Late 14th century daily life has been my primary focus for the past thirty years, though I have produced work from other eras. Production began with armor and includes jewelry making, metal casting, wood work, and more as well as medieval cookery and brewing for my family. Back in the day, I participated in period dance – to the point of dancing in Italy as part of a tour (IKR?) What follows is a portfolio of more recent tangible projects.
This Pennsic, we seem to have gotten into an art historical photo series that kinda spiraled out of control.
It started with a picture of Helena and me at breakfast. I had taken a shower and had my hair up in a turban, which I took down at the end of breakfast. With the plate that had had bacon on it and the desert palette of my towel, the following happened:
Apparently Helena practices looking like a Renaissance angel, which will surprise no one who knows her.
Then we did The Head of John the Baptist and Salomé, which was much more staged and planned out:
And then we started to include inspiration images: Judith and Holoferenes
The original is by Artemisia Gentileschi
Phyllis riding Aristotle. (It’s tough to see, but Astrida has tippets made of toilet paper we nicked from the Portos.)
The original is a bronze ewer in the Met:
From a Tacuinum Sanitatis on vomiting:
Samson and Delilah:
One of the people in camp had taken apart his helmet liner, that was padded with horsehair which was a pretty darn good match for my own.
The original is from the Wenzel Bible (folio 21) in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek:
I think the star of the show is this one:
Based on Vermeer‘s Girl with a Pearl Earring
Last year at Pennsic I got hooked on the idea of replacing our modern Coleman cooler with a wooden box in the style of an historical box from the 14th C. I chose this box from the Victoria and Albert Musuem as a reasonable size for our needs. Historically, this was a ‘grain ark’, that was used to store grain in a domestic setting. As such, it wouldn’t have had a hinge on it because the top would have been removable to use as a kneading trough for making bread.
According to the V&A, the original was 100.3 CM long, by 61 CM high by 45.7 CM deep, but it’s tough to determine exactly where those measurements were taken because of the various knicks and dents on the original.
Based on these dimensions, I drew a grid on the image to find landmarks on the image and start to develop actual plans. The inital design called for ~1″ as the basic unit of board thickness, which would make for a hefty box – one perhaps too heavy to use in a practical manner. Based on the thickness of the lumber I had on hand, this was pared down to 5/8″ for most of the body pieces, 1″ for the lid ends and the central spine of the lid, and 1 1/4″ for the legs.
The original piece was pinned together – wedges can be seen where the end boards pierce the legs, and round pins can be seen in the chevron shaped end boards, the legs where the side boards are attached, and the lid where the side boards meet the ends. There is also a ‘biscuit’ centered on the face board to support the bottom board.
Here is my interpretaion. I -think- it’s all white oak, but apparently the color of white and red oak is pretty darned variable so color is not a safe guide. All it needs is 600 years of patina…
There are a few things that I had to change because of the constraints of modern wood. The side boards, end boards, and the bottom are glued up out of narrower boards. The bottom is supported in a groove running across the face and end boards. I -think- the original was supported by grooves in the end boards and by the ‘biscuit’ in the center of the faces, but I can’t be sure. All of the boards are a little thinner than the original. However, the dimensions are pretty much spot on – it’s 0.2 CM too short in length, but all other dimensions are right on the money.
Beyond the box itself, once you lift the lid it is lined with 2″ of R-13 house insulation foam, with a fiberglass shell to protect the foam from crushing and from liquid spills.
We used it this Pennsic, with mixed but mostly positive results. One of the legs was behaving strangely, which makes me think that one of the glue joins wasn’t quite as solid as it should be. Also, because of time constraints, the foam on the lid wasn’t solidly mounted or fiberglassed which resulted in the corners getting a little chewed up over the two weeks.
I do have a few things to finish up before it’s 100% complete: I need to put in the biscuit at the bottom of the face boards, I need to put in the round pins where the end boards join with the side lid boards, and I need to put some decorative something-or-other on the top board of the lid, where it pierces the end boards.
Now that it has been awarded, I can reveal that I had the honor of making a laurel wreath as part of the regalia for the elevation to the Order of the Laurel of the inestimable Alexandre Saint Pierre, who is an excellent calligrapher and illuminator.
One of my initial concerns was that I’ve heard coronets of any stripe tend to wear on the head, and cause headaches or dig into the forehead. So weight was a concern. I also wanted something classic, but ideally based on a 14th century aesthetic. There is a statue of the poet Dante Alighieri in Florence, Italy. Dante was 14th century, but the statue was erected 600 years too late. IE: Solidly Victorian, so no dice. (Dante Statue)
As a fallback, I went with more of the official SCA laurel emblazon, which is a relatively straight-forward stylized laurel wreath (a shock, I know). An evening’s fiddling with OpenOffice gave me the schematic of a design, with the major pieces in place. Now, time to make some stuff hot.
I tried a few test pieces to check out technologies, and discovered that my initial design was horribly flawed. I wanted to make a wire armature, solder it to an oversized leaf-shaped sheet of brass and roll the edges around the wire to both control the edge of the sheet and reinforce the wire. Physics said no. Because the leaf is curved, as you bring the extra metal up to wrap around the wire there is more metal being displaced than wire to displace it around. Think of wrapping aluminum foil around a hair pin – you can get the sides nice and smooth, but the bend is going to be ugly. Wrapping around a straight thing makes for a tube, which is easy. Anything not straight is going to displace metal, and displaced metal kinks and never goes flat again. Ever. Also, any lumps in the soldering translate through the sheet and are visible from the front.
For the second pass, I tried making a wire loop shaped roughly like a laurel leaf and soldering an oversized sheet of brass to it, then trimming it down using some leather scisors and filing the remaining extra sheet away to bring it in line with the wire shape, which worked well. I used 16g brass wire from a craft store and some 36g tooling sheet that I had lying about from making bezants a few years ago.
Once I had a leaf-making technology that worked, I started making leaf pairs.
I had intended the design to overlap stems between any two sets of leaves, so as to both provide more surface area for the silver solder to grip and to provide more strength to the central spine of the wreath. More on this later.
On paper, there were five sizes of leaves, and I figured that I’d get some variability in the individual leaves just because it’s a hand-made product, and beyond my skill to make any two identical. It should make for a nicely organic leaf shape.
I made all the leaves in pairs joined by their twigs, with the end pair running the whole length of the piece as the ‘spine’ from which all the other leaves would spring. In the image above, the ‘spine’ leaves are the horizonal ones the larthest apart. The central pairs of leaves, next to the gap, are soldered to the spine, but the rest are just placed for an approximate sense of the final product. It’s worth noting that the central pair of leaves aren’t folded as the other pairs are, but straddle the back of the head.
I realized at this point that it would probably be easier to do the cleanup and initial polishing pass on the pairs rather than on the entire thing, so I cleaned everything up with a Dremel tool with a variety of sanding and buffing heads. It turned out to be a -very- good call, because I sanded through a number of pairs of leaves while learning just how delicate 36g sheet is. It was relatively easy to simply replace the damaged pairs at this phase, but it would not be fun after everything was soldered together.
After initial clean up, I embossed the leaf relief into the sheet. 36g is thin enough that a good push with your fingernail makes for 90% of the leafy goodness. A quick pass with a fairly blunt pencil did in the veining, being careful not to pop through the sheet because 36g sheet is -thin- stuff.
Once all the leaf pairs were cleaned up and embossed, I started soldering them together into the final assembly. I invented a remarkable new technology that I call “A stainless steel sheet with a hole in it” so that I could concentrate the torch on the area to be soldered without converting the rest of the piece to slag. It worked so well that I invented a companion technology that I call “Two sheets of stainless steel” used to heat-sink the stuff right next to a long, thin solder join. Yay for technology!
A quick side-note about my torch. It’s a plumber’s torch with a hose that I got for making armor. It’s great for making a lot of heat, and the hose means you can put an adapter in place to connect to not just one of those little propane cans like a camp stove uses, but one of the big-assed ones you put on a propane barbeque. Good news: Lots of heat, not lifting the propane can, instant on. Bad news: Lots of heat. Sometimes too much.
So, using my inappropriately large torch and my various Sheet of Steel technologies, I managed to get one side soldered together without melting anything I hadn’t intended to. (I did run out of silver solder in this process, and my friend Claire came to my rescue by loaning me some of hers.) Because of the nature of wire, I hadn’t gotten the joins perfectly straight and smooth, and in the interest of making the leaf density look better, I’d pillaged two pairs of leaves from the other side to tighten up this side.
One side done, I took it upstairs to gloat to my wife and some visiting friends, and discovered that it didn’t have the strength to support it’s own weight when in any position other than directly vertical. Apparently, the overlaps didn’t reinforce quite the way I’d hoped. The gloating turned into a design consultation session, and we quickly hashed out a plan to reinforce the spine. I had some 18″ lengths of 1/8″ brazing rod which, after a few taps with a hammer to give it a little more breadth, a more square cross-section, and a more organic character, would hide the somewhat wobbly line of the initial spine and reinforce the very wobbly structure.
Because I’d pillaged two pairs of leaves, I made up four new pairs of leaves from start through to initial polish and soldered down the second side. Once all the leaves were in place I shaped and soldered down the reinforcing spine, which was quite frankly terrifying. I think I’ve mentioned that my torch produces a lot of heat. Now, all of my delicate work was soldered together and looked good. It didn’t work so good, but it looked good. Every time you put a torch to a piece, you have a chance of ruining it. Adrenaline much?
Starting in the center back, and with both the piece and the reinforcing spine curved into roughly the final shape, I soldered about an inch down, moved an inch, tweaked the leaves as much out of the way as I could, clipped heat sinks onto things I couldn’t move, and soldered another inch. The good news about laurel wreaths is that they dissipate heat like nobody’s business, so I could solder the spine down on one side, flip it, tweak things into alignment, and solder the mirror side with minimal burns from picking up hot metal. I was holding the torch about 4″ from the piece, using just the very tip of the flame and by heating things gently got the solder to flow without destroying anything.
Finally everything was soldered into place, and I put it into a plastic tub with salted vinegar to help remove torch oxides and flux residue. Because I’d done an initial clean on the leaves before soldering, most were pretty clean and didn’t take much final cleanup. I did have some cases where the buffing wheel slipped off the leaf and spun the wire of the twig around a few times, which was terrifying, but I don’t think anything got overly work hardened.
This is probably the most difficult piece I’ve ever made, and I think it’s selling it short to say that I think it took about 20 hrs start to finish. Much of that was new (to me) technology and processes. There are a few things I’d do differently if I had to make another one, and since I got several (!) commissions, I hope to document them here in the future.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll reward your patience with my rambling with pretty pictures.
So, after the tokens for GNEW 30, I was asked if I would be interested in making the tokens for the upcoming Birka. GNEW was 1100 tokens. Birka is 2000. Like a dope, I said “uhhh… sure?”. This is what happened.
The event, A Market Day at Birka, is nominally themed after the historical site of Birka in Sweden, an 8th-10th century trading center some 30km west of Stockholm, and I wanted to do something that played on that heritage. There are a number of extant coins from the site, and I thought that would make a good start. The the reverse would be just text saying ‘Birka’ and 28 in Roman numerals, because well, it was the 28th Birka. Nothing surprising there. The design was intended to be about the size of a US nickel.
When I originally thought about the job, I was hoping to ‘coin’ the tokens – a process where a disc of metal is stamped between two dies to impart the image. I got started with what I think is an automotive transmission shaft I’ve had in the shop since forever. I used an autobody grinder with an abrasive disc to cut off lengths for the upper and lower dies, annealed them, polished up the faces, and started to use punches to tool in my design. Which went poorly. In part because of my stupid bulky meat-puppet fingers not doing what I wanted (the craftsman’s bane) but also because the nature of the steel. I might have been able to get some more workability out of it by annealing again, but probably not enough. Not sure. After a few false starts and re-polishing the face to remove my damage, I had a brief bout of panic before deciding to cast them in soapstone, as the GNEW tokens were.
Setting tools to stone, I had the molds at least close in a few hours and spent a little more time refining things. In retrospect, I wish I had done some more. There were a few issues that plagued me, but I didn’t want to change the molds partway through the process.
Probably the biggest issue for me is that the coins were too thick. When cutting the design, I tried to line up the two faces of the stone so that the edge of the coin matched on the front and back, which took some fiddling and because of the fiddling the design got cut too deep. I sanded the soapstone down some to reduce that, but didn’t go far enough, and, despite my fiddling the edges didn’t line up as well as I’d hoped: the tokens either have a step on the edge or are filed to a truncated cone. Next time I do a coin motif, I think I’m going to have the parting line aligned with one face of the mold, so one face isn’t recessed at all, rather than trying to center it. I also probably should have made the sprue wider because there was a lot of porousness in the face of the coin because the metal was necked-down by the sprue and then widened out again. I’m also not really pleased with the irregularity in depth of some of my lines. I’d love to blame the stone – it did have some tiny inclusions to work around – but really I think it was lack of skill.
Once the stone was finalized, we started pouring metal. Despite all my issues with the mold, pouring was a dream. Hardly any were lost because of miscasting. Obviously 2000 is a lot, and casting was tedious, but was not problematic.
We soon fell into a rhythm where my wife Astrida was pouring a batch of 25, then going back and melting most of the sprue back in the metal pot. Meanwhile, I was clipping the sprue nubbin, then filing the edges, then punching a 1/16 hole. We worked in batches of 25 because they were finite enough that we could see the end, but still significant enough to be a meaningful unit of work. And a 5×5 grid is easy to ‘see’ and verify.
We did some back of the napkin tracking of time, and filing was the biggest individual component at about half an hour for a batch of 25. All told, it took about 3 minutes to produce one token, or 6 minutes for 2, or 60 minutes for 20, or 100 hrs for 2000. Give or take.
The obverse is a second-rate forgery of the original ship design. The reverse has ‘BIRKA’ in the short-twig variation of the Younger Futhark, which (I think) is the appropriate runic scheme for the time and place of the original Birka. (Oh, and on the ‘Y’ character second from the end, the short diagonal stroke should be curving. (Illiteracy is period – I can document it.(Getting a little meta…))) The XXVIII is 28 and is Roman numerals because Norse cultures didn’t have numerals which I find nearly inconceivable. When faced with numbers, they wrote them out. One. Two. Three. Etc. There are very rare instances of using the inital letter as an aberviation, so 28 would be TE.
After all is said and done, I am mostly pleased with the result, but there are a number of things I wish I had done differently. Which I suppose is a good thing, because I think I volunteered to do the tokens for Birka 30. I’m a little hazy on that…
A few months ago I made myself a gentleman’s eating/utility knife in the style of the 14th Century. My wife really likeed it, and wanted on like it for herself. This piece is intended to look like the product of the same shop, but not the exact same style.
The steel came from the largest bandsaw blade I’ve ever seen in my life. It was solidly 9″ from the tip of the teeth to the tip of the teeth (never seen one with teeth on both sides either…) The blade was rough shaped using an autobody grinder with an abrasive disk, then refined with a coarse belt grinder. Once shaped, I started in with coarse files to get the taper on the blade. Because it was a repurposed bandsaw blade, it had some pretty wonky hard and soft spots in the steel, so I normalized the steel to barely red and air cooled, which left it much more manageable.
The picture above is of it after all the shaping and the heat treating. We heat treated to 1500F in a kiln and plunged into quench oil, then sandblased off the scale (I was actually a little disappointed – the other knife had this luscious black finish that was almost velvety. It was 1084, and this being bandsaw had a lot more nickle in the alloy, and went a foggy and somehow ‘thin’ grey) Once quenched, I tempered it by putting it in my oven and bringing it up to 350F for an hour or so, then letting it cool overnight. The next day, I completely forgot about it and we baked a loaf of bread at 425F. So that happened.
Here are both knives for comparison. The lower is my inital one.
The bolsters are of micro-industrial waste. One of the perks of taking a class in a foundry is that there are great fat bits of leftover sprue from castings lying about. I don’t remember whether it’s brass or bronze. It’s certainly paler than the bolster on the other knife, but it’s also freshly polished and hasn’t oxidized yet. The scales of the grip are made of boxwood, and from the same piece as were used on the other knife – I’m assuming that the wood will age to the golden tone of the original one. The whole thing is finished with non-boiled linseed oil which may also go more golden as it ages. I have flax seed oil supplements on hand partly for food-grade finishes.
Because I cut the wood before shaping the bolsters (stupid), I wound up with a gap between the two and said some Anglo-Saxon words. Josh, the instructor, had some ‘micarta’ lying about and graciously gave me some. I really like the resulting look. I’m not 100% sure it’s an authentic 14th C. look, but comprimises must be made sometimes.
These are detail shots comparing the two pieces. I’m really pleased with the file work on the bolsters. I’d initially done something similar to the original knife, but it wound up being extremely clunky in comparison, and way too fat for the knife so they got ground down to the current dimensions and the notch that survived the grinding rounded over. When a design doesn’t go to plan, it’s a ‘design opportunity’ – a chance for an on-the-fly course correction, which sometimes is a win and sometimes isn’t. This time I won I think.
This last weekend at the East Kingdom Crown Tournament of Brion and Anna, (Won by Ioannes and Honig (Vivant!)) Camille DesJardains was elevated to the order of the Laurel with much acclaim and fanfare. My humble contribution to this effort was 75 of these pewter tokens, to be given out at her whim as tokens of her esteem.
This gives you a sense of scale – the token is a little larger than a US quarter. I have meaty man-hands, but not comically large. A normal large glove fits me pretty well. (There’s a close-up of the final token later, so be patient.)
This is the mold and a test pressing of Sculpey, which I use to check progress before I heat up any metal. The image is pretty early in the process, since I had to deepen the ‘ground’ to get it to cast at all reliably, which in turn meant I had to re-carve the leaves. This is more of a cartoon/schematic of what I want it to look like. The blue and white image in the background is Camille’s arms, which have three cinquefoils across the top. (I have no idea what the proper heraldese for that would be.)
Here’s another shot, a little later in the process, showing the first mostly good cast in pewter. Of note is the nick in the edge at the very top, because of an air bubble or some other casting gremlin. Also, the surface texture is quite rough. I use some cheapo clay working tools that my daughter has had lying around since forever, and I think they have suffered over their lifespan, so the edges have some notches in them. To get the final surface texture, I used Dremel sanding disks which left an equally rough surface but with a swirly pattern, so no joy there. I eventually used a feather touch with the steel tools and then some wooden clay tools. Not sure the wood did anything, but it made me feel better. I tend to bear down pretty hard when doing initial shaping of the soapstone, which can leave some deep tool marks.
And this is the final product. There is still some surface roughness, but overall I think it’s pretty nice. Also, if you look at the petal that’s pointing due left, there is some hazing of the metal because of sponginess in the metal. The sprue came off that edge, and I think as the metal was released from the confines of the sprue it expanded and foamed a little. Probably a slightly wider sprue would have prevented this, but I’ll do better next time. I hope.
Addendum: Here’s a shot of the mold and a token yanked from Camille’s FaceBook page… (Thanks Camille!)
These are buttons for a blazer that I did for a friend of mine. They’re 5/8″ brass, turned on a machinist’s lathe (that’s in desperate need of tuning by someone competent…) The recess for the mirrors was cut with a 3/8″ end mill chucked in the tail stock of the lathe, and the shank of the button cut with a custom made cutter that shaped the neck, belly and a parting line between the back of one button and the face of the next.
Because these were hand-made, I had some issues with getting things dialed in as cleanly as I’d hoped, so I’m not thrilled with how they came out but I am pleased. The button faces of some are thicker than others, although I think I mostly cleaned that up in the finishing process.
The mirrors are held in to the recesses with epoxy mixed with lamp black. Because the mirrors are 9mm and the holes are 3/8″, there is a thin ring around each mirror. In some cases, the end mill chattered a bit so the ring is a little bigger. To fit the mirrors more or less properly, I wrapped each in two or three rounds of electrical tape before epoxying them to the button. Once that had cured, I pulled the tape and laid another course of epoxy with lamp black mixed in to accentuate the spacing and make it an intentional design element. Yeah, that’s what it is. Yeah. Once that course of epoxy cured, I had to clean up the resulying loogey of black goo on the face of the button. Wet sanding with 600 grit took the epoxy and the mirror down to the level of the brass, then a hard felt buff and a lot of rouge brought the surface of the brass up to snuff and put enough polish on the mirrors that they were believably mirrors and not frosty chunks of glass.