulding schools of thought exists, with an interesting twist that I’ll deal with in a moment after I’ve cast some nastursiums. No example I’ve seen produced by sand-moulding artisans has ever accounted for the asymetry required by this design, and very few manage the sharp angles and extreme stretching required to match the Mary Rose examples without resorting to ahistorically thin leather. The third school, to date only present in academic works, shows such naievity and lack of understanding of the mechanical characteristics of sewn leather that I’m including it here almost as an humourous aside. This method is blow moulding (cf Gardiner et al. p454). In this method, two flat pieces of leather the shape of the finished product are sewn together, wet, raised to the lips and blown into, in the manner of inflating a baloon. The wet leather then somehow holds it shape as it dries. I’m unsure when the embossing and stamping is supposed to be done with this method. I have seen a variation of this theme used, where the sewn leather envelope was connected to a garden hose and high water pressure used to stretch the leather to shape. It was then dried and waxed. Note that none of the inflation-based methods allow for the requisite asymetry.

I own a rather nice example made in about 1983 by an (at the time) young lad who’s dad was a member of the Leatherworkers Guild of New South Wales. It and a few other examples they sold were made by nailing wet leather to a board over an approximately shaped mound of newspaper, not unlike lasting a shoe.

I suppose the point of the tirade thus far is that we don’t have any idea how these things were originally made, so as long as your method results in an end result that is near enough to the original to make you happy, stick with it. I’ll spend the rest of this post discussing how I tooled up to produce a copy of one of the Mary Rose flackets (81A2218) for a commission. I won’t go as far as stitching it all together and sealing it as I’ll be doing that as part of a seventeenth century display at the Blacktown Medieval Fair later in May. Drop by and say hello if you’re around. Stitching and sealing were covered in my earlier post on Costrels if you need a refresher.

My technique is more or less derived from my approach to jack making although probably owes it’s heritage to the silk screening equipment I played on as a small boy in the late 1960s. There’s also a nod to the newspaper nailed under leather in this. All of the Mary Rose flackets are decorated to a greater or lesser extent with a combination of cuts, embossing and stamping. Baker observes that stamping requires a solid, stable base, so I’ve taken his advice and built a wooden core for moulding the front, and another for the back. All the embossing seems to run from the high points to the low, and may be a quick and decorative way of working the leather on to the core. I’m going to claim this in the lack of any real evidence and move on in the hope you won’t notice. A frame tensions and stretches the leather over the core.

The first step is to make the wooden cores. In my time-honoured tradition of taking the lazy approach, I enlarged the drawings from the Mary Rose book to life size on a photocopier and then made another copy. The first one I folded about the axis of symmetry and cut out along the outside. This includes stitch allowance and the carying ears and will be the plan of the finished pieces. The other I cut the thickness of the leather (about 4mm) narrower than the inside line of stitching and used it as the shape for both the cores and the cut out in the stretching frame.

The two cores, roughly cut from scrap timber. The dowel was used for the neck.

This is how I drilled the hole for the neck. The front and back are clamped together and the hole is drilled offset as the neck on the one I is deeper on the front than back

The core for the front was made from a substantial piece of spotted gum, a left-over from our back steps. Looking back, it would have been easier to do it from something soft like oak. Or mild steel. It took a lot of work with saws, files and sanding to get it to shape.

The two finished cores. The neck dowel is held in place with a filling epoxy because I’m too lazy to carve it from the one piece.

You can roughly gauge the volume of the finished bottle by holding the front and back core together in a bucket of water and measuring the volume of water displaced. Round down a bit to allow for the thickness of your chosen waterproofing solution. The required volume for this commission is the statuary 1 quart (2 pints or about 1.2l) so my halves may be just a smidge thicker than used on the original although we have no way of knowing if there’s been any shrinkage during 550 years in the Solent.

The next step was to make the frame. The base is from a substatntial lump of radiata scrounged from a building site rubbish pile and the top is from ply for ease of shaping, with a 50x25mm radiata frame to strengthen and provide a surface for clamping.

This is the base (feft) and the top (right) of the stretching frame. I’ve drawn the shapes on the top so I can cut it out and the base to assist in alignment of the core.

After cutting out the hole in the top piece and cleaning up the edges where necessary with a file, the stretching frame was ready to assemble. To keep the tension on the frame even and avoid pincing the leather at the neck end of the bottle, I put two pieces of the leather I had planned to use as a spacer between the top and bottom before attaching the rather substantial hinges. This is to ensure the top and bottom are parallel when the leather is being clamped.

The finished frame with the back core in place for moulding.

Soaking the leather. I know you know how to do this bit but I’m really showing off my first attempts at coopering – the two new staves in the tub.

The frame was now ready for use. While soaking the leather (I’m using 3.5mm carving leather in this case), centre the back core on the frame base using the pencil lines as a guide. Lay the wet leather skin side up on the core and lower the top leaf of the frame. Clamp in place, smooth any puckering or bubbling with firm pressure and leave to dry.

Clamping the back. Make sure you work the leather around the wooden core and the core is approximately aligned before clamping.

The area around the base of the neck seems to be a particular problem so I used an off-cut of leather to cushion the pressure and worked it down with both thumbs until it sat neatly around the core. This left a curved line not unlike the one shown in the dig report illustration. I found the points where the leather puckered on the back coincided almost exactly with the embossed decoration on the back of the target bottle, 81A2218, so I copied the embossing with the back of a butter knife after stamping my maker’s mark. This left the leather conforming tightly to the whole core.

Embossing the back while still wet. The “W” inside the shiled is my mark, based on the Marian “M” on some of the other bottles. Yes, I am using the back of a butter-knife.

We nipped off for a quick pike drill in the park and when we came back 40 minutes later, released the clamps and removed the leather.

The moulded back-piece. Total elapsed time was about 50 minutes and could have been less if we hadn’t ducked out for half an hour.

An unusual inside view of the finished back piece.

I then repeated the process for the front and found the puckering was different as the leather was stretched differently to the back, but again found that it corresponded to the embossed decoration on the original, particularly the double lines at the base of the neck were essential to getting that area to conform properly to the mould.

Here’s a tip. When you are carving a stamp that includes letters in the design, you have to make sure that you carve the letters in reverse to how you want them to appear. I do think my second attempt at the stamp is better. 😉

The completed front. I was able to work all the creases out by dampening them and using thumb pressure.

There’s a couple of changes that I’ll make next time I make a frame for flackets. I had chased a line in the clamping surface of the top piece with a sharp chisel. this was supposed to leave a raised cutting line on the finished piece, but was too fine and didn’t show clearly enough to be useful. I’ll have to think about making it wider and deeper at some point. With the trouble I’m having shaping the base of the neck where it joins the body of the bottle, I think next time I’ll carve an arch in the top so the pressure is more even across that part than just clamping the sides of the neck turned out to be.

This view is meant to show the different shapes and depths of the front and back.

I had expected to have to drill a couple of holes in the base and use dowels to positively locate the cores on the base but found leaving them loose meant they self-centered far more precisely than I could have managed with a fixed location and didn’t end up leaving any marks on the leather from wriggling around while the clamping pressure was applied.

The moulding was all done on a mild Autumn day, with this sort of frame I could mould at least ten halves in a normal working day in these conditions. Three or four would easily enable me to start mass-production, particularly if there was any heating in the workshop.

That’s enough to be going on as you probably already know the rest of the process. I’ll stop at this point and follow up when I’ve dyed, stitched and sealed it in a month or so.


Part 2; in which it all goes horribly wrong

Part 3; in which I have another crack

See also: stick a cork in it