How Do You...
Edge a Scutum In Rawhide?
By Dave Michaels
Background and Historical Data
The Roman legionary shield, or scutum, was an essential part of a soldier’s kit. The scutum was originally oval in shape, but by the late Republican era the top and bottom of the shield was blunted to make the scutum easier to carry on the march. By the early Empire it had become a semi-cylindrical rectangle with curved edges. It had a horizontal hand grip that was covered with a wood or metal boss. The Imperial scutum was meant to cover the body of a crouching legionary from neck to knees; there was apparently no standardized size but the Dura Europus shield, upon which most reconstructions are based, was roughly 42” X 26”.
The main body of the Roman scutum was made from thin strips of wood, linen and/or leather. Legion VI uses a simpler method of construction, gluing three sheets of Lauan (thin plywood) together in a special press to create a sturdy shield core. The wood core is then sanded, covered in canvas, leather or both, and painted with the legionary blazon. An iron or brass umbo, or boss, protected the (left) hand of the legionary holding the horizontal grip. Finally, all shields were edged in some fashion. In the first century AD most shields seem to have been edged in brass—the U-shaped strips of brass edging are relatively common archaeological finds wherever the Roman army lingered. However, only one complete rectangular legionary scutum has ever been found, the Dura Europus shield, dating to the early third century AD, and it was edged in rawhide. So we know that sometime between the first and third centuries, rawhide seems to have gradually replaced brass metal for edging. Legio VI portrays a legion of the mid-second century AD, so it is plausible that at least some rawhide-edged shields would have started to be seen in a Hadrianic or Antonine legion.
Legio VI’s original loaner shields, mostly built in 2002-2003, had no separate edging. Over the course of many events these shields took a heavy beating along the edges and needed repairs. The idea of edging them in rawhide hit me when I visited Tandy Leather in Burbank and spotted a basket full of rawhide strips, each 1.75” wide and 42” long, and thought, “Those would be perfect for shield edging!” After a bit of trial and error, we perfected the process of edging a shield in rawhide. The rawhide dries to form a tough, protective seal for the shield edge; the contrasting color also provides a nice framing effect for the whole shield.
Covering Your Own Scutum in Rawhide
While we’d ideally like to see a majority of Legion VI’s shields edged in metal, the fact is that this is a very fussy and time-consuming process (detailed in an excellent tutorial by Legio VI alumni Jared Fleury at his wonderful website, Florentius.com: http://florentius.com/scutumedging.htm) that requires at least a modicum of metalworking skill. If you are making your own shield and would like to economize in both time and money, rawhide edging offers an acceptable alternative to brass. If you want to edge your shield at one of the Fabrica workshops, most of the required tools are present and the materials can be obtained at most Tandy Leather outlets. If you want to try it at home, here’s how it goes:
(1) Four 1/75” X 42” Rawhide Horn Wrap strips from Tandy Leather (or buy a whole hide and cut it into similarly sized strips).
(2) Spool of rawhide lace.
(3) Water-based leather dye in Yellow or Gold (Eco Flow dyes work well).
(4) 30 medium sized paper binder clips (these come in packets of 15 at Staples for $8).
(5) Four large spring-vice clamps (plastic or metal).
(6) Wood glue
(7) Xacto knife or other sharp blade.
(8) A 5-gallon bucket.
(9) Electric drill and 1/8” bit.
(10) Large leather/tapestry needle.
(1) Fill the bucket with hot water. Squeeze about 25% of the dye bottle into the water.
(2) Soak the rawhide strips and unwound lace in the hot, dyed water. Try to ensure all are fully immersed. The water will cool quickly and that’s OK. In about 2 hours the strips should be quite flexible (and yellow), being the texture of soft lasagna noodles.
(3) Remove one strip at a time; dry it off by running a rag down the surface.
(4) One side should be slightly rougher than the other – this is the interior surface. Smear it with a thin layer of glue.
(5) Apply the strip to the side (long edge) of the shield, glue side down, leaving about half to three-quarters of an inch showing along the front of the shield. Fold it around the edge and clamp it into place using the binder clips, allowing about an inch between clips. Wipe any excess glue.
(6) Repeat with other side.
(7) Trim the rawhide sides about where the curve of each rounded shield corner starts.
(8) Allow this to dry for 3-to 4 hours. Once the rawhide sets in place, you can remove every other binder clip on each side, which should provide enough clips for the top and bottom.
(9) Apply another strip to the top edge, following the curve. At the edge, fold the rawhide down around the rounded edge and overlap the side edging by 2 inches or so, clamping this into place using the larger vice clamps. The rawhide will want to kink and bunch up in spots as it goes around the curve; simply smash these down as much as possible with the binder clips and vice clamps to form as smooth a curve as possible. Note: As the rawhide dries it will shrink and the amount over overlap will end up being about half what you started with. For this reason, DO NOT trim the strips so they butt end-to-end or you will end up with unsightly gaps in the edging, which happened with my first attempt.
(10) Repeat with the bottom edge.
(11) Set the shield aside and allow it to dry for at least a day.
(12) When dry, use a drill with a 1/8-inch bit to drill holes at about 2” intervals through both the rawhide and wood, around the entire shield (around the curved edges make the holes about 1” apart).
(13) Remove the rawhide lace from the water and thread the softened lace through a large leather-stitching needle (you’ll probably have to use the Xacto knife to trim down the end of the lace to fit through the needle eye).
(14) Stitch around the outer circumference, going in and out of the holes. You can double-stitch if you want to provide a continuous stitch line on each side, but it’s not really necessary and a LOT of work. Tie off and glue ends.
(15) Stand back and admire your handiwork – you’re done!
Legion craftsmen Brandon Barnes and Ron Glass also helped to develop this technique.