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Scale Armour

(Stupidly Ambitious project no. 1)

Materials Needed:


You can buy scales precut and drilled from Armchair Armoury and The Ring Lord and LRPStore. The armourer at LRPStore estimated that around 360 scales would be required to make a vest. This means that the scales alone would cost about £150. More than I was willing to pay.

Making your own scales:First, I designed the shape of scale I wanted: at 5cm x 5cm, slightly larger than those in the precut kits. I got loads and loads of quotes for getting scales laser cut. Prices ranged from 39p per scale (mild steel, therefore would rust) to £1.35 (stainless steel with fancy engraving on each scale). This means that enough for a vest would cost you somewhere between £150 and £500. Ouch. The advantages are that you can get each scale engraved and design your own shape. Also, slightly larger scales will mean that less are required. But still too expensive for Daisy, so I decided to cut 'em myself from sheet metal. 

Sheet metal:  I looked at the very cheap sheet metal available from Chronos but didn't order from them in the end. I would definitely recommend that anyone interested in sheet metal checks them out though. They are both helpful and cheap! Instead, I got some very thin sheet metal from Middlesex university teaching resource. The sheets are 0.5mm thick, which is about half the thickness of the metal from Chronos. I was worried about the thickness, but actually, they aren't all that bendy. I got 10 silver sheets (aluminium), one 'gold' and one 'copper' (anodised aluminium). This cost about £13.50 including postage. Then, as it became apparent that this would not be enough, I got another 8 silver sheets and two more gold. Total cost for sheet metal is about £27. This gives me a max of 450 silver scales and 90 gold ones. Plenty. I'm hoping to have some left over for making matching bracers. The copper one is too red to use in the armour, but I might make greaves or something out of it.

Tin snips: I borrowed some aviation snips from a friend. They cut the metal very easily, but don't have very long blades, so you've got to take care not to get snaggy edges. Apparently to cut curves you need special snips with right or left-handed curved blades (either kind can cut straight). Aviation snips have a compound action and serrated blades to grip the metal (see picture in "Cutting the scales" below). For thin sheets like this, plain simple-action tin snips would do; they have smooth blades and a longer cut.

Material for the base of the armour

Ideally, you'd rivet the scales onto leather, but this is armour on the cheap, so I was after some cheapo inflexible fabric instead. I bought some thick, canvassy black fabric from the discount fabric shop at the Barras (Glasgow). It was only a fiver for 4 metres and is pretty much perfect for the job. (Except it wasn't on which more later... in short, use leather).

Other stuff you might need

  • Sewing machine for the under garment.
  • Hand drill or hole punch for metal - to make the holes.
  • Scrap bit of wood to punch into.
  • Rivet gun and rivets - if you're riveting rather than sewing the scales on.
  • Needle and thread/thonging - if you're sewing.
  • Another alternative might be a tagging gun (like the ones here or here.)

Making the base garment

- Cut a basic tunic shape, i.e. a square, doubled over with shoulder shaping and collar shaping cut in. For a good tunic pattern, see Tunic pattern.
- Sew up one side, and across the top of each shoulder, making a large, wide tunic.
- Cut the bottom edge to length (I wanted a V shape).
- Make any adjustments to the head hole, arm holes and length, then hem all the raw edges.
- I wanted girl-shaped armour, so put two tucks in under the chest (to make room for boobs) and brought the tunic in at the waist. Having it shaped will make it more difficult to get the scales to tessalate, but who wants ugly square armour? Not me!
- To ease getting in and out, I wanted one side open, so after drawing on the fabric with felt tip where I wanted the waist shape to be, instead of sewing it, I opened up the sewn side again and added three ties, one under the arm, one at the bottom and one in the middle. Hemmed the raw edge, so now ready to go.

Here is a picture of the base garment with a few rows of scales on the bottom: 

Cutting the scales

I cut the scales to be 5cm x 5cm, and trimmed the corners off the bottom of the square. This is because of all the armour I've looked at, I like this one the best: Please note, this is NOT my armour! It's some from Lord of the Rings. I wish mine looked this good!

The aluminium was very easy to cut, although it did bend a little bit at the corners as it's so thin. You've got to balance between easy to cut and flimsiness I suppose. It was a bit of a faff getting small squares out of larger squares as the rest of the sheet gets in the way, so I found it easier to cut one long strip off, then divide the strip into squares. There are quicker ways to cut metal if you've got access to a workshop and so forth, but I didn't.

Holes and shaping I bought a hole punch from B&Q for about a fiver. You just put it on the metal and whack it with a hammer until you get a hole. You need to batter down the other side once you have a hole as it pushes sharp bits of metal through. Each scale got only two holes (all that's necessary really). To strengthen the scales, and make the armour look more ornate, I wanted to put a bend in each scale. As they were a nice bevelled shape anyway, I chose to bend each scale in 3 directions, joining each corner. This creates a nice star shape, and looks great. I did this by simply holding the scale against a steel rule, lining up the diagonal corners and bending it with my hands. Thicker gauge metal would almost certainly need a vice for this type of shaping. 

Sewing the scales on

This was a long and laborious process. It was made more difficult by the fact that the under-garment is shaped. I would recommend leaving the tunic unsewn up one (or both) sides even if you intend to sew it up eventually, as having the fabric flat makes sewing on the scales much easier. Obviously, to get the scales to overlap, you have to start sewing at the bottom, adding each row over the top of the last. I made sure that the first row overlapped the bottom of the garment so that no black fabric will show.

Picture shows the wrong side.

I did a row of gold scales first, to border the bottom edge of the garment, then silver, bordered by gold.

I'm simply sewing each scale on with a needle and thread. I doubled the thread over, and knot after every stitch in case sharp edges fray the thread. I sew two or three stitches to the side of the hole, then two or three to the top. I'm not sure how the thread will hold up. Really, I reckon that using leather thonging would be more reliable, but, like I said, I'm doing this on the cheap. Hopefully they won't all fall off first time I wear it.

When you get more than a few rows on the bottom, you'll find it becomes much more difficult to grip each new scale in place, as the others all get in the way. When this happens, try lying the armour sideways across your lap with the head at the left and the bottom at the right. You can then hold the scale in place with your left hand by scrunching up the fabric which doesn't yet have scales on it, and you can sew by putting your right hand underneath the scales already sewn.

It is now several months later, and, despite my flatmate moving out and taking his hammer with him, I'm still going strong. I guess I'm just over halfway there. I have to say, I am pretty persistent, if you are the type of person who starts things and then gives them up, don't even comtemplate making your own scale. I like to do it whilst watching old favourite videos (you need your eyes on the sewing) or when tabletopping. It's not that hard to make time, but it does require a LOT of time!

Now Complete!

And my, it is shiny. See? 

I have now added upper arm pieces in gold. They look frickin' fantastic.

Lessons learned

What would I do differently if I was doing this project with the knowledge I have now?

  • I wouldn't cut my own scales. This more than doubles the time taken, and is really annoying. I still wouldn't pay £150 for them though.
  • Tessalating the scales at seams was really troublesome and required lots of extra trimming etc. I would probably leave the armour open at both sides, simply tying or belting it closed.
  • Edges. Take more care. Overzealous trimming lead to one or two very spiky edges. Always bend the scale over the edge before cutting!
  • It rips occasionally under the arms (well, across the chest at boob height). Strengthen under the arms if you're making some, that's where all the stress tends to manifest as you're moving your arms all the time.
  • The edges are a bit sharp. They need filing smooth so as not to risk people's latexed weapons.
  • It needs repaired quite often, I've started reinforcing the canvassy stuff with leather on the inside and riveting the plates to it for repairs. If you are considering this project, USE LEATHER as a base, not fraying fabric.

Some Web sources:


Overall verdict

A few years on, so plenty of time for thinking about it. Much as I hate to say it, not worth the effort. It WAS worth the effort of making a unique, fitted, shiny suit of armour but not the ongoing repairs... Scale is the most beautiful armour of all time. If I was doing it again: I would buy one of the RingLord's kits which are pretty cheap and do it like that.