Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Building a Sword for Rattan Combat
Building a rattan sword that can be used safely in simulated combat, but that closely follows an actual medieval sword in weight, balance, handling and, ideally, appearance is a challenging process. It’s made more so if it must meet all SCA standards for blade and thrusting tip diameter. Still, care and careful construction will produce a weapon that much more closely approximates the feel of an actual sword.
Weight, Balance and Inertia
An unshaped stave of rattan is essentially a simple rod. A medieval sword is a much more complicated beast. It doesn’t balance at the midpoint, but typically at a point much nearer the hilt. In making earlier swords I naively assumed that I could simulate the proper handling with a pommel heavy enough to shift the balance point to the correct position, but this is not sufficient. The typical medieval sword has significant distal taper, that is, it is much wider and heavier near the hilt than near the tip. This is particularly pronounced in the acutely pointed blades that became increasingly popular with the widespread use of plate armor from the 14th c. on. Even without a hilt fitted, such a blade will have a balance point closer to the hilt end of the blade than a simple rod would.
This presents a problem. Suppose we set out to simulate a particular medieval sword, and have made an unshaped rattan stave for the blade and shaped the grip for a comfortable fit. We use leather, rattan or hose for the cross of the hilt, and by coincidence it duplicates the mass of the thinner but denser steel cross of the original sword we are trying to model. We add a pommel heavy enough to move the balance point to the correct place, and find the total weight close to that of the original. Do we have a good simulation of our original?
Because our rattan blade is a simple rod, without fittings it balances further from the hilt than an actual blade. The pommel must be heavier than on the original, and there isn’t enough mass at the strong or forte of the blade, between its midpoint and the cross. There’s too much inertia in the pommel, and not enough in the strong. The sword balances correctly but behaves differently as it is swung.
A metal cross can help the problem somewhat. The society requires a one inch minimum diameter for the tips of a cross, and even in aluminum a cross with these dimensions is more massive than a medieval one with a similar span from tip to tip. A cast aluminum cross like those offered by Windrose Armories can add mass near the place where we would want to add it. A wire wound grip can also add significant mass. It isn’t quite the ideal location, but it’s better than a pommel that’s too heavy.
Another way to add mass to the forte would be to strap lead sheet to the blade at the ricasso. I haven’t tried this, but it should have the desired effect.
16th c. blades for German longsword fencing did something similar. To keep the blades flexible they had minimal taper for most of their length, but suddenly widened to a very broad “schild” or shield resembling a very wide ricasso just forward of the hilt. Presumably at least part of the intent was to get mass distribution more like a fighting sword, and it certainly would have had that effect
While simply adding some weight to the ricasso of an unshaped rattan blade would make the mass distribution and balance more like a medieval sword, the result would lack defined edges and sides, as well as the visible distal taper of a real blade. An oval cross section feels somewhat more like a real sword than a round stave does when binding or winding against another similar weapon, and also moves through the air more easily, again more like a real blade. I prefer to start with heavy rattan, plane the sides, and give it a distal taper as well.
For my last three swords I used cast aluminum crosses, and aluminum or bronze facetted scent stopper pommels, secured by lag screws. I like scent stopper pommels because they are appropriate for the period I am recreating, are comfortable in the hand when the fighting two-handed, and it isn’t a big issue if they rotate. This can be a problem with wheel pommels and the like on rattan swords because they are secured with a circular screw rather than the square or rectangular tang of steel swords. Currently available bronze pommels can be quite massive. I chose to have the hole in the bronze pommel for the grip bored deeper on a lathe, which made the weight more appropriate for the length of sword I was building. I wrap the grip in either twine or twisted wire. This gives a good grip and helps prevent the lag screw from splitting the rattan. You can cover the twine with an additional layer of thin leather if you wish. Once you have chosen a pommel and decided whether or not you will have a thrusting tip, you can subtract the length these add from your intended overall dimensions to determine the length rattan you need.
Shaping the Blade
I start with a honking thick stave of rattan, perhaps 1 ¾” in diameter, and shave it down to 1 ¼” in thickness with a hand plane. I usually build the blade width up a bit near the cross with two strips of 1/8” vegetable tanned leather glued to the cutting edge, which I thin down to bare rattan with a grinding wheel or Surform tool towards the point. Vegetable tanned leather is much more easily shaped with the same tools I use to shape wood or rattan than other types of leather. Because of the curve of the rattan cross section, the edges of the strips will project a bit once glued down, and will require some work with grinding wheel or Surform tool to produce a smooth transition to the rattan. The strips range from 4-10” in length, and may not be symmetrical if I’m compensating for rattan that isn’t perfectly straight. Using the hand plane, I tapered the width of the blade from 1 ¾” at that point to 1 ¼ at the tip.
One could use longer strips and additional layers of leather or thicker leather to give a distal taper and more oval cross section to thinner rattan. For example, one might layer leather strips equal to 85%, 60% and 30% of the blade length and smooth them down to an even taper. I don’t think this would be as resistant to breaking as a shaped piece of thicker rattan, but you would presumably get some benefit if the construction allowed you to avoid removing the outer skin of the rattan stave, since the skin seems to be tougher than the core fibers.
Shape the grip with the same tools. Remember that a twine or wire wrapping will add bulk to the finished grip while you are shaping the rattan core of the grip. Make the rattan slim enough so that the finished grip will be a comfortable shape in your hands, but not so slim that you compromise its strength.
Fitting the Cross
Once I achieved a smooth transition from the blade to the intended grip I saw that it would not fit through the pre-drilled circular hole in the cross. I chose to enlarge it to an oval hole with files. While laborious, that insured that the cross could not rotate, and that the strength of the rattan would be weakened as little as possible at that point. Once the hole is distinctly oval, try it for fit. Remove additional material from the cross or rattan until the cross can be driven snugly into position.
From now on, I always will describe the hilt with pommel up and the sword tip down. The hole in the cross can widen a bit from halfway down to its bottom opening, as this will keep it from slipping down. It should also widen a bit from the halfway up, since wooden wedges can be driven down for a snug fit, and the shape of the hole will then help keep the cross from sliding the other way. While widening the hole in this way remove material from the long ends of the oval, not the sides. Removing rattan so the cross can be driven into position may leave the cross sitting on a rattan shelf, if so, this will also help keep the cross in position. Once you are satisfied with the shape of the grip you can drill a snug pilot hole for the lag screw. Don’t wedge the cross in place yet, but try the pommel and see if the overall balance is likely to be right once completed. If not, you can consider changes to improve the balance: wire wrap vs. twine, a different pommel, lead inside the pommel or on the ricasso, and so on.
Note to the Makers of Sword Fittings.
Adjusting sword balance would be a lot easier if pommels came with deeper holes for the grip, with enough space to pop in lead washers as needed to get the weight we wanted. It would also be good if the pommel had a countersunk hole on the end, wide enough to take the head of the appropriate socket wrench for the lag screw. I had mine retrofitted with that after my gauntleted finger got driven into the exposed head of the hex screw and required six stitches.
While we’re at it, can we have the option of oval holes in the cross? And perhaps some where the arms transition to an octagonal cross section rather than square? For the same 1’ minimum diameter you’d get something less bulky.
Wrapping the Blade: First Layer
Once satisfied, proceed. If you like, you can remove the cross while you work on the blade
I wrap the blade in filament tape, longitudinal and spiral. Alternatively, I have also used a length of sheet or shirt weight cloth a little wider than the circumference of the blade, glued down with white or yellow carpenters glue with the overlap running down one cutting edge.
Securing the Cross
When you are ready to put on the cross for good, drive it into position. Drive in glue coated wedges from above, and cut away any excess that protrudes above the cross with a sharp knife.
If you later find that the wedges did not fix the cross in place securely enough you can drill a hole through the cross from one side to the other for a press fitted steel pin. The pin should be thick enough to do the job, but no thicker, since the larger the hole drilled, the greater the chance of splitting or weakening the rattan at that point.
Covering the Grip.
If you are using twine or cord, first coat the grip with a thin layer of white or yellow carpenter’s glue. Start at the cross and keep the twine under constant tension as you wrap it around the grip from the cross to the end, with each new spiral snug against the one below it. You can use it as is or cover it with thin leather.
I used thin pigskin, soaked to make it pliable with a skived overlap joint. I coated the twine with white glue, and wound the leather with another spiral of twine while it dried so that the texture of the twine wrapping below could still be seen and felt when the grip was complete
The wire wrapping used a double strand of brass wire wound about itself in a spiral. After a test section was produced, cord of similar thickness was wound around the grip to determine how much would be needed. A double length of brass wire of the appropriate length was secured at one end, stretched across the work area and chucked into a drill. It was then wound into a spiral strand. Since it became work hardened in the process, it was annealed in a kiln before being used to wrap the hilt.
I used an awl to drive a channel down from the top of the cross between it and the rattan, into which I could press one end of the wire to hold it taut. It was then wound tightly around the hilt in the same way as the twine.
Check the pommel for balance, using a dowel loosely slid into the pilot hole to hold it in position if needed. If everything is satisfactory secure the pommel with a hex headed lag screw.
Completing the Blade
Finally, using contact cement I glue a length of 1” leather down one cutting edge, over the thrusting tip, and back down the other, butting as necessary. This adds a little extra shape to the blade and protects the rattan from damage. If the leather is too heavy the blade will be heavy and slow. I find dress belts from a thrift shop ideal if I split apart a belt made from two layers of leather and use one. This leather also has a suitable cross section: thicker at the center but thinner at the sides.
You may want to use more robust leather over the thrusting tip. Under that but over the foam of the thrusting tip use an additional strip of 1” leather, about 8” long, at right angles to the strip along the cutting edge. I taper the ends of the strip to 90 degree points for a smoother transition to the sword than if I cut them off square. Wrap this with filament tape over the rattan, but not over the foam portion of the thrusting tip. The two strips of leather will hold the foam in place, but the tip will compress more easily than if it was entirely wrapped in tape.
I then cover the blade with four strips of duct tape, parallel to the long axis of the sword, taping the sides of the sword first and then the cutting edges. If the leather strip is in good condition I sometimes omit the duct tape on the cutting edge and leave the leather exposed to mark the edge.
For a truly fine and medieval appearance, you can use thin leather painted silver instead of tape. The leather should be as thin as possible to avoid an excessively heavy blade, and if you can get it a light steel grey or silver will minimize the visibility of scuffs. Glue down the leather with contact cement and run a butt joint down one cutting edge. For a very precise butt joint, start with leather that overlaps slightly and cut through both layers at once with a sharp knife. You will want to leave a strip about an inch wide down this cutting edge uncoated with contact cement until this operation is complete. I find it easier to start with leather that is slightly overlong and trim it to fit at the cross once it is in place.