Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Low cost armor

I just updated my old article on low-cost armor, so I am pasting it here:

Low Cost Armor With Style
By Sir Valgard Stonecleaver, Jarl
mka Michael A. Cramer

My first suit of armor cost me exactly $20. I was a freshman in high school. It was 1979. I paid $10 for a cheaply made 20ga laurica segmentata and $10 for the matching legs with 16ga knee cops, both of which had been made by Rolf the Relentless. Alfrik, who was later to become my knight, helped me build a set of vambraces out of 16 ga scrap metal. They had back plates because elbow cops at the time were a new and highly advanced technology. Few people had them. My best friend’s dad lived two doors from Alfrik and was a pack rat (Njal, my friend, made his first suit of armor entirely out of stuff he scrounged from his dad’s garage). He had a couple of old freon cans and some round bar stock lying around, and he whipped out a freon can helmet and gave it to me as a present. I will never be able to repay him for that.

Alfrik was great at getting people onto the field for almost no money. We’d pound steel in his living room till his neighbors called the cops about the noise. We made freon can helmets with punch mesh visors (no welding). We made riveted great helms. We made carpet armor. We made scale armor out of aluminum punch outs which were scrap from some form of manufacturing, don’t ask me what. We made coats of plates and sow-bug legs (curved plates riveted to two strips of leather) out of aluminum street signs we bought at a salvage yards for pennies on the pound, and big boxy gauntlets out of steel plates riveted to strips of leather (basket hilts being an even newer technology). Much of it was ugly, but we did our best to hide it beneath surcoats, t-tunics and harem pants (we were mostly trying to be Vikings, after all). Often we succeeded and we looked pretty good. Our greatest moment came when the four or five SCA guys at my high school all learned how to knit mail out of 14½ ga bailing wire. You could get four shirts out of a 100 lb roll. Pretty soon we were all running around sporting mail shirts (made us a hit at punk clubs). We were sharp looking Vikings then.

Nowadays, with armor technology what it has become, we see folks on the field who look like they stepped right out of a book of hours. But you still see a lot of ugly armor on the SCA battle field. The usual excuse is always the same: nice armor is so expensive! Maybe, but that is no excuse to wear a pickle barrel onto the field. Not too long ago the question came up on the chivalry list whether or not you could put together a period looking, knightly kit for under $300. A few knights came up with suggestions but I wanted to delve deeper into the subject, so I did some shopping. I just started poking around the web. Most of the stuff I located through links to the SCA merchants page, which can be accessed under “miscellany” at the SCA corporate web site (please note: nothing in this article constitutes an endorsement of any armorer or product). Since then, prices have gone up and some of the really good suppliers have gone out of business, so I’ve had to update it a bit, but I’ve still managed to keep it to around $320.

Mind you, complete suits of Maxamillian plate were not what I was looking for. That would costs thousands of dollars. Some sewing, leather work and such would be required, but I wanted the metal parts to be items one could purchase. I wanted a kit for a fighter who had no appreciable metal working skills and who lived in a dorm room with no access to a shop. He or she would have to be able to borrow a sewing machine from somewhere, and probably get some help if they’d never sewed a straight seam before. For those who want to get more involved in construction, there’s a whole bunch of patterns on the armour archive (www.armourarchive.org). Browse to your hearts content. You can also try your hand at courboli, which is both period and inexpensive, but it’s a lot of work. Good sources for leather on the web are Tandy at http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/ or Brettun’s Village at http://www.brettunsvillage.com. Then check out Duke Cariadoc’s article “The Perfect Armor” located at: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/miscellany_pdf/Other_Articles_VI_Pfct_Armr.pdf.

The biggest problem is that GAA Armories, which was the best source for visby, lamellar, and coat of plates kits, closed down. They also had a great price on courboli spaulders and bauzbands (Master Torvaldr, at www.skaldic.com, has great prices too, but he doesn’t publish them on the web and you have to contact him via email to request prices).

But all of this is a lot more work then some people want to go through. I want to be able to buy (mostly) off the rack. What I found proves there is no reason to look like you walked out of a junk yard any more.

The two armorers I use most often are both armoring laurels who make affordable mutions grade armor at good prices: Master Alail Horsefriend and Master Cett Donegal. (Among other things, Alail made the helm I wear using Rough from the Hammer parts made by Ronald Wilmot, and then Cett put the bar cage on it: so three armoring laurels worked on my helm, which in the end cost me less than $100).

Cet Donegal owns Rough From The Hammer (http://roughfromthehammer.com). This is the place to go to REALLY keep the prices down. Cet’s stuff comes rough finished and un-strapped—he sells parts to other armorers who finish the products and resell them. Elbow cops from this shop are $10 a pair. Spaulders are $12 a pair. Knees are $17 a pair. He makes very affordable helmets, but only as custom orders.

Alail doesn’t have a web site, but he can be reached at skmccartney@gmail.com. Like Cet, he has some great prices on munition grade armor: a sugarloaf helm for $90 in 14ga mild, splint legs for $100, splint arms for $80 and stainless for only 150% of his base price. Here is a basic suit put together from his old price list:

Great Helm $60
Elbows $20
Knees $22.50
Churburg Breast plate (w/ Kidney Protection) $100
Simple Gorget $30
Pauldrons $35

That totals out to $267.50, and we still need a few pieces. I’m sure his prices have gone up since 2004, but it’s still a good place to go. Some scrap leather to make vambraces and cuisses out of, the basket hilt and shield basket from Ashcraft Baker, and you’ll have a suit of armor most of which came from an armoring laurel within our target price. Not too shabby. Then add a gambeson and a nice surcoat and you will look very knightly. But he doesn’t have a website, so ordering from him is difficult.

A few armorers have beginner’s kits for sale in the right price range. Ashcraft Baker (www.ashcraftbaker.com) has a beginner kit that includes helmet, gorget, basket hilt, shield basket, and articulated elbows and knees for $250--a great price! Add some kidney and lumbar protection and you’re SCA legal. If that’s what you can afford go for it. However, the helmet is a spun top and I’m looking for something a little more period in style. Illusion Armoury (http://www.illusionarmoring.com) has a beginner fighter’s package that even includes rattan and a shield blank, but at $508 it’s out of our price range.

What I discovered is that to complete the project I would have to pick and choose pieces. Some armorers had expensive helms but reasonable legs. One had the best price on bascinets but their gorgets were expensive. I wanted to put together not just SCA armor, but a knightly kit that, if not historically accurate, was at least evocative of a single time period. Below are a few more kits I came up with which fit the bill.

Crusader Kit:
From True Hearth Armory (http://www.truehearth.com)
• Teardrop Helm $80
• Standard gorget $40

From Bokalo’s Armoury (www.bokalosarmoury.com)
• Demi Gauntlet $20

From Rough From The Hammer (http://roughfromthehammer.com)
• Rounded elbow cops, no wings, pair $10
• Rounded knee cops, no wings, pair $17
• Spaulder A $12
• Kidney Plates $10

From Ashcraft Baker (www.ashcraftbaker.com)
• Basket Hilt $15
• Shield Basket $15

That’s $219. Now invest in Period Patterns #101, available from several SCA merchants (try http://www.renstore.com/Itemdesc.asp?ic=MED1101&eq=&Tp=) for $16.95. Make the long, short sleeved crusader gambeson, reinforced with some of the plates from Rough from the Hammer. Make the gamboized cuisses, also included in the pattern, and attach to those the kneecops using leather lacing or cord. Use an inexpensive canvass and cotton batting, and materials for this should be about $40. They are not required under SCA rules, but some kingdoms require vambraces, and they are really a good idea. You will need to make some out of scrap metal or heavy leather, but the elbow cop is the hard part and you bought that.

We are now SCA legal. Total for this project before shipping is $275.95, including the cost of the pattern, which really shouldn’t count towards our total since it will be used several times over. Note: I didn’t include materials for a shield, but my first several shields were free anyway—scrap plywood, discarded garden hose and an old belt for straps.

14th Century Suit #1
One variation is to turn this into a Wisby suit. Do everything as above, except don’t get the helm or the kidney. Instead, you need to get hold of a sheet of 18 gauge steel and a way to cut it (with GAA out of business I could no longer find a metal Visby kit. I hear Alchemy has a plastic one, but I’m trying to avoid plactic in this exercise—however, cutting your own keep the price down. I used to use a jig saw with a hack saw blade). Go to the armor archive wisby coat page and download the patterns (http://www.armourarchive.org/patterns/wisby_cop/). You can also buy Medieval Miscelania pattern #102 (see below), which has a Wisby coat pattern in it. Then add From Boldo’s Armory (http://www.boldo.com/armory/index.html) the “Classic Pembridge” greathelm for $100. This will take you a bit over our budget when all is said and done, but still very affordable and it will look sharp.

Now for the hard one:

14th century suit #2

From Illusion Armory (http://www.illusionarmoring.com/)
• 14 ga. Bascinet (don’t get the 16 ga). $110

From Bokalo’s Armoury (www.bokalosarmoury.com)
• Pinned dog collar gorget $45
• Demi Gauntlet $20

From Rough From The Hammer (http://roughfromthehammer.com)
• Rounded elbow cops, no wings, pair $10
• Rounded knee cops, no wings, pair $17
• Solid Breastplate $45

From Ashcraft Baker (www.ashcraftbaker.com)
• Basket Hilt $10
• Shield Basket $10

That comes to $267. NOW: get both Period Patterns #101 and #102 ($16.95 each). Make the gamboized cuisses from pattern #101 and the jupon (short, long sleeved gambeson) from pattern #102. Materials for the jupon and cuisses, again, are about $40. We are just a bit over $300. Use some sole leather for vambraces. Note that this suit doesn’t have shoulder protection.

Are you seeing a pattern here? The elbows, knees, gorget, hands, kidneys—all your hard points—can be armored fairly inexpensively. Looking good on the field is really all about the helmet and how well you accessorize, meaning good heraldry, a good gambezon, and a good surcoat. A good looking surcoat is a must. It hides a myriad of sins, and a knight on the field wants to proudly display his armoury, both so everyone can see him winning glory and so his enemy will know he’s worth more alive then dead.

Now there’s no excuse for looking like a schlub on the field.


Jennifer said...

Thank you for updating and posting this article; it gives hope to the poor college fighter who is drowning in debt. It was wonderful to meet you at last week's practice at BAT, and I would be happy to help you run January's tournament, perhaps as Mistress of the Clipboard again.

egonbrauer said...

I know Alail's (Horsefriend Armory) prices have gone up since 2004, but not by all that much. He *still* doesn't have a website, but keeps saying he's going to set one up. The more people who bug him, the more likely he'll be to move on it. He's still got some of the best prices I've ever seen, and his stuff looks good and lasts. I know for a fact that there are pieces of his that are still on the field after 20 years.

Egen (Disclaimer: he's my knight. Cope.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for these suggestions! I had been looking for a way to afford a plate armor (breast and backplate) for a while now, (can't fight in my brig anymore, due to health issues) and rough from the hammer was exactly what I was looking for!

Anonymous said...

What charming idea

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Rick Prowett said...

Alail has a website now!! www.horsefriendarmoury.com
great stuff!!

Kerryk Wolfram

John G said...

Another website to check out for reasonable armor - http://emorokian-arms.com/ a long time SCA person producing quality armor at reasonable prices.

Anonymous said...

I just got some new lamellar plates from a guy who's been making them for a while. He laser cuts different kinds out of different metals. His website is www.polarbearforge.com.


Lee Keller King said...

Unto His Excellencey, Sir Valgard Stonecleaver, Jarl --


I am so glad that I came upon your blog. I am a (hopefully) returing heavy weapons fighter in the Kingdom of Ansteorra and the information you have posted is exactly what I need to get back armored up without breaking the bank.

Gratitude for your efforts,

Lord Leif Wadason
Stargate, Ansteorra

Anonymous said...

hey awsome suggestions they really helped can you recomend a site to get a good priced leather kidney belt

Peter Nikel said...

About coats of plates - wisby style. I dont know for their quality, and they still won't post assembly instructions, but Polar Bear Forge does a kit out of multiple materials, Aluminum through a few gauges of steel, for a pretty reasonable price, I think. A friend of mine got Lamellar plates from them, and seemed happy with it.

Also, thanks for this - this is exactly the kind of thing I've been looking for. I need to armor up and get out on the field.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, as a future SCA member (I'm 14) this is helpful. I came across this article while looking for DIY pickle barrel armour (sacrilege, I know) but at this time it's my only option. I have exactly $72.53 to work with, so yeah.

M.A. Cramer/Valgard said...

Cover it with a surcotte, baggy shirt and harem pants and you are good to go. Some of my high school friends just bought used helmets then made everything else out of salvaged carpet and aluminum street signs.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful resource. I am starting to look into siege operation (I am disabled and some days I am a fully functional person, others walking is difficult) due to my physical issues and normal adult debt I was looking for an inexpensive way to start. As someone above stated I found this looking for a way to make pickle barrel coat of plate armor and probably still will due to the incredibly low price of admission and having all the tools necessary to make a canvas and plastic coat. This still leaves me needing knee, elbow, hand/wrist and helmet. I had just about given up due to the extreme price of many craftsmen (very pretty, I am sure awesome quality work I'm just a broke paycheck to paycheck gimp) this has given me a new hope on setting up to be a part of our Barony/kingdoms combat.

Again, Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post. I started a Medieval Fight Club in my hometown. Me and a couple others are self designated armor manufacturers. We've only made a couple of suits of armor so far (that we're proud of) and they are all generally the same. So hopefully we can get a couple of different design ideas and compile a catalog where members can purchase a suit style of their choice. Once again thanks for the help!