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Christopher B Lellis




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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 9:27 am    Post subject: Did Medieval swords have a protective coating on the steel?         Reply with quote

In so many historical paintings in books that I have read through the artist usually colors unsheathed swords as darkish blue, gray or even black. This is not the color of bare steel.

Did they coat the steel in a protective layer? Some sort of paint maybe that resists rust and fouling on swords?
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Eugeny Davidov




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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 9:56 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Interesting. Swords in reality are not blue. When i was a child i was drawing pictures of medeival battles and i remember i used tinits of blue to paint armour and swords. There is just no other way to paint the sword. And those days i hadn't seen any real manuscripts, blue swords were just natural in painting.
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 10:04 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have read that in some cases what you're seeing is tarnished silver.
-Sean

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Christopher B Lellis




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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 10:12 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Flynt wrote:
I have read that in some cases what you're seeing is tarnished silver.


That could be it as well although coating steel in silver seems odd to me for battle purposes. Silver is pretty soft, unless it was a very fine layer of silver to act as a protecting layer for the steal. I don't believe silver rusts.
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Craig Johnson
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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 10:31 am    Post subject: Silver         Reply with quote

The tarnished silver was on the page or art. They used the metal as part of the illustration i.e. gold or silver leaf. Thus over time the silver turns black.

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Craig
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Christopher B Lellis




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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 10:33 am    Post subject: Re: Silver         Reply with quote

Craig Johnson wrote:
The tarnished silver was on the page or art. They used the metal as part of the illustration i.e. gold or silver leaf. Thus over time the silver turns black.

Best
Craig


Ahhhh, well there is an angle to it I was totally blindsided by. That explains a lot.

The silver is actually IN the paint used in the art. Never would have thought that Razz
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Edward Lee




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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 10:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Some of the helmets were painted blue too, and mail had less colors. I assume it was an art style of the period.
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Aaron O'Bryan-Herriott




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PostPosted: Fri 18 Apr, 2014 11:05 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christopher, I have noticed the same thing, also with respect to armour. And I agree with you in that I think the references do make visual distinctions in some cases between a light grey (what I imagine to be bare steel) and a darker blue or black (which I happen to think was likely a finish as in blueing).
Old blacksmithing books from the last century almost always include a discussion or mention of finishes for iron and steel... There are as many "formulas" as there were blacksmiths, but the general theme which I take away from this is that in the past and potentially continuing all the way back to the medieval period, blacksmiths/armourers/swordsmiths would have considered a finish of some sort as just a natural part of what they did. Of course this is an assumption! But to me, given the obvious nature of the oxidation issues with iron, a finish for high value items would have been a pretty natural choice. I'm sure there would have been trends through different periods and in different regions, etc, but my guess is that there would always have been those who relied on oiling the metal and those who would swear by a finish (likely in conjunction with oiling, IMO).
I have a copy of the "Old Testament Miniatures" book, which is usually referred to as the Maciejowski bible and which has some fantastic images of late 13th century arms and armour (in the context of the Old Testament). Now I know that this is conjecture, but it ~seems~ to me that there are obvious distinctions being made between different hues of the metal. Of particular note is the constant distinction between blue and white. For example swords are almost always shown as having a blue center and white (or light blue) cutting edges. Now to some people this would simply be a way of indicating the shape of the blade, to me it could also be that the blade was originally blued and that the edges, being sharpened and used often, would very quickly become bare. There are also cases where helms are shown with certain parts (like bands on spangenhelms) white and certain others blue. This could be an indication that they blued certain parts for flair as well as for surface protection...
Other colours are also shown throughout, mostly with respect to helms; gold, yellow, green and red being prominent and I think the general consensus on this is that they were actually painted rather than being "finished". But there are also pages where some of the knights are shown wearing helms which are entirely white, while others beside them wear helms of a dark blue. This could either be white paint, or bare steel IMO.
I have also noticed paintings in other sources depicting the Hundred Years War (these I think, were mostly 15th century paintings) where the armies are shown densely packed in groups and almost all of the armour and some of the arms are shown absolutely definitively as black, however other items in said paintings are grey, grey-blue and light blue, etc... common colours associated with bare steel... yet the artist clearly chose to depict the armour and arms and black. I would have to find, scan and present references to support these interpretations, but in order to quickly respond to your comment, I simply wanted to say that I agree with you in that there certainly appears to be room for discussion on this issue...
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Mike Ruhala




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PostPosted: Sat 19 Apr, 2014 2:03 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've often wondered if they might have used a process essentially similar to seasoning cast iron on Medieval swords. The color can vary according to what kind of fat or oil is used, how many layers are applied, temperature, etc and seasoning can be done at temperatures that wouldn't affect the heat treatment. It's a thin and slick coating that shouldn't have an impact on cutting ability but it would provide a worthwhile boost in corrosion resistance and it'd be easily maintainable by the end user.
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Shahril Dzulkifli




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PostPosted: Sun 20 Apr, 2014 8:47 pm    Post subject: Did Medieval swords have a protective coating on the steel?         Reply with quote

Hmmmm.....
I guess medieval swords do not have a protective coating on the steel. Maybe that's the sky reflected on the blade that gives it the blue colour.

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength”

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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 21 Apr, 2014 1:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Pigments change colour over time. Just because it is blue today doesn't mean that it was blue when freshly painted.
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Mart Shearer




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PostPosted: Mon 21 Apr, 2014 6:10 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:
Pigments change colour over time. Just because it is blue today doesn't mean that it was blue when freshly painted.


A fine listing can be found in this paper of medieval pigments and the effects on them.
https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~cochinea/pdfs/a-baker-04-pigments.pdf
A few examples:
Quote:
There have been few cases of ultramarine turning a gray or yellowish-gray from
“ultramarine sickness.” It has been proposed that atmospheric sulfur dioxide and moisture are
the cause for this discoloration (Feller vol. 2).
------------
Lead white is a basic lead carbonate soluble in dilute nitric and acetic acid. Lead white
shows remarkable permanence and is unaffected by light. Hydrogen sulfide in the air can cause
the pigment to turn black perhaps because of the formation of lead dioxide.


Most of the sulfer compounds in the air come from extensive coal burning.

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Jeffrey Faulk




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PostPosted: Mon 21 Apr, 2014 8:45 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's important to note that as swords were prestige items for most of their history, as indeed many weapons were, they would have been maintained with care in the time that they were used. If they were stored away for years in an armoury, then they might tarnish and rust, but once taken out they would have been polished up for use again.

Those that could afford to purchase swords could afford to take care of the blades themselves or have someone do it for them; those who got swords in other ways would be unlikely to get another sword the same way again (picking it up on the battlefield) so they would take care of the sword they had. Coatings tend to be fairly thin and easily scratched or rubbed, unless they're an intensive modern process or something along the lines of the black finish that blacksmiths can render on iron.

So as a practical matter I very much doubt that there would have been any coating or finish placed upon the blade of most weapons other than oil or wax. There was no real reason to do so with the technology they had at the time.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Tue 22 Apr, 2014 2:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Trying to use the colour in a medieval illustration to give us any details about the gear they carried is an exercise in futility. These things are not photos and can't be interpreted the same way.
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Robin Smith




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PostPosted: Tue 22 Apr, 2014 8:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The viking sword from Bath has what is believed to be an original deliberate chemical blackening of the blade.



I forget the details exactly, but the metallurgical report indicates the black finish is likely original and is not the product of environmental oxidation. The authors of the report speculate that it may have been created with tannic acid, or perhaps urine.

If I remember correctly, there is atleast one other "viking" period sword with a similar black finish, though it escapes me which example that is exactly at the moment.

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine
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Christopher B Lellis




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PostPosted: Tue 22 Apr, 2014 11:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Robin Smith wrote:
The viking sword from Bath has what is believed to be an original deliberate chemical blackening of the blade.



I forget the details exactly, but the metallurgical report indicates the black finish is likely original and is not the product of environmental oxidation. The authors of the report speculate that it may have been created with tannic acid, or perhaps urine.

If I remember correctly, there is atleast one other "viking" period sword with a similar black finish, though it escapes me which example that is exactly at the moment.



That's very interesting. Maybe it's not only the change in the paint on the paintings after all. There are plenty of swords colored outright black just like viking sword actually is yet the faces of the men at arms are white just like a European looks and the sky is blue, and the grass on the battlefield is green.

Yet the swords are BLACK or some other non metallic color. I wonder if this coloring of the steel was more widespread than is currently thought.
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Bernard Delor




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PostPosted: Wed 23 Apr, 2014 3:05 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The blackening of the steel is a natural oxidation process that occurs with any non-stainless blade (mean any ancient blade, by the way).
The color depends on the chemical allied elements that can be naturally presents in the steel because of the composition of the ore.
Also, the blacksmiths know how to play the heat treatment temperatures to obtain some colors of the steel. This can affect the physical characteristics of the blade in some cases, and make them unsuitable for use but remains fine for ceremonial use.
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Bjorn Hagstrom




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PostPosted: Wed 23 Apr, 2014 3:26 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I would say that if there was surface treatments for iron and steel blades in use, we would have more sources than illuminations or painted sculpture to go by.

It would likely have been mentioned in inventories, sagas, in any military documents, laws concerning militia and their equipment (such as the gulating law), and maybe some mention in books like Teophilus: "De divers artibus" and as far as I can tell, there is nothing of the sort.

Also remember that paint and color in this time is decided by many factors, where realism is just one. You have to factor in:

Symbolism
Cultural conventions
Pigment availability
Pigment price
Pigment suitability for the medium it is applied on

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Robin Smith




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PostPosted: Wed 23 Apr, 2014 6:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Bernard Delor wrote:
The blackening of the steel is a natural oxidation process that occurs with any non-stainless blade (mean any ancient blade, by the way).
The color depends on the chemical allied elements that can be naturally presents in the steel because of the composition of the ore.
Also, the blacksmiths know how to play the heat treatment temperatures to obtain some colors of the steel. This can affect the physical characteristics of the blade in some cases, and make them unsuitable for use but remains fine for ceremonial use.

Yes, on most swords this is true. But in the example above, the metallurgical analysis of the sword showed that the black coating in this case was likely NOT natural oxidation and was "a deliberate surface finish at the time of manufacture". If you are interested track down a copy of Archeology in Bath 1976-1985 (pg1-3 and microfiche)

The other example I was thinking of was an example taken from the Thames at Wallingford (Evison 1968 160-188)

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Robin Smith




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PostPosted: Wed 23 Apr, 2014 6:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christopher B Lellis wrote:
That's very interesting. Maybe it's not only the change in the paint on the paintings after all. There are plenty of swords colored outright black just like viking sword actually is yet the faces of the men at arms are white just like a European looks and the sky is blue, and the grass on the battlefield is green.

Yet the swords are BLACK or some other non metallic color. I wonder if this coloring of the steel was more widespread than is currently thought.

Black in a manuscript is most likely the result of silver leaf used in the illumination oxidizing. I would not take it as a sign that the sword is being depicted as black. Far more likely, it was intended to be illuminated with silver leaf, and over the centuries the silver in the illumination has oxidized.

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine
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