What kind of finish did a medieval sword blade have? pt1

How a medieval sword blade looked when new is an interesting question. The finished blade would, like all human made products, have some variation in the shine and uniformity of the finish on the blade. Factors such as the skill of the workers, the budget of the purchaser and, of course, the quality of material would bear on the finished item. In this post we will look at some of the particulars of how blades were finished in the past.

One of the biggest differences in the shaping of a blade from today to those in the past is the amount of hand labor that is used in all aspects of the production from the hammering of the forged blade to grinding and polishing of the piece. In the medieval craftsperson's tool box there was a tool that is rarely used today by most makers, but in the past was integral it was the scraper. 

Scrapping a blade from the Utrech Psalter 9th C

Image from Utrecht Psalter of blade scraper 9th C

This is an intermediate step between the forged blade and the grinding where a hardened steel blade is used to scrape or shave the blade into a more refined shape much like a wood worker would use a plane or scraper. Here we see an early depiction of the use of such a tool from the Utrecht Psalter dated early to mid 9th C.

Image from the 12th C Eadwine Psalter copied from Utercht Psalter

Here is the same scraper done in the 12th C in the Eadwine Psalter copied from the Utrecht illustration.

This shows a shaped blade with a stout curved shape that would be used to reduce material and define the bevels and fullers of a medieval sword blade. Most illustrations of this tool show a sturdy bench to work on and the position of the work fully on top of the piece to apply the correct amount of force and pressure.

 Sword finishing Romance of Alexander Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264 

14th C Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264

Here we see two individuals working on the sword with scrapers. One appears to have a short blade that may be working on the fuller. You can also see the tension being applied by hand held straps or ropes. I also like the horn holder on the edge of the bench, possibly holding lubricant or polishing compound. Most likely not mead :-) 

Grinding wheels would be used as well. Both for polishing and sharpening the edges. Most that are depicted are human powered but as time progresses water power was used.

 Grinding from the Eadwine Psalter

Grinding depicted in the Eadwine Psalter

This use of scrapers and probably draw files would continue being shown in the art of the period for many centuries. The use of a draw bench and two individuals is particularly interesting with its bow like construction of the scraper or file brace.

Sword shaping ad polishing Romance of Alexander Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264

Another image from the Romance of Alexander 14th C

I once was describing this process to a group and one person was adamant that such a thing was impossible. Even after showing them some of these images they would not believe it was done. It is an example how the modern mind can be certain their lack of awareness is a fact, a mistake any scholar should be wary of making.

A cutlers shop 14th C

Cutlers shop from the 16th C.

The scraper was used by many metal workers including armorers where you can see them depicted using the tool for finishing.

Armorer finishing armor with a scraper

Here I have included a video of an excellent Japanese smith making high quality knives using a scraper to shape his blades. You can see curls of material being removed and the omni directional design of the scraper being able to work on both the push and pull stroke. It's a great example of someone doing it well.


In part two of this post we will look at some of the polishing and some finishes on period blades illustrating the results of these tools.
divider swords

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.

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