Boiled Leather. It’s Not Just For Dinner

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I want to share some of the research that went into FAR RIDER. Even though it’s fantasy, there are many things drawn from the real world. This research will be recycled in future books even though the worlds may change. Some things just simply are.

Armor and warfare will always be a constant in my fantasy worlds as it is the real world, unfortunately.

I touched on the horse hoof armor previously. This week, I want to visit cuir bouilli or boiled leather armor. Leather armor has probably been around as long as man has.

Armor is mentioned in the bible. Coats of mail, greaves, which protected the legs and were made of leather or metal. Tightly woven wicker shields were covered with leather.

Alexander the Great conscripted conquered people into his armies and they brought their armor and weapons. Statues and mosaics from the period show various forms of leather armor on soldiers and himself.

This mosaic detail is from the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Emperor Qin Shi Huang came to power in 246 BC at the age of 13. It’s estimated he began work on his tomb soon after that. His tomb included 8,000 life size terracotta warriors and horses. The armor they wear is thought to be a form of cuir bouilli with lames fastened together.

I used to carve leather. Probably the most important part of the process is wetting the leather just right. I can tell when I have the right saturation by putting it against my cheek. Leather cools when it’s wet. If it’s too wet, it may warp and it doesn’t tool correctly. If it’s too dry, it’s difficult to carve and stamp.

After leather is carved, stamped and dyed, it has to be protected or it will soak up water like a sponge. Some people use lacquer and some use a balm. I like balm on bigger pieces, but I lacquer belts, wallets and purses.Lacquered leather was popular in China and elsewhere, but the life expectancy of the lacquer workers probably wasn’t very long.

Leather, while popular and readily available for armor, has some drawbacks. If it isn’t treated, it doesn’t resist prolonged exposure to water and it rots. Armies had to be ready for all conditions, including rain, crossing rivers and winter.

Somewhere along the line, man figured out how to strengthen leather. If you put it in hot or boiling water or oil, leather contracts and becomes thicker. It also becomes harder. While it’s still damp, it can be shaped to a form to make armor that molds to the body or rounded scales or lames for lamellae or brigandine armor.

Repeated soaking shrinks it and thickens it more.

There comes a point, however, where the leather becomes brittle. It could be brittle from incorrect shrinking or not taking care of it. At that time, just the right blow will shatter the armor.

In FAR RIDER, there’s a scene in the great battle where a soldier attacks General Caidry. Caidry is a skilled warrior who is larger than most men, plus, he’s been drugged with spider’s milk. This creates a soldier akin to the Norse berserkers. The attacking soldier wears a boiled leather cuirass which has reached the brittle point. He probably wouldn’t have survived anyway, but having a breastplate explode on impact removed any doubt.

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  1. Barbara Martin

    I wonder if the leather workers in the past ever used mink oil.

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