Finished Archer’s Bracers

This post is a follow up to Archer’s Bracers and Wooden Stamps (again) of the year before last. It’s mostly me showing off, with some self-justification to explain the decisions I made about dye colours and buckles. I started writing this post in September 2014, so forgive me if things seem a little outdated.

I’m quoting from Gervase Markham’s The Art of Archerie (1634) here, mainly for my own convenience because I can cut and paste from the ebook. Markham was a publisher and like his peers, made his money from the sheer number of different titles he sold rather than the more modern approach of having fewer stronger selling titles. Accuracy, readability, veracity and respecting ownership of intellectual property were not his strong points. In this case, he’s written a new dedicatory epistle to the king, a new first chapter (A general encomion or praise of shooting both in peace and war) and then basically plagiarized the second book of Ascham’s Toxophilus when he thought everyone had stopped reading. He has modernised Ascham’s language somewhat and added the occasional paragraph of his own.

…the bracer serves for two purposes, the one to save the arm from the stripe of the string, and his doublet from wearing; and the other, that the string gliding sharply and quickly of the bracer may make the sharper shot, for if the string should light upon the bare sleeve, the strength of the shot would stop and die there…

This next bit seems to be Markham’s own work and reflects mid-17th century practice rather than 16th c, Ascham is silent on the appropriate types of leather.

The bracers are made for the most part of Spanish leather, the smooth side outward, and they be the best, sometimes of Spanish leather and the flesh side outward, and they are both good and tolerable, and others are made of hard, stiff but smooth bend leather, and they be the worst and most dangerous, and thus much is spoken of the bracer.

When looking at the Mary Rose bracers, all are skin side outwards and only a couple are candidates for being of Spanish leather. I’ve used harness butt for all mine, it’s thick, flexible and takes stamping well. Most of the Mary Rose bracers are rectangular or octagonal, with a couple having curves on the long sides. I made a couple of each design, patterns were just the drawings from the MR book blown up to life size on a photocopier. Cut out the leather, case it and decorate with the stamps you made two years ago. Attack with the back of the butter knife if your design needs it. You may have done that two years ago as well…

Buckle, strap and pattern

Buckle and strap

Cut the straps to the correct width to fit the actual or hypothetical buckle and punch the holes for the rivets and mounting the buckle. I used a thin 1.5mm carving leather for the straps on the commercial buckles and a 3mm on the ones I’d made. “Y” shaped straps can be made by splitting a straight strap for part of its length, dampening the branching area and then stretching and squeezing to shape.

Dye the bits as required with your choice of leather dye. I used red on a couple to represent Spanish leather (the red colour came from a step in the tanning process), the majority are black or brown.


Mild steel buckles

My bracer has a forged buckle, but to show what you can do at home, I made these from a piece of 1.6mm sheet mild steel I’d picked up from the local hardware. The shapes are entirely hypothetical because none of the Mary Rose bracer buckles have survived. The holes have been drilled and then opened up with files. On some of the square ones, I stitch drilled and then cut the webs with a cold chisel. Decoration is with sharp or blunt cold chisels and a centre punch. The buckle tongues are horseshoe nails with the heads cut off and then bent to an appropriate shape. Don’t forget to clean and debur the front and back.

The finish is a simple heat blue, a stable oxide of iron. I use a similar process to this, either using a propane torch or gas ring depending on what the gas bottle is connected to, but finish with a spray oil rather than a dip. Just do it outside and don’t breathe the fumes. You can blue in your oven if it can heat to 290°C/550°F.

Assemble all the bits using copper harness rivets (the impressions in the leather match the Mary Rose examples) and wax or seal to taste.

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In which I make Helmut a scabbard and baldric

This post has been in preparation since late 2014. Case and tense is all over the place and my brayne is too addled to straighten it out. I’ve added dates to each section, so you can get a feel for the creative process. Now read on…

My friend Helmut is a musketeer, he wears a black floppy hat and carries a musket that according to legend, weighs 30 pounds. He owns a Spanish cup-hilt rapier that he won from a Spanish soldier in a game of La puta madre during the 30-Years War. Unfortunately, the scabbard and baldric* also date from the 30-Years War and are starting to show it. In this post I’ll demonstrate the process for making and decorating a rapier scabbard, I’ll loosely base the decoration on the Mary Rose one (if anyone challenges me, I’ll hide behind Margaret Rule’s observation that if the Mary Rose hadn’t been so securely dated, all the artefacts would have been dated 100-years later). There’s a joint on the still shawm that wasn’t even invented until the clever French people did it in the mid eighteenth century.

Mary Rose rapier scabbard (my photo). I’m using the impressions to tell me what tools to use in my design. I’m taking the frame and mouth decoration more or less directly, everything else is freestyle using the same tools that I would have used if I was creating this scabbard.

It should be noted that I hold Helmut personally responsible for my dreadful obsession with the work of Mr Mindum, which I sometimes inflict on you poor people. This will become relevant later.

* A rapier is a gentleman’s blade and normally worn from from a highly decorated waist-belt rather than a baldric. For the purpose of the exercise we’re assuming Helmut lost the round the belt was played for and had to get a baldric made by a local leatherworker that didn’t know the difference.

Step 1: Procrastinate (September 2015-March 2015)

I’ve had this since September, it’s now March and I haven’t started on the leather. To be fair, I’ve cleaned the sword and removed the burrs and the worst of the chips from the blade, repaired the grip, straightened the cross and reblued the hilt.

Step 2: Make the patterns (January 2015)

I like to make a copy of the sword blade in hardwood so I can wrap it in wet leather without worrying about rusting anything.  It gives a firm surface for tooling, draws some moisture out of the leather and gives nice, crisp edges. Functionally, it’s similar to a last for shoe making. It can be made a little larger than the sword, so you don’t get problems with the finished scabbard being too tight. Don’t forget to add extra timber to allow for any ears on the hilt that might need to be covered by the scabbard. You’ll also need extra length so the chape can be riveted on without leaving the sword sticking an inch or so embarrassingly out of the scabbard. I know others are happy with just wrapping the blade in plastic, and/or gaff tape. Do whatever works for you.

Step 3: Procrastinate more (January – July 2015)

Yeah, I made the patterns back in January, just needed to fix the shape of the point a bit. Two months later…

Step 4: Oh crap! (July – August 2015)

Realise that arrow order is due in one month, not two…

Twelve arrows later. It’s now April July…

Step 5: Finish the pattern (August 9, 2:10-2:13pm)

It took nearly 3 minutes to finish.

Step 6: Mould (August 9, 2:17pm – August 28)

Cut the leather, wet it and clamp it around the pattern. Once it’s dry, remove the clamps, cut to shape and do the two raised bits around the scabbard mouth. I have a bit of hardwood with a “U”-shaped groove about 6mm wide for this sort of work in leather or brass. Flatten the scabbard out again, wet the leather, put it skin side down on the grooved block and hammer a brazing rod in from the flesh side.

Moulding the leather on the wooden pattern, I'm using a couple of lengths of  primed timber to clamp the seam.

Moulding the leather on the wooden pattern, I’m using a couple of lengths of primed timber to clamp the seam.

Step 7: Stitch (August 29 – September 6 while watching the telly)
Make the awl holes and stitch. I’m using edge/flesh stitches to get a flat seam, other seams may be appropriate according to your period and type.

Stitch the back seam, you can see the pattern poking out the top end. I've wrapped it in plastic film so it doesn't swell when wet.

Stitch the back seam, you can see the pattern poking out the top end. I’ve wrapped it in plastic film so it doesn’t swell when wet.

Step 8: Decorate (September 7)
The decoration is informed by the Mary Rose rapier scabbard, a stack of 17th C knife scabbards in the MoL and other places and 17th C furniture and embroidery designs. I quickly carved a new stamp in the end grain of a bit of broom handle. It took 30 minutes and involved curved chisels, a scriber and a short length of 4mm diameter copper tube. It’s a nod towards the two flowers on Mindum’s Jayne Ayres shoehorn of 1593 and a reference to Helmut’s influence with my obsession interest. I’ve covered stamp making before so won’t go into detail here.

The smaller flower is a commercial stamp from the leather store, the small circles are a 1.6mm ∅ nail punch from the hardware and the rest is done with the back of the butter knife (you knew that bit already, didn’t you?). If the leather has been cased properly, the smaller stamps can be done using hand pressure alone. I’m using the wooden pattern to provide support while I’m leaning on the punches and embossing with the butter knife. The bigger stamp was smote with a mallet, with the wooden pattern in place and the whole assembly resting on a block of softwood.

Decorate to taste. Tools include hand made and commercial stamps, a nail punch and the back of a butter knife. The bone and squirty bottle are for flattening the back seam.

Decorate to taste. Tools include hand made and commercial stamps, a nail punch and the back of a butter knife. The bone and squirty bottle are for flattening the back seam.

Step 9: Embalderise (September 10, 2015)

Cut the straps for the baldric. There will be a lot of decorative stitching on the front where it meets the scabbard. Hold off until after the dying’s done.

Straps and hangers.

Straps and hangers.

The stitched but undyed baldrick.

The stitched but undyed baldrick. I lied about dying first.

Step 10: Dye

Colour and method to taste. The baldric is saddle tan with black outside the line where the decorative stitching is going to be. This should help the idea that the scabbard and baldric were made by different people. On the scabbard I used a tan base and overdyed red with the new “safer” water-based dyes. It’s supposed to be colourfast and waterproof when set.

Step 11: Final assembly

Stitch the baldric together, do the decorative stitching.  This next bit is straight from the MR scabbard – split the wooden form lengthwise and hollow out space for the blade. Glue it in with barley paste, hide glue or PVA, whatever you are comfortable with and can self-justify.

Scabbard with wooden insert.

Scabbard with wooden insert.

Step 12: Wax to finish

A nice solid coat of beeswax and put it outside in the sun to soak in.

Step 13: Helmut tries it out – and it rains

I made an early delivery to Helmut so he could test it and see if there’s any changes or adjustments to be done. The chape is still on the to-do list for later. Helmut used it at the St Ives Medieval Faire. Oh Noes! Disaster! The red dye washed out in the rain, leaving it all spotty where the drops splashed…

Scabbard (sans chape) in the pre-deluge colour and finished baldrick.

Scabbard (sans chape) in the pre-deluge colour and finished baldrick.

Step 14: Repeat steps 10-12 (May-July 2016)

… strip the red dye with hot water and re-dye using red Raven Oil. Let’s see that run!

Step 15: Make and fit the chape (18 July 2016)

This was always going to be the final step after the St Ives test to see if there was any fettling required. Fold a chape from sheet brass, decorate and polish. In the final fitting the chape split along the line of the decoration. I’m beginning to think this scabbard is cursed.

Step 16: Make and fit the chape again (19 July 2016)

Absolutely, finally, completely finished scabbard.

Absolutely, finally, completely finished scabbard.

Step 17: Hand to Helmut and back away slowly (21 July 2016)

… or so I thought. Helmut wasn’t there at the drill, so I’ll take it or send it along to the next event.

Elapsed time: 1 year 277 days, 19h, 11m.
Actual Working time: 14h 8m

Archer’s Bracers and Wooden Stamps (again)

I’ve talked about how easy it is to make wooden stamps a few times in the past. Here, here and here come to mind. I’m making some archer’s bracers based on Mary Rose originals to sell through Sven the Merchant and thought I’d take the opportunity to demonstrate a couple of techniques I use.

As before, the base for the stamp is tassie oak dowel, I like using this one because it is hard, has very fine end grain and can be easily heat hardened.

For most of the stamps, I created the stamp outlines on my PC at full size, reversed the original design and then printed them. After that I cut out the designs and glued them to the ends of the dowels.

Wooden stamps for Mary Rose Bracers

From left to right, stamps for Mary Rose 81A1185, 81A4639, 80A0901 and one marked up for 81A5826. I’ll cover that technique next.

Remove everything that isn’t stamp with saw, knife, chisel and/or drill, case the leather and start stamping to taste.

The second method is for the simpler stamp used on 81A5826, it needed a 3/8″ hole in the middle, surrounded with 1/8″ holes. I just marked up the centre and at 45° intervals and applied a centre punch and power drill.
Wooden stamp reject

The centre hole went a bit wonky, so I turned the dowel over and did it again on the other end.

Wooden stamps for Mary Rose Bracers

Much better this time.

Bracers, stamps and designs.

Stamps, bracers and templates everywhere. Just straps and buckles to go.

If you have Weapons of Warre, have a look at the section on bracers by Hugh Soar in Volume 2. You’ll see some finished ones here soon.

Dominos – A revised history

This one was submitted to the Editor General on 2 July, 2007 and was printed in the subsequent edition of The International Routier, back in it’s dead-treeware days. Vanity presses me to reproduce it here.

At the start of chapter 3 of the forthcoming second edition of the Routier Gaming Manual, I pontificate:

There are no references to dominos in western sources before the middle of the 18th century, when domino games appear to have been played in Italy and France. They are kept in this volume mainly so the Routiers have something to do with their dominoes.

And fair enough too, this is the view held by most serious scholars of the introduction of different games into Western Europe. Strutt (1801) says, “Domino… a very childish sport imported from France a few years back”. My innocent enough enquiry to the Mary Rose Trust in 1996 about the photo above, simply captioned Domino found on the Mary Rose, resulted in the photo being taken down from the site and a personal apology to me from one of the senior archaeologists.

Early 18th century bone domino found in The Solent, allegedly lost from a French prison hulk… or is it?
Photo from the Mary Rose Trust

I scored some really nice archaeological drawings of combs, arrow spacers and book covers for my efforts. In 2003, I also queried a domino on display in the Southampton Archaeological Museum labelled as 17th century, pointing out their own database showed it as probably 18th century. Here I must admit to being a serial offender. I do have a nice letter from Warwick Castle thanking me for the information I sent them challenging their dating of a leather jack on stylistic grounds.


The Southampton domino in question. It’s 14mm wide and 23mm long so almost exactly the same size as the Mary Rose find.

Photo (and attitude) by me.

There’s only one problem… I just got my copy of the Mary Rose personal effects book and now I have to rewrite the intro. They obviously prepared for people like me, the drawing of artefact 79A0665, Single Bone Domino, (complete, 25.8 x 13.3mm) comes with the accompanying text: “… was found in an insecure context on the Upper deck area… It is likely, given the provenance of the object, that the single Mary Rose domino post-dates the wreck.”

So, having safely covered themselves against future emails, they fire a full broadside. “However, dominos from such earlier contexts are attested, though rare. One such with a drilled number was found in Oxford and was thought to come from a context ‘no later than the sixteenth or early seventeenth-century’ (Henig, 1976, 218).” [Their emphasis]. They continue, “… The form of the Mary Rose domino closely resembles post-medieval examples from Plymoth (seventeenth century; Fairclough, 1976. 129 no. 39), Southampton (probably eighteenth century; Platt and Coleman-Smith 1975, fig. 249 no. 1950)… Not satisfied with that, they then drag out a textual reference relevant to date of the ship. “An early reference to a game called dominoes occurs during Henry VIII’s divorce proceedings against Queen Catherine of Aragon when he resumed his gaming habit, and in January 1530 he lost £450 at dominoes at Greenwich and Whitehall (Williams 1971, 122; Privy Papers and Expenses of Henry VIII).” [p140]

I’m gratified that at no other point in the book, do Gardiner and Allen go to such lengths to prove something which they say probably isn’t from the ship could have been if it really wanted to be.

References and Notes

Just in case you want to follow this further…

Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose – The Archaeology of the Mary Rose Volume 4,edited by Gardiner and Allen, The Mary Rose Trust Ltd, Portsmouth, 2005. ISBN 0-9544029-4-4

The Southampton Archaeological Museum is on line, the domino entry is at

Henig, M. 1976. “The small finds”. I G. Lambrick & H Woods, Excavations on the second site of the Dominican Priory, Oxford, Oxeniensia 41, 213-22.

Faiclough, G.J. 1979. St Andrews Street 1976. Plymouth: Plymouth Museum Archaeological Series 2

Platt, C. 1975. Excavations in Medieval Southampton. Volume 2: The Finds, pp.274, fig. 249,

Williams, N. 1971. Henry VIII and his Court. New York: Macmillan

Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. (On line at

Tudor thread bobbins

I’m afraid this is another one of those posts where I show off while pretending that it’s really all to do with Tudor leather work. It was my turn on the lathe last Sunday afternoon, so I whipped up some copies of bobbins from the Mary Rose out of an off-cut piece of silky oak that was destined for the bin.

Mary Rose bobbins

One’s pretty much a copy of 81A1433, complete with hollow inside for storing needles, the other is similar but solid due to a borer hole that comes out the side.

Mary Rose bobbins

These are for my Stuart period leather worker’s tool box. See – it was relevant after all! As well as storing thread, the bobins can be used to maintain a tension on a thread when doing things like whipping rope.

They are just slightly under diameter because of the size of the timber I was using. 81A1433 apparently has some traces of paint so of course, I couldn’t control myself. The paint is artist’s oils because I wasn’t confident that ground pigment wouldn’t come off on the thread. Pigments are all ones in common use and the arrangement of colour is from seventeenth century painted furniture.

Mary Rose bobbins

Post script: even commercially prepared oil paints don’t stop lamp black from rubbing off over everything. Maybe I should use and iron or ivory black next time. I ended up putting a thin coat of varnish over the black to seal it and then waxed.