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In late 2018, I discovered and further developed the X1 leather hardening method in an attempt to find a technique with the best overall qualities including resistance to moisture, punctures, cuts, and extreme temperatures while maximizing strength and flexibility, at a minimum of expense. The X1 method did very well in all of these categories. I’d already created several water vessels with the material and was impressed with how well-suited X1 was for this. It seemed like armor was the sensible next step; I’d been fascinated by ancient combat since I was a child. I’d studied various martial arts through my life, and my medical background as well helped inform me on proper anatomy and alignment during the build.
I’m not currently an active member of HEMA or SCA (groups focused on historical European martial arts), nor am I currently receiving formal training. I also had Lasix surgery last year, and while I’m thrilled with that procedure, it’s strongly recommended I avoid contact sports going forward. Therefore, this project will not be used in actual fighting; I have no plans to have someone swing a weapon at me while I wear this. I’ll be holding onto this gauntlet as a show piece, and hope over the coming years to build myself a full suit of armor.
That said, I did have a certain philosophy of use and of craft when I approached this build. I absolutely wanted the gauntlet to be fully combat-ready even though it would not be used for fighting. It needed to offer considerable protection while being comfortable enough to wear for hours on end. Being right-handed, I was trained to lead with my weak, left side in combat. The left is used primarily to cover, block, and make light, initial jabs and punches. The more powerful right arm stays rearward, ready to swing with force. Therefore, the left side of this armor will be focused on protection at the expense of mobility and fine motor movements, and the right hand gauntlet will be lighter and more mobile while sacrificing a degree of protection. This gauntlet ended up, basically, as a wearable shield.
As with most of my projects, I tend to eschew modern materials and tools as much as is reasonable. I did use a belt sander for initial edge finishing on lames (armor plates), an airbrush for dye, and I did decide to use my sewing machine to build the inner liner. I’d actually put two stitches into it by hand first, and realized that would add another month or more to the project. I had to make an executive decision, and I was ready to move on!
This project pulls together several of my recent innovations in leathercraft, including my X1 technique, as well as employing leather hinges and custom copper bushings. I also had the opportunity to refine my hardening technique and explore combining it with stamping and other crafting methods.
Building the gauntlet, as usual, began with spending hours Googling images of historical armor; finding as many photos of as many different types of gauntlets, from as many different angles, as possible. It was fascinating to see how different craftsman of old found solutions to their problems. Once I had a good idea in mind of how to approach it, I make a rough sketch of what I’d be going for. These early notes help me solidify my ideas and I find are essential to developing a coherent build plan.
I next took a pen to my hand, and drew out the lames as I’d imagined them for a better idea of how they’d fit together and move as I did. After this, I felt I had a good idea of how the gauntlet would assemble. I had a lot to learn…
The helpful users of the leathercraft forum on Reddit offered this great idea to create a pattern. I donned a long, rubber dish glove, wrapped it in painter’s tape, drew the lames with a sharpie, and cut them out. Since so many lames overlapped, I ended up going through three gloves to get all the pieces. This technique was extremely handy and saved a lot of time.
The glove & tape pieces were transferred to craft foam, labeled, and cut out. A notation system is essential to keeping track of all the lames; the final gauntlet consists of over 32 individual parts.
The foam patterns were then transferred to 10 oz vegetable-tanned cowhide. A French beveler was used to thin certain edges to reduce bulk and increase comfort, while the leather was left full-thickness in other areas for protection and to support joints.
For my previous big-project build, the hardened bottle, my father had come up with the brilliant idea of using copper pipe to create custom-sized eyelets, grommets, and bushings for leather work. I took this idea and applied it to the gauntlet project as well; scaling it down slightly and fine-tuning the overall technique, I chose to install copper bushings in every joint in the gauntlet to reinforce the Chicago screws holding the lames together. I felt this would significantly increase the gauntlet’s overall durability and lifespan by preventing hard hits from deforming the hardened leather lames. Combined with X1 leather, the final gauntlet has a rather insect-like sound as it articulates.
A large coil of copper pipe set me back less than ten dollars at the hardware store, and will be enough metal to make hundreds or thousands of connections.
A section of pipe about a foot long is cut off the coil, and a thick cord threaded through it. A pipe cutter is used to cut each bushing, and the cord keeps them from rolling all over the place until I’m ready to anneal them.
The copper piece is annealed (softened) by heating to medium-red with a propane torch, then quenching in water. Since copper is work-hardened, by the time it’s hammered and pressed into place in the project, it’s lost much of its softness from annealing and will be quite durable.
A hole is punched in the leather, and the annealed copper pipe inserted. I then use a plumb-bob and arbor press to begin flaring out each side of the bushing; a ball bearing continues the flare, and then the bushing is flattened with the press.
By this time the bushing is just slightly too small for a Chicago screw, and I came to prefer this be the case. This allows me to insert a cold punch and tap gently until the bushing is just big enough without allowing much of any play. While installing these multiple times in every piece was quite time-consuming, I think the effort was worth it and helps set my leather armor apart from the rest.
Assembling the lames into the first version of the gauntlet was pleasant and more like sculpting than anything. The lames were first soaked in room-temperature water, then wet formed into the desired shape.
Version 1 of the gauntlet was completed in one extended weekend. It looked great, but had many flaws. Coverage over the hand and fingers was insufficient. The lames were much too tight and painful in certain areas. After some deliberation, I chose to start from scratch instead of trying to rebuild certain pieces. This meant, of course, that I would have a spare gauntlet to play with. Which meant, of course….testing.
I disassembled Gauntlet V.1 and applied the X1 hardening technique to each lame, then reassembled. I wanted to get a ballpark idea of just how protective this material and this device would be.
To answer my question, I first lined the inside of the gauntlet with cotton cloth, and stitched in about a dozen small glass vials in place of finger and hand bones.
I wrapped the whole gauntlet around a light bulb, and tied the whole thing to a makeshift “arm” of rolled cardboard. Next, I took a sturdy oak stick and gave the gauntlet a few solid whacks.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while the lightbulb broke immediately, the only glass vial to shatter was in the thumb that had come unscrewed during testing, and flew across the room. This won’t happen with the final gauntlet after all hardware is secured in place with thread-locker. The final gauntlet is also considerably thicker than V.1, and I felt this preliminary test gave confidence that X1 leather would indeed serve well as armor.
It was clear that many lames needed to be considerably larger in order to offer reasonable protection. I redesigned each lame to extend to better cover the fingers, and leave more room in the hand and wrist for padding. It’s important to note that when resizing a lame, one must consider that there are certain dimensions that should be changed and dimensions that should stay the same. For instance, when adjusting a lame over a finger bone for better coverage and strength, the knuckle to knuckle length was retained from the previous piece, since the length of my bones is constant. If the piece were enlarged all over, it would no longer fit.
Loops were also added to the finger tips and mid-finger lames for better fitting and retention. Lames were measured, cut, and dyed. Test-fitting was frequent throughout the build process.
I realized that if I’d stamped the pieces prior to wet-forming, then that process would distort the impressions and I would be better off stamping after forming. This, however, posed a whole new set of difficulties, and stamping in tight spots, especially around the finger tips, was very tricky.
A jeweler’s anvil was used to assist this.
Building, assembling, testing, and re-building the final pieces was a long and tedious affair, and “Version 2” is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s hard to say exactly what version the final gauntlet is, since so many lames were made, scrapped, and made again until I was satisfied with the fit and function.
Each lame was saddle stitched by hand, both for aesthetics and reinforcement of the edges. Again, accomplishing this in tight spaces around finger tips was tedious and at times frustrating. Curved needles were essential.
After wet forming, dyeing, stamping, and stitching, the copper bushings were installed, and the lame was ready for hardening. The X1 hardening method was applied, and the surface buffed with canvas and edges finished.
Edges of lames were prepped first with a belt sander, then finished by hand by sanding up to about 3000 grit, then re-dyed the edge, buffing with canvas, applying beeswax, and buffing again for a beautiful, high gloss.
I was particularly proud of the mechanism allowing full range of motion of the thumb. It combines a hinge with a sliding joint which keeps the thumb well covered through up and down, forward and backward movements.
The hinge is built by first carefully measuring number, length, and width of the “knuckles” on each piece that would capture the hinge pin. The necessary slots are cut out, tested for fit, glued, and stitched. A temporary hinge pin is inserted into each piece during hardening, to maintain the needed opening. Stitching extends around each hinge knuckle for reinforcement; that was another tricky stitch job. The oblong copper bushing in the slotted joint was particularly difficult- what I thought would be a twenty minute job ended up taking an entire Saturday.
I was finally successful by first making a lower jig out of oak and inserting the bushing. I filed the head off of a Chicago screw and dropped it in there to maintain the copper’s shape on one end while I worked the other. After much trial and error, I finally had a fitting that looked and worked well.
These somewhat more delicate mechanisms were covered by extended lames to offer a bit more protection from direct strikes.
The hand harness system is a three-point device with a strap across the palm and another coming from under the base of the thumb, secured with a Sam Browne stud. While having this bulky mechanism across the hand interferes with a solid grip, it does provide for a very secure harness, and the gauntlet, while somewhat heavy, feels secure yet comfortable.
With the gauntlet itself finally, fully assembled, it was time to move on to the inner padding.
Historically, armor was often worn with thick padding underneath to help dissipate the blunt force of a weapon impact during combat. I felt this was a good addition to my piece as well, since a degree of comfort was still needed, and I avoid as much as possible leaving unfinished surfaces visible in my projects.
The pattern for the padding was designed with craft foam, gradually trimming pieces down until they fit correctly in the armor, and stapling pieces together until I had a template. I chose to pad each finger individually, as I couldn’t come up with an elegant way to keep them all attached to the rest of the hand.
For the liner, I chose black pigskin for the side facing the gauntlet itself, to provide durability of the padding. Against the skin, I used a beautiful silk brocade fabric.
The templates were transferred to each fabric, pieces cut out, and sewn together with my machine.
After sewing up the perimeter inside-out, the liner was turned right-side out, sewn again to flatten the seam, and I began quilting the liner and stuffing each section with kapok (a natural, dense, cotton-like tree fiber).
The amount of stuffing added to each section was adjusted based on fit. Less padding for tight spots, more padding where it was loose.
Once the liner was fully stuffed, I added a ribbon border to help conceal my sewing mistakes and give a bold, bright outline.
I chose to anchor the liner with the screws that were already keeping the lames together. Finger liners were anchored underneath the main knuckle lame, and the rest of the liner anchored at key points on the perimeter of the gauntlet. A drop of super glue around the hole in the brocade prevents unraveling.
I found a set of spikes to use for the knuckles; low profile so as not to snag, modest, and strong enough to support the use as armor. These required only grinding off the lower ring so they’d sit inside each joint. The flap of padding covering the inside of the forearm panel was anchored in two spots with 1 mm Ritza thread.
Other finishing touches included replacing the temporary, plain Chicago screws with decorative brass heads, and the brass wire hinge pin with a long, brass machine screw and acorn nut.
One major problem I found when first wearing the gauntlet was that the fingers were still far too tight, making it quite painful to wear for any length of time and especially with movement. To solve this, I removed the inner piece of each Chicago screw and replaced them with steel machine screws from the hardware store. I ground each screw to fit with just enough space, and ground the head down so it sat flush with the bushing.
After switching out all this hardware, the gauntlet was much more comfortable and painless to use. All hardware received thread-locker adhesive upon final assembly to prevent any screws from falling out and disconnecting the lames.
Since even the flesh side of X1 leather burnishes quite well, I chose to spend some time dressing up small areas not covered by the padding, for an extra polished look.
It seemed fitting to also make a carrying case for the gauntlet; I used waxed canvas for the exterior, and the same silk brocade fabric for the inner lining, as was used on the gauntlet padding itself.
As I was wrapping up this build, I made a few extra pieces of X1 leather to further test its capability as armor. I threw together a couple of armor samples and took them to my father’s archery range for testing. He had been anxious to try some of his ideas with this material.
Two samples were made, one of 4 layers of 10 oz X1 hardened veg tan (total thickness 18.3 mm), another sample was single layer (4.5 mm). Dad’s been an active archer for many years, so it seemed better to use his hunting setup and his skill.
I had him shoot each sample with a broadhead (sharpened hunting tip) and a field point (unsharpened practice tip). Dad’s bow is 48 pounds draw weight at his draw length of 29 inches. I’ll include more tech specs below; keep in mind this archery setup is exactly what dad uses for hunting, and routinely puts arrows completely through deer with this, including bone.
At a range of 15 feet, the four layers of X1 stopped the broadhead with 27.8 mm of the arrow head sticking out the other side. It’s going to hurt, but it won’t kill you! The field point didn’t make it all the way through, penetrating 13.7 mm into the leather and leaving 4.6 mm unpierced, and falling to the floor. Very interesting!
In the coming months, I plan to perform further armor testing. I’ll prepare some larger samples, and see what I can do to increase the material’s suitability as armor. I remember from the original hardening experiment that gelatin preparations did very well with puncture resistance. I’ve been thinking about either layering that with X1, or finding some new approach to either improve plain gelatin immersion or possibly even combine it with the current X1 method. I also found mention of an ancient technique involving mixing crushed stone with an adhesive and applying to the hardened leather. I’ve found coad (a mix of pine rosin and beeswax) to be the only adhesive that will stick to X1 leather; perhaps I’ll mix crushed quartz in with it, apply in between lames, and see how much additional protection that affords.
We’ll also try longer ranges (15 feet is much too close), different arrow heads (a three blade broadhead will have a tougher time getting through), different bows (longbow, compound) and different draw weights. Eventually, I’d like to see what happens when we use bullets. Probably start with .22LR and 45 or 50 cal. flintlock rifles. I’m quite sure they’ll punch right through the leather, but it would be neat to see if there’s anything at all I can do to slow them down.
The gauntlet is a pleasure to wear, and I find myself looking for excuses to put it on, and then for excuses not to take it off again. The piece is indeed quite bulky, and the plates over the knuckles prevents all fingers from closing firmly into a fist. This was expected. I’m still happy with the overall fit and function of the gauntlet, and I’m still able to grasp large objects and pinch grip even small ones if need be. I have worn this item around the house somewhat, to learn how to use it efficiently, and begin the “breaking in” process which has already made the gauntlet more comfortable and mobile.
Below is a short video of the final gauntlet in action. I thoroughly enjoyed this project, and plan on giving more focus to armor pieces. Next up I plan to tackle a helmet design, and intend to continue working on armor pieces, moving toward a full suit, likely some years down the road. Stay tuned!