A Renaissance Arming Sword

In the shifting political landscape of late 15th century Italy, war was a good profession to be in. Since the middle ages, the Italian city-states of Venice, Florence and Genoa had relied on contracting foreign mercenaries to defend their wealth from jealous neighbors. These mercenary companies increased in size and effectiveness, and before long, gained a reputation for driving hard bargains on their hapless employers. The condottieri who lead these professional military companies became fabulously wealthy, many of whom entered politics ostensibly to give their former employers an even harder time.

TrivulzioGian Giacomo Trivulzio was an exemplar captain of fortune; he fought for the Florentines, the French, the Neapolitans, the French again, and ended his illustrious career as the Governor of Milan. Towards the end of his life he commissioned one Leonardo Da Vinci to make a statue of him which was never completed, and his brief Wikipedia page mentions that his “behavior as governor caused him to fall in disgrace”. That’s an invitation for juicy gossip if I ever saw one, but the details unfortunately still elude me.

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Carl Koppeschaar – Kunsthistorisches Museum

While his misbehaviors seem to have been forgotten, he did leave behind a stunning example of a renaissance arming sword. I have never seen the sword in person, but the sheer craftsmanship of the piece is unmistakable. A scene involving a band of satyrs from classical mythology plays out in a fine layer of gold applied at the base of the blade. The hilt furniture has similarly been gilded; panels of golden foliage run down the grip and blossom into a garden of flowers adorning the face of the pommel. The blade is broad, designed for great cleaving strokes, with two expansive fullers running down the length towards a lethal point. Unlike some of the less modest swords residing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, its simple profile betrays deadly intent; this was a soldier’s weapon and it was made to kill.

To recreate this sword, I started by re-purposing an old type XVI model made by the swordsmith Angus Trim. Early on in his profession, Gus spent significant time at various museums taking measurements of antique swords. He collected a wealth of data which he drew from over the years of his prolific career, and developed an acute understanding of how a sword should “feel” in the hand. The XVI is rather petite in comparison to the broad profile of the Trivulzio sword, and while it would have lacked the ferocious cutting power of the latter, it compensates for it with its nimble nature. The blade has a liveliness to it (as Gus is fond of saying) and moves with eager confidence, responding instantly to its wielder’s intent. There is also an intuitive sense of location when controlling the point in a thrust; your hand is almost guided by the sword as it follows behind its deadly tip. It might not cleave through the heavy padding of a battlefield combatant, but it would have been more than sufficient for civilian self-defense or settling matters of honour.

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Angus Trim Type XVI pictured centered. The fullers, which are notoriously hard to polish are tastefully darkened

Gus is widely known for crafting perfectly balanced swords, but not particularly for giving them an immaculate finish. Polishing a sword is a time-consuming labor of patience, and its importance varies among different sword makers. Many of Gus’ swords, (mainly his earlier models) are affectionately described as “munition grade” and would have made proud sidearms for seasoned grunts. “Munition grade” however, wouldn’t cut it for the princely stature of the sword I had in mind. I started with 120 grit sandpaper and progressively moved up to 600 grit, before deciding I needed to start over from scratch. It took me another attempt and roughly twenty hours before I found the right technique for an acceptably smooth uniform polish. As with most efforts done by hand, the result wasn’t perfect (and likely wouldn’t impress a governor of Milan), but it was as close as I could personally manage.

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Some excellent work by Artcast. The Lion pommel and the large guard are an original design for a different project.

For the hilt furniture, cast bronze was the only option (gilded steel was out of the question :|). While bronze was a common material for sword pommels, it was rarely used for the crossguard of a sword. The job of the crossguard is to protect the sword hand, and bronze (being much softer than iron and steel) would have held up poorly in combat. However since I’m happily not in the habit of getting into sword fights, this wasn’t a big issue for me. I’d worked with Artcast Inc in Canada before where they did a wonderful job on a previous hilt set, and I was eager to work with them again. They’re one of a handful of foundries that take a customer’s 3d model, print it in resin and directly cast the printed original. Normally as a first step, the foundry would make a silicone mould of the original part to produce wax copies. Afterwards, the actual casting process begins with the wax parts being dipped in a ceramic slurry, baked in an oven to burn out the wax and create a cavity, and finally pouring bronze into the cavity to create a perfect bronze copy of the original. The expensive first step can be skipped when you can directly cast the original part, which is excellent for projects where you don’t need multiple copies (and don’t mind destroying the 3d printed original). There are some drawbacks, I’ve heard of castable resin failing if the burn-out temperature and schedule aren’t just right, but Artcast seems to have it figured out. The grip panels were cast by Shapeways (also from 3d models I designed); they happen to be more cost-effective with smaller parts. I find that the slight difference in tone between the two sets of bronze provides a pleasing contrast in the hilt.

I had originally planned to carve the grip from camel bone, but found myself woefully ill equipped for such an undertaking (both in tools and skill). It occurred to me that a better alternative would be a composite grip consisting of a 3d printed core with mother of pearl panels glued betwen the bronze panels. Luckily the option to design the core in 3d afforded me the precision I wasn’t able to achieve by hand.

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Sword project in progress. Taken before I realized camel bone was a bad idea.
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Nylon core pictured on the left, with a first (failed) attempt at applying mother of pearl panels on the right.
Unfortunately, mother of pearl is a fickle material to work with due to its fragility. I quickly learnt to operate the paper guillotine in my office to rough out the panels in away that avoided chipping, but when it came to sanding the panels for the final fit, the slightest unsteadiness was punished with a splintered fragment flying off. I had hoped for a flawless finish but on my second attempt I realized that that was expecting too much from the material. I’ve come to appreciate the subtle chips and cracks at the corners of the panels, they fit well with the aged look of the guard and pommel and contribute an aura of antiquity.

 

Once everything else was ready, it was time to glue together all the bronze parts and assemble the hilt! I unwisely started doing this without wearing gloves (despite the label on the epoxy tube insisting I should) but thankfully things weren’t too messy. Epoxy is a very very strong glue, but it also takes a long time to set allowing me to avoid the hilarity of gluing my hand to a sword. Once the hilt is in place and the glue is set, the final step is to hammer the end of the tang over the pommel to permanently pin the hilt into place. This can take several minutes of gentle tapping, but taking it slow was definitely preferable to accidentally hitting the pommel and bruising it.

And there you have it! This has one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever undertaken and while I’m immensely proud of the result, the journey has been a humbling one. I set out to create a masterpiece, but in the process found myself a long way before being a master of the craft. There are still many miles ahead and I look forward to sharing my progress along the way. Thanks for reading!

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Suontaka Project

Suontaka swords are for sale! See final paragraph for details. 

When we think of vikings, we often imagine a brutish northman with a propensity for violence and a fondness for horned helmets. Their gods are similarly blood-thirsty and capricSuontaka_Originalious, acting with a set of curious principles in their bizarre and wonderful mythos. For over 200 years, Vikings were the scourge of Europe, raiding and pillaging where they went. Yet despite their reputation as harbingers of destruction, the scandanavian people were also master craftsmen. Their uniquely alien culture still lives in the crowded intricacies of their surviving work. One of my favorite examples is the sword found in a female viking grave in Suontaka, Finland. Every inch of the piece is brimming with glorious detail, threatening to overflow the margins of its given frame. The modern reproduction by the esteemed swordsmith Rob Miller, is one of the most spell-binding swords I’ve ever seen (link here).

My own journey to create this historical reproduction began back in April 2014. I was inspired by the work of Nils Andersson’s Suontaka project who was nice enough to describe the steps he took in great detail. I had a rough idea of how I could start, but at the time I didn’t have any experience in 3D modelling or vector graphics. The vector graphic pattern of the knotwork proved straightforward enough, but I had no clue on how to give my 2D representation a 3D form.

I ended up asking a friend to help me out with the initial 3D model, and he was kind enough to do it for a small fee.The 3D knotwork details on the guard and the pommel was too much trouble for him so the pattern on the model was completely flat.

Because of this, once the plastic parts were printed, I had to hand carve the knotwork details myself. This took several hours and gave me a deep admiration for the craftsmen that choose to carve the original completely from scratch.

Up until then, I had planned to commission a local foundry to create wax copies from moulds to fit a particular sword blade (the albion type X bare blade). It occurred to me that there was opportunity here to offer my designs to a wider audience. I started talking to a number of notable sword manufacturers, but we weren’t able to come to a satisfactory arrangement. Since I didn’t have an affordable supplier who could deliver bronze copies of my parts, I would need to license out my design, and no one was particularly happy (or in a financial position) to fork out cash for a licensing fee.

I ended up shelving the project for a while, until I met a sword distributor by the name of Rob who happened to also live in Canberra. He got me in touch with a foundryman in Pennsylvania who was very excited about what I was doing and offered to help make moulds and bronze casting at just over half the price of what the local foundry was charging. Rob also helped me open up a line of communication with Sonny, the owner and operator of Valiant Armoury, and it so happened he had a new production blade that would be perfect for the project. By this time, my 3D modelling skills had vastly improved. I decided to redo the 3D model I had for the Suontaka project to include the rippling overlaps in the knotwork, and also to create slots that would perfectly fit the new sword blade. The new parts were printed and given a finish by John (our foundryman in PA), and sent over to Sonny for a test fit (and as it turned out, also a photoshoot).

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They were then sent back to John who made moulds and waxes, and cast the copies in bronze.

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The work doesn’t end there though. Due to the high detail density on the piece, little air bubbles are trapped during casting, and they end up as little lumps embedded in the bronze. It takes a steady hand and several hours to work them out of the metal.

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John does an exceptional job of it, of course.

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Suontaka Cast

It’s taken a while for Sonny to bring all the parts together (he’s added his own bells and whistles to the project in the mean time) but things are finally beginning to take shape! We’ve decided to use the Hanwei Tinker Viking bare blade as a base for this production run, but if we make more the in future we’ll probably use the blade of Valiant Armoury’s Norseman sword.

We’re very excited to begin taking orders for the available 4 swords that are currently reaching the end of production. Each sword will come with a scabbard and belt suspension in colours of your choosing for $1050 + 30 shipping CONUS (international buyers please get in contact for a quote). The sword will be shipped within 3 weeks of payment. Please contact aus@stromlo-swords.com to place an order.

Since the production of the fittings are costly and time consuming, it’s unclear if we will be doing more of these in the future. We’re hopeful that a market for our Suontaka sword exists and that John can dedicate the time and effort to make more, but for now we can’t promise anything.

A katzbalger guard and some unfortunate news

Here is a bronze cast katzbalger guard from one of my most recent custom commissions:

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It also happens to be one of my final bronze commissions for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately I have decided to decline all future commissions as a result of no longer being able to cast pieces at my foundry of choice. The commissions I have that are still active will be fulfilled through my friend John at Laran Bronze foundry.