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Jonathan Hodge




Location: East Tennessee
Joined: 18 Sep 2015

Posts: 110

PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 1:29 pm    Post subject: Finishes on Historical Hafts         Reply with quote

I'm looking to get some info on historical finishing methods for polearm hafts. I know that boiled linseed oil (linseed oil/flax oil) seems to be the typical method I've seen here in the fora for finishing. Were other oils used too? Tung or Teak oil, or mixtures of oil - say something similar to Danish Oil? On a related note, do we have any historical data for the amount of coats or applications of the oils used? And, lastly, do we know if there were exterior protective coats used - i.e. a varnish of some kind. I have found no contemporary resources for the finishing of furniture or hafts (though my search can be nowhere near described as "exhaustive"). I did find a scant resource that claims medieval furniture was finished with oil and a type of resin varnish or wax over the oil once cured.

So, my question is, when your life depended on the weapon you're wielding, you're going to take care of it. So, was oil used and reapplied every so often, or was oil applied, waxed or varnished, and only rewaxed or varnished once in a blue moon? Again, I know there may be no real resources out there upon which to build a solid case, but those of you who've worked extensively with things of this sort, chime in! I, for one, would love to learn from your experience. Thanks in advance!
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Jeffrey Faulk




Location: Georgia
Joined: 01 Jan 2011

Posts: 578

PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 2:04 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I don't have specific comments about weapons, but I do have some period woodworking experience. So here goes:

Oil is an extremely common finish throughout history, because it's readily available and easy to use and maintain.

For Europe, you're looking at linseed oil, possibly walnut oil or other plant or nut oils, but linseed will be the most common. Several applications, drying well in between each, will do the job. Wipe down with a very wet rag or brush, allow to sit for a few minutes to soak in, and then wipe off and allow to finish drying (a few hours although I've heard 24 hours). Small pieces of wood-- or large, depending on what you have available-- can be soaked entirely by immersion. You could use a PVC pipe or something of the sort. That could make your shaft really heavy though. I would avoid olive oil, soybean oil or other vegetable oils; if not maintained they can go rancid. Not something you want to have to deal with.

Tung and teak oils are largely an Asian thing. Not really appropriate for European weapons, IMO. Most 'tung oil' is just linseed oil mixed with a varnish. 'Danish Oil' is a modern contrivance-- it's linseed or tung oil mixed with a varnish and sometimes a stain as well.

Beeswax is one option, but unless applied very well can soften on hot days. It's a better furniture finish than for weapons.

Varnish is a modern thing for the most part. I would avoid that. If you can find historic recipes, then that's OK, but almost all modern varnish is a variety of polyurethane.

Shellac is mostly used after the 17th century so inaccurate for medieval weapons, and as best as a furniture finish anyway. This may be the 'resin based varnish' you mention though?

A 'soap finish' may be an option. Grate Ivory soap or some other soap based on animal and plant byproducts such as 'Castile' soap into fine flakes, dissolve in warm water and let sit until it forms a liquid, pour upon the wood and scrub vigorously with a coarse rag. More of a modern thing (~18th-19th century at the earliest). Again largely a furniture finish.

One tentative option is tallow. If refined quite well, it has minimal chances of going rancid. It's mostly best for keeping rust off the metal bits, though.

And yes, certainly maintain your weapon. One quite common rule of thumb that you'll see quoted about linseed oil is 'apply once every day for a week, then apply once a week for a month, then apply once a month for a year'. This is overdoing it in my opinion-- a few days' worth of oiling, then you can oil it every few months or so. It's really up to you though, it's hard to oil it too much but when you get to that point you'll know-- the oil won't want to penetrate and it'll feel sticky after drying. If that happens, take out some turpentine or mineral spirits and wipe it down.
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Mark Griffin




Location: The Welsh Marches, in the hills above Newtown, Powys.
Joined: 28 Dec 2006

Posts: 801

PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 2:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Jonathan,

Tung is from asia and teak from the new world so linseed is the prevalent oil for the N European carpenter. Olive oil is shown entering the Royal Armouries but that's probably for making polishing soap. Turps is known although pretty costly for weapon shafts.

I have a lot of bills, halberds etc (repro) and i just give them a wipe with linseed in autumn and spring. Its the same with all my wooden hafted tools, garden ones as well. Seems to work fine.

There were certainly varnishes used and this can also have pigments mixed in for colouring (and there are a few oil soluble pigments about too, but never noted on weapons. Jeffrey is right about beeswax, its mainly for furniture and only modern repro stuff, you need something a bit lighter and finer for originals. I have original chests and hafts that I use very light polishes and wax on, never anything as heavy as linseed and then very gentle applications.

Griff

Currently working on projects ranging from Elizabethan pageants to a WW1 Tank, Victorian fairgrounds 1066 events and more. Oh and we joust loads!.. We run over 250 events for English Heritage each year plus many others for Historic Royal Palaces, Historic Scotland, the National Trust and more. If you live in the UK and are interested in working for us just drop us a line with a cv.
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Jared Smith




Location: Tennessee
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PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 4:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I would like to add that you can easily impart a "hand rubbed" finish. I like to finish my hammer handles with a light sanding and some "Danish Oil". The brand I prefer can be hard to find, but "Watco's" brand hand rubbing oil finish is a mix of polyurethane and oils that will give a hand rubbed oil patina which lasts. Light sand, and rub coats in with a lint free rag. After the first couple of coats, you may be satisfied. If you go for multiple coats, then you need to allow a full day to dry each time. Yes its cheating compared to a pure oil finish, but it looks good and lasts well enough I prefer it for my actual tools.
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Jared Smith




Location: Tennessee
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PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 4:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Also, noting your'e location Johnathan, I purchase the Watco's Danish oil finish at Lowes hardware stores, which should be in your area if you do turn out to be interested.
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 6:29 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

IIRC, some halberd hafts were just left to soak in long troughs of linseed oil, so that they were saturated. can't cite a source for that, but it might be Waldman.
-Sean

"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Jonathan Hodge




Location: East Tennessee
Joined: 18 Sep 2015

Posts: 110

PostPosted: Thu 22 Oct, 2015 7:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks all for the replies.

Jeffrey - thanks for giving several options. All of which sound very interesting and doable. I know that hafting for polearms at one point was its own skilled trade, and I wonder if there was some overlap in finishing techniques between them and the medieval carpenter, cabinet maker, etc.

Griff - thanks for sharing your experience with maintaining that oil finish on your repro hafts. You mentioned period chests and light wax...what have you found to be most effective and appropriate for those pieces?

Jared - I've really considered Danish Oil as I've used it on other projects, and I have a can of Watco's in my shed right now 😀.

Sean - I don't have direct access to Waldman's work right now, but I'm roughly familiar. From my limited understanding he's the authority on hafted weapons, and it would appear that his suggestions are the most historically appropriate.

I've found an obscure reference to a mixture that seems to be mostly pine resin mixed with wax and a small amount of pitch. This almost certainly was a varnish, and seems to be similar to known glue recipes from the period. Perhaps this mix was used to create a hardened and waterproof coating over the linseed oil? If so, I'm wondering if it lasted awhile, or perhaps was used on over-oiled or highly oiled shafts to avoid he tackiness that comes with lots of oil?
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Mark Griffin




Location: The Welsh Marches, in the hills above Newtown, Powys.
Joined: 28 Dec 2006

Posts: 801

PostPosted: Fri 23 Oct, 2015 1:40 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A note on surface finishes. Wood was never commonly sandpapered until the mid 19th cent. Although it was available from much earlier many carpenters treatise warns against it.

Wood was scraped or planed using knives, shaves and planes etc. Its possible to get it nicely smooth using these techniques. Sharkskin was also used but again, many carpenters cautioned against it. Far better to get your tool skills right than resorting to 'cheating'. Even my grandfather, working in the 50's and 60's used to cary a bit of broken glass in a leather pouch to whip off rough edges or scrape things that little bit smoother.

When we were preparing oak panels to have gesso onto them our tool of choice was an old plane blade that we'd raised a slight burr on, worked a treat.

Re the stuff i use on older items the world leader for this kind of application is Renaissance Wax

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_Wax

and I also use various products from these guys, depending on the colour and wood

http://www.liberon.co.uk/furniture,434,464.html?univer_id=12

Currently working on projects ranging from Elizabethan pageants to a WW1 Tank, Victorian fairgrounds 1066 events and more. Oh and we joust loads!.. We run over 250 events for English Heritage each year plus many others for Historic Royal Palaces, Historic Scotland, the National Trust and more. If you live in the UK and are interested in working for us just drop us a line with a cv.
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Harry Lindfors





Joined: 07 May 2008

Posts: 45

PostPosted: Fri 23 Oct, 2015 7:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Something that was also used a lot to treat wood, was tar. Not the coal or petroleum tar, but tar derived from pinewood. Mixing tar with linseed oil varnish produces tar paint. Tar paint has a translucent brownish hue and can be used to saturate and tone wood and protect it from weather. Tar paint can also be toned with various pigments, producing translucent colors and preserving the wood texture.
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Jonathan Hodge




Location: East Tennessee
Joined: 18 Sep 2015

Posts: 110

PostPosted: Fri 23 Oct, 2015 8:16 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've heard good things about Renaissance wax but haven't had any experience with it. I want to be historically accurate, but don't want to have to oil this thing all the time. I was hoping a good wax coat could help with that.

Harry, thanks for the info on tar paint. That's also something else I might look into.
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