Scabbard Making by Iron John Logan
Today a Facebook memory reminded me of this Cuttoe I have been obsessing over for the last two years, and with much deliberation decided today was as good as any to finally get started finishing this project. While I was at it thought some might be interested in my methods - this is only one way to skin this cat - and I do not claim to use a historical techniques. This is how I have figured out how to make historical looking reproduction cored scabbards that stand up to modern expectations.
I am a self taught leather worker so my tools are basic. Scissors and bench knife for cutting, pencil for layout, a stitching fork and an edging tool. I use top grade vegetable tanned leather, both 3oz calf skin and 2oz tooling spilt (flesh side removed). I hand stitch all the seams for heirloom quality and appearance, and hand form all my own metal hardware and suspension.
The first order of business is to make the core. This is what stiffens the sheath to form the scabbard. Historically cores were often carved from wood, and while I have done that many times it is a painstakingly fiddly operation. A good scabbard has to fit just right, no different than a good pair of shoes - too tight and it is uncomfortable, hard to draw and return the blade, too loose and the blade will slide out on its own.
I stumbled on this material a few years ago, it is actually the waste product of trimming tooling leather to the correct thickness. While most people want the smooth flesh side for tooling and embossing this open grained split is perfect for my
I often feel like a tailor of old making scabbards. I never use a pattern, relying instead on practice and eye. I trace the blade one way then carefully roll it over to the other cheek and trace again, factor with my minds eye the correction for the curved blade and add a seam allowance. A safer man might cut this from paper first to check the fit but I like to go with the flow and the feel of the leather. I have found I am rarely wrong if I don't over think it, cut with my gut and take the plunge.
Perfect fit, this will work nicely
Now if you aren't confused yet this is where it starts getting strange. I like working quickly, hate standing around waiting for something to dry. While almost all historical processes use water for tempering leather so it can be stretched and molded I choose to use denatured alcohol. Wets the leathers fibers just the same but at a fraction of the drying time - specially if you hit with a heat gun..
The tempered leather is wrapped around the blade and pulled and pushed until it's flat and the wrinkles worked out. This open grained split molds quite easily and as soon as I am happy it clamped with clips and allowed to dry a few minutes.
After a short dry I contact cement the seam and continue to rub and burnish the leather to fit the geometry of the blade. When the leather gets too dry to move any further I hit it with the heat gun inside and out to fully drive off the alcohol until I can no longer smell it (if it's not off gassing, it's dry right?)
The inner core is now complete and the seam is closed. The tempered tooling leather molded perfectly to the curve and shape of the blade and is now just as stiff as if I wet it with water
But I want the scabbard a lot stiffer than naturally tempered leather and here lies the beauty of the open grained split - there is nothing barring me skin or otherwise from saturating the core with resin. I have tried a lot of different resins and other hard drying finishes but like wood hardener the best. As I understand it wood hardener is basically Styrofoam dissolved in acetone and leaves behind a stable semi-hard plastic resin. This soaks right in and dries very quickly.
Once the wood hardener is dry I can sand off any remaining wrinkles or defects in the leather and prepare the surface for glueing
The second layer of the core is tempered with alcohol, wrapped over the first and molded in place. Then the same steps again, pull push and massage until it's a perfect fit then clamp and dry. Glue inner to outer, cement seam, burnish and wood harden
Final burnish and molding as the wood hardener dries then final sand to 220 grit
All in a good days work a functional hardened core. I'll leave this now to fully dry over a couple days and hopefully get back to it when a few materials arive in the mail.
This is the end of part 1
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Iron John Logan