Making storage scabbards

How to restore antique arms & repair practice swords.

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Graham Cave
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Making storage scabbards

Post by Graham Cave » Tue Apr 03, 2007 3:09 pm

I want to make a storage scabbard for an antique duanjian. As this is for safety and to protect the blade, not for decoration, I had envisaged making a simple scabbard with no metalwork and no finish.

Can anyone tell me which woods are suitable for this?

How loose should the sword be in the scabbard?

Should the wood be sealed to reduce fluctuation in moisture levels?

What is the best way to go about making it?

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storage scabbard basics

Post by Philip Tom » Sat Apr 14, 2007 4:18 pm

Best woods to use for plain storage sheaths (not mounted with metal fittings or covered with leather or other decorative/protective surfacing:
1. Poplar
2. Alder
3. Magnolia
These are reasonably dense, close-grained, non-acidic deciduous woods that (when properly seasoned) are stable and warp-resistant. They are also easy to work and take an attractive finish.
Poplar and alder are commonly available at hardwoods dealers in many parts of the US, Canada, and probably the UK as well. Magnolia is essentially similar to the "ho" wood used by the Japanese for shirasayas (storage scabbards) and is harder to find.

The planks used should be kiln dried (I keep boards an additional 2-3 yr in my garage for additional curing before using them), and straight grained (without knots or waves).

A blade should slide in and out smoothly and without hindrances of any kind, and only fit snugly in place for the last 1/2 to 3/4 inch or so of travel before being fully seated. When completely sheathed, the scabbard wood is in contact with the blade only a the very tip (mainly along the edges, or edge/back in case of a saber, and somewhat less along the sides of the tip), and at the throat. There should be "air space" all around the remainder of the blade length. The channel needs to be laid out and cut with this in mind.

When fully seated, you should be able to hold the sword vertically, hilt down, and it should not fall out. Also, sideways pressure on the hilt should not cause the tip end to "wag" back and forth in the channel.

Blades should be straightened out, and enough foundation polish done to get their edge contours to final shape before fitting a scabbard. Jian need to be symmetrical, otherwise the blade may fit going in one way, and not the other.

Jian are simpler to lay out-- place the blade on the pre-cut wood pieces and carefully scribe the outline as accurately as possibly. Sabers are tricky -- you need to lay out on thin cardboard to make a template. First scribe the outline, then re-draw with the blade pulled out inch by inch to get the final outline of the channel.

Good chisels, well-sharpened, of proper widths are essential. Scabbard makers used blades which are ground with a slight "bull nose" (convexity) so that the channel is cut slightly concave; this helps maintain the "air space" between wood and sword, preventing the blade from rubbing on the inside of the scabbard. Power driven routers won't work for this task, since the channel varies by width and depth all along its length. Scabbard making requires a well-developed facility with hand tools.

Needless to say, frequent trial fits are needed. Keep a number of alligator clips on hand to hold the scabbard halves together when trying the fit.

The exterior can be shaped after gluing using planes and files. Plane blades should be kept razor sharp, and as you get close to final contour, set them to remove as thin a shaving as possible.

NEVER, I REPEAT 'NEVER' USE SANDPAPER TO FINISH THE BLADE CHANNEL SURFACES. THE ABRASIVE RESIDUE WILL REMAIN IN THE WOOD AND SCRATCH YOUR BLADE!!! IF YOU MUST FINISH-SAND THE OUTSIDE OF THE SCABBARD, SEAL THE MOUTH WITH TAPE FIRST.

As regards sealing the outside of the scabbard after it's finished, I'm partial to a hand-rubbed linseed oil finish (1 part boiled linseed oil to 1 part gum turpentine), finished with a good paste wax. However, matte (non glossy) polyurethane is quicker and looks great if carefully applied.
Phil

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Re: storage scabbard basics

Post by Graham Cave » Sun Apr 15, 2007 10:45 am

Philip Tom wrote:
As regards sealing the outside of the scabbard after it's finished, I'm partial to a hand-rubbed linseed oil finish (1 part boiled linseed oil to 1 part gum turpentine), finished with a good paste wax. However, matte (non glossy) polyurethane is quicker and looks great if carefully applied.
I stopped using boiled linseed oil when I discovered that heavy metal salts ( includung cadmium ) are used as 'driers'. An alternative oil finish is Osmo Polyx-Oil, it is Eco-friendly, durable and easier to use than polyurethane - not tried it yet but I know a cabinetmaker who rates it very highly and uses little else on his furniture. Of course, one could use the traditional method of raw linseed oil and turpentine - it doesn't contain the heavy metal salts but it takes forever to dry.

N.B. If you are using rags to apply oil then they must be destroyed afterwards or kept in an airthight jar as they are liable to spontaneous combustion.

Thanks for the reply - great to have such detailed information!

Graham

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Post by Euan » Fri Nov 16, 2007 3:04 pm

Graham, what kind of wood did you use?

Poplar and alder aren't easy to find in the UK.

I've got a militia jian to make a handle and storage scabbard for. As Chinese Elm was often used for the handles, I am thinking of using elm for both.

Does anyone know how similar/different European and Chinese Elm are?

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Post by Graham Cave » Fri Nov 16, 2007 5:34 pm

Euan wrote:Graham, what kind of wood did you use?

Poplar and alder aren't easy to find in the UK.
Hi Euan, I'm still trying to get around to that job! American yellow poplar is widely available in the UK under the name of tulipwood (liriodendron tulipifera). I've also seen it sold as magnolia. You might have problems getting hold of small quantities though. I had intended to check with Philip Tom before purchasing any as names of woods can sometimes be misleading.
I've got a militia jian to make a handle and storage scabbard for. As Chinese Elm was often used for the handles, I am thinking of using elm for both.

Does anyone know how similar/different European and Chinese Elm are?
European elm can be quite variable in its appearance but would be structurally suitable for handles. It may abrasive and therefore not suitable for scabbards - again Philip Tom will be able to give you a better idea about that. It is generally darker than unpatinated Chinese elm that I've seen but apart from that I don't know what distinguishes it.

Another wood to consider is European Ash, a traditional favourite for tool handles. Light in colour when freshly cut but darkens with age, especially with an oil finish. I have Victorian gardening tools with ash handles that look virtually identical in grain and colour to to the handle of an antique dao which I have. You would want to select a piece of ash which has a convoluted, coarse grain as ash sometimes has a very tight, straight grain which would look quite different - even after patination.

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tulipwood/magnolia

Post by Philip Tom » Sun Nov 18, 2007 1:20 pm

The wood sold under those names in the UK should work fine for scabbards if they are identical to American yellow poplar. I've found poplar to have a similar grain type and working characteristics to the Japanese magnolia (ho) wood used for samurai sword scabbards and hilts.

For scabbard work, look for pieces with the straightest grain possible, and free of knots. Most of the timber of this type is kiln-dried before being marketed, but the moisture content can vary. Look for pieces of board which are lighter than others, and emit a clear, ringing "bonk" when rapped with a knuckle. These would be dryer. I always like to buy timber well in advance of anticipated use, and prefer to let it season further in my garage for a year or more. I just finished a group of scabbards using alder which I've had for 4 years, and it was a pleasure to shape and smooth using edge tools.
Phil

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Post by Euan » Mon Nov 19, 2007 10:27 am

Thanks for the replies, lots of good info there.

Tulipwood seems relatively easy to find!

Would the tulipwood/yellow poplar make an appropriately "authentic" handgrip for a militia style jian?
It seems quite light in colour and one of the militia ones I've seen, seemed quite red coloured, another was lighter - a bit like ash.

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grips for "militia" weapons

Post by Philip Tom » Mon Nov 19, 2007 10:12 pm

Considering that these swords were probably made by local blacksmiths and tool-makers, I don't see why poplar won't be a suitable wood. I would imagine that the grips were made of the same types of available timber that were utilized on domestic tools and furniture. Chinese elm was widely used for furnishings, gun stocks, and all sorts of workaday objects. I have a carpenter's plane with an elm handle and a body made of some sort of fruitwood, having a very dense grain (similar in color to poplar but a bit harder). Several antique chisels and adzes in my tool cabinet have handles made of a variety of woods - some are elm, others of the close-grained deciduous timber similar to that of the plane block.
Phil

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Re: Making storage scabbards

Post by bond_fan » Thu Dec 04, 2008 6:15 pm

I was wondering if an exotic hardwood like cocobolo would be good for making a scabbard and/or handle for a jian as well? I have some really nice pieces of cocobolo I got from a local exotic hardwood seller and I know that this wood is commonly used for knife scales. It seems like a nice match to use two long pieces for the scabbard and any excess for the handle, that way the handle wood grain would continue down the scabbard?

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Post by Philip Tom » Thu Dec 04, 2008 8:44 pm

An exotic hardwood such as this might be OK for a nice jian with artistic fittings, not one of those rough militia types discussed above. The continuity of grain is not significant because the scabbard chape, and the guard and ferrule on the hilt, provide enough of an interruption that the effect won't be noticeable. If you're going through the trouble of using hardwood, I would suggest something more authentic, such as various SE Asian rosewoods which you see on antique swords occasionally. Most of the standard reference books on Chinese furniture will discuss these woods (Pterocarpus and Dahlbergia families) so I'll not repeat the info here.

I'm not a fan of any hardwoods for scabbards becaue there's a greater tendency to rub and scratch a finely polished finish. There's a reason the Japanese and Persians used softer woods for their scabbards (as is the case with most Chinese swords as well)
Phil

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