My local leather store has a display filled with projects created by the employees. During a recent shopping trip, I saw a leather helmet and was amazed at how the leather was shaped to fit the bust. Inspired, I decided to look more into leather armor and the techniques used to create a functional piece.
Leather armor is protective or decorative gear made using animal hides. Skins are molded and hardened using various techniques. Historically, leather armor offered limited protection and was, therefore, uncommon. However, for recreational events, leather offers personalization in a lighter material.
This article will explore the history of leather armor and showcase how leather can be used in recreational armor sets today.
What Is Leather Armor?
Leather armor is a protective covering made for battle using hardened animal hides. To achieve this, thick leather hides were boiled, allowing them to be easily shaped, and when dried, the leather hardened. Leather armor may also have wax applied to protect the leather further and make it more durable.
The largest use for leather armor is solely for recreation and fantasy. Crafters can craft entire custom leather armor sets, covering themselves head to toe in this protective gear.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Leather Armor
- Leather Armor Overview Table
- Types of Leather Armor
- Characteristics of Leather Armor
- Leather Body Armor
- Where to Buy Leather Armor
- Maintaining Leather Armor
- My Personal Research Into Leather Armor
- Helpful Leather Armor Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
Leather armor often comes up when discussing protective material in medieval times. It is also not uncommon to see many people wearing it at Renaissance fairs. However, leather armor was much less common than portrayed and had a smaller impact overall. Despite the ability to harden leather, the material falls short in protective abilities. At the time, other armor types outclassed leather.
Although it is often seen and recreated, leather was simply less popular than we have come to believe. While the material still works wonders for those looking to create decorative pieces. Those looking for a more functional armor set may have better luck looking for other materials. Similarly, those attempting to be historically accurate may avoid most types of leather armor for their set.
History of Leather Armor
The most popular depiction of leather armor throughout history is throughout the Middle Ages. During this period, affordable armor was necessary, as metal gear was limited in availability. While fabrics were being used at the time, leather found its place as a lightweight, moldable layer.
Although the protection offered by leather armor was limited, the ability to wear it casually or as an additional layer made it a popular choice for the common person and nobles. Today, leather armor has strayed far from its origins, often shown as full armor sets.
While this may provide enthusiasts with a beautiful, well-fitting armor set, it is non-authentic. The armor pieces chosen to be made out of leather were few, and they were often only a small part of a larger set of protective gear. Despite these historical inaccuracies, crafters today enjoy customizing recreational pieces for fairs and other events.
Leather Armor Overview Table
|Leather armor is typically made of vegetable tanned leather, as it is the only type that hardens. However, details and accessories may be made from chromium tanned hides.
|Armor was often molded to a general shape before hardening, where it would then be attached with rivets or lace.
|Boiling the leather in various oils and waxes was the most common way to produce leather armor. Today, leather can be placed in a slightly heated oven to produce similar results.
|Leather armor uses pieces around 12 oz that can be layered to provide additional protection. Thinner hides may be used for gloves or areas that require more flexibility.
Types of Leather Armor
Real Leather Armor
Leather armor is a popular choice for those looking to attend recreational events. Real leather is ideal for those who want something that will truly last. Animal hides are durable and can be fitted around a person’s body to tailor them to their needs. In addition, real leather armor can be decorated with tooling, stamps, or paint to create beautiful fantasy pieces.
Historical Leather Armor
Since there are very few examples of leather armor throughout history, how it was used is debated. The most common piece of historical leather armor is a breastplate. These were often worn on top of chainmail or other protective material.
The leather was commonly hardened through boiling or scaled to help reinforce the material. Although the media portrays leather armor as common, it was quite rare at the time and seldom used.
Cuir bouilli / Boiled Leather Armor
Leather was often hardened through boiling to improve its strength. Many methods exist to accomplish this, but all work by placing the leather in a hot vat and combining fats or waxes to create an additional layer. When wet, the leather can be easily molded and retain its shape when dried. Once the leather has thoroughly dried, it shrinks slightly, tightening the fibers and producing a harder exterior.
Medieval Leather Armor
Although leather armor was limited in Medieval times, those who enjoy similar events will still go all out, making entire leather armor suits from head to toe. While this is not historically accurate, it is a fun way to embrace the craft and showcase how the material may have been used in a more decorative setting. Historically, leather armor was uncommon and was often a simple breastplate on top of another protective material.
Studded Leather Armor
There is little to no evidence that studded leather armor ever existed. The closest studded leather armor is the brigandine type. This armor would use metal plates that riveted to the material, giving it the illusion of being studded.
While studded leather armor may not be historically accurate, it is a great way to add visual appeal. Decorating leather armor for events is a great way to improve the set and is popular for fantasy goods.
Fantasy Leather Armor
Fantasy leather armor is the most common type of leather armor seen today. The focus of a fantasy set is to create unique pieces that highlight an individual’s tastes. This could be simple tooling throughout the set or shaping the pieces for a different style.
Fantasy leather armor is great for cosplay. Talented crafters can recreate their favorite armor sets through various media, allowing them to fully capture the look of a character more authentically.
Chuck Dorsett showcases his leather armor in this helpful video provided by Weaver Leather Supply. It highlights how pieces can be customized and offers suggestions for leather and weight.
Characteristics of Leather Armor
Leather armor weighs around 8–15 pounds, which is relatively light compared to other materials used at the time. Chainmail and metal plating could easily weigh over 50 pounds.
This makes leather one of the lightest armor options, limiting the mobility restrictions typically found with protective gear. However, leather armor was often used with other materials as a layered item, so a functional set would be heavier than leather alone.
Taehoon Kim, Jinyoung Hwang, Ga Young Park, and Min Wook Lee from the Department of Fashion Design, Dong Seoul University, in Seongnam-Si, South Korea, discussed the construction methods used for creating leather armor. Myeonpigap’s, a Korean armor set, construction method was applied to newer material, specifically carbon fiber.
They found that the old-world method of layering pieces together with resin in between produced lightweight puncture-resistant armor, showcasing the performance of the traditional methods while applying it to current-day manufacturing.
The style of leather armor completely depends on the individual. More historically accurate pieces will be simple and limited in design, with most of the armor being a hardened leather piece or having a scaled look. Fantasy leather armor is where crafters can express themselves.
There are no limits to how an armor may look when making fantasy sets. Color, artwork, and shape all become more important than being a functional piece.
While many types of leather can be used to make recreational leather armor, thick vegetable tanned leather is most common. Vegetable tanned can be hardened and molded, making it a great choice for most armor pieces. While not historically accurate, chromium tanned leathers can be incorporated differently.
It is commonly used as a lining material to prevent raw vegetable tanned leather from chafing the skin. It may also be used for light, more flexible pieces like gloves. However, chromium tanned leather cannot be hardened, so its use is limited when creating functional armor.
Although leather armor is better than wearing no armor, it does not offer great protection. The material is fairly decent at resisting damage from slashing but lacks penetrative defense. Even if the leather is hardened, it is still outclassed by other popular materials used at the time.
As a result, leather was often layered with other protective gear to strengthen the overall armor set being used. Despite how leather armor is often portrayed in the media, it is limited in how well it may protect someone.
Historically, leather armor offered limited protection and was, therefore, uncommon. However, for recreational events, leather offers personalization in a lighter material.
Although there are no exact numbers for what leather armor was priced at throughout history, it was considered cheaper. Plated metal armor was often reserved for the wealthy, while leather was for the common person. Hardened leather armor was slightly more expensive but was still less when compared to sets made out of metal.
Leather armor made today will often be at a much higher price, around $500 and up. Decorative leather armor can easily surpass thousands of dollars when custom-made for a client. This is because making leather armor is a specialized craft. Instead of being a mass-produced item, artisans dedicated to the field will create armor using methods similar to those used throughout history.
Although leather is a highly durable material, leather armor has its faults. When undamaged, the leather can easily last for decades. However, as the armor is put to use, problems start to arise. The biggest is how hard it is to repair when compared to other armor types of the time.
Punctured or torn leather must, at least, be patched, requiring a crafter to remake large areas of pieces. This is amplified due to the lack of protection offered by the material. Leather armor can easily be damaged in a battle, limiting its durability.
Leather Body Armor
Leather Body Armor
Leather body armor is one of the most notable pieces made from leather. It came in many different forms, including simply wearing a thick, hardened hide under other armor. More complicated leather body armor was scaled in its construction, allowing many layers to overlap to provide better protection when worn.
Leather brigandines are an uncommon type of body armor that uses leather and metal. The metal plates are riveted to the leather, encasing it between two leather pieces. This helps to make the armor more protective but also adds a lot of weight to an otherwise light armor. Despite the extra plates, brigandine armor proved less effective than traditional plated gear due to the gaps between the metal.
A vital area of protection is a person’s neck. Leather gorgets cover this area while offering a more comfortable solution than metal. Leather was a lighter material and could be molded to fit a person better. While a gorget was not a necessary piece of equipment, it became a common armor piece for high-ranking military, who often wore them in the presence of civilians.
Leather pauldrons are shoulder armor used in the Middle Ages, typically as part of a heavier gear set. Pauldrons made from leather are much more mobile and lightweight than other materials, allowing combatants a larger range of motion while still being protected. Pauldrons have become a highly decorative piece for recreational sets, with crafters creating various styles inspired by fantasy and historical periods.
Leather Arm Armor
A common use for leather armor was for arm pieces. Hides could easily be wrapped and secured around a user’s arm while remaining light enough to add protective layers or be used standalone. Arm armor is often not waxed to remain flexible and is held tightly using lace. Arm armor may cover the wrist upwards but is often only made for covering the forearm.
Similar to arm armor, leather gauntlets are made to protect the arm of the user. Where they differ is that gauntlets also include protection for the hands. With gauntlets made out of leather, the hands have complete flexibility, making it a comfortable option. However, the leather is not hardened to achieve this, leading to less protection around the hand area.
Leather Thigh Armor
While leather thigh armor was used in the Middle Ages, it was not a popular choice. Leather thigh armor was often chosen for those who could not afford metal or other materials. While leather thigh armor offered limited protection, it was comparably lighter. As better protective materials decreased in cost, leather thigh armor was quickly phased out, only remaining as a recreational piece of equipment.
Leather Leg Armor
Unlike leather thigh armor, leather leg armor was much more common. Commonly, leather leg armor was a layer of protective material that sat underneath metal plating, making the armor slightly more protective. In addition, leather leg armor was worn casually as light armor for nobles. The leather would not restrict motion much but would offer decent protection if necessary.
Leather greaves were often a part of other leg armor at the time. While metal was much more common, the affordability of leather made it a popular choice.
Although there is limited evidence of leather greaves used throughout history, there is evidence pointing to the prominence of the material through discovered text. However, confirming exactly how leather was used for various armor pieces is challenging.
Where To Buy Leather Armor
Leather armor can be purchased online from specialty stores. Many of them carry armor solely meant for decoration. A great option when looking to buy leather armor is to find a specialized leather crafter to work with. Not only will the armor’s design be customized, but the specialist will likely be able to tailor the pieces to your body, making a more comfortable armor overall, but at a higher price point.
Maintaining Leather Armor
How To Clean Leather Armor
Leather armor typically has wax or another coating on it to keep the material hardened. Over time, this draws in a fair amount of dirt and debris. The best way to address this is to use a horsehair brush, pushing out all the stuck-on debris.
Leather soaps and water are not recommended for armor as they can easily cause the material to lose its hardness or shape. However, with care, a small amount of soap can be used to spot-treat the leather, taking extra care to avoid oversaturating the leather.
How To Condition Leather Armor
Similar to cleaning leather armor, conditioning should be done carefully. It is best to use a clean cloth and apply small amounts of leather conditioner at a time. Ensuring any excess is wiped off the surface. Continue this method until the armor has been fully conditioned before leaving it to dry overnight. Always test the leather conditioner on a small area before applying it to the entire surface.
How To Store Leather Armor
Leather armor should be stored in a temperature-controlled environment away from sunlight, moisture, and heat. When improperly stored, the leather is susceptible to fading, becoming brittle, or misshapen. If the leather is to be left stored for a long time, it is best to condition it beforehand and cover the leather when possible. This will help prevent the leather from becoming overly dry and potentially cracking.
My Personal Research Into Leather Armor
When creating leather armor, one of the key factors is getting the leather hard enough to maintain its shape and resist damage. For my research, I tested a couple of ways to harden leather and another popular method for creating leather armor. It is key to note that only natural vegetable tanned leather can be hardened; all other types will resist these processes.
The most common method suggested for hardening leather is to use boiling water. Much like wet molding, moisture will be removed when the leather dries, making it firmer. In addition, the heat will tighten the leather fibers to make the material more dense.
To test this method, I simply boiled a pot of water and cut a square of leather. When the water was ready, I turned off the heat and placed the leather into the pot. Immediately, the leather began taking up water, darkening in color, and curling into itself.
After a few minutes, I carefully removed the leather from the pot and set it aside to dry. The first thing I noticed was how much the leather had shrunk. The leather was much firmer when dried but not as hard as expected. In addition, the outside of the leather was extremely dry, making the entire piece feel brittle.
Another fairly common method suggested is to bake the leather. Like other processes, this involves removing moisture from the hide to harden the material. To bake the leather, I first soaked my piece until no bubbles were visible in the water, signaling that the entire piece of leather had become saturated.
Once the leather was soaked, I let the excess moisture evaporate and slightly shaped the leather. I then placed the piece into my oven at the lowest possible setting; for me, it was 200 Fahrenheit for 20 minutes.
When it was time to remove the leather from the oven, I was shocked at how much stiffer the piece was. The material felt rock hard and had much less shrinkage than boiling the leather. However, since the leather lost most of its moisture, it was extremely dry and would require conditioning.
The final method of hardening leather I looked at was using hot wax to saturate the leather. Not only would this have the benefit of hardening the leather when dried, but it would also have additional stiffness due to the wax drying.
This is a particularly dangerous method for hardening leather, and safety should be the number one priority when attempting to harden leather with wax. I was not properly equipped to test this method personally, so I watched various videos to understand the method and results better.
A temperature-controlled vat of wax should be brought and held to 240–250 Fahrenheit to begin the hot waxing process. At this temperature, both beeswax and paraffin wax will be able to melt into a hot liquid. According to various crafters, both waxes will work, with paraffin wax being a lower-cost alternative.
Once the wax has reached this temperature, the leather can be soaked for up to five minutes before it is set aside. As the leather cools, it can be wiped down and molded.
Using the wax method may leave the exterior of the leather oily, requiring it to be cleaned to avoid soaking into surfaces. When finished, many crafters agree that the hot wax method gives the best armor qualities to the leather. Making it extremely firm and durable, though it will soften up over time.
Various methods for hardening leather to create armor exist, but two performed better than the other. Both baking the leather and using hot wax created hard leather that could be used for recreational armor. While the boiling method did harden the leather, it also left it feeling brittle and shrunk.
While hot wax may produce the most accurate armor finish, it is also the most dangerous. Safety is key when using the hot wax method for hardening leather.
Helpful Leather Armor Insights
Did leather armor ever exist?
Yes, however, the use of the material is highly debated. It is known that leather armor was being used in 786 BC and potentially earlier. However, leather armor was often combined with other protective materials rather than a standalone item. Therefore, the armor did exist, but not in the same way seen at Renaissance fairs, movies, or television.
Does leather make good armor?
It is debatable whether leather makes good armor or not. It can provide protection against slashes but does not protect against punctures well. Additionally, when leather armor was being used, gambeson was a better alternative, offering more protection in an easily repairable material. Leather armor is better than no armor, but other materials quickly outclassed it.
What was leather armor called?
Leather armor was once called “cuirass,” which comes from the French word “cuir.” Cuir is the term for a treated animal hide or leather. The armor was also once called cuirie, which was specifically the hardened leather breastplate worn over chainmail.
What are the disadvantages of leather armor?
The biggest drawback of leather armor is its lack of protective abilities. Many other materials would have accomplished this better and do so to this day. Leather is hot, making it uncomfortable to wear, and the cost of making leather armor was also high as it took skilled artisans to produce the pieces.
Who wears leather armor?
The most common use for leather armor is for recreational purposes. Leather is not a great armor choice for battle, but it is a go-to for those looking to wear a light, customizable set. Leather can be molded to the shape of one’s body, making it fit better, and can also be decorated to stand out in a fantasy setting.
Did studded leather armor exist?
There is little to no evidence that studded leather armor existed. Leather armor itself was fairly uncommon, and there are few examples left. The leather degrades over time, making it difficult to find remaining studded armor pieces.
What is the oldest leather armor?
The oldest leather armor found was a Yanghai leather scale armor. It is estimated to be found in northwest China from 786–543 BCE. Older leather armor may have existed; however, since the material decays over time, examples are often lost before they are discovered.
- Leather armor was not common throughout history.
- While somewhat protective, leather armor is outclassed by other materials.
- Leather armor is best suited for recreational events.
Although the information regarding leather armor is limited, crafters and recreational groups enjoy the art. Creating a set is highly rewarding and allows crafters to add some of their personality to the armor. While most armor created today is not used for battle, the technique and care for the craft have passed through the ages.
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