SHIELD                       11/10/15

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       The shield is what made a Greek warrior a hoplite, because he could not stand in the phalanx without it.  "Aspis" is the proper name for the shield, "hoplon" being an incorrect modern word taken from the Greek "hopla" meaning equipment in general (as in "panoply", for instance).  It was a deeply dished wooden shield with a flat or angled rim, a band for the arm (porpax) at center, and a handgrip (antilabe) near the edge.  The best shields had a full facing of thin bronze sheet, and some had only a bronze-covered rim, but coverings of linen and thin leather are known from archeology and are the rule for reconstructions.

       The wooden remains of several shields have been found, the best-known of which is that in the Vatican Museum.  The bowl was about 10-11mm (c.3/8") thick at the center, thinning slightly to about 7-9mm where the face "turns" downward, and thickening to 14-18mm (c.3/4") at the angle of the rim.  Obviously this is only one example, and rivets or nails from other shield fittings may indicate thicker wood.  What is clear is that the aspis was NOT as horribly heavy and cumbersome as often described.  A total weight of 12 to 15 pounds seems likely.

       Lightweight woods like poplar and willow were used, either as solid slabs glued together and turned like a large bowl, steamed and bent to shape, or even built of 2 or more layers of thin strips.  Plywood is commonly used today and is acceptable, but again, birch or other lightweight plywood is preferable.  Obviously any modern plywood or ring construction MUST be completely covered by leather or fabric.  Oak is too heavy!  Modern materials such as plastic, fiberglass, and aluminum are of course forbidden.  Skip the saucer sleds!

       The distinctive interior of the aspis, showing the central armband or porpax, the handgrip or antilabe near the rim, and the carrying cord.  The shield at left is lined with deerskin, that at right with wool felt.

       In the newer Osprey Warrior Series volume #27, Greek Hoplite 480-323 BC, Nick Sekunda shows the wood core being composed of several wide slabs laid edge to edge and then hollowed and shaped by turning on a lathe, like a large bowl.  Peter Raftos of The Phalanx explains that the Greek word for "shield maker", torneutoluraspidopÍgos, roughly translates as "one who puts together lyres and shields by turning".  Thin laths are then laid cross-grain around the rim.  The back is covered by leather, fittings attached, then the bronze facing is stuck to the front with pitch and the edge neatly worked around the rim so that there are no pleats or puckers.  Luckily, they "cheated" on this last part at least some of the time: on a shield facing in Piraeus the edge has been clipped into "tabs" about 2" wide, as I did on mine, so that they fold around the back much more easily.  Then a flat ring of bronze was laid over the back of the rim to hide the tabs.

       A word of caution: John Warry's Warfare in the Classical World shows a drawing of the inside of a aspis on page 35.  At its left edge is a strange detail which I believe is an attempt to show the layers of leather peeled back to reveal the wood underneath.  It's not some sort of fixture!

       Various sources indicate that the diameter of the shield ranged from 32" to c. 40", with a maximum depth of c. 5".  Some vase paintings show the rim as very thin and flat, on others it is thicker and sloped, with various depths and curvatures for the body.  The Chigi Vase shows the backs of several shields, seemingly divided into rectangular and wedge-shaped segments, each of which is cross-hatched in a different direction.  This may be showing layers of wood strips, similar to Roman scutum construction.

Hoplologia: Building an Aspis--  Everything Aurora Simmons does will make you weep with envy.

Aspis construction and notes-- 

      There are several excellent discussions on the Roman Army Talk board, but of course they have CHANGED SERVERS AGAIN and I'll have to fix all my now-dead links...  Do a search on RAT or browse back through old threads in the Greek sections to find them.

Making an Aspis--Ring Method 


Vatican Shield Photos!  (W/ details on wood thickness, etc.)

Hoplite shield construction


Constructing and Mounting a Porpax

Hoplite Shield Composition

       Front and back views of Jon Martin's aspis.  He dished the facing from a single sheet of copper (being unable to get bronze) and pieced the rim.  The Greek letter lambda on the face was used by Spartans (Lakedaimonians) during the Peloponnesian War era, but not as early as the Persian Wars.

       This is one of George Marcinek's shields, by Manning Imperial.  The face is simply painted wood, without a leather or metal facing, but what a lovely paint job!

The only commercially made aspis known to be reasonably accurate (though too heavy) is made by Daniyal Steelcrafts in India.  It is available through Kult of Athena and other vendors, either unpainted or with a variety of painted emblems.

A much nicer one is from Manning Imperial in Australia.  He offers wooden cores correctly turned on a lathe from parallel slabs glued side-by-side, with your choice of fittings and coverings, including complete brass facings!  I don't know about thicknesses or weights.  Not cheap, and remember the shipping...

There are two sources that I heard about some years ago, and I don't know if they are still in business:  Michael Broyles, mjbroyles AT yahoo DOT com, wooden blank c. $450 plus shipping.  Any covering or fittings would be extra.   Also Wulf in the UK, AT virgin DOT net, or sabre.wulf AT virgin DOT net, though I don't know what sort of finishing he does nor what the cost might be.  He made most of the shields shown on the Hoplite Association site. 

The old Deepeeka #AH3721 "Greek shield" is utter garbage, too small with ugly bolts around the rim, crappy fittings, and a great big Viking boss in the middle!   Their newer #6116 Athenian Shield may be usable, but might not even be available because no one has been able to get a look at it.

Hoplite Home Page
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Bibliography The BRONZE AGE


       The construction method described here uses rings or donuts of wood stacked and glued together, and was told to me by Toe Johnson in Australia.  Plywood is often used, but for my second shield I used poplar 1x8 plank (3/4" thick).  This is NOT a historical method, but is a *little* easier to accomplish in the average modern basement.  You will need four hand-held electric power tools:  jigsaw, planer, belt sander, and angle grinder (with flap sander).  Oh, and a drill.  Yes, this can be done without power tools, but don't say I didn't warn you...

       My first shield was made from miscellaneous plywood and oak, and covered with 5-ounce leather, and it weighed 18 pounds.  Yuck.  An attempt to reduce the weight resulted in a lot of mess, a worse appearance on the back, and the loss of only one pound overall.  So for my second shield, my main goal was lightness!  I suspect that poplar or birch plank would weigh less than even pine plywood, but in any case do NOT use oak or other dense woods. 

    Start by drawing a full-size, half-width cross-section of the aspis, or print the one below and blow it up to full size.  Remember that with your arm through the central arm band, the edge of the body should curve neatly over your shoulder.   Draw it as if it is lying flat, face up.   Draw a series of parallel horizontal lines through it, the intervals between them corresponding to the thickness of your wood.  For any particular layer, the point where the upper line crosses the inside of the cross-section determines the inner radius of that ring, and the point where the lower line touches the outside of the cross-section gives you the outer radius.  Now you know exactly how big to make each layer!

       I used the template from my first shield to trace the outline of my second, but made the cross-section thinner, the bowl a little shallower on the inside, and went with a flat rim instead of sloped.  This worked out to six layers, each 3/4" thick, plus a 1/4"-thick rim.  

      However, the cross-section at left and the chart of dimensions at right have been modified to better reflect the thicknesses of the Vatican shield, with a sloped rim, and the total diameter of 36 inches.  (Remember that the ancient Greeks were generally shorter than us moderns on average, so a shield of 3 feet or a tad more makes for better proportions!)  The grid on the cross-section is 1 inch, and the red outlines correspond to wood 3/4" thick.  (American standard planks such as "one-by-six" or "one-by-eight" are actually 3/4" thick.)

       MAKE A COMPASS.  Punch a small hole near the end of a c. 20" strip of cardboard as the center point, for sticking a tack or pushpin through.  Then measure out from that center point and mark each inner and outer radius, punching another hole at each.  Mark the holes with their layer number and whether they are inner or outer, e.g. I-2, O-4.  Note that with the dimensions at right, O-3 and I-5 will use the same hole.  (Slight adjustments in the dimensions may cause more of them to correspond.)  If you can't drive a tack into your floor, just lay down a layer or two of corrugated cardboard.  A really big sheet that is over 3 feet square is handy, but not necessary as long as nothing shifts while you are tracing your arcs.


       At left, 3 strip compasses.  The green plastic one at center goes with the cross-section and dimensions above.  That and the top one have their "center" holes at the right end, because that's just how I was measuring from that cross-section!  The bottom one is the other way around, for some reason, and is for my smaller Macedonian shield. 

       At right, the compass in action.  Just shift the plank around until you get the largest possible arc on it efficiently, and draw.  You can also draw a series of circles on the cardboard to help align the segments of each layer after cutting, to help with marking and trimming their ends to fit together. 

For this shield, I traced out each layer on brown paper and cut them out. Layer 3 was so squirrely to work with that I decided not to cut out the insides of the remaining layers.  It was easier to trace the outer line with a full sheet, then just use a normal mechanical compass to draw the inner line (I set the compass to the width of the layer, and followed the outer line with the point while drawing with the pencil).

Note that on a subsequent shield, I simply used my cardboard strip compass to draw the circles (each one in several segments) directly onto the wood (as shown above), without using a paper pattern.  Saved all kinds of time!

The wood is 1x8 poplar planks, so 3/4" thick.  I bought 2 eight-foot planks, and 2 pieces 3 or 4 feet long.  It turned out that a foot or two less would have been enough, not a big deal.  I traced each pattern onto the wood in several segments, with each one marking the pattern where it left the wood in order to know where to start the next segment.  Many segments can be nested inside others.  Each segment, and its corresponding pattern section, are marked with the number of the layer and the number of the segment, e.g. 2-3, 5-2.

All the wood for the bowl cut out, using a hand-held electric jigsaw.  Made a lot of dust!  The total weight of the wood at this stage was 15 pounds.

Gluing starts with layer before the rim, 6 in this case.  I laid the segments out on the paper pattern (with a layer of plastic to avoid gluing paper to wood!), to be sure they were in a circle.  You can see that I have drawn the circumference of layer 2 on layer 3, to make certain it is properly centered.  Shims or props are needed inside to support parts of the ring.  Dry-fit all the parts first, and then use plenty of glue to avoid any gaps.  I used regular Elmer's wood glue.

Layer 2 glued in place, with weights (plastic bags with lead printer's type, very handy!).  I allowed a good half hour for the glue to set in each layer before starting the next, and let the whole thing dry overnight before even attempting to move it.

Outside of the bowl so far.  I forced glue into as many cracks and gaps as I could.  Feel free to drill and add pegs to reinforce the seams at this point--I've never bothered, relying on the glue and the coverings for strength.  I *do* add nails or pegs when installing the rim!

Inside of the bowl.

Thirty minutes with the electric hand-held planer, and most of the wood removal is done on the outside of the bowl.  This took literally weeks with a rasp, on my first shield!  You can see the kind of mess this makes, hence a big tarp spread out on the deck.  Be a little careful, since the planer will gouge too deep if given a chance.  But this is THE essential tool to have before even considering a project like this, trust me!
The goal is to eliminate the little steps between layers, to make the entire surface smooth and unbroken.  So the planer is followed by the belt sander with a couple of fresh coarse belts (80 or 60 grit).  The first step proved a bit tenacious to eliminate, since that entails removing wood over the widest area.  Closer to the rim, things went much more quickly.  Try to avoid going *too* deep--those steps are your depth markers, as it were, so just barely smooth them away.

For the inside, I tried the planer but could only reach a little of the innermost step, as I suspected. It just doesn't fit inside curves like that. So I spent a half-hour or so with hammer and chisel, quickly and roughly chopping out whatever wood could be removed easily, mostly from the second step.  Then another 30 or 40 minutes with the angle grinder, and the inside is nearly done!  Makes incredible dust.  I had to go over it with the belt sander, because the angle grinder doesn't make an even surface.  This is the time to fit the rim to the bowl, though I did not attach it yet.  Make some pencil marks so that you can get it lined up when the time comes.  The finished weight for the wooden bowl was 6-1/4 pounds, and one pound for the rim.

The fittings are based on those shown in vase paintings.  The porpax and antilabe loops are 18 gauge bronze, while the porpax extensions and discs for the carry-rope rings are 24-ga.  The rings are cut from heavy copper pipe, each one on a split pin or "cotter pin" made from a strip of bronze sheet.  The split pin passes through a decorative disc, in this case with a simple radial motif done with a chisel.  Many originals are startlingly similar to the bosses applied to Roman armor and helmets, though the Greek ones tend to be a little larger, 1-1/4" to 1-1/2" in diameter.  Some porpax extensions are plain strips, but many are decorated--I decided that the individual fronds of an acanthus leaf motif were a bit beyond my skills and patience, and went with a simpler sort of leafy look.

My lovely wife donated some old red wool felt for the inside lining.  I glued it in from the center outwards, and it is stretchy enough that I had no puckers.  The excess felt is for covering the back of the rim.  Then I nailed the fittings in place, pre-drilling all the holes.  On the outside, I cut grooves in the wood to clench the nails and "cotter pins" (for the rings) into, so that nothing would stick up above the surface.  The tips of the nails and pins are bent 90 degrees before clenching, so that they stick back down into the wood.  Measure and mark carefully to get everything in place and straight!  I held the head of sledgehammer against the inside of the bowl while hammering the nails and pins flat on the front, to make a more solid surface and avoid cracking anything.

After clenching all the nails and pins, I covered everything generously with Plastic Wood, also filling in any likely gaps, steps, or other irregularities.  After allowing that to dry thoroughly (outside, phew!), I sanded again with the belt sander. 

The front I covered with red denim (*before* attaching the rim!).  Thin leather is preferable, but beyond my budget for this project, unfortunately.  You'd need a c. 36" diameter circle of c. 2-ounce leather, not an easy thing to find.  In any case, the denim went on better than I expected, just stretchy enough to be free of major puckers.  After the glue dried I trimmed off the excess fabric and glued the rim in place, reinforcing it with small nails every few inches.  Be careful not to get glue all over the lining, or to let nails poke out through the surface of the bowl!

Then I glued the felt lining down over the back of the rim, and was again able to do it without puckers.  Yea!  The color isn't actually quite as garish as it looks in these photos, but there is some mottling due to old water damage.

Having cleverly remembered to trace the rim out on heavy cardboard before attaching it to the bowl, I then had a pattern for cutting thin leather to cover the front of it.  I left a little extra width so that it could be folded around the edge and glued down at the back. 

One of the pieces of leather was soft enough to simply glue in place, with a couple clamps.  For the rest, I wet the edge using a syringe, folded it around the edge of the wood, and clamped it in place using wood and cardboard shims to prevent any clamp marks in the leather.  After letting it dry overnight, I glued the leather into place.  The antilabe is 3 leather thongs, doubled through the upper loop, braided together, and tied off below the lower loop.  The carrying cord is jute or hemp--with the cord passing across the front of your shoulders, the porpax rests neatly in the small of the back and is very comfortable.  White or brown 1/4" hemp cord is available in 6-foot lengths at craft stores, or you can get longer lengths in various colors online as (no kidding) bondage cord.  (Regular hemp rope is coarse, stiff, and stinky!)

The leather rim is painted with casein/milk paint.  I decided not to paint the bowl, which in retrospect was a bad idea.  If it were painted, any mistakes in painting on the emblem could be painted over--as I found out the hard way.  Plus, shields were most likely painted in ancient times!  Go with what they did, eh?

Yea, it's a shield!  The bird is taken from a couple vase paintings.  While working through several iterations on paper, I was trying to make it more realistically crow-like, then realized how far I was straying from the evidence and went back to the vase painting!  This is also casein paint, so I will let it cure for a few weeks before giving the entire surface a coat of wax.  The final weight is 9-1/2 pounds. 

       Aspis in progress, using plywood and pine scraps.  At left the bowl is complete and smoothed, and the rim pieces cut and planed to a slope but not attached.  Behind is the large sheet of cardboard I used when tracing and fitting the pieces, with the strip compass in place.  You can see several circles traced for different layers, so that I could lay the cut pieces out properly aligned and trim their ends to match up.  (Obviously this would lie flat on the floor while in use!)

       I did not try to be as precise with drawing and cutting on this shield, and it does not seem to have made any difference!  Small gaps can be filled with wood putty (as they always are!), and any measurement off by a few millimeters just wasn't detectable. 

       Christian Cameron (Taxis Plataion) designed the bowl of this shield based on the Chigi Vase.  Thin strips of ash are mounted in a notch in the oak rim to make a shallow dome.  The crossing inner layers create exactly the pattern of wedges seen on the Vase, and their springiness makes for surprisingly good resistance to weapons.  A brilliant reconstruction concept!  I undid some finishing work which had been done to the shield, then covered the face with two layers of linen and painted it to match the Vase.
       I also replaced part of the rim, partly because I feel that oak is unnecessarily heavy.  But Christian's design also bevels the inside of the rim to remove the inner ridge or step (the part that rests on the shoulder), which for some reason he believed did not exist.  (I hope I am not misstating anything!)  It might be possible that *some* shields lacked that step, but it is obviously present on any sculpture or relief, as well as on the Vatican shield remains, so I added it.  I don't know if Christian is offering these for sale, just be aware of the controversy.

       If you want leather for the facing or lining, use nothing heavier than 2-ounce.  (I used 5-oz leather and it only added unnecessary weight!)  It is easiest to fit the leather to the front of the bowl before the rim is applied--wet the leather completely, stretch it over the body, and staple it in place.  (Put the staples on the edge of the body that will be glued to the rim!)  When the leather is COMPLETELY DRY, pull out the staples and trim the excess leather.  The remove the leather from the wood and set it aside.

        Before gluing the leather to the face, almost everything else has to be done!  First, glue and peg or nail the rim to the body.  Then line the inside of the body with leather--deerhide works well.  Glue the middle first, then work around section by section, gluing and using a sandbag for weight, to keep the leather smooth.  Then cover the back of the rim with leather, too, with several pieces if necessary.  Where the rim and body lining meet at the inside angle of the rim, the Vatican shield shows a line of running stitches, to keep the leather from peeling up.  The lining can be painted or dyed--I painted the rim lining dark blue but left the body lining its natural golden color.

       Close-up shots of the porpax and antilabe of my first aspis.  I decided to keep the porpax very plain, but the edges are flanged outwards for comfort.  With a little better planning, the tassle on the antilabe would have been at the *bottom*, not the top...

       RIM--For a bronze/brass rim, you need to calculate the proper radius very carefully, remembering that since the rim is sloped you will essentially be making a slice of a very shallow cone.  For my first shield I tried to cut my rim from just 2 pieces, but made it an inch too large, so I had to cut it into pieces and trim the inner edges to fit.  My finished rim is 5 pieces, overlapped and nailed. Moral:  MEASURE, MEASURE, MEASURE!!  And then MAKE PATTERNS!!  Don't be afraid to spend several evenings just sitting a staring at pictures, parts, patterns, and measurements, it will save you much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  I used .020" brass, which worked quite well.  Anneal the part that will be folded over the edge, and add any etched or embossed decoration that you want (I went with etched triangles, effective and as complicated as I wanted to get.)  Knowing that I would not be able to avoid puckers in the brass at the back, I preferred to cut slits about an inch and a quarter apart to create overlapping tabs.  This is actually how at least one surviving original was done, with a flat ring of bronze added to cover the tabs.  I added a strip of deerhide to cover my tabs when I found that they constantly snagged on everything!

       Front and back of the rim of my shield.  Each seam on the front is secured by 2 small brass nails, and you can also see the (rather faint) zigzag line that I scribed into the brass.  On the back, you can see the overlapping tabs, a seam in the leather backing, and the stitching that secures the blue rim backing to the gold deerhide inside the bowl.

       A more accurate alternative to the plywood donut method would be to glue poplar or birch 4x4s and 4x6s together face-to-face  to make a bloody great slab of wood, and work it into shape.  With clever planning the pieces could be cut to rough shape beforehand, similarly to the donut method.  If you happen to have access to (or can build) a wood lathe that will take a piece 3 feet in diameter, use it to turn the turn the wood like a big shallow bowl.  This is apparently how the ancients did it!  (You could just do the dome that way, then add the rim.)  It's possible the lathe was more like a potter's wheel, with the shield blank lying flat, which would be much easier to build.  If you do the outside first, you might be able to shape your bronze facing over it, even spinning or lathing it to shape using the wood blank as the form.  Then hollow out the inside. 

Hoplite Home Page
Clothing Helmets Photos Other Greeks, and Others
Shield--Aspis/Hoplon Armor Weapons
Bibliography The BRONZE AGE