Viking Shield Upgrade Experiment

Bit by bit, I’ve been working out how to improve my viking shields. My poplar edged shield that I made for myself is 5.75 lbs and about 34-34.5″ in diameter, and is still holding up strong after probably a year. Even so, there are issues with it that later commissions have fixed, but not for this one. It was my first attempt using goat hide for edging, and I hadn’t gotten the trick of keeping the edging flat and flush with the edges. The stitching is far too wide per stitch, and of course I re-used a boss that I had with a terribly wide flange, probably making the thing 1/2 lb heavier than it should be.

For all that, it’s a good shield. Still: I want to try a new one. Why? Read on.

One of the things that impressed me recently is Thegn Thrand’s experiments with double-faced shields. I believe he’s used both heavy cow hide as well as some thinner stuff, but they will absolutely take a freakin’ beating. Some of his thicker shields he’s hit with a two-handed Dane Axe full force on the face and it didn’t penetrate. I’d be interested to see what would happen with a 150# war bow and 0.2lb/1500grain arrows with Type 16 points . . . but the vikings didn’t face that threat (the earliest forged Type 16 dates from about the 11th century from what I could find).

Example of Striðskjold custom shield with edging and stitching.

In any case, the hide adds a great deal of robustness to the shield. My instructor Arthur Von Eschen at Asfolk comments on this in this video, which features Thrand, Roland Warzecha, Arthur, and a bit of me scraping hide. I’ve wanted to make a double-faced shield for a while, but Arthur has been pretty adamant about how thin the hide should be (very), and until a few days ago, I simply couldn’t get such stuff (more on that in a moment). I worried I’d have to get a deer or elk hide – something large – and then soak it and stretch it, which I really didn’t have the equipment or the patience for. Many other shield finds are either just raw wood and stitched, edged and stitched, etc . . . like my red dragon shield above. Even so, I wanted to try to make one.

I recently chanced on the right combination of keywords and found that there’s a Middle Eastern large skin drum that uses . . . goat hide. That’s my go-to for edging, and finding a 36″ round goat hide was a revelation. The hides I bought I figured were thin – they felt like the hides I use to edge my more recent shields. I measured them with a micrometer and they varied (as expected) between 0.42 and 0.50mm thick. Turns out those are thick hides, and a slightly different search with different vendors would have knocked 50% off the thickness (and 1/3 off the price!)

So this shield will be on the robust end of things.

I did a bit of a weight budget. I wanted to keep the total weight of my new shield about the same as my old one. What does that mean? Discounting odds and ends, we have Edging, Facing, Boss, Handle, and the Wood Blank. The boss should wind up being about 10-12 oz, or about 0.6 to 0.75 lbs. Arthur makes these to historical dimensions himself, based on measurements he’s taken on actual pieces as he travels Europe. The facing pieces were each about 37″ in diameter and once trimmed down to 34″ should come in about 1.2 lbs. The handle will be oak and probably 0.8 to 1.0 lbs. The edging is basically the same material as the facing, and is about 2.5″ wide and 110″ long . . . 1.91 square feet. The shield is 6.3 square feet, so the edging should add another 0.35 lbs.

So with the already-specified materials, we’re about 2.9 to 3.3 lbs. If I want the whole shield to come in around 5.5-6.0 lbs, my wood core needs to come in at a low of 2.2 to 3.1 lbs. For a 34″ poplar blank . . . that’d need to be mighty thin. I had a spare blank, so today I worked up the core. I think it turned out well, and once I cut out the hole for the boss will weigh about 3.1 lbs. If everything is on the heavy end (and I’ve not included the non-trivial weight of the hide glue that will bind the facing to the boards) the shield may wind up around 6-6.5 lbs. Heavier than my current shield, but it should wind up being much, much more robust.

The next step will be to soak and apply the facing to both sides. The liquid hide glue I’ll use (Old Brown) will take longer to set than the hot-melt crystals, so I need to rig up a method to press the thing flat. The shield tapers sharply from about 7mm at the center to less than 3mm at the edge, so I can’t just press it flat between two boards or something. I have to accommodate the taper. Not a big deal, I just need some weights and some sections of plywood and waxed paper to get it done, but I want to think about it to make sure I don’t biff it. I’ll soak the hides in a 3″ PVC tube capped on one end, and probably apply them one at a time.

Once I get the facing and backing done, I’ll cut the hole for the boss (hopefully I’ll be able to procure a boss by then) and then apply the edging (which is easier with the center hole cut with the jig I rigged up). At that point, I’ll carve and attach the handle, and as always the boss is last.

I won’t decorate this one; it’s a functional experiment. The next experiment will be with the quarter- and rift-sawn poplar trees I have drying at my father-in-law’s barn. It’ll be drying all winter long and then we’ll see. The boards as cut are 1″ wide, so I’ll first cut them to width and then re-saw them into about 1/3″ thickness. That will maximize wood use (I have about 200 square feet of 1″ boards, which will turn into 600 square feet of 1/3″ boards, or enough for about 65 shields) and also cut down vastly on the amount of stock removal I have to do. That should enable me to go right to hand-tools, like a spokeshave, to do the thinning and tapering. That will not only be more historical, it also distresses the wood a bit less than blasting it away with a 50-grit belt sander.

Anyway, here are some pictures of roughing out the blank, and I’ll come back in a few days when I’ve got the facing and backing in progress.

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