The allure of plate armor is what draws many of us into the hobby of making armor. Many would consider it the pinnacle of armoring achievement. Constructing plate armor requires mastery of many disciplines, and requires many tools. One of the curses of the plate armor task is that it requires many specialized tools, usually tools that the armorer must make himself. Thus there are a handful of common tools which the plate armorer uses every day, and yet a shop cannot run effectively without the obscure specialized tools – there is always some task that requires just that right tool to do.
You can buy on the cheap for some of your tools (especially hand tools) if you baby them and take care of them. The way I see it, chances are the cheapest Chinese set of chisels is probably hell-and-gone better than what the medieval smith had at his disposal. However, some of the cheaper power tools are known to not last very long (bearings go out, etc). Likewise, the knock-off tools, like the knock-off Beverly Shear and the knock-off Roper-Whitney punch have been shown to be inferior to the “real things”. That’s why they are cheaper. Do not expect them to perform like the real things would. I personally would start to be worried if I were cutting/punching at the published limits of the knock-offs themselves. (see also: 18 Things I’ve Learned About Sheet Metal)
The following list is by no means inclusive:
An anvil, per se, is almost not needed at all for armoring work. Most modern armorers do not do any real smithing, and for this reason a traditional blacksmith’s anvil, though almost always found in a plate armorer’s shop, is not an absolute necessity. What is an absolute necessity is a flat, hard metal surface to pound metal on. This flat surface should have one sharp straight edge to it, and one rounded straight edge to it. These edges are used for folding metal over. If this block of metal is an anvil, great. At the least you will need a section of railroad track. One of my favorite tools to work on is a monstrosity made up out of a fork-lift tine. Come to think of it, I do not think I have actually worked any plate on an anvil yet. One advantage a real anvil does have, though, is a “hardie” hole – a hole in the face on the anvil used to hold stakes. Good anvils, even used ones, are very expensive.
Stakes are specially shaped pieces of hard steel used for forming metal over. Some will fit into the hardie hole of an anvil, while others can be held in a vice. A well-equipped shop might have a dozen stakes of various sizes and shapes. While many stakes can be bought, because they are specialty tools they often command a high price. Sometimes one can find good deals at scrap yards or flea markets. Because of the price and/or difficulty in finding stakes, many armorers fashion their own. Chisels, axe heads, and railroad spikes can be converted for use as stakes.
A good machinist’s vice is very helpful in the shop. It can be used to hold an item being worked on, but just as often it is used to hold a tool or fixture to work an item over. Vices also are very useful when constructing custom tools.
Most modern armorers that produce deeply dished items, like helms and some elbow and knee cops, make use of a welder. This is because, in ancient times, the armorer made use of a forge in order to heat the metal being formed to red heat, where it could more easily be worked. Because most modern armorers do not have access to a forge, they form such deeply dished items by constructing them out of two halves and welding them together. Wire feed or MIG welders appear to be a popular choice among many armorers.
Generally speaking, there is very little “smithing” that goes into making armor using modern techniques. “Smithing” generally implies “blacksmithing”, which implies working with a forge. Very few armorers today use a forge, instead choosing to work the metal cold and using a welder to build the necessary pieces. If you want to make exact historical replicas, however, a forge is a necessity. (see also: Helmet Construction/Period Metalworking)
A metal working shop may likely have more hammers than any other type of tool in the shop. The plate armorer will have a few general purpose hammers, for peening rivets or otherwise “pursuading” metal. However, he will also have quite a few specialty hammers used for special purposes. Many of these hammers will have to be fashioned by the armorer, as they are not available anywhere else. Small tack hammers, hammers with spherical faces, square-headed hammers, round-headed hammers, and dishing hammers are all examples of hammers an armorer might have. (see also: Construction of a Sinking (Dishing) Hammer)
Bench grinders come in very handy for quick metal removal. They are often used during the construction of custom-made tools. Can also be used with a sanding disk for finish sanding before moving to the buffing wheels.
Angle grinders are hand-held power tools that have a replaceable grinding wheel that protrudes from the side of the tool at a ninety degree angle (hence the name). These are often used for grinding down weld beads or otherwise shaping plates. They remove material extremely fast.
Dishing forms are shallow bowls used for beating flat sheets of metal into bowl shapes. The most common (though least historically supportable) dishing form is the dishing “stump” – quite literally a wooden log with a slight depression carved, beaten, or burned into one end. Metal dishing forms are also popular, though more costly. (see also: How to Make a Sinking (Dishing) Stump)
Hand drills and/or drill presses come in very handy for making holes, both in armor pieces and during the making of tools.
Various pliers always come in handy for holding or forming metal. You’ll need some of the locking variety as well.
These are always useful for providing a “third hand”.
These are sometimes used for marking or forming metal, but most often are used to locate the start of holes, either for drilling or punching.
A metal-punching hole punch, such as a Roper Whitney #5 Jr., is another important tool. You can do without one, using a drill instead, but hand punches are fast and precise.
If you intend to polish your armor, more than likely you will want to invest in a bench grinder mounted on a stand with buffing wheels attached to it, or a dedicated buffing motor. You can polish armor by hand, of course, using sandpaper, but a buffing wheel will do in minutes what could take you days to do by hand. You will need the appropriate buffing compound for the degree of polish you wish to attain.
Metal Cutting Tools
A well-equipped shop will likely have a few ways to cut metal. I will present some of the tools used, in order from least to most expensive:
A cold chisel
Used correctly, a cold chisel can be used to cut very thick plates of metal with surprising precision. Some edge clean-up is often needed afterwards, however.
Equipped with metal cutting blades, a jigsaw can be used to cut sheetmetal. However, it is noisy, slow, and can consume blades quickly.
An Electric or Pneumatic Shear
Handheld metal shears, powered by air (need a compressor) or electricity can also be used to cut metal. However, many power shears are limited as to how thick a sheet of metal they can cut, and ones that can cut the thicker gauges can be quite expensive. Expect to pay $200 or more for a quality power shear.
An Electric or Pneumatic Nibbler
Nibblers cut metal by using a tiny die to cut small bits of metal out of the sheet. It essentially “nibbles” a cut. Like shears, nibblers are also often limited as to how thick a sheet of metal they can cut. They are also somewhat noisy. They also waste metal, as they remove material as they cut. Additionally, the edges of a nibble-cut piece of metal usually need to be cleaned up.
The throatless shear is, as far as I am concerned, the tool that allows a shop to work sheet metal. Specifically, the Beverly B2 throatless shear. Throatless shears allow one to cut complex curves in even thick metal. There are imitation Beverly shears for considerably less money, but there is no substitute for the Beverly. Expect to pay around $600 for the Beverly B2, and around $100 for the knock-offs.
So there you have a very incomplete list of tools, to hopefully give you some idea of what is involved in making armor. If that looks like a lot of stuff, well, it is! Don’t worry, though – you can get started making armor with only a few basic tools. Remember, the medieval armorer didn’t have Black & Decker or Home Depot!