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Craig Peters

PostPosted: Sun 11 Jun, 2017 11:20 pm    Post subject: Plank & Plywood Shields         Reply with quote

It is well established that antique medieval shields were constructed from planks, rather than from a single piece of wood. What I am wondering though is how a plank construction, versus a plywood construction, impacts the usage of a shield for historic European martial arts.

Is there any difference to the weight with plywood as opposed to planks? (I would imagine not, but Iím not certain). What about the way the shield feels and handles in hand? Is one form of construction more durable than the other? Are there other differences that I have not considered?

What I really want to know is if using a plywood shield distorts our understanding of sword and shield technique from a practical sense.
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Jeffrey Faulk

Location: Georgia
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PostPosted: Mon 12 Jun, 2017 11:51 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

First off: I'm a woodworker with an interest in HEMA, not the other way around. My knowledge is strictly theoretical with a minimum of practice, apart from having made a few shields (some with a press, one flat Viking type shield out of plywood when I was a kid).

Weight of plywood versus planks depends greatly on what species of wood we're talking about here and the composition of said plywood. Lauan plywood is pretty light, lignum-vitae wood is pretty heavy. IIRC traditionally European shields were often made from linden or basswood? This is a relatively soft 'hardwood', similar to American poplar in weight. If you were making a shield from, say, cheap 1/2" thick pine plywood, then certainly it could be heavier than a linden-plank shield. Conversely a shield glued up from two layers of 3/16" lauan would come out a bit lighter than a planked shield made out of, say, ash or hickory (if someone was trying to select for durability; ash and hickory are tough hardwoods).

With modern glues, I would argue that likely a plywood shield is more durable than a plank shield; you have many more layers of cross-laid thin veneers counteracting edged blows, while a planked shield is more likely to split when struck along the grain. Of course, that's why shields are edged and covered, to help minimize said splitting, but conversely, an edged and covered plywood shield should be even tougher than an edged and covered planked shield, IMO.

The question also arises about how we're planking the shield. Is it one layer of edge jointed planks? Is it two layers of cross-laid thin planks? Or more (ironically, creating a primitive form of plywood)?

The caveat here is of course that you should select good quality plywood if you're looking to make a tough, durable shield, and use good quality glues, and have a certain degree of craftsmanship in order to make sure the shield is well put together. The tradeoff is in cost-- time and skill-- but it does take less skill (IMO) to make a decent plywood shield versus a decent planked shield. Making a plywood shield is basically an exercise in cutting it out, putting it in a press in layers if you're doing that, and then fitting it out. Planked shields on the other hand require more joinery as you're trying to connect discrete pieces of wood into a large enough form that you can cut out the appropriate shape.

As for how it feels in hand: The primary difference is that you can't really shape plywood like you can solid wood. Viking shields, IIRC, were tapered from center to rim. I don't know if medieval shields were shaped in the same way. A plywood shield, whether flat or curved, is going to be very consistent in thickness across the whole surface. As such, if it's a type that's supposed to vary in thickness from one point to another, that would be historically inaccurate.

Again, I don't know if medieval shields were shaped the same way; certainly Viking shields were. Greek shields... let's not even go there, that's a whole other story as far as woodworking goes.

I would say that as far as sword and shield techniques go, -in my opinion- it would not distort the techniques significantly for -most- people to use a plywood shield as the difference in weight and handling would not be significant from a planked shield. Once you got to a very high level of skill and started really digging into it at a fundamental level like for example Roland Warcheza, then sure, a planked shield would be more appropriate. Conversely one could say that at that level of skill, techniques could be developed that optimize the weight distribution and handling of a plywood shield in order to take advantage of its increased durability.
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Scott Woodruff

Joined: 30 Nov 2005
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PostPosted: Mon 12 Jun, 2017 12:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

My personal experience is that there can be a large difference, depending on what sort of coverings are used and what type of weapons are being used in which way against the shield. When the coverings are light, such as one layer of linen or a light layer of veggie-tanned leather,gut or thin rawhide, the difference between single board or plank construction and plywood is very noticeable, especially when arrows, javelins, spear or sword thrusts and sword or axe cuts line up with the grain direction of the wood. As coverings get heavier, such as 3 or more layers of linen overlaid with rawhide, or when heavier rims of rawhide or metal are used the difference is much less noticeable. When it comes to fighting techniques, I find that plywood shields are a totally different animal from plank, especially when it comes to catching and binding sharp points and blades. Using blunts and plywood shields is a completely different experience from using a plank shield against a sharp blade. So yes, I would say that in my own personal experience, plywood shields strongly distort our understanding of sword and shield technique. As to weight, I think that the degree of taper or thinning toward the edges is the most important thing to take into account, rather than differences in weight between plywood and plank. Birch and pine plywood both seem to fall neatly in between the weights of lighter historically accurate woods like linden or poplar and heavier woods such as oak.
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Jeffrey Faulk

Location: Georgia
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PostPosted: Mon 12 Jun, 2017 1:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I should note that there is one factor I forgot about: Elasticity (if that's the right word). I'm not sure if I can explain it adequately, but here goes...

Plywood is multiple layers of wood veneer glued together across their *entire* surface, both top and bottom (the outside layers of veneer are only glued on the one side, obviously). This means that these veneers are extremely rigid and stiff. Certainly the plywood flexes-- it's not THAT stiff-- but it is definitely going to be more rigid than solid wood, particularly solid wood that has been tapered. When force is placed upon the plywood, the *entire* surface of the plywood is placed under stress because the glued layers of veneer pull against each other.

To illustrate: imagine laying down two strips of clear tape on a flat surface. One strip is rubbed down along its length, the other is only rubbed down at the very end to adhere it. Which one is easier to pull up? (it's not a perfect illustration but I hope it clarifies to some degree what's going on with the plywood)

Solid wood on the other hand only has its grain structure to give it strength versus multiple layers of veneer and glue. This means that the boards are naturally going to be more flexible and will give way in different manners, depending on how it's shaped, struck, and reinforced.
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Graham Shearlaw

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PostPosted: Mon 12 Jun, 2017 3:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The use of a plied or plywood construction has a major advantage as it stops the wood from spiting along the grain.
A plank shield needs something to hold split parts together, be it a facing or some kind longitudinal reinforcing from the hand grip or as in some cases iron reinforcing bars.
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Leo Todeschini
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PostPosted: Tue 13 Jun, 2017 12:01 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A ply while will be tougher and and is usually made from some exotic hardwoods that are usually heavier than the poplar or lime that they are or would generally be made from, so the density of a ply shield will generally be higher.

Ply is tough because of the cross grain nature and historically this (I think) would have been a great advantage. The reason I think this, is that with the single oriented grain to a planked shield, a direct blow along the grain line could much more easily split the shield so the bearer must pay attention to the direction a blow is coming from and the orientation of their shield. In essence another thing to think about.

A ply shield can be tapered toward the edges.


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