The 14th century was a time of innovation and development in metalworking techniques across Europe. While some methods like blacksmithing and jewelry-making were well-established, many obscure and specialized techniques emerged to serve specific needs. In this article, I will provide an in-depth look at some of the more obscure metalworking techniques that arose during the 14th century.
Forging Wootz Steel
Wootz steel was a high-quality crucible steel developed in India around 300 BC. By the 14th century, the production of wootz steel had spread to the Middle East and parts of Europe. Wootz steel is characterized by distinct banding patterns caused by the formation of carbides during the manufacturing process.
The forging of wootz steel into swords and armor required great skill. The steel was forged at a low temperature to preserve the unique crystalline structure that gave wootz steel its strength and flexibility. Specialized pattern welding techniques were used to highlight the banded carbide patterns in finished blades. Forged wootz steel produced some of the finest swords and armor of the era.
Crafting Fluted Plate Armor
Fluted plate armor was a type of steel plate armor that emerged in Italy in the late 14th century. Fluted armor consisted of steel plates that had been hammered into a fluted or grooved pattern. This fluting improved the flexibility and strength of the armor, allowing greater freedom of movement.
The blacksmiths who crafted fluted armor were highly skilled specialists. To produce the fluted effect, they meticulously hammered the heated steel plates using specialized tools. Different arrangements of fluted grooves were used on different parts of the armor to maximize flexibility. Fluted armor was labor-intensive to produce, making it expensive and restricted to elite warriors.
Forging Banded Mail
Banded mail was a type of armor incorporating bands of hammered steel. By overlapping alternating rows of solid steel strips and riveted mail, armorers could produce a flexible defense that was resistant to arrows and blades.
Forging the steel bands required expert blacksmiths who specialized in armor production. The blacksmiths used narrow strips of wrought iron to produce thin bands of steel ideal for incorporating into mail armor. Each band was individually shaped, profiled, hardened, and tempered before being incorporated into the banded mail.
The labor required to shape, harden, and assemble the hundreds of steel bands needed for a shirt of banded mail meant it was expensive. But for those who could afford it, banded mail provided enhanced protection compared to traditional mail.
The 14th century saw the emergence of early black powder weapons such as the hand cannon. Producing these primitive firearms required blacksmiths to learn specialized gunsmithing techniques.
Forging iron or bronze barrels that could withstand the explosions from black powder required great skill. Gunsmiths had to carefully construct barrels with the correct thickness and temper to be safe and functional. Locks and triggers also had to be crafted to precise specifications.
The early gunsmiths of the 14th century laid the foundations for more advanced gunsmithing techniques that later evolved. But at the time, the skills to forge these primitive firearms were mysterious and known to only a handful of specialized craftsmen.
Armorers and metalworkers used various decorative etching techniques to embellish metal items with ornamentation and insignia. Different approaches were used to create etched designs on steel depending on whether the metal was tempered or untempered.
On untempered steel, armorers traced designs with wax before applying acids to “bite” the patterns into the metal. Tempered steel required the use of specialized etching grounds and tools to cut through the hardened surface. Gilding and enameling were also used in conjunction with etching to highlight decorative designs with gold, silver, and vivid colors.
While etching had functional uses like marking armor, it also served an aesthetic purpose with ornate designs enhancing the beauty of chalices, jewelry, weaponry, and more. A variety of specialized etching techniques emerged allowing craftsmen to create elaborate decorative effects.
Obscure metalworking techniques evolved out of necessity during the 14th century as craftsmen sought to solve problems and serve needs. Developments like wootz steel forging, fluted armor, banded mail, gunsmithing methods, and decorative etching techniques show the ingenuity of medieval metalworkers. Specialized skills were passed down within guilds and workshops, keeping obscure knowledge alive. While many of these techniques faded away, they influenced later innovations in metalworking. Uncovering medieval metalworking helps us understand the emerging technology, evolving needs, and ingenuity of the era.