To Form an Ideal Shield Boss
I’ve decided to try my hand at constructing a 14th-century-style buckler in a way that I hope will be more accurate for I.33 than the all-metal or dog bowl with flat CDX plywood varieties I’ve used in the past. Ideally, I’d like to create a pair of matching lightly concave wooden bucklers with the kind of shallow, nipple-shaped bosses I’ve seen in sources such as I.33 itself.
I’m basing the boss design on the style of boss common in I.33 and other contemporary sources, and the shape of the blank on some of the examples I’ve seen lately. I should add that much as I’d love to get my hands on a copy of The Book of the Buckler by Herbert Schmidt, the general unavailability of this book in the US (and my own limited funds), has put it currently out of reach.
Why Am I Doing This?
There are two major impetuses for this project. First, I’d like to perform a display of arms at an event on the horizon, in what amounts to an attempt at spreading my love for Western Martial Arts in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Second, I managed to score a 20-ton press, which allows me to easily form metal, despite the nerve damage in my dominant left arm. I owe a big thank you to my friend John DiFlauro for the hand-me-down.
In addition to buying metal, there were two things I had to get done before I could dive into this project: make my forms and clean my shop. I tend to get caught up in my projects, moving from one to the next, without really cleaning up, but my workshop was a total disaster even by my standards. So I decided to make a bigger mess before cleaning. Want to know how to make a bigger mess? Try dishing out a stump. My buddy Nate recently cleared a few trees off his property and happened to have stump lying around, so securing the material was easy. Forming it wasn’t.
I asked for help, and John told me he used an edge grinder with a ceramic tile disc… or, at least, that’s what I thought he told me. So I picked up a grinding disc intended for tile, plus one of the sanding disks with the overlapping lames of sandpaper. Neither was right for the job. The grinder wheel burnt the wood more than anything, and the sander was way too fine to make any real progress, but I refused to give up, despite making very little progress.
Eventually, my stubborn persistence earned me a spectacularly crappy dish and a terminally burnt-out edge grinder. I did a bit more digging and figured out I actually needed a special mount and some 36-grit sanding discs, which I ruefully attached to my shiny new edge grinder. Armed with the right tool for the job, I made short work of the forming process and created a fairly deep 7″ dish. Once I’d smoothed out the bowl, I added a high-tension metal strap and called it good. Then it was time to finally clean the shop, which I’d now caked in a thick layer of sawdust. The next day, my metal arrived.
This Is Totally Metal
I know several armorers, and I understand that it’s common practice to go to the local scrap yard to buy metal cheap, but for my freshman effort, I wanted to start off with completely unquestionable material. So, I purchased a 24″ x 48″ sheet of 16-gauge mild steel from McMaster-Carr for about $50 shipped, justifying the investment by telling myself I could easily turn this into piece work worth six times as much. Before I started the 2-dimensional work, I laid out all of my tools, following the same mise en place approach chefs apply to fine cooking. Maybe it’s just me, but not having to look far for the right tool keeps me in a positive place while I’m working, and that always makes projects like this go more smoothly.
Measuring and Measuring
I’m a firm believer in measuring twice (or more) and getting everything right before making unalterable decisions. I realize I could just start by scribing a circle, but I’d rather plot out the frame of the circle so that I don’t waste metal, which is what I did. I used an all-surface marker to plot the grid, rather than my usual Sharpie, and I was happy with the results.
Punching the Center
Unless you want to make a mess of your metal, I’d highly recommend using a center punch to create a divot where you plan to anchor your compass. I prefer the kind of spring-loaded punches that let you press down a few times to punch your divot, as they prevent the sliding and chasing you sometimes get when using a hammer. Unfortunately, I found this one on clearance at my local hardware store, so I bought a half a dozen in case they go off the market entirely.
Next I laid out the lines for the edges of the dish and the rim. I decided on an 8″ outer diameter, thinking that would give me enough of a rim for a 7″ boss, but in retrospect, I probably should have gone with a 9″ outer diameter. Oh well.
I always prefer to set my compass based on the grooves of a ruler to make the measurement as precise as possible. I guess you could measure out from the divot along one of the radius lines, but the added precision of my method can avoid some grief down the road, so it’s worth it. To get the best results, I sharpen my compass regularly and use very little pressure when scribing. This prevents unnecessary wear on the edge and produces a clean line. When I finished scribing the circles, I went over the grooves them with the all-surface marker.
Cutting it Out
Considering the curve of the boss, I decided not to grab my electric shears (which I generally use for the stainless perforated plate I use for masks) and turned to my trusty saber saw instead. A high-speed metal-cutting blade handled the 16-gauge steel with ease, though I did cut too close in one spot, which is when I realized how little margin I’d actually left for the rim (1″ of total width equals 1/2″ rim… duh). The end result was a more-or-less uniform disc with edges ragged enough to saw through flesh.
Smoothing Out the Edges
I didn’t want to go overboard about finishing the edges, knowing that I’d probably have to do it all over again, but the process ended up being far more time consuming than I’d anticipated. My goal was to remove just enough metal to smooth out the curve and take off the burrs, without cutting away my already scant rim, and that meant going slow.
During this process, I considered either scrapping this or making the boss smaller, but I decided to stick it out. I tackled the worst of it with the bench grinder and then took off the burrs with the belt sander. A quick pass on the wire brush, and I was ready to start forming.
Time for Pressing
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m no expert at dishing metal. The little I’d done before this project was ad hoc at best and far from methodical. When I got the press, I did what any modern would-be armorer would do and immersed myself in YouTube videos. Suffice it to say, I came away with the impression that there are several right ways to dish metal and resigned myself to trial and error.
Following the best advice I got, I decided to work my way in from the edges. Going slow was never a question, as my press is made from a 20-ton bottle jack mounted in a 12-ton frame that’s been welded together. This thing can easily produce enough pressure to tear itself apart. Visions of yet another DIY-inspired trip to the ER tempered my resolve to take it slow.
Working my way in proved to be much harder than the first dozen or so presses around the outside, because the curve of the bowl pulled the press in one direction, and the dishing form pulled it the other way. It took some fineness, but I got it eventually. I did have to go back several times to iron out wrinkles that formed around the rim, but they never got too out of hand. After about an hour, I had a bowl, albeit a lumpy one.
The kind of boss on the buckler I want to make appears to have either a spike or a blunt protrusion, depending on the illustration. Again, I don’t have deep inside knowledge of 14th-century bucklers, but I assume the blunt protrusion would concentrate the force of buckler strikes, or something like that. Anyway, since I plan to use this for sparring with other people, the spike was a no go, so I went with the nipple-esk design. To achieve the effect, I built a dishing cup from some heavy pipe and a couple of connectors, giving it a 2″ hole on one side and a 1.5″ hole on the other. It worked like a charm. The end result was a rough and lumpy, vaguely nipple-shaped boss.
Who Needs a Planishing Ball Anyway?
As I was watching videos on dishing metal, I noticed this cool spherical anvil the blacksmiths were using to planish (smooth out) their lumpy dishes. So I looked into picking one up and was aghast at the price. While I didn’t have the cash to buy one, I did have a rusty old trailer hitch that had corroded together, so I took it to the shop, cleaned it up, rounded out the top, and called it a win. I also didn’t have a planishing hammer handy, so I just smoothed out the surface of my ball peen hammer and used it. While I’m far from a dab hand at planishing, I’m fairly pleased with my results.
Forming the Rim
Now that the boss was nice and smooth, it was time to form the rim. Normally, you’d use the edge of a full-sized anvil to do this part, but the only one I own is a 20-pound jeweler’s anvil, and it just didn’t seem like a good fit. Instead, I polished a cast-iron base of an old desktop microphone stand to a smooth working surface and clamped it into my bench vise.
I redrew the scribed line for the rim (still visible on the inside, despite forming and planishing) and started gently hammering out the curve of the rim. It didn’t take long to get a passably level and uniform rim. I decided to save drilling the holes for when the rest of the shield was done.
A Few Finishing Touches
The act of forming the rim put some noticeable hammer marks in the boss, so I gave it another round of planishing with the ball peen hammer with mixed results. I realize that’s all some people use, but I think I’ll actually invest in a real planishing hammer for future projects. The final step was to grind down the few jags in the rim, sand it smooth, and wire brush the surface. The result: one halfway-decent, period-correct shield boss.
Well, obviously I’ll have to make the shield blank. What could possibly be difficult about laminating a domed buckler? First, I’ll need to make a press.