The following is one of my very first Internet publications concerning riveted maille.  I have it here to show my beginnings; much of this I no longer consider accurate or applicable, but some of it is.

The Secret in the Maille
An article on Riveted Chain Armor
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1998 Steven E. Sheldon

If one were going to name one type of armor that would be considered “universal” to warriors of the time period represented in the SCA, it would arguably be maille.  Maille armor was used by the Romans, possibly obtained from their encounters with the Celts, and continued to be used as fighting armor even into the early 20th century.  This puts maille easily within the time frame of the SCA, and in fact, one might be hard pressed to find a warrior from our time frame that did wear some form of maille armor.

Why then, do we see so little of maille on our fields of battle?  Aside from the occasional camail, coif, or bishop’s mantle, maille is virtually ignored by our fighters.  The reason, I believe is two-fold, though because one of the reasons is a consequence of the other, it boils down to one reason: for the protection maille armor affords, it weighs too much.  I will discuss these two problems briefly, and then get to the “solution”, riveted maille.

Firstly, it is important to understand the kind of attack that maille armor is designed to protect one from.  Being that maille virtually provides the area covered on a fighter with a skin of metal, it provides a very good defense against getting cut.  But, like skin, maille is very flexible, and does not provide much protection at all against heavy blows, such as those delivered by a “mass weapon”, such as a mace, or a rattan sword.  It is true that maille hanging like a curtain will absorb some energy from a blow.  Examples of this type of defense are a camail hanging from the edge of a helm, a skirt of maille hanging off the hips, or a kevlar curtain hanging inside the doorframe of a bulletproof automobile.  But as a body defense, where maille lays directly against the body, maille is ill suited for protecting the wearer against mass weapon blows.

Secondly, one must consider the weight of the type of maille most of us are familiar with, which is butted maille.  Butted maille is heavy because it derives its strength from the strength of the wire of which the rings are made, without the benefit of a rivet holding the butted ends together.  What this means is that there is a direct relationship between the gauge (thickness) of wire used to make the rings and how large in diameter the rings can be made and still be strong enough not to pull apart.  My experience has shown that most SCA butted maille rings will have an inside diameter (I.D.) of 5/16” to 3/8”, and at this diameter, one needs to use 14 gauge wire to get the needed strength.  One can make the rings smaller in diameter, and get away with a higher gauge wire (smaller thickness), but this increases the number of rings in a piece of armor, increasing assembly time and causing negligible change in the weight of the piece.  Conversely, one can make the rings larger in diameter, but one would need to choose a smaller gauge wire (greater thickness) to preserve the strength of the ring.  While assembly time would decrease as the piece would use fewer rings, the weight change would again probably be negligible due to the thicker wire. 

So, it is easy to understand why one does not see more of maille on the SCA combat field.  It doesn’t afford much protection, and it’s heavy.  For all practical purposes, it is a decoration.  Fighters don’t mind wearing decorations, but they’re not going to fight under a fifty pound steel blanket, even if it does look cool.  The solution to this dillema?  Riveted, instead of butted, maille.

Riveted maille gets around the Gauge/I.D. ratio problem mentioned above because rather than relying on the thickness of wire for ring strength, it uses a rivet to essentially make the rings solid.  Because of this, one can use wire perhaps as much as half the thickness as would be used in butted maille, for the same ring diameter.  This immediately cuts the weight of a given piece in half.  One can also increase the diameter of the rings used, which decreases assembly time by lowering the ring count and again cuts the weight of the piece.  Increasing the diameter of the rings to 3/8” or larger does make a 4-in-1 weave seem a little “open”, but since this is a decoration and we aren’t terribly concerned with real arrows or spear points going through it, it’s O.K.

Enough of the arguments for riveted maille.  Let’s get on to the business of how it’s done.

First of all, it is not the intention of this article to explain how to “knit” maille.  There are many resources, particularly on the web, which fully detail how to weave rings of metal into the standard 4-in-1, 6-in-1, or other patterns.  Rather, this article will assume that the reader has a basic knowledge of how to construct butted maille, and instead explain the details specific to riveted maille.  An excellent web page, Sara’s Chainmail Connection, can be found at http://goddess.coe.missouri.edu/~sara/chainmail.

Secondly, you aren’t going to find any historical references called out by this article.  I have undertaken no formal research about maille, though I have read quite a bit about armor in general.  From what I have read, when most works on armor mention maille, the most detailed an explanation you get is, “They wound the rings, they flattened the rings, they punched a hole in the flats, and set a rivet in the hole”.  Well, no kidding.  But this information is next to useless for actually reconstructing maille armor.  To reconstruct riveted maille I have basically used the trial and error approach.  I have tried to stick to two goals: one, provide a construction technique that anyone who can use hand tools can duplicate, and two, find a construction technique as close to authentic as possible, with emphasis on rule #1.  I guess there is actually a third goal, and that is that the end result looks authentic, regardless of any authentic construction deviations.

Thirdly, the obligatory comment on safety.  You will be working with sharp, pointy, red-hot, and brittle metal.  Wear safety glasses during all operations of maille making.

Supplies:

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 Soft 16GA wire (suggested; use whatever you desire to make the maille rings with)

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Steel straight pins (the kind used for sewing)

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8” Linesman’s pliers

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Carpenter’s pliers (Stanley, part number 84-185)

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8 ounce ball peen hammer

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40 ounce ball peen hammer

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Small wire cutters (small end nippers or side dikes work well)

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Cooper-Wiss M3 aviation shears (or similar wire-cutting tool, for cutting rings from coils)

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Exacto™ knife blade handle

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Drill, with 3/32” and 1/16” diameter bits

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Dremel™ engraving bits, part number 105

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Stainless steel bowl

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Propane blowtorch

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A metal block

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Anvil

There are 5 basic steps to creating riveted maille.  They are:

  1. Winding coils

  2. Cutting rings

  3. Flattening rings

  4. Punching rings

  5. Finishing (closing) rings

 

Step 1: Winding the Coils

It is thought that traditionally maille was wound from short segments of wire on a small hand held mandrel, much like a screwdriver with the head cut off.  You may follow this example, or, more preferably, make a winding machine (The Palmer House Brewery and Smithy has a nice maille web site, which can be found at: http://realbeer.com/jjpalmer/HowtoChain.html).  However you decide to go about it, the coils for riveted maille are wound the same as when you make butted.  Since you will likely be using thinner wire (16GA wire on a 7/16” diameter mandrel works nicely), you will get more rings per coil than you do when coiling the thicker wire usually used for butted maille.  Be sure to use a slightly larger mandrel than you do for winding a given diameter butted maille coil, to allow for the overlap of the flattened ring ends.

A note on choosing wire for your maille: Although galvanized steel wire has nice corrosion properties, it is somewhat more difficult to punch (though not impossible).  I have been using annealed (soft), non-plated steel wire for my riveted maille rings.  Because the wire is already annealed, it saves me a step.  Also, being non-plated, it is also more authentic.  Never try and anneal galvanized wire – the anti-corrosion coating supposedly gives off a toxic gas when heated.

Step 2: Cutting the Rings

After winding a few coils worth of wire, you must cut the rings from the coil.  During the manufacture of butted maille, the cutting operation is the most critical part of the construction, for the quality of the cut determines the quality of the fit when the rings are butted back together.  With riveted maille, the cutting operation is the least important operation of all, for all evidence of how you cut the rings will be obliterated during the flattening process.  Thus it doesn’t matter whether you use a rotary cut-off tool, snippers, nippers, a chisel, or what have you.  I personally prefer Cooper-Wiss M3 aviation shears. With 7/16” diameter 16GA wire one can cut ten or so rings per snip, as opposed to three or so when cutting thicker gauged, butted maille rings.  However you choose to cut them, go for speed.  Quality doesn’t matter for this step.

Step 3: Flattening the Rings

Here quality is important again.  It is important to note that you need not flatten the smithereens out of the ends of the ring.  The novice often feels that in order to get a satisfactory target area to punch a hole in, he needs a large flat.  This is not so.  Within an hour or so of punching rivet holes in the rings you will find that you need very little flat at all, in fact the flat is there more than anything to keep the punch from skipping off the rounded side of the ring during punching.  It also provides somewhat of a recess for the rivet heads so they do not irritate the wearer of the maille.  What you want to achieve are small, consistent flats.  You will find that as your proficiency at punching the rivet holes increases, you will make smaller and smaller flats.

 
A Flattened Ring

You can create the flats in a couple of ways.  The easiest, though least consistent (at least at first, for you can get very good with practice) is a simple hammer.  Simply trap the ring under your thumb on your anvil, and smack the ends of the ring flat.  Be careful not to smack your thumb flat.  The drawback to this method is speed.  Nonetheless, with practice you should be able to flatten a ring every five seconds or so.


A Flattening Tool


Another way to flatten the rings is to make a flattening pliers tool.  I have found that if you grind the cutting edges off of the jaws of a large pair of Carpenter’s Pliers (Stanley, part number 84-185) it makes an excellent flattening tool.  Simply grasp the ends of the ring in the pliers, set it on your anvil, and give the jaws of the pliers one good whack with a large hammer.  This method is faster than the hammering method described above because it takes only one, non-accurate blow to flatten a ring.  This method also produces a more consistent flat, with much less practice.  I am still refining my flattening process; feel free to experiment with others methods.  Remember, you are striving for consistency and speed.

Step 4: Punching the Rivet Holes

Here we come to the step that is the trick when producing quality riveted maille with any kind of speed.  I will spare the reader the tales of woe I could recount on my way to discovering an efficient way to do this, but suffice it to say that I ran the gamut from ground-down drill bits to pin punches with only moderate success. 

Before I spill the beans on the clever tool for punching rings, let me explain a little about the punching operation, in case you are tempted to find other punching tools.  It is important to distinguish between piercing metal and punching metal.  Do you remember being in grade school and needing to put a piece of paper in your three-ring binder that didn’t have holes already punched in it?  What did you do?  You took out your freshly sharpened pencil and poked three holes in the paper.  You pierced three holes in the paper.  And, likely as not, rather than a nice, clean hole, you got a ragged, torn hole, usually tearing right through the edge of the paper if you weren’t careful, right?  Well, the same thing will happen to the flats of your rings if you attempt to pierce holes in them.  This is why tools with a conical (pointy) punch tip will not work well for making the holes in riveted maille.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, and I’m not saying this isn’t they way it was done in period.  What I’m saying is that if you want faster, cleaner holes punched in your rings, you want to punch the holes, not pierce them.

 

Unmodified bit (left), modified bit (right)


So how do you do it?  Just as with paper, you use a hole punch.  Now, finding a punch that will punch .03” diameter holes in metal is not an easy task (though Micromark (http://www.micromark.com) has a tool, called a “Sensi-Press”, which can be made to do so), so you must make your own.  And it just so happens that there is just the tool out there, easily obtainable from any Wal-Mart, to do the trick.  It is a Dremel™ “engraving cutter”, part number 105.  This cutter is a tool designed to be used in rotary tools, such as a “Dremel™ tool”.  It is a small 3/32” diameter shaft, approximately 3 inches long, tapering down to a .03” diameter, and then it has a small, serrated cutting head.  To modify it to be a maille punch, simply snap the serrated cutting head off with a pair of pliers, and grind the broken off taper to a nice flat – not a point.  If you desire a larger hole, just grind more of the taper away.  Your objective is to make a punch that will punch a hole just slightly larger than the pins you will be using for rivets.  Practice on some of your flattened rings.  If the holes your punch produces are too small, grind a little more of the taper away.  Just keep the end of the punch flat. 

Another important part of the punching operation is the “punch block”.  A small block of metal will do.  What you need to do is drill a 1/16” diameter hole into the block.  Then drill a large (1/4” diameter or so) hole in the opposite side of the block, drilling through until you meet up with the 1/16” hole from the first side.  This is where the little metal disks you will be punching out will go.  The 1/16” diameter hole is what you will be punching into, so that the punch doesn’t drive into the metal of the punch block.  To punch a ring, simply place the flat of a ring over the hole in the punch block, position your punch over the flat (over the punch hole), and give it a tap or two with a small hammer (I use an 8 ounce ball peen).  You should be able to punch a nice, clean hole right through the flat with little to no effort.


Using the punch and punch block

After doing this, you may find it difficult to hold onto the small 3” shaft of the Dremel™ bit with just your fingers.  An Exacto™ knife blade handle makes an excellent handle for our Dremel™ tool punch.  To modify the Exacto™ knife blade handle, drill out the 4-jaw chuck, which normally holds a knife blade, with a 1/16” diameter hole so that it can hold your punch.  This makes it much easier to hold the punch tool.

However, if you really want to get clever, you can modify a pair of pliers (good pliers – ones with no “slop” in them. It’s important to keep good alignment between the punch and the punch hole), so that the punch tool is recessed in one jaw of the pliers and the matching punch hole is in the other jaw.  You will probably want to cross-drill the hole that holds the punch tool so that you can tap and insert a set screw to keep it in place.  I have created such a tool, and I can easily say that with the advent of this tool I have made what was the most labor and time intensive part of the operation the easiest part of the operation.


A Punching Tool

One thing to remember: When you have driven the punch into the ring, do not “bend” the punch in your attempt to remove it from the pierced ring.  You will break the tip of the punch off if you try to do so.  Instead, twist the punch until it comes free.  You may find that the punch will “stick” in the ring less if you dip the point in oil periodically while punching.

Step 5: Closing the Rings

Once you have mastered flattening and punching rings, the last step is to close them and set a rivet in them.  To make rivets, I use steel straight pins, which one can find in the sewing section of any Wal-Mart.  Before using the pins as rivets, one must anneal them (make them soft).  To do this, you will need a stainless steel bowl and a propane blowtorch.  Take the stainless steel bowl (also available at Wal-Mart), turn it upside down, and beat a bowl shape into the bottom of it with a hammer.  This provides a nice bowl to heat the pins on.  Other containers tend to suck the heat away from the pins where they touch the container, causing incomplete annealing.  Stack the pins on top of the upside down bowl, and heat the entire stack to cherry red with the torch.  Allow the pins to air cool slowly back to room temperature.  They should now be black and bend very easily.  Presto – instant maille rivets.

 

To close the ring, simply use your fingers to overlap the ends of a punched ring.  If you are using a heavier gauge of wire (which you shouldn’t need to do), or if you have weak fingers, you may need to use pliers to do this.  After you have overlapped the ring ends, aligning the holes punched in them, take a pin, and drop it through the holes, until the head of the pin bottoms out against the flat.  Then use an end nipper to trim off the excess pin shaft on the opposite side.  You want to leave approximately a sixteenth of an inch of pin shaft standing proud of the ring flat.  Next, take a nice, hefty set of pliers (I use 8” linesman’s pliers) and squash the pin shaft until it forms a rivet head.  The objective is to get the pin shaft to “mushroom”, forming a rivet head, not to fold the shaft over (though I have read that folded rivets were period, rounded rivet heads look nicer and don’t abrade the wearer as badly).  I don’t try and “finish” the rivet with the pliers; I just want to get the rivet head started.  I then lay the ring on my anvil, and tap it lightly with an 8 ounce ball peen hammer, finishing the rivet.

 

Conclusion

Though this process may seem lengthy in print, it is actually very simple to execute.  Let’s face it – making maille is an extremely time consuming hobby anyway, even if you make the butted stuff.  I believe that with a little practice, and refining of the tools, making riveted maille need not be that much more labor intensive than making butted maille.  It is my hope that anyone who is interested in maille sufficiently to make butted maille will, upon finding out how little extra effort is required, decide to make authentic, riveted maille instead.

In Service,

Lord Stephen of Forth Castle

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