An open shop tutorial
In my open shops we start the evening off by chatting about each of us wants to work on, and setting some loose goals. It takes a LOT of time to make good armour, so the goals are usually fairly humble. Things like gorgets and simple spaulders can be finished in a session if you have some skill and focus, but the more complex the shaping is, and the more pieces involved, the more time it takes.
From the initial plan we'll track down or derive patterns for new pieces, or get to grinding away at repairs. The more skills you come to the shop with, the more autonomy you get. So if you can work a Beverly shear, you can cut out your own pieces. If you can work a grinder, you can smooth them out. If you can dish and shape, pick up a hammer and start whacking. If you're brand new you'll get a quick safety tutorial and the basics of how the tools work. I'd much rather have you ask questions than get hurt.
We frequently have a couple good armourers in the shop who can help you with various tasks. If you're not getting the attention you need, you might have to be the louder baby bird. If it seems like I'm ignoring you it's probably not intentional. Just ask.
We'll work on these projects and get as far as we can until we have to put the hammers and grinders down at 10. This keeps my neighbors from trying to kill me. In general it's best to take your projects with you so they don't clutter up the shop, and you can make progress on them at home.
What to bring:
If you're building something brand new, bring pictures of what you're shooting for. What you're doing is essentially sculpture that has to conform to your body and move with you while people are trying to kill you, so having the final image firmly in mind and close to hand helps a great deal. Basing it on armour that people developed for that same purpose is both more effective than something you're likely to make up as a rookie armourer, and more likely to look like something medieval. Making something that looks medieval is a lot of the point, isn't it?
Bring anything that interacts with the armour you want to work on. If you're making a new gorget, bring the body armour and the helmet. If you're making new legs, bring your knee pads. Bear in mind that if you're fitting things closely that jeans aren't always the best choice. Bringing your old armour can help so we can see what worked for you in the past, and what didn't.
You're welcome to bring something to drink if you'd like, help your self to what's on tap in the beer fridge, or get some water from the kitchen.
There are only a few safety rules I'm insistent on- eye protection must be worn when you're using any of the grinding or sanding tools. They spit hot metal at you and can do permanent damage. Tiny pieces of steel that get stuck in your eye don't flush themselves out as well as we'd like, and they rust, so you'll have to have a doctor grind them out with a little dremmel. It's uncomfortable and last time I had it done it cost me about a thousand dollars. Loaner goggles are in the white rack at the back of the shop. Tinted goggles are required when welding, or assisting. Glancing at a welding flame won't instantly blind you, but too much of the radiation from that spectrum will give you welder's flash, which feels like you have sand in your eyes for a couple days and the accumulated damage can be permanent.
The door has to be open when we're using the forge. It spits out carbon monoxide which could kill us all, so ventilation is important. The fire extinguisher is on the shelf under the Beverly shears. Orange hot metal always has the right of way in the shop, and it's usually moving quickly.
As you can have half a dozen people beating sheet steel with hammers and whirling grinders, hearing protection is recommended. It's something that causes cumulative damage, so one evening of wear and tear isn't going to make you deaf. Please don't be too offended if I grab ear muffs for myself first, but you can help yourself to a loaner pair (they're under the blue vice) if there are any left.
Wear some shoes. There are sharp, twisted scraps of metal floating around which exist mostly to impale your feet. Something that covers your ankle and toes is a good idea, since every once in a while you'll have a red hot rivet or a steel scrap fly at your feet. I normally wear long pants to give a little extra safety margin. You can armour without a shirt on if you really want to, but it kinda hurts.
We work mostly in steel, and lately I tend to work mostly in spring steel for greater durability with less weight. Think of it as +2 armour. There's frequently leather work involved for straps, gloves for gauntlets and such. We can work in other materials, like aluminum which does a fair job for shields and hidden armour. I'm just more drawn to working in materials which would have been more familiar to a medieval armourer.
A word about alloys- I like working in 4130 and 410 steel, and these aren't quite like what they would have used hundreds of years ago. 4130 was concocted by the US Army to be very tough, and relatively easy to weld in the field by guys with limited training and equipment. So it can be made much harder than "mild" or simple low carbon steels. It has chromium and molybdenum in it, which only exists in trace amounts in typical iron blooms. These help it resist rusting, and work with the 30 points of carbon to allow hardening. 410 resists rusting much better, to the point where folks call it a spring stainless. To my eye, it's much less bothersome than the 300 series stainless steel that's fairly common in the SCA. Some stainless doesn't stand out so much as "not quite right" depending on how it's shaped, how clean it is, and the color of the piece. Some of it makes you look like you stumbled off an old Battlestar Galactica set. 410 has a more gray undertone like mild steel has, and as it can be encouraged to develop russet hues, (which are fortunately easy to remove) it's not hard to convince folks it's not stainless at all, but without the work of scrubbing off what look like coral reefs of rust. My squires are good to me, but they have better things to do with their time than polish my gear.
These spring steel needs to be heated uniformly red hot, then quickly quenched and tempered to have the optimal hardness and toughness. This takes extra time and equipment, but I think it's worth it.
When I first got started in the SCA I was treated very well particularly by Duke Gregor von Heisler and his squires. They invited me to their shop, put me to work, and helped me make my first armour. Honestly it was mostly their skill in exchange for my grunt work. I'd like to pay that debt forward and recreate the camaraderie I had with that crew while we make some neat stuff and get more fighters on the field. That's the core of why I do this and I hope that others are inspired by what we do to take a similar approach. Because few things in our modern world operate without some profit motive some folks are more comfortable with chipping in some cash to the cause. I can usually find you a good deal on supplies, but to be clear- I don't charge for use of the tools, help or whatever I can teach. But if you would like to donate to the shop, there's a red coffee tub under the lumber rack were you can put a few bucks. This goes toward consumables like sanding supplies, leather, steel, rivets, and sometimes tools or books.
You can see a bunch of shots of what working in the shop looks like in these entries.