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Leather Grip on Swords


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#1 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 04:22 AM

Hi all,

Thought I´d something on how I put leather on sword grips. The method I use involve vegetable tanned leather that is dyed with alcohol dyes. The grip has a shaped wood core that is fitted over the tang. The core is then wrapped with cord (linen or hemp) and given a coating of hide glue to make a good base for the leather.
The leather is put on wet and glued with hide glue. This has at least two benefits: you get time to work as the glue takes time to set, and the leather is soft and plastic, making it possible to shape it, press it, mold it, emboss it or whatever suits your fancy. I did not manage to capture all steps in the process. Especially the last part where you wrap the glued leather over the grip and have to bind it down with cord, is messy and a bit stressful (at least for me). If you have any questions, I´ll be happy to answer as best I can.

First an image of the two swords I was working on at the same time. One is a type XVIIIb: a slim but powerful sword of war in a gentleman´s guise. The other is a broad and thin type XXII: much lighter than one would think just by looking. The slimmer sword is actually a slightly bit heavier than the wide one. The broad sword is inspired by an original in the Dresden armoury, but is no attempt at a copy or replica. It is simply a sword of the same type, the same general dimensions and with a style that would be familiar at the beginning of the 16th C.
Fullview.jpg

Next is a close up f the hilts where you can see the cord under wrap as it looks when finished:
Hilts.jpg

Below the broad sword is having its risers added to the wrap as a final touch. There risers give surprisingly good purchase when you wield the sword. They also help to keep the leather in place as it shrinks when drying.
FullgripWRiser.jpg

A close up of the pommel:
Pommel.jpg

And a detail of the end of the guard:
GuardDetail.jpg

Leather is being prepared by skiving. Thin (about 0.8 - 1.3 mm) calf or goat skin is first cut to shape so a small amount can be folded over itself at the ends of the grip towards pommel and guard. This folding makes the end more finished looking and avoids the frayed flesh side of the leather to be exposed to view. The wrap is done so that there is a "seam" along the length of the grip. It should be placed so it faces downwards when the sword is worn in its scabbard. This is the finger side of the grip. The overlap at the seam is about 15 mm. By skiving the leather down to nothing, you get a seam that can be just about invisible. This is good both for aesthetics, but also helps greatly to avoid anything catching the leather and opening the seam. I also think it makes the gluing more secure.
Skiving2.jpg
SkivingKnfe.jpg

Next step is dying the leather after giving it a good soak in luke warm water. The dye will take more evenly if the leather is thoroughly wet. The color is a but difficult to judge on wet leather. It tends to get quite a bit lighter in hue. It is always possible to add more dye as a last step, but I try to avoid this as the seam may take up more dye than the rest and so stand out in a way it would not otherwise. Below you can see how the damp leather has been given a coating of glue and is wrapped on over the grip core. Perhaps you can get an idea of ow thin the edges of the leather is, by noting how it forms over the crd.
LeatherOn.jpg

After the leather has let itself be shaped over the grip and the seam has been worked down so it sits reasonable well, it is time to wrap the grip with yet another layer of cord. This is done to press the leather down over the under cord and help to squeeze the glue thoroughly through the leather and bond to the under cord. It is difficult to take such a grip apart and t is not really sensible to wet either, as the leather afterwards will be treated generously with leather fat.
BoundGrip.jpg

At the Solingen Knife Maker show in may both these swords were displayed. One went quickly, but I had time to get a snapshot of the broad one hanging on its rack. Perhaps you can make out some details in the finished grip: it has leather from guard to pommel, but also a twisted iron wire wrap on the upper part. This wire is secured by small tacks at both ends of the wrap. I twist the wire from the kind of binding wire silver and gold smiths use to secure parts when soldering. It is thin and strong and happens to be available in the same dimensions as was used in historical times.
Displayed.jpg

Finally the sword in the hands of a visitor to the Show. I love the expression you can see in some one´s face when they get to hold a nicely balanced sword: something comes alight inside and they stand straighter...
Customer.jpg

Edited by peter johnsson, 01 October 2009 - 12:08 PM.


#2 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 04:37 AM

As I did not manage to get a photo of the finished grip on any of the swords, I attach an image of a sword with a similar grip to that of the broad one. It has a full leather cover over cord, and wire wrap on the narrow section towards the pommel. The broad part of the grip has some carving and embossing.
This is a style of grip you would see in the 15th C and first half of 16th C.
WiregripDetail.jpg
Photo by Lutz Hoffmeister

Edited by peter johnsson, 01 October 2009 - 04:43 AM.


#3 Petr Florianek

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 05:08 AM

both swords are lovely! thank you very much for posting this

#4 richard sexstone

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 05:28 AM

Peter,
That is some really nice whiteworking.... thanks for the closeups..... I love the satin finish..... I have a historical question about the grips..... being Hide glue and leather they are subject to damage from getting wet... So were swords constantly being rehilted cause of this problem.... Battles didn't wait for sunny weather and so they must have gotten wet and abused during action .... Is there mention of this in the history of swords with leather grips?
Again , beautiful work you've done.. thanks for showing....and the tutorial also.
Dick

#5 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 07:05 AM

Peter,
That is some really nice whiteworking.... thanks for the closeups..... I love the satin finish..... I have a historical question about the grips..... being Hide glue and leather they are subject to damage from getting wet... So were swords constantly being rehilted cause of this problem.... Battles didn't wait for sunny weather and so they must have gotten wet and abused during action .... Is there mention of this in the history of swords with leather grips?
Again , beautiful work you've done.. thanks for showing....and the tutorial also.
Dick



Thanks Richard and Petr,

It is a reasonable thought about the resiliency of hide glue, but it is actually surprisingly permanent when the grip is finally done. I think several factors work together to acheive this. First, the leather is well compressed through the process of making, but most imprtantly, the lether is given a good treatment with fat that saturates it deeply. I use a modern leather fat, but it is essentially the same as would have been used back in the day. The mdern stuff I have is just conveniently packed in a can.
I use heat when I have applied it in a generous layer. This melts the fat and much more gets soaked into the leather. Gentle heat from a hair dryer is handy. Afterwards the grip is polished with a rag, like a pair of shoes to a nice sheen.
Sword grips made this way have survived years of use in sweaty hands without the leather loosening.

Back in the day they were good at boilng specialized glues from organic sources. I am not sure exactly what specific glue was used for sword grips. Some kind of leather or fish glue, I am pretty certain. The kind I use is made from hare and normally used by furniture and musical instrument makers. It comes in a bucket in the form of grains. One spoonful in a glass jar with water to cover is let to soak for a couple of hours or over night. It turns to jelly and is then heated in a water bath. Not boiling, just hot.

Saying all this, Im also sure pretty sure it was a common thing swords were re hilted during their time of use. Just not after every rain storm ;-)
It is all part in the life of a sword to get some attention, re sharpening, polish and refurbishment at times.
But a grip made this way can survive years.
I have documented a number of original swords with surviving grips of this kind. It is obvious they used glue and worked with thin leather that was carefully skived at the edges. Sometimes there was no under wrap of cord, but the leather was glued directly on top of the wood. In one case Ive seen surviving linen cloth as a grip cover. I got the impression this was instead of a cord wrap and that leather or a fine textile (like velvet) would have covered it.

This is a basic construction method that offers many possible variations in expression and decoration. Later on Ill try to post one or two mages of glued leather grips, if I can find them...:-)

#6 Jake Powning

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 08:03 AM

This is fascinating Peter! thanks for taking the time to post it.
How is the tooling done on the leather grip? is this done while attaching it or is it done before and then touched up?
It's wonderful to see pictures of your work! Very, very inspiring.

#7 Niko Hynninen

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 10:18 AM

Hi Peter.

Both swords are simply amaising work of art.
I have bean wondering is grip overlaped whit thinner edges
of leather, cord gives it nice surface.

About BW pic is leather part carved or is it make by pauting teck.


Work / swords are truly great,very inspiring. Thanks for showing Peter.

BR
Niko

#8 Greg Thomas Obach

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 10:51 AM

Hi Peter

very nice tutorial..

i also see that persian cases for shamshir were done with thin leather over wood core much like you describe...with string underneath for designs

by the way... your swords are very nice.. i have to stare at the screen and admire the fantastic work.. !!!

honestly...i've never seen a tutorial on leather wrap handle... thank you

Greg

#9 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 11:06 AM

Jake and Niko, Thanks!

The pattern is made by a combination of carving and pautning/embossing. I guess it is best described as embossing, since the leather is very thin. It does not take very much three dimensional modeling. Just a bit so you can get a play of light and an illusion of three dimensions.

I d this after the leather is glued on. First I work the leather down with a bone knife to make it follow the shape of the grip and risers. I secure the leather around the risers with cord knots, so the leather does not glide or lift as I work.
Then I draw the pattern on to the leather with the semi blunt end of a polishing steel Just to get something to go by. I then carve the pattern with my pattern carving knife. It is a steel knife with a sharp edge honed to a very blunt angle. I guess edge angle total is a tad less than 90 degrees. With this I can trace exact lines without having to worry about cutting through the leather, f I apply a reasonable amount of force. I have two edges on the knife: one is good for straight lines, the other is good for tracing curves.

After the pattern is traced I start by picking but the background with a stippling tool. This is a tool that creates a line of dots. I have three of these tools, one makes four dots i a row, the other makes two and the third makes a single dot. With these I get into all angles of the pattern. The process makes the cut pattern to almost raise up from the background. t is then possible to work the details of the pattern itself. This is mostly about defining edges and volume, rounding some surfaces and scoring shading lines.
Then I apply roping to borders and go over the whole thing again, as it tends to shift and change as the leather dries.
It is necessary to work quickly. You can only work as long as the leather has a certain dampness. It should feel cool to the touch, but look dry. It is possible to wet the surface with a sponge to prolong the period of working, but realistically, I have found and hour or an hour and a half is about the maximum you get to finish work.
It is possible that another type of leather could prolong this window of opportunity.

Attached Images

  • SkivingKnife.jpg
  • Leaf.jpg
  • Dots.jpg
  • Edge1.jpg
  • CarvingKnife.jpg
  • BusinessEnd.jpg
  • AllTools.jpg

Edited by peter johnsson, 01 October 2009 - 11:44 AM.


#10 Sam Salvati

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 11:19 AM

Peter, thanks very much! No more parachord for me :D
Let not the swords of good and free men be reforged into plowshares, but may they rest in a place of honor; ready, well oiled and God willing unused. For if the price of peace becomes licking the boots of tyrants, then "To Arms!" I say, and may the fortunes of war smile upon patriots

#11 Kenon Rain

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 11:25 AM

wow, that is really awesome, and great work.

what thickness of leather do you use?

great tutorial, thank you.
Blam!

#12 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 11:51 AM

wow, that is really awesome, and great work.

what thickness of leather do you use?

great tutorial, thank you.


Thanks!

Mostly I use rather thin leather, like 0.8 - 1.3 mm.
It is possible to use thicker, but not much, as it would be difficult to get it to shape itself to the wood core.I would not try thicker than 2 mm. Such leather might well look bulky.

If you can get very thin orthopedic leather, about 1.5 mm thick, I think this would be perfect. It has a core of un-tanned leather. This makes it much more willing to take to plastic forming (known as Pautning in scandinavia). Originals Ive seen have this effect, but it is impossible to get the dramatic 3-d effect with straight vegetable tanned leather.

I have not yet found a source of this thin orthopedic leather, but I shall look some more.

#13 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 11:52 AM

Peter, thanks very much! No more parachord for me :D


Sam, that would be a pity!

#14 peter johnsson

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 12:05 PM

Hi Peter

very nice tutorial..

i also see that persian cases for shamshir were done with thin leather over wood core much like you describe...with string underneath for designs

by the way... your swords are very nice.. i have to stare at the screen and admire the fantastic work.. !!!

honestly...i've never seen a tutorial on leather wrap handle... thank you

Greg


Hi Greg!
Thanks for kind words.

Yes, the technique is basically the same for scabbards (also in western tradition). The leather used on Shamshir and Kilij scabbards is (often?) donkey leather, I think. Ive never tried to do those fancy seams with spirals of silver in the stitches, but it would be interesting to see how difficult it is!

#15 Sam Salvati

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Posted 01 October 2009 - 08:01 PM

Peter, when you do the chord bind over the leather, do you wrap it so the outer chord lies in the valley of the inner chord?
Let not the swords of good and free men be reforged into plowshares, but may they rest in a place of honor; ready, well oiled and God willing unused. For if the price of peace becomes licking the boots of tyrants, then "To Arms!" I say, and may the fortunes of war smile upon patriots

#16 peter johnsson

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 02:00 AM

Peter, when you do the chord bind over the leather, do you wrap it so the outer chord lies in the valley of the inner chord?


You do not have to think about that when you do a straight tight over wrap. The leather and glue beneath it will conform to the upper wrap, and the cord beneath.

Sometimes though, you may want a spiral effect. You can get this by doing the under wrap with *two* cords wound around the grip as a pair. Then you unwind one of them, leaving the other in a perfectly spaced spiral wrap. Glue this thoroughly to the wood core with hide glue and let it sit over night so it is securely bonded.
You can then cover with a thin leather as above, but use the over wrap to push the leather into the gap left in the under wrap. This will give you a nice spiral effect, such as can be seen on this original grip on a long sword from the late 15thC:
SpiralBound.jpg

Sometimes, there was no cord used after the leather had been glued on. Instead the surface was left plain. You can stil make out the faint "shadow" of the under wrap of cord under the leather on this well preserved grip from around 1500:
FalchionGrip.jpg

Below is an example of what a decorated grip might look like. Note the crisp leatherwork surviving more or less intact on this grip from the very late 15th C:
DecoratedGrip.jpg

Also note that two of the grips above have a sewn seam: they are not just glued, but also secured by sewing. This is something you might want to do if you emboss the leather, as there will be a long stretch of leather that will be left with out "anchor" as it dries. When emboss a grip, normally use stitches to secure the part that is to be left without over wrap as it dries.
The seam is normally done as a zig-zag with one needle on originals. But you can go fancy and se two needles and create an invisible seam where the stitches are on the inside of the leather. I´ll se if I can post a pic of this.

Edited by peter johnsson, 02 October 2009 - 02:15 AM.


#17 peter johnsson

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 02:19 AM

Two examples of what plain tight cord wrap and spiral cord wrap may look like when used today.

First a sword inspired by a find from the Castillion hoard, mid 15th C. What at first looks like a tight binding of a fine cord is actually the *impression* in the leather of a tight cord binding. In this case you can no longer see the cord underneath (except in the risers). The under wrap of cord is done to add some extra strength to the core and to provide good bonding surface for the leather. The under wrap s optional. You do not have to do it. I normally do anyway and this is what it looks like when finished:
CordboundGrip.jpg

A large type XVIIIc sword with a spiral cord under the leather and then an over cord that has been bound in the "valley" created by the under wrap. This creates a spiral effect. Good gripping purchase and it also adds a bit of flair to an otherwise austere hilt:
SpiralWrap.jpg

Edited by peter johnsson, 02 October 2009 - 02:24 AM.


#18 Alan Longmire

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 07:13 AM

Wow, thank you Peter!

Those are some beautiful swords, and the hilts are fantastic. I wish I had seen this before I did that green set last month. ;) I got most of it right, but there's a few things I'd do differently now.

Thanks for posting! If it saves even one sword from the horrible gristly fate that is paracord you've served a higher purpose. :lol:

#19 Niko Hynninen

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 09:14 AM

Hi Peter.

Huh.....Thanks agane showing these.
Those old handles look nice, back at day craftmans truly had skills.
...in other hand so do you ;) Nice work.

About the stitches..is the original done + whit same overlap teck or dos it show that its
like agenst other leather...like buttweld, whit out cutting the edge thinner.

Thanks Peter, lots of new interesting information about original handles.

BR

Niko

#20 peter johnsson

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 11:04 AM

Hi Niko,

You are right in your guess on how the leather is cut for stitches: instead of an overlap and skiving, you cut the leather so it buts up end on end. The needle often goes from flesh side all through and then diagonally across and under again from flesh side and all way through.

If you like fancy work you can use a very sharp needle and start the stitches in the thickness of the leather and let the needle go out on the flesh side (inside) and across to the other side, through the thickness of the leather and out to the flesh side. That way you get a seam that is made on the inside: no visible stitches. I rarely do this. Originals Ive seen tend to have a rather rough and ready approach to stitching. Not so much fiddly work: just zig-zag across.




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