Framing the Blank
There’s something exciting and deeply intimidating about having pristine raw materials before you. There’s so much potential there, yet so many opportunities to totally botch the job too.
If you’ve been following along with my other posts, I probably don’t need to highlight my particular obsession with measuring repeatedly before altering materials. I should note that even I’m prone to cutting corners as an expedient, and this project gave me ample opportunities to regret it.
For instance, one time, instead of measuring everything, I just used a previous circle as a template, but because it wasn’t perfectly round, I had a hard time finding the center and tracing out the rest of my lines. I managed, but ultimately I came up with a template to ensure a certain uniformity, and it worked out wonderfully
Drawing the Circle
Over the years I’ve used a wide range of bucklers of all shapes and sizes, and I’ve concluded that I prefer ones in the 14″–15″ range. Because I’m planning on making a lot more of these in the future (with the ultimate goal of selling them), I decided to create tools to make routine tasks such as drawing circumferences easier. In this case, a piece of galvanized electric fence wire tethered by a nail served as an ideal compass, and I made several more of these for other steps of this fabrication process.
Slotting the Plies
I’m familiar with bending and laminating plies to create curved shields, but creating a dome is a much different task altogether. I wasn’t at all sure how to do this from the outset, and I received countless pieces of advice along the way, which ranged from sensible to downright absurd.
One thing I knew is that whole circles weren’t going to cut it, and that makes sense, when you think about it. As my friend Bruce Sauber put it, if you were to take a piece of fabric and drape it over your leg, you could do it without getting wrinkles, but drape the same fabric over your knee, and there’s no way to avoid them. So, if I wanted to dome my shield blank, I was going to have to dart my material, and the easiest way to do that would be to cut several slots like spokes around the central opening.
By the time I’d started writing this article, I’d already created three shield blanks using these methods, so I had plenty of time to experiment with contouring. The first (less successful) blank had four slots per ply, and at first it had a somewhat squared look I wasn’t terribly excited about. I decided to go with eight slots per ply the second time around, and that made the blank far more flexible in the press.
While my second attempt yielded better results than the first (for many reasons), I did, however, notice some stressing around the center. Luckily, the stress and resulting cracks were all in a part of the blank that would be cut out for the boss anyway, but they made me consider methods of relieving some of the stress from the areas around the slots. A friend of mine suggested drilling holes at the end of each slot, which I did for the third blank, and between that and dry pressing (something I’ll get into later), I got the more-pronounced spherical curve I’d been hoping for.
As I’ve already written an entire article devoted to the need for and construction of my shield press, I won’t go into details here. Suffice it to say that through a little trial and error, I came up with a rather simple way to press my prepared plies into a unified shield blank.
I decided to try Gorilla Glue instead of the waterproof wood glue I’d used in my first attempt, because Gorilla Glue expands shortly after activating with moisture. By the way, this proved to be a bad idea, and I won’t try it again, but it did make me take a precaution I’m glad I took.
Shortly before putting my plan into action, it occurred to me that there was a reasonable chance some of the expanding glue would seep out of the cracks and fuse my blank to the press, so I took an old shirt and punched a hole in it to protect the wooden frame. While I was at it, I put one under the weight to prevent the bare metal from indenting the wood and causing it to crack.
Gluing the Plies
There were two problems I found with Gorilla Glue. First, it was hard to spread, and second, it didn’t expand well enough at the ends to prevent splitting. Ultimately, it worked well enough, but all things considered, I won’t use it again for this task. Instead, I’ve found waterproof glue such as Franklin Titebond 3 to work splendidly, provided you don’t scrimp on the application. To ensure a smooth and even coat, I used a foam paintbrush and spread glue liberally on both plies.
Compression and Clamping
With my press firmly clamped into my bench vise, it was finally time to assemble the blank. I set both plies into the press glue side together, and aligned them so that their slots staggered as perfectly as possible. After finger tightening the nut into place, I slowly started to apply tension via an adjustable wrench and tensed myself for a sickening crack that meant I’d gone too far and destroyed one or both of the plies.
After three or four turns, there was a slight sound of protest and a splitting sound, but when I relieved the tension to check on the damage, there was only a small crack near the center of the bottom ply, so I reapplied the tension. When I made the third blank, I decided to pre-press the wood dry, clamping it down by degrees over the course of an hour and letting the wood settle into the new tension before tightening it more. This, along with the stress relief holes, prevented the same thing from happening again when I applied glue, and I ended up with an even tighter fit.
The Raw Result
After tensioning the press, I realized that I hadn’t taken into account the different amount of tension each ply would be under, which manifested in the edges separating by as much as a millimeter. I quickly applied all of the clamps I had on hand, but only came up with four speed clamps and a couple of broad C clamps. Really, I needed eight clamps with adjustable tension, so I ran out to the hardware store a few blocks from my house and picked up a complete set and rushed home to apply them.
When I removed blank number two from the press the following day, I was met with mixed results. On the one hand, the curve was more pronounced than the previous attempt, but it appeared my heroic clamp effort had been in vain, as the plies had split in several places. Overall though, I was pretty enthusiastic about the results.
Cutting out the Center
My next moment of trepidation came when I cut out the center of the blank. I pretty much assumed that if there was splitting at the edges, then the center would be completely shot. Fortunately, I was wrong, and the center was more or less okay. Just as with the outer edges, I used a soft plastic scraper to shove some glue in the cracks and clamped it together, and the results held up splendidly. After a night of drying, my blank was good to go.
I should note here that the third blank didn’t split at all. It seems using the right glue and getting a full set of eight clamps into place to hold the edges together really did the trick. All three of the blanks I’ve made held up well when I smoothed out the few bumps and inconsistencies and rounded off the edges with my 2″ belt sander.
Creating Sewing Holes
It had been my intention from the beginning to sew rawhide edging around the circumference of the shield to protect it and to provide some measure of friction in the bind when using dull simulators. I also decided to reinforce the glue once I’d covered the blank with linen. To do this, I’d need to drill holes around both the outer edge and the center cutout. For aesthetic reasons and to ensure that the holes I’d punch in the rawhide would line up, I needed a way to be precise in my stitch spacing, so I created a spacing tool out of some scrap aluminum I had lying around.
Between years of theatre tech work and my recent reminder when I tried screwing directly into luan, I was more than a little aware of how easily this material splits and cracks when mishandled. I decided not to take chances with these good-looking blanks and used by trusty spring-mounted center punch to create pilot holes, rather than just mark the holes with a Sharpie.
I went with a 1/8″ drill bit, as I figured it would be small enough not to jeopardize the integrity of the blank yet large enough to make sewing with thick waxed thread easy. The task proved to be remarkably laborious, and there was some flaking on the back end, but not enough to concern me.
Gluing the Covers
When I worked in theatre, we used to construct flats by either stretching muslin over a frame (a soft flat) or gluing it over a framed luan board (a hard flat). At the time I first learned about the “Dutchman” technique, I recall the technical director telling me that this technique went back to the Middle Ages or even earlier. As it turns out, the ancient Greeks made whole suits of armor called linothorax out of many layers of glued linen. But I digress.
While the Greeks and those who came after them used hide glue (not that they were spoiled for choice), I went with the old theatre-tech standard and used a 3:1 mixture of Elmer’s Glue All and water to make my solution.
Before you judge me for my choice in glue, let me just say that Elmer’s Glue All (a.k.a, standard white glue) is one of the most underrated adhesives out there. This stuff penetrates porous materials like fabric and luan fabulously (especially when watered down), dries overnight, and after it dries clear (about 24–48 hours) it’s no longer water soluble and will hold up to the element nicely.
To begin the application, I used a foam paint brush and rubbed my watered-down glue into the luan. As I saw the glue soaking into the wood, I remembered an important step in the Dutchman technique, where you wait about five minutes and apply a second liberal coat of glue after allowing the first pass to soak in and become slightly tacky.
Once the second coat had had a minute to settle, I stretched my pre-cut square of un-dyed/un-softened linen over the glue and pressed out any wrinkles. The tension of the glue itself easily held the 15″ square of fabric in place. Again, I gave it a few minutes to soak into the linen before moving on to the top coat. It’s important to totally saturate the fabric, so I went pretty heavy on the glue, working it into the fibers. Once I was satisfied, I closed up shop, turned out the lights, and absolutely didn’t check obsessively to make sure everything was all right every few hours until the next day… honest.
Cutting the Extra
When the glue had dried and it was ready to trim the overlap, I had all kinds of visions of how things might go horribly wrong. I envisioned myself tearing the fabric away from the wood or accidentally slicing into the wood. But when I applied my classic Stanley 99E utility knife to the task, the linen parted easily and left me with smooth edges.
Punching the Holes
There was one final task before glueing on the other side, which was clearing out the holes. As it turned out, 1/8″ was a great hole size to go with because it perfectly matched one of my sewing awls. The tight fit let me push out the excess glue as I pieced the linen covering. I started slow, for fear of pushing the linen and separating it from the blank, but I soon realized that the Elmer’s Glue All had worked like a charm, and without serious persuasion, that linen wasn’t going anywhere.
Naturally I had to repeat the process after adhering linen to the other surface. By that point, the build up of glue had gotten pretty thick, so I spent a bit more time reaming out the holes with a sharpened awl, but the process was worth it later when I did the final assembly. For now, I’d achieved a perfectly serviceable buckler blank. If I’d been inclined to paint this buckler, this is probably when I’d have done it, but I decided to leave this one simple for now (I may paint it later).
The Completed Blank
There you have it: the finished shield blanks ready for assembly and some finishing touches. I’ll get into all of that in the final installment of this series.