Atli & Tadgh Make a Helm
Bruce "Atli" Blackistone -

So, Tadgh needed a helm for Anglo-Saxon Camp reenactments. Now armor does two very important things:

It keeps the insides in, and the outsides out.

But there are other factors besides protection such as materials, weight, ease of fabrication, and general style. We decided on a simplified version of the mid to late 8th century Coppergate Helm, without the cheek pieces and mail neck guard, and less decorative brass. This both simplified the construction and avoided “authenticloning” where endless copies of a single artifact show up all over the reenactment battlefield. Uniforms and uniformity are not a dark ages trait.

1) Oakley Forge in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. A small building blessed with a large scrap pile.
2) Tadgh poses with the raw material for the project: a scrapped piece of 16 gauge steel shelving and some new brass from Atlas Metal Works in Denver, Colorado.

3) A fitted paper model was created to provide a master pattern for the individual pieces of the helm. We strongly advocate that a pattern be made, and that you not rely on just “eye and feel”. (No picture, underexposed)

4) The Beverly B3 shear does a fast, straight cut on the critical brow band.
5) What the shears can’t get, the saber saw can, with a fine tooth metal cutting blade. Note the eye and hearing protectors, which are especially important when working cold metal. The sections were then “cooked” over the forge fire to help remove the paint and normalize the metal. All edges were then filed; more so on the sawn pieces than on the sheared ones. (Remember that parts of this are in contact with the face and head, so sharp or rough edges would be most unwelcome.)
6) Tadgh works on a paper pattern for the dragon (a proper Anglo-Saxon “wyrm”) which will decorate and strengthen the nasal (nose guard).
7) Rounding the brow band over the horn of the anvil.
8) Held in the vise, and clamped with Vise Grips ™ for drilling.
9) Peening the rivets, first straight. . .
10) . . .and then cross-wise. Rivets were modified from common 10d ungalvanized nails and tinned roofing nails, as needed. The heads go on the inside so that there is lots of room to swing the hammers. Rivets were finished up with a ball peen and the cup of the rivet set.
11) The basic frame, brow band and ridge band, finished. Now is the time to check the fit and clearances, remembering that a padded hood or a snood cap and mail will have to fit between the helm and the head.
12) Cutting out the "wyrm".
13) After trying various shears on the irregular lines of the heavy gauge brass, it was found that a hammer and cold chisel were faster. The aluminum backing plate came from a scrapped steam iron, and has proved remarkably durable.
14) Working at the stump on the sidepieces that will run from the crest band to the brow band. These pieces have to curve two ways at once. Cross strokes with the convex planishing hammer will curl it upwards. Hits down the length will curl it from side to side. There is a small dishing hollow in the stump, about 1” across, and this was alternated, as needed, with the more level part of the stump to form the compound curve. Note the heavy leather gloves, to protect the hands from vibration as much as from sharp edges. Once these were riveted on I used the "cannon ball" stake to round the edges a bit more inward for the gores.
15) The gores: Each gore had to be measured and fitted individually. A pattern was made using aluminum foil (able to hold a semblance of a three-dimensional shape) and carefully marked (right front, left front, left rear, right rear, left rear, inside, outside…) as to the position when wearing it. (If you mark it as if you’re looking at it, you’ll get switched up when you turn it from front to back, so your “left rear” ends up on the same side as your “right front”! Trust me!) After working out the gores I added ¼” all around to the pattern. This was a little close, and next time I’ll give it at least 3/8”. Shown in the picture is the foil pattern, a cut out blank, the finished gore, riveting and ball peen hammers, and a really useful deep C-clamp. The 60# “field expedient” stake is shown held down to the anvil. Just beyond it are several stumps and the "cannon ball" stake used inside the bands and gores for edge rounding and planishing out the deeper ball peen dings.
16) The gore is clamped on and the center hole is drilled to rivet the base to the brow band. Position is critical. If something slips, don’t fudge it; go back and make sure it’s right.
17) The gore base is attached with three rivets and now there’s one rivet on each side to start "walking" the gore into place.
18) Rounding off the last rivet with the concave section of the rivet set. Note that the "field expedient" stake is clamped in the vice, it’s bottom L sitting on the floor. It was switched back and forth between the anvil and vice as needed. Over 66 rivets were used in the helm.
19) The dragon (wyrm) with test pieces punched. We used various nail sets, letters, numbers and our own punches to develop the pattern.

21) The helm was blued over an outdoor gas barbecue grill, with touchups from a propane torch while it was still hot. WD-40 ® was applied after it was removed and had cooled down below the ignition point. The dragon was attached by rivets and brass wire formed into staples and running along the spine.

22) So, after about 36 ½ man-hours of labor, Tadgh goes to Hastings and gets nailed through the body by some Norman horseman with a lance. Sic transit gloria mundi! I guess a mail byrnie will be the next project.
So, the one helm was the result of almost a man-week of labor. And that was using finished raw materials (we didn’t have to pound an iron bar into a 16 gauge sheet) and modern drills and power equipment. Using bow drills and simple bits, and forging each rivet, it might take three weeks or more. Now I admit we lost time due to lack of experience, and reinventing the wheel always takes longer, and this could all be speeded up with jigs and presses, but it still makes you appreciate how much work went into wargear, and how valuable it really was. The helm developed a little boxier than we wanted, but Tadgh has a large head, and some of the plates were formed in his absence.

Subsequent to constructing the helm I obtained a copy of:

The Anglian Helm from Coppergate by Dominic Tweddle; © York Archaeology Trust for Excavation and Research, 1992; Council for British Archaeology, 112 Kennington Road, London, SE11 6RE, Great Britain; ISBN 1 872414 19 2
. This is a wonderful book, and comes complete with an analysis of contemporary and Anglo-Saxon helms. It also contains full-scale plans, enabling the more talented and ambitious to create a complete replica. In our version we left off the cheek pieces and the mail skirt for speed and simplicity. We also rotated the brow-band joint from front to rear for extra strength, to eliminate possibly irritating rivets in the forehead area, and because that’s the way I’ve always done it!

We hope that this information will inspire Marklanders, Scadians and other medievalists in their own projects, and save them some time in the avoidance of mistakes. An earlier attempt at a helm that we tried may well end up as a riveted cook pot!

Copyright © 2000 Bruce Blackistone
Copyright © 2000 Jock Dempsey,
All Rights Reserved

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