Steel for a suit of armor

By Russ Olexa

Material's rarity in medieval times required reuse

July 2010 - As mentioned in the previous article in this two-part series, to make a suit of armor, plateners had to make sheet steel of the right thickness and size for armorers.

But how did the plateners determine this and strive to improve the quality of steel?

Robert Valentine, owner of Valentine Armouries, Las Vegas, says steel for armored suits improved considerably in the 1400s and early in the 15th century, technical advances in smelting steel occurred.

The basic idea was to generate enough heat to make the iron molten and get rid of the slag and other unwanted materials, which would make steel that could be hardened.

However, people at the time didn't know the introduction of carbon was improving the material's quality.

It was a hit-and-miss process, with people generally repeating what worked best. They also continued to refine and improve their techniques. High demand drove this phenomenon and became so great that technology eventually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.

"I also have to explain to people how rare steel was back in medieval times," says Valentine. "Steel was reused over and over again because it was so valuable. Armorers would take old, damaged helmets or pieces of armor and forge them together into a new piece. Back then, it wasn't just a matter of being able to buy new armor off the shelf. In fact, one of the reasons you don't see a lot of early 13th-, 14th- or 15th-century armor is because when you look at 16th-century armor in a museum, it was probably made from armor reused from the earlier periods."

Making a suit of armor
Once the armorer had the steel, how did he fabricate a suit of armor?

As far as modern armor is concerned, there has been an ongoing debate because there isn't a lot of documentation, says Valentine.

"Crafting armor was somewhat of a combination of military and trade secrets," he says. "They didn't write a lot of their methods down, and it was generally a family business taught from father to son. They didn't want their competitors learning some of their techniques, because they were often competing for the same military contracts and noblemen to patronize them.

"The only way for a modern armorer to figure out how they did it is to reverse-engineer the armor pieces, which is difficult unless you can see and study authentic pieces."

There are two schools of thought on this, according to Valentine. When looking at a piece of armor, one has to figure out whether armorers hammered it from the outside or inside--did they have a form that they worked the steel over, or was it hammered into something like a die?

"I do both," says Valentine. "I work from the inside and the outside. But I mostly stretch the metal from the inside. We make all our own jigs and tools to do this."

For custom work, armorers would measure a knight's body. Often, they would make wooden mannequins and body parts of the lord or nobleman to use for making armor rather than doing a personal fitting.

"Today, you can order annealed malleable steel, which is a lot easier to work with, whereas back then, they would have to heat the steel up time and again after they work hardened it," says Valentine.

Tools of the trade
Although metal craftspeople today might use an English wheel and a powered hammer to get the shapes they need for custom metal parts, Valentine says most modern armorers don't use these tools because they are meant for larger pieces, such as a fender or hood for automobiles.

"The largest area of steel that I would have to work with would be something like a breastplate, and even this doesn't warrant large equipment," he says. "So powered hammers and English wheels really aren't practical for making armor.

"I use customized hammers that have a certain curvature on their face for planishing. I still do it all by hand, no power. I'm one of the few remaining armor-makers who do very custom work. To me, it's not really important to do things fast. It's more about the quality."

Hammering leaves marks on the metal's surface. If you look at suits of armor in museums, their finishes are almost perfect. That doesn't mean the entire suit is perfect, though, according to Valentine.

"If you have a chance to hold or study an authentic piece of armor and looked on the inside of it, you would see the hammer marks," he says.

But to get the smooth finishes, both old and new armorers need to grind and polish.

Valentine found old manuscripts that displayed drawings of giant grinding wheels powered by water wheels, showing how medieval armors produced these smooth finishes.

If they were not close to fast-moving water, they would use a horse to power a giant treadmill, says Valentine.

"Of course, I use electricity for my grinders and polishers," he says. "Back then, they didn't have the time constraints like we have today. They didn't really have the saying, 'Time is money.' They would have several weeks to make a pair of gauntlets, which I must finish within three days. And they were getting paid really well to produce armor comparatively to today."

Today, a suit of armor can cost $3,000 to $20,000 and takes from one month to six months of work, depending on the model.

"Some people compare modern armor to what they see in museums, but often there really is no comparison because the ancient armor artisans had a great deal of time to perfect the suit of armor, often years," says Valentine. "Today, we can't spend that much time on a suit of armor and make any money from it. In fact, many armorers are getting out of the business because the money just isn't there anymore." FFJ



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