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shield is what made a Greek warrior a hoplite, because
he could not stand in the phalanx without it.
Oddly enough, the shield we commonly refer to as the
hoplon was called aspis by the Greeks. (We
may use the incorrect word on this site through force of
bad habit--just be aware of the truth and please take no
offense at our error!) 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. Earlier ones seem to have been covered
with leather, with a thin bronze covering on the rim,
but by the late Archaic period it was common to cover
the entire front with a thin facing of bronze.
ALERT: Okay, there was some confusion for a few years about the wood pieces of the Vatican shield, the only surviving Greek-style aspis with substantial organic remains. To give credit where it's due, Peter Connolly's cross-section turns out to be about right. There is still some ambiguity and debate due to questionable or vague measurements, but the best summary of the evidence is here: http://www.romanarmytalk.com/19-greek-military-history-a-archaeology/264320-vatican-shield-photos.html The bowl was about 10-11mm thick at the center, thinning slightly to about 7-9mm where the face "turns" downward, and thickening to 14-18mm (or more?) 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 are recommended, and can be documented. Plywood is commonly used 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 makes for great strength but is terribly heavy! Modern materials such as plastic, fiberglass, and aluminum are of course forbidden. Skip the saucer sleds!
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
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.
Hoplologia: Building an Aspis--http://www.hoplologia.org/aspis.html
Aurora Simmons does will make you weep with envy.
Aspis construction and notes--http://www.4hoplites.com/Aspis.htm
There are several excellent
discussions on the Roman
Talk board. Do a search on RAT or browse back through
old threads in the Greek sections to find more.
Making an Aspis--Ring Method
Photos! (W/ details on wood thickness, etc.)
Hoplite shield construction
Mounting a Porpax
|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, wulf.lighting 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
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.
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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...
Since my first shield was
too thick at the edge of the bowl, made from miscellaneous plywood
and oak, and covered with 5-ounce leather, it weighed 18
pounds. 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. 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
| 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. The table at
right lists the approximate inner and outer radii of each
NOTE: This cross-section does NOT match the wooden remains of the Vatican shield, which was thickest at the very edge. I'll have to draw a new cross-section and write up the radii for that. This chart WILL give you a nice light shield, though!
|Next, 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. Easier to trace the outer line with a full sheet,
then just use a compass to draw the inner line (set the
compass to the width of the layer, and follow the outer line
with the point while drawing with the pencil).
|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 6. 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.
|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,
|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. 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!
|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
|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
|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
|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.
FURTHER CONSTRUCTION NOTES, based on the construction of my first shield.
| I used a
variety of plywood scraps, all different in thickness, and
had to match each piece to where it would fit in the
cross-section. Obviously planning is simpler if all
your wood is the same thickness! This diagram is for
half-inch plywood. The wood should actually be
thickest (c. 1/2" to 3/4") at the edge of the bowl.
So I will redraw this cross-section when I get a chance.
(Actually it looks like I drew the center a little thin, but
that will save a little weight!) The total size of
this shield is 34" in diameter and 5" in depth.
Glue the rings together,
being sure they are centered. You can add pegs for more
strength. For ease of smoothing, don't glue the body to the
SMOOTHING--Once the glue is dry, the fun begins: making the whole thing smooth, inside and out. For the outside, I used a drawknife near the edge, and a chisel closer to the middle, to remove as much obviously extraneous wood as possible. Be careful about the grain of the wood--hitting it at the wrong angle can rip up more than you want to remove. But I found that otherwise there was not much problem with big holes needing puttying. Most of the rest I did with a rasp, which was hot and strenuous but faster than I had expected. Use a nice big rasp and don't be timid with it. PLEASE GET POWER TOOLS!! Planer, angle grinder, belt sander. (I was only able to borrow a belt sander when I was mostly done.) It can be helpful to smooth out a strip c. 2" wide from edge to center as a guide and test area. The idea is to eliminate any trace of the steps, but not to go any deeper. Do a lot of eyeballing and run your hand CAREFULLY over the surface to find high spots.
That's Jon Martin's aspis in progress at right, looking much like mine did at that point.
Most of this smoothing took
about 2 weeks. It was a heck of a lot of work, and faster
than sitting around not doing it at all, but I am SO glad I have
better tools now!
complete bronze facing is both the most desirable and the least
obtainable. It should be quite thin, probably 22 or 24
gauge, definitely not thicker than 20-ga. The best bet may
be to send the finished wooden core--with internal fittings in
place--to an armorer of proven ability, so he can fit the facing
directly to it.
Fortunately, not every
aspis had a bronze facing. At least some were covered in
leather and only had a bronze rim. Some reenactors simply
give the wood core several coats of paint to hide the wood
seams. My aspis is covered in 4-5 ounce leather--too
thick! Use nothing heavier than 2-ounce leather. I
just used the rim to trace the circle I would need because it's a
little bigger than the distance over the curve of the body.
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.
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.
(armband) and loops for the grip (antilabe) are cut from 18 gauge
bronze, and are secured with bronze nails bent over on the outside
of the wood. I used bronze washers for the rings for the
carrying cord, and secured them with split pins made from strips
of 18-ga bronze, which pass through copper florets--the same as
the brass ones I make for Roman armor. I cut little grooves
in the front of the wood for the clenched nails and split pins to
lie in, which helped a lot. Also, bend the tip of each nail
over before bending it down flat, which sends the tip into the
wood. Hold a sledgehammer behind the wood to absorb the
impact of hammering. The rings for the carrying cord should be
mounted so that the cord passes straight through them without
having to make any sharp angles. The grip is made of twisted
or braided leather thong. At this point you can actually
pick up the hoplon and see how it fits over the
shoulder. Neat, eh?
shots of the porpax and antilabe. 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
|Right: one of the ring fittings through which the carrying cord runs, shown about full size.|
I used 3 strands of heavy
linen cord twisted together for the carrying cord. A little
experimenting resulted in the right length for slinging the shield
on my back with the cord going horizontally across my shoulders
and chest. The shoulder still nests inside the rim to help
support the weight. I had thought that the porpax would dig
into my back, but it rests quite comfortably in the small of my
back, and apparently even keeps the lower rim from bumping my
Put Plastic Wood around the nails and split pins, just so that nothing sticks up too sharply from the face, and sand it smooth when dry.
NOW glue the facing on, similarly to the inside lining, starting at the center and then doing the outer section all at once, using a rope tied around where body meets rim to keep it tight until dry. If you want a leather rim, put that on, too. (Actually, since you'll want to stretch the leather over the edge, you may want to put it on before you put the leather on the back of the rim. My rim is brass, so I can't really help you!) Paint the front with an emblem or color scheme from a vase painting, etc. (I used the eye motif on a light blue background.)
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. 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!
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
The finished weight of
my aspis is about 18 pounds, similar to Connolly's
reconstruction. That's too much! If you make the edge
a lot thinner than mine, you'll be able to cut several pounds from
that weight. I have coated the brass rim with neatsfoot oil
in an attempt to keep it from tarnishing, because it will be VERY
difficult to polish!
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