I decided to build a Roman shield for no particular reason. This type of shield is known as a scutum these days even though scutum is just the Latin work for shield. Even though millions of scuta (plural of scutum) were probably produced during the history of Rome only one has survived to present day. It was crushed flat and had to be reconstructed by historians. So, most of the details about scuta come from period writings and Roman stone carvings. The scutum changed a bit over the decades it was in use but the basic scutum was rectangular or semi-rectangular in plan form with a cylindrical shape. It had a wooden core that was laid up like plywood and was covered by leather or fabric. In the middle was a metal boss or umbo that covered the horizontal handle. Building a scutum ends up requiring a mix of woodwork, metal work, brass work, and painting. In contrast to my normal posting style here’s how mine turned out in the end.
Trajan’s column, a 100 ft tall marble triumphal column build in 113 AD, depicts the emperor’s victory in the Dacian Wars through spiral carvings up the entire column. There are several scenes that contains scuta including the one shown before. The carving shows the general shape and size of the shield along with some of the details on the surface of the shield. Based on what I’ve read from other online sources (such as the folks over at Legio XX) the shield typically reached from the top of the knee to the shoulders and was wide enough to cover the soldier behind it. People also estimate the shield was anywhere from 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick possibly varying in thickness towards the edge. The edges of the shield were either bare or rimmed in metal. Some shields were said to be rimmed in a decorative brass while later ones were rimmed in a thicker metal to handle enemy blows better. Considering all of this, there is no one correct shield as it depends on when the shield would have been made and by whom. There’s a bit of leeway all around.
My scutum is 40″ tall by 26″ wide. As it is cylindrical, it has a depth of 6.5″ and the total distance across the face is about 30″. To create the cylindrical shape I first made a form that I’ve seen referred to as a scutum press. It’s a simple affair consisting of 3/4″ plywood forms held in place by 2x4s. Some presses have a matching top half which can be clamped down onto the lower half. As I’m only planning to make one shield, I just made the lower half.
Unfortunately, I lost some of the pics from the beginning of this build. So, I’ve subbed in a few showing the use of the press on smaller pieces of wood. I made my shield out of three layers of ~1/8″ “utility board” from Home Depot. It appears to be a three layer plywood with hardwood faces and a softwood core. The most important part of it is that it will bend to the shape of the form without splitting unlike the Lauan I tried previously. Once I had the sheets cut to shape, I coated two of the sheets with a thick layer of glue and stacked all the sheets.
On my actual scutum build, the edges of the plywood were pinched by the pieces of wood on the sides of the form and then tie down straps and more strips of wood were used to make the plywood match the shape of the form. In the picture below (another sub with smaller wood), I had to use a bunch of clamps and straps to bend the plywood.
I let the plywood sit in the press for a full 24 hours before removing the straps and clamps. Surprising, the plywood sandwich held the shape exactly and there was no relaxation of the shape. I trimmed the edges and rounded over the corners to the dimensions desired. To create the holes around the handle, I cut two 5″ diameter semicircular regions that were separated by 3/4″ where the handle is. The scuta had a frame on the back to strengthen the shield. I made my frame out of 3/4″x 1/4″ oak with the handle receiving two strips of wood. I’m not sure how the frame would have been held to the shield while the glue was drying 2000 years ago but I used a mix of clamps and machine screws. Once another 24 hours had passed, I removed the clamps and machine screws before filling the holes where the machine screws were. Finally, I shaped the handle a bit with rasp and sandpaper to a comfortable shape.
As mentioned earlier, scuta were covered in leather or fabric. I opted for the cheaper fabric route using some thick linen my wife had laying around. Gluing the fabric to the front of the shield was pretty simple. I applied glue to one half, laid the fabric down and then put glue on the other half before laying down the rest of the fabric. Applying fabric to the back of the shield was a little more tricky due to the frame. I did the best I could but ended up with some tenting around the frame and some small wrinkles. Next, I trimmed up the fabric with a razor and gave both sides a coat of barn red paint which is an appropriate color according to the folks online. Apparently, milk paint would the the historically appropriate paint but I went with the latex I had laying around. The modern paint is more durable than milk paint too.
The next big part of the shield is the metal square in the front known as the boss. Did you wonder why I was polishing up all those ball peen hammers in the last post? Well, it was for this. I purchased a piece of 16 gauge steel and cut it into a 10″x10″ square. I followed the recommendation from Legio XX and cut a 5″ hole into a piece of 2×8 (a depth of 1.5″), attached it to a stump, and then started playing blacksmith. I heated the plate with my propane weed burner and started hammering. I started in the center of the plate and worked out in circuits in a process known as dishing. This was repeated for a while and I finally ended up with a uniform bulge in the plate. Not bad for a first time If I do say so myself. In retrospect I wish I’d gone a little bit deeper but didn’t realize this until the shield was finished.
Well, it turns out that was the easy part. Next, I had to work the boss so that the plate matched the curvature of the shield. While the sounds simple, consider that the curvature from the top to bottom of the plate must be constant excluding the bulge. The area between the top edge and bulge, and its counterpart, really wanted to stay sunk down below the edges. Add on to it that when set on a flat surface the boss should not rock. Perhaps for a skilled blacksmith, this would be a simple task, but it took a while for me to get it to fit well. Eventually, I did which lead to the next step of planishing the piece. Ideally, with plannishing, you lightly tap the work over a form to even out the surface and remove hammer marks. I planished the surface as best I could using a round form I turned in the lathe and a light weight ball peen hammer. Next, I went after the surface with a flap disc on the sander. I started with a 40 grit disc and, using a light touch, went over the entire surface.
I stepped up to a 120 grit disc and again went over the surface. Next, I hand sanded the boss with 220 grit and then went over it with a green 3M pad which left a nice satin finish. I’m not sure what kind of finish an actual boss would have had. Mine still has some scratches and hammer marks in it as I wasn’t able to get it perfectly smooth. I can’t imagine that every one of them was finished to a gleaming smooth mirror like surface. Who knows though. I’m happy with the finished I achieved given my skill level and the couple of days of work I had in it.