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Taylor Ellis

PostPosted: Wed 24 Sep, 2003 9:16 pm    Post subject: Levels of polish         Reply with quote

Most modern made swords today, especially those in the "performance" market, are usually finished to a satin polish. This is not without good reason: a satin polish looks beautiful and yet is still quite resistant to marking.

Now, obviously bearing in mind that any generalisation of historical swords can never be anything more than superficially accurate, there seems to be evidence for medieval swords receiving mirror polishes. Case in point: the sword of Sancho IV (IIRC) on the cover of Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword. This sword is corroded to the point of destruction in some places, and yet retains a mirror finish in others.

For those with more knowledge on this subject than I, how common does this finish seem to be? Is it basically a feature of presentation grade swords, or was it more common?
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E.B. Erickson
Industry Professional

Location: Thailand
Joined: 23 Aug 2003

Posts: 455

PostPosted: Thu 25 Sep, 2003 6:23 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Taylor,
Mirror finish was very common back when. However, I think that some (most??) swords, especially those that saw a lot of use or were used by the rank and file, tended to get a burnished finish as they got cleaned and sharpened repeatedly.

I've got a loose broadsword blade from the 1500s that shows a great deal of care on the part of the person who sharpened it. The finish overall is smooth, but no longer mirrorlike due to age and staining. The edges have been resharpened several times, but the only way one can tell is that some of the blade markings have been partly erased: after grinding the edge, the edge had been polished to match the surface on the flats of the blade.

On other antiques I've seen, the edge was ground, but no care was taken to polish things out. So the body of the blade remains smooth (and sometimes still like a mirror), but the edge has file/grinding marks.

Hope this has been of help! --ElJay
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Ellen Bergwerf

Joined: 04 Dec 2012

Posts: 11

PostPosted: Thu 06 Dec, 2012 2:49 am    Post subject: Polish         Reply with quote

When looking at 15th and 16th century plate armour in various museums, you will find many mirror polished pieces. Itís quite logical that in a period where everyone took special care of finishing and details, they would have taken special care on the finishing of expensive plate armours and swords. Donít be misled by the corrosion that objects have today.
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Jack Savante

Joined: 01 Jun 2010
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Posts: 78

PostPosted: Thu 06 Dec, 2012 3:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've often wondered about the finish of the swords of history, as so few are preserved.

The sword to which you refer on the cover of Oakeshott's 'Records of the Medieval Sword' is thought to have belonged to a King, so while it establishes that some swords were polished to a mirror sheen (provided the finish hasn't been messed with in the interceding years) [also the mirror sheen is omni directional ie. has a grain that runs the length of the sword] I wonder what the swords of the rank and file looked like in terms of their finish.

There certainly weren't any Scotch Brite pads back then.

I'm curious to know what sort of tools were used in the polishing process - I've seen pictures of them been burnished for one.

Certainly beeswax was around so maybe that was used for polishing too.

I've seen straight swords from the Middle East made in the 20th century by sword smiths working traditionally and the finish was not much past draw filing, on the other hand, Japanese swords have long been polished so highly you can make out individual eyelashes when you look at your reflection in them. Japanese polishers work in a very medieval way also, so this is not a modern thing.

It's hard to know. I've heard people argue that most swords were left hammer finished, but the archaeological record doesn't seem to support this proposition.

It would make sense that many swords might have an oil quenched blackened finish like many guns do to protect them from the elements, but as most swords we have from the period are in excavated condition, it would be difficult to be certain as this super thin protective layer would have long since given way to corrosion.
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Christopher Treichel

Location: Metro D.C.
Joined: 14 Jan 2010

Posts: 268

PostPosted: Thu 06 Dec, 2012 5:23 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If its any indication of what a soldier would use most soldiers used to keep their muskets bright and shiny with a combination of a linnen rag, sweet oil (like olive oil) and "rotten brick" (brick dust). I have tried this and with elbow grease you can get stuff pretty shiny. The oil also prevents rust from forming. The old salts also recommended pressing beeswax into any nook and crevice where its possible for water to get into. Now again thats for muskets, but if you have a soldier sitting there with a hunk of beeswax and polishing up his firelock no sense in not doing the same to the sword.

As far as what was used back in the day... look to the polishing guilds and their advertisements in Standebuecher and the like and you will see various powdered abrasives being utilized on wood backed strops and polishing wheels as well as bottles that probably contained oils and blocks of wax.

Here are the Nueremberger Hausbuecher section on armour polishers... oddly there are knife makers listed but no separate trade for knife or sword polishers.
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