Monday, January 2, 2012


There are seven steps to the grieving process:  shock, pain, anger, depression, hope, reconstruction and acceptance.  Many of these steps also apply to getting hit on the shins.

There are seven steps to the greaving process:  design, cutout, tooling, shaping, dying, hardening, painting and strapping.  OK, that's eight steps, but it is pretty close to seven.

1. Design.  These 1350s guys were probably wearing hardened leather greaves.  My suspicion is that the greaves in England and France were tooled just as ornately as the Italian ones, but the effigy carvers painted that level of detail on rather than carving it into stone like the Italian effigy carvers, so the Italian examples survived and all of the others look plain.  But I could be completely wrong about that.

Plain greaves:
and fancy greaves:

My design for these greaves uses a modified version of my previous greave pattern and this artwork.  I created the artwork based on a comparison of features on effigies and the detail in one surviving English rerbrace.  It is comparatively simple and if I was working with a skilled illuminator to create my design I would want to do something more ornate.  (HINT:  Work with a skilled illuminator to create a great design for your leather tooling, customized for the shape of the piece you are making!)

This effigy is labeled "Tomb effigy of a recumbent knight of the Anhalt family, 1350-1375" from Naples, Italy. The original is in the Detroit Institute of Art.   See  The (rare and possibly unique) surviving tooled leather rerbrace came out of the Thames and is currently in the British Museum, Inventory Number: MLA 56,7-1,1665.


2. Cut out.  I lay out the pattern on my leather to leave the most useable space possible for the next project.  I'm using roughly 12 oz. vegetable-tanned leather.  Be frugal, leather is expensive!  Then I cut it out with my favorite "hook knife".  When working with a large piece of leather it is often easiest to cut individual pieces apart and then make your precise cuts along the edge lines.


3. Tooling.  The first tooling step for this project is to mark a border around the piece and to bevel the edges for later burnishing.  I use an adjustable groover for the border and a #5 edge beveler on the top and bottom of the edges.

Next I case the leather (wet it enough to take an impression but not enough to be soggy) and transfer my design using a stylus.  Medieval craftsmen may have free-handed this or used a stencil or pounced it.  I use a transparency page printed in my ink-jet printer.  I think the vines are a little skinny so I will fatten them up at this point by tracing just outside of the lines.


Now it is time to carve and stamp the design.  I use a hand-forged carving knife rather than a modern swivel knife because it is more authentic, fun to use and I made it myself, cold forging it from 1060 steel rod and grinding the edge. 

The textured, sunken background is done with a small stamp used repeatedly.

My final tooling step is to burnish the beveled edges. This compresses the leather at the edge for a smooth finished look, reduced wear and tear, and comfort. I burnish all edges of vegetable-tanned leather pieces I create. This time I got to use my new burnishing tool.

4. Shaping.  Leather can be dished much like steel, but non-ferrous hammers and dishing forms must be used to avoid staining the leather.  Some basic, peliminary shaping can be done simply by hand.  


I use nylon but wood and rawhide tools would work as well.  Shape the greaves to flare out over the foot, ankle bones and calf muscle.  At this point they become non-symetrical and you need to keep track of the right and the left with a small mark.  Note that the actual shape of a leg is quite complex, and not a simple cone.  Here you will find an essay from my friend Gaston which provides a detailed discussion of leg shape and the forming techniques needed to make a greave fit:  Burgundian hours - greave tutorial

5. Dying.  I'm using a commercial red leather dye (Fiebings "Oxblood") where a medieval leatherworker might have used something based on madder, cochineal or brasilwood.  Dampen the leather before dying to ensure even dye absorption.  Apply the dye in broad, overlapping strokes.  The hardening process will darken it a bit more so allow for that in your color choices.

6. Hardening.  Soak the leather in a glue solution until bubbles stop coming out, then bake at low temperature (180-200 degrees Fahrenheit), checking the shape every 15 minutes or so until it becomes rigid and mostly dry.  For more authentic pieces I can use rabbit hide glue but a solution of 1 part Titebond III to 10 parts water is less expensive, easier to store and water resistant when dry.  I use scrap pieces of birch plywood for a baking sheet to avoid contact with the metal parts of the oven that will conduct too much heat to a single point.

In this particular case the hardening went well but one of the greaves had a bit too much glue solution left on the surface, and it absorbed some of the dye before it dried, leaving a light pink region on the grave.  This was not the look I intended, so I touched it up with additional dye.  This dye over top of the glue will have further implications later.

7. Painting.  For any area where you intend to apply paint, begin with a layer of gesso to provide a white background and help the paint to stick.  Again you can use an authentic rabbit-hide-glue-based gesso or use a modern acrylic gesso as I have done here.  Then paint with egg or milk based paints for authenticity or with acrylic paints for ease of use and storage.

Because I had "available" dye on top of the leather, it tended to soak into the gesso as I applied it.  This made a second coat of gesso necessary.  I will try a coat of acrylic sealer on the greaves to solve this problem.  I suspect the medieval solution to this problem would be a coat of varnish or shellac.

That worked well enough, but there is still a little bleed-through.  Hopefully it will not be enough to affect the paint color.
 Painting the vines...
 ALL of the vines...
 and then the borders.
 Painting complete!

Finally I will use a coat or two of sprat acrylic sealer to protect the paint job.  Again, I expect a medieval craftsman would have used varnish or shellac for this.

8. Strapping. I like to use supple oiled leather for straps.  Alum-tanned leather would be common in the medieval period, but a modern Chromium tanned leather will look very much the same and is more readily available. Authentic buckles can be purchased or you can cast them yourself, but these buckles from Tandy are close enough to a medieval style for many purposes.  I attach them with solid copper rivets.

 And then to model them in their original context...

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