Butted Mail, A Mailmaker's Guide.

by
Paul Smith


Paul Smith is one of the founder members of The Exiles, and designed for us our first logo. Spud has always been interested in mail, and although he has never made any welded nor rivetted mail, I feel that the quality of his mail is one of the best. His understanding of contraction and expansion points on mail is one of the best that I know.
This article has been threatened to be produced for more than a couple of years now, but unfortunately the real world has stepped in and has prevented it from happening. I hope this article prooves that the wait has been worth it.

 


Mail

Mail, or Chainmail for the uninitiated, is formed by the inter-linking of metal rings. The resultant mesh of links gives a strong flexible armour which provides excellent protection against most cutting blows. It is also beautiful to look at ! The common type of European mail is illustrated to the right. It has a basic pattern where each ring is linked to four others. It is therefore known as 4 link or single mail. Other Patterns such as double (6 link) and oriental style like Futaye (4 into 1 cross linked) or Hana (hexagonal) also exist. This article will however only be concerned with the production of 4 link butted mail (mail with the rings simply closed in a circle with the ends butted together). Hopefully, I will be able to cover the construction of other types and the riveting of links in later articles.

Making Mail

A number of misconceptions exist about the manufacture of mail garments; mail does not take years to make nor does it require fantastic technical skills or great physical strength. What is required is common sense, plenty of spare time and most of all patience.

Wire

Medieval mail was normally constructed of iron wire with brass edging rings. Plain iron wire of usable size is not easily obtainable these days, however, galvanised iron wire is. This is in fact a beautiful material for making mail; it is inexpensive, (about - for a 5kg roll), easily obtainable, nice to work with, and only rusts on the ends where the links are cut.

The cheapest way to buy it is from a builders merchants (as fencing wire) or large ironmongers in sizeable coils (5kg is a convenient weight). If you buy it from your local hardware shop in kg rolls it will cost a lot more. For particularly impoverished armourers coat hanger wire can also be used. A coat hanger will give about three feet of strong, non rusting wire of about 13 gauge thickness. Unfortunately not all coat hangers are of the same colour or thickness and the scavenging of hundreds of them strikes me as being more trouble than its worth, unless you work in a dry cleaners or at least know someone who does.

4 link or single mail

4 in 1 Mail

Brass or enamelled copper wire can be used for edging although these materials, being somewhat soft, tend to unbut rather easily.

Wire & Link Sizes

There is no set size, persay, for links. Medieval rings vary from suit to suit with even armours from the same period and district being made from different sized links. The mail maker, regardless of the period of his persona, is therefore free to choose whatever size of link he finds appealing.

The appearance of the finished mail article will depend upon the thickness of the wire used and the diameter of the former upon which the links are wound.

The table below shows what sized links can be made from a given wire thickness.

I have also included a table to give conversions from mm to inches to help people who still think in Pounds, Shillings, and pence.

WIRE SIZE RING SIZE CONVERSION

Gauge Diameter of wire Minimum Maximum Recommended mm Inches

SWG mm mm mm mm 6 1/4

13 2.3 9 18 14 8 5/16

14 2.0 8 16 13 10 3/8

16 1.6 7 13 8 to 10 11 7/16

18 1.25 4 10 7 13 1/2

19 1.0 2 8 5 14 9/16

Ring size is internal diameter of link & diameter of former.

Links of minimum size give a close inflexible mesh.

Links of maximum size give a very open mesh.

For any wire gauge a former of around six times wire diameter gives a good looking ring size.

The following should be considered when choosing a link size:-

Using a thinner wire will reduce the weight of the suit.

Thicker wire will allow larger link sizes to be used & increasing the link size decreases the number of links required.

Thick links require more effort to cut and close than thin links.

Thin wire unbutts more easily than large wire.

Small links look prettier than large ones.

For a convenient size to start with I would recommend 16 gauge wire wound on either an 8 or 10 mm former.

Winding Coils

Links are formed by winding a coil of wire which is then cut along its length to give the individual links.

Winding wire onto a stationary former is a tedious process so you will require some form of coil winder. A simple way of making one is to take a hand drill clamp it into a vice and put the former straight into the chuck.

Hand Drill Coil Winder

Another simple machine is a hand cranked mandrel. This is made from a piece of two by four (50 x 100 mm) wood about two feet (600 mm) long with a pair of wooden uprights mounted about one inch (25 mm) from the ends. The two upright blocks have holes drilled in them to take the former. Various sized formers can be accommodated by drilling a series of different sized holes in the end pieces.

Hand Cranked Mandrel

Both winders are used in the same fashion.

The end of the wire is inserted into the hole in the former and the handle is turned slowly so that the first loop around the rod will be loose and protruding. This allows it to be cut when you have finished winding the coil (otherwise you want be able to get it off the former). Wind the wire tightly in a coil to within an inch or so of the end of the former and stop. Cut the end of the wire and the starting loop and then slide the coil off the former. QED.

When winding wire wear a pair of gloves to save your hands getting worn out. Use one hand to crank the mandrel and the other to feed the wire evenly onto the former.

Right and Left Hand Wound Coils

The direction of winding is important; the machine shown will wind links suitable for right handed people. If you are left handed drill the hole in the left hand side of the rod and wind the coil towards the handle. Right and left hand coils are illustrated above.

Cutting Links

For thin wire (16 gauge or less) an excellent cutter can be made from a pair of jewellers 5' snips. take the snips and grind a small amount off the faces as shown.

Jewelers' Snips

Before cutting open the coil up so that you have about one wire's thickness between each winding. Insert the cutter as far as the ground jaws will allow, hold the first half dozen windings between finger and thumb and close the cutters. In this manner you should be able to cut three to six rings at a time. Opening the coil before cutting saves having to open all the links individually before joining them together.

If you are using thick wire, such as coat hangers, you will require a stronger pair of cutters such as a pair of parallel jaw action, side cutting, pliers. to use these simply insert the top of the coil into the cutting jaws and squeeze the cutter. Unfortunately this method only cuts one link at a time. You are also going to have to open all the links.

Cutter

STARTING THE PATTERN.

Take an even number of rings (around ten) and close them. To do this simply hold one side of the ring with a pair of pliers and using a second pair force the ends shut. Next take an open link and thread four closed ones onto it; close the link. the result should look like figure (1).

Figure 1

The dotted arrows show where the next set of rings should be added. To do this add another open link through a pair of links on one side, then another pair of closed links and close the link. Continue this process until a chain is obtained, add a link at each end and it will look like figure (2).

Figure 2

Start expanding the chain by adding the links shown by the dotted arrows in figure (2) & (3), continue this pattern of expansion until a reasonable sized oblong is obtained. This oblong can then be used as a starter piece to build into the item you require.

Figure 3

Rows or How Mail Should Hang

It is extremely important that the mail hangs correctly. If the mail is hung incorrectly the links will spread apart defeating the purpose of the armour. The diagram below shows how mail is comprised of ROWS of links (the arrows show the rows and the way the links in a given row lie). For mail to hang correctly the rows must be HORIZONTAL.

Direction of Rows Rows in a Shirt

Tailoring Mail

Like any other garment mail has to be tailored to fit the body. There are two ways to do this.. The first is to change the link size; larger links being used to expand a piece and smaller to contract it. This method is however only of limited use being useful only where small changes in size are required such as tapering the diameter of sleeves. The second method is to simply create or remove a column, as in knitting. This is the commonly used method for tailoring.

Contraction

The normal way to add a link to a piece of mail is to place it through two rings in the previous row (fig 4). To contract a piece remove a row by placing a link through THREE rings (fig 5).

Figure 4. 1 into 2
1 into 2 Constraction

Fig 5. 1 into 3
1 into 3 Contraction

Fig 6. Finished Contraction
Finished Contraction

Expansion

To expand a piece add an extra link to the bottom of the mail. This extra ring goes between two others so that a link in the row before the bottom will have five others linked to it instead of the usual four (fig6).

Figure 6. - Expansion
Expansion Extra link.

Always try to spread your contractions and expansions out; if you have too many too close together it will be very noticeable. This is because both changes produce an "Idle Link", that is a link that is connected to only three others and if too many changes are made in a small area these links will stand proud.

Patterns

The medieval armourer did not work from the written patterns but rather from a mental concept of how the finished article should fit. I recommend that you work in the same manner; first plan how and where you are going to shape the piece. Then build it, row by row, adding the required expansions and contractions in a logical fashion as the work progresses. Always remember to allow space for padding to be worn under your mail.

Coif

This is a covering for the head and neck normally worn under a helmet. The following design is based upon a 14th Century example from the royal Scottish museum. The original was made from alternating rows of solid and riveted iron links, flat in section with an average thickness of 1mm and an exterior diameter around 11mm. The coif is constructed in five stages (fig7).

Figure 7 - A coif

To start build a rectangle of mail (A) that will fit around the back of the head from one side of the face to the other. Extend this upwards and around (fig 8)(B) so that it is the right size to cover the forehead.

Figure 8

Allow two single expansions (F) for the temple if you wish. Join the two sides (G) of the forehead together to produce the shape shown in figure 9.

Figure 9

Continue to build upwards (C) but now start contracting to cover the skull. The original coif has seven 'lines' of contraction, that is contractions set one above the other, with each 'line' having between 8 to 10 contractions in it (fig 10). Each line is generally built up with one contraction in every other row. You will obviously have to alter this number of contractions to suit the size of link you are using and the shape of the head. The skull is toped by a single ring (H) which will have to be slightly larger than the other links in the coif to enable it to fit.

Figure 10

Having built the top of the coif now start working downwards (D) to form the chin and neck covering. Leaving a slit one column wide in this section otherwise the coif will not fit over the head. The slit is at the back and is closed by a leather thong when the coif is worn; it is needed because this design of coif is tight fitting around the face.

Continue working down and around and join the two sides together around the chin. As the face tapers downwards there will be more links in the row at the top of the face opening than at the bottom. Figure 11 shows the shaping of the original; adjust to fit.

Figure 11

Finally expand the coif downwards and out (E) to cover the shoulders. Spread the expansions so that they will not be too obvious. You will require around one expansion a row to give a good looking 'Flair'.

Coif Front
Coif Rear

 

Hauberk

The following design is taken from a short sleeved mail shirt number A2 in The Wallace Collection. It has riveted iron links of half round section (the flat side facing outwards when worn), which are 0.99 mm thick and have an external diameter of 10.3 mm. The shirt is bordered at the neck by one row and at the wrist by two rows of brass links. The sleeves reach to the elbow and are 30.4 cm long from armpit to the end while the total length of the shirt is 71.1 cm and its weight is 8.84 kg.

To construct a similar shirt work as follows:- To start make the part that fits around the neck. This is a rectangle of mail with a square hole in it large enough for the head to fit through (fig 12).

Figure 12

Enlarge this piece until it covers the top of the arms and the front and back of the trunk to just under the armpits (fig 13).

Figure 13

As you are building this piece you will have to add a set of expansions over each shoulder. These run from the collar bone at the front to the top of the shoulder blades at the back. They are there to form a bag enabling the shoulder to move without straining the links.

Shoulder Expansions

The original suit has nine expansions in each set with one idle link in every other row. Next join the start of the sleeves around the arms and the front and back of the hauberk around the chest. The sleeves should be very wide at this point to allow plenty of room for movement. You will now have a hole at each armpit where the mail running around the body meets the bottom of the sleeves. Here you will notice that the rows are running at right angles to one another and should be joined as shown below (fig 14).

Figure 14

Now start extending the sleeves. As you build towards the elbow you will wish to decrease the diameter of the sleeve for which you will require a number of 'hole type' ROW contractions. The method of forming these is shown in figure 15 and 16.

Figure 15

Figure 16

To form this type of row contraction leave a gap of one link in the first line between rings A and B (Fig 15). On the next line add a link between A and B (Fig 16). This narrows the sleeve by two rows per contraction.

Now return to the main trunk and start building downwards. As you build you will have to make the following fittings (Fig 17) :-

Figure17

(A) Two lines of contractions under the shoulder blades to compensate for the expansions over the shoulder. Original suit has 9 contractions per set with one contraction every four rows.

(B) Contractions for waist. Wallace suit has two sets of four contractions; one at the front and the other at the rear.

(C) Expansions for the hips. Original suit has four lines of these two at the sides and one at the front and back. Each line has one expansion per four rows.

(D) Two knot type row expansions per side to make the back of the suit four rows longer than the front. The method of doing this is shown in the figures below.

"Knot" Row Expansion

(1) Leave gap in row A. Rest of row is now Row; Ad Row C under B.
Part 1

(2) Continue row A around and over C.
Part 2

(3) Treat row A as normal row and link subsequent row to it. Note - expansions must be done in pairs.
Part 3