Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Making A 17th Century Wood-Core Leather Scabbard

Before stepping foot in the store to buy materials, the first step with any historical project is the research. In this particular case, I had to find not only the historical examples but also useful articles on how to make a wood-core scabbard as the only scabbard I have ever made was all-leather for a rapier. I would like to fully credit Ye Olde Gaffer for his article on making historical scabbards. It was the primary method that I followed when I made my own. I would also like to point out that I am not an armorer and I am not a big collector of edged weaponry, so I was going into the project with a limited knowledge-base. I learned most of what I know now from this project as well as from a couple friends--Fred Scholpp and Terry Bond--who provided help with details that I struggled to find on my own.

After researching 17th century scabbards, I readily arrived at the conclusion that the most common construction for a sword that has a thicker blade than a rapier was a wood core with a leather covering. That being said, they may also have been first wrapped in parchment or thin leather only to be further covered with a rich fabric such as velvet. Here are two great examples--photo credit to Fabrice Cognot, borrowed from MyArmoury--of two wood cores for rapiers with parchment covers. The V&A Museum also has a fantastic example with the leather still covering the wood core (which I heavily relied on for this project), and the MET has numerous examples online, though unfortunately most of the pictures in their collections are of the sword only. The best I could figure with regards to their construction is that they were made of two pieces of wood--poplar is what seemed to be commonly used and also available in modern markets--which were both chiseled out and glued together before being covered.


To make my own, I had to pick up the correct materials. I bought two poplar boards that are 1/8 inch thick and 4 inches wide. Since the hanger I'm making this for is 2" wide, I had to trim the boards a bit before carving them. I also needed vegetable-tanned leather (this is one of the more historically accurate methods of leather tanning and it also makes the leather stretch which is needed to make a smooth covering for the scabbard) which I bought from a reenactor-supplier. The final item was the chape which proved harder to find than anything else. I eventually decided on a simple design I saw both in a painting by Vrancx and Bruegel the Younger, The Aftermath of a Battle (images cropped from the original, above and right) and de Gheyn's The Exercise of Armes (cropped from the original, on the left).
The design is pretty basic--a cone with a small "ball" on the end. These two sources are just two examples of what was popping up in my research. When looking for chapes, the design was the same--little or no embellishments--and mostly made from silver or a similar metal. The leather's color varied the most from a pale tan to black. In this instance, I chose something in the middle, with a tobacco-brown dye.
As for other furniture on the scabbard, I opted to stay plain, so I didn't buy a locket (often also referred to as a "mouthpiece;" it is a plate of metal wrapped around the throat with a clip or frog to secure it to the hanger). If you look through Vrancx's paintings, the scabbards of the trained bands appear to not have a locket. That being said, it appears that the primary method for securing the scabbard to the hanger was a clip (sometimes also referred to as a "locket." I will use "clip" for this article though to avoid confusion). While I couldn't identify this in the paintings, most of the extant scabbards from the early 17th century do have a clip, such as the one in the V&A Museum--picture at right--and the countless in the Windsor Castle's collection. I ended up buying a "French and Indian War era bayonet locket" from a sutler for the clip.


To start, I laid out the sword on the two boards 1/4" from the side and traced it out. Using a set of chisels, I then went to work scraping out the tracing. Armed with the mantra "measure twice, cut once" I carefully made the cuts. It was tedious work but well worth it. Once I carved out one side, I matched it up with the blade to insure it fit. As soon as the other board was carved out, I clamped both pieces together, as though it had been glued, and tested it by sheathing my sword in it. With the success I was hoping for, I un-clamped the boards and finished them.

If you decide to try making a wood core yourself, keep in mind that sand from sandpaper will break off and become embedded in the wood. Such grains of sand will scratch up your blade and will be impossible to remove later, once you glue the halves together. I do not recommend using sandpaper at all for this step, especially as chisels work very well and you can scrape the wood with a chisel to achieve the same results as using a fine sandpaper.

Once the halves were glued together, I then used a combination of sandpaper (perfectly fine for the exterior of the wood core) and chisels to remove the excess wood on the edges and shape the core (chisels for the major wood-removal and sandpaper to finish it and curve the edges). When shaving down the tip, I had to also fit the chape on. Based on the V&A scabbard, the chape would be glued onto the wood and the leather covering would sit flush with the chape (see picture at left). This was the only clear example I found where 2-3oz leather was used. With the two rapier cores above, the parchment used may be glued under the chape or it may have ended at the chape. Regardless, the vellum used was paper-thin so under or flush with the chape, it wouldn't have mattered. So once the wood was chiseled down and finished with sandpaper, I glued the chape onto the tip.

The next step was a personal-choice to ensure the longevity of the scabbard. I used a spray-can of varnish to seal the wood so that the wet leather wouldn't start the process of rotting the core. I understand that this was probably not practiced in the 17th century, but I also don't want to have to make another scabbard for the same sword for a while.

After the varnish dried, I wrapped the dry leather around the core and cut out the piece I wanted. I did my best to have the edges match up, giving myself a little extra as a precaution, especially at either end. I then set aside the leather for the next step.

The next thing I needed to do was alter and attach the clip. For the first alteration, I used a Dremel tool cutting disc to cut off the small "stub" on the clip that points upwards, and a grinding wheel to smooth and round where the stub was. The idea was to make it rounded from the arm of the clip to the base to match the shape of the V&A example a bit more closely. For the second adjustment, I cut off the two little prongs that would normally be used for attaching it to a bayonet scabbard. Once the clip was shaped and polished, I chose the spot to attach it on the wood core by testing it out in my hanger. While not verified as historically accurate, I decided to glue the clip in place first as I wanted the guarantee that it would not move in the future. After the glue dried, I wrapped hemp twine around the base of the clip and the wood core which is my best guess for how they may have been attached historically (see picture at right).

The next step was adding the leather to the core. I wrapped the dry leather around the core and made a small cut where the clip would stick out of. I also double-checked the fit of the leather and that the edges overlapped a tiny bit. Once satisfied, I soaked it for about half an hour and re-applied it to the core. I followed the V&A scabbard's example (at left) and ran a glover's needle with artificial sinew (my linen thread was too thin for leather-work) knotted at the end, from one edge of the leather to the other, about 1/4" from the edge, starting at the mouth (I started here because if I started at the chape, the leather might stretch so much over the course of sewing that the cut I made earlier in the leather for the clip on the other end would not match up with the clip). I did not pre-punch the holes since the leather is very thin and I trimmed it as I sewed.

The key here for the rest of the stitches was sewing the leather in a spiral manner, not unlike lacing a jerkin or stays. I started a stitch by inserting the needle down and into the right edge of the leather, across to the left edge, then up through the underside of left edge. I would then give the thread a good tug to tighten it and cause the left edge to slip under the right before poking a hole past the first and continuing. This manner of sewing creates a spiral-effect with the thread, creating the appearance of holes are all at a diagonal to each other. This is the best way to keep the edges flush and perhaps also to prevent the holes from ripping through to the edge (latter point is speculative). I then sewed the seam all the way to the chape and knotted it off. The final step, after the leather dried (since it would shrink a little when dried), was trimming excess leather at the mouth and the chape.

Trimming the chape was fairly easily accomplished with a pair of tiny sharp scissors. For the mouth, I opted to glue the excess leather down on the exposed wood at the opening. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a single image of the mouth of extant examples to entirely verify this except for the one at left (close-up of a scabbard and Venetian Sciavona basket hilt sword sold at auction by Andrew Bottomley). While it doesn't show the opening, the tightness of the leather and its smoothness at the mouth suggest to me that the leather wraps around the mouth. If the leather ended right at the mouth, I would imagine that the leather would appear a bit tattered after three to four hundred years. I realize that this is just conjecture, but I figure that if I discover later that the leather should end at the mouth and not cover it, it's easier to subtract leather than add. Once I trimmed the leather enough to just cover the wood at the mouth, I carefully applied glue to the wood and pushed the leather down on it. Since the leather had been tightly stretched while sewing, I found that I didn't need to fold it at all to make it cover the opening--it fit perfectly.

The completed scabbard next to the Armour Class hanger.

If you would like to make one these yourself and you find that you need some advice, please do not hesitate to send me an email. I would love to help you out and see the projects you've made. Similarly, if you've made one in the past and you have a picture of it online, please paste the link in a comment below for other readers to see. Thanks for reading!

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  1. Good post, well done. Shared.
    Regards, Keith.

  2. The poplar that you used for the scabbard... was it really 1/8" x 4"? That seems rather thin.

    1. Hi Mark! Yes, I used 1/8" X 4" poplar boards. You'll want a thin scabbard as more wood will make it heavy and bulky. The blade of the sword is also very thin, too. So I basically cut halfway into both boards, making the scabbard really 1/16" thick. As long as I don't use the scabbard to fight with, it will hold up to normal use.