:: The Vikings of Bjornstad ::
Making a Viking Shield
By John Logan
February, 2018

A year ago I was asked if I was interested in taking on an awesome project - to make a Viking shield like the one seen in the television show Vikings, but made exactly as they would have a thousand years ago. Made entirely by hand from felling the tree to the alchemy of making period pigments. It has been a long but rewarding project! (John Logan)

The project, photos and most of the text incuded here are with the kind permission of John Logan, owner / blacksmith at Iron Tree Forge at Iron John & Copperrein, Onandaga, Michigan.  Comments John received about the project generated some good information, so a select few have been included below, as well as John's responses.  (Jack Garrett)
Almost a year ago to the day I went out into the snow to find a tree. Most people would think you would want Oak or another hard wood for a shield, but the Vikings a thousand years ago chose woods that are light in weight and strong against splitting. One of the favorites for shields was the Linden tree, which its relative here in the US is known as Basswood. I found such a tree, felled it with an ax, and dragged it home.

Comment received: Ash would have been my choice.

John Logan:  Well, it was not what they used then... It is heavy and splits a lot easier.

The first order of working green wood is to get the bark off to allow the wood to dry. Linden / Basswood bark is an amazing material on its own, being one of the strongest fibers found in nature. I will save the bark and ret it to use as cordage in the project.
I then bucked the log into pieces and split each of these in half to begin to form the planks of the shield.

After a few months of drying, and splitting, and carving (did I mention Basswood does not split easily?) I got the planks down to the shield shape.

Original viking shields are very thin - 1/2 inch or less, to be as light in weight as possiple. The planks are glued togther with milk paste, then straps from the same tree are trenailed on with splinters of the same.

Milk paste, cheese glue, etc. are historic terms for casein plastic. It is simply dairy curd protein reacted to an alkaline and can be used both as a glue and a paint medium. I tried a few different recipes throughout the project using a few different alkalines from lime, to lye, to borax. They all worked but had slightly different properties.

The basic recipe is to warm fat free milk on the stove (do not boil), then add vinegar to curdle it (about 2 cups vinegar per gallon of milk).  Take it off the heat and let it sit undisturbed until cold to allow the curds and whey to separate. Strain through a T shirt or other fine fabric, then wash the curds in cold water until it runs clear. Then mix in your alkaline.  The amount depends on type and final use, and continue mixing until there are no lumps. I found it worked best if I let it sit a few days and let the reaction between the proteins and the alkaline have plenty of time to do their thing.

Jim Madden: How does milk paste hold up in wet weather, seriously? 

John Logan: Once it dries, like modern acrylic, it is water proof.

Anton Vierthaler: It’s (still) used for gluing up windows in Austria, mainly in restoration but also with replacements – but mostly a ready made casein glue powder is used, just to mix with water. Holds up very well in the wet and outdoors.
The shield is together and the wood is continuing to dry. It is coated overall with milk paste to strengthen and hold everything together. This is the bark of the tree after retting, i.e., allowing it to controllably rot leaving the fibers behind. This will be washed and twisted into cordage for the strap of the shield.

It's beginning to be a shield.

The Alchemy! Making the pigment that I will use for the paint of the shield. After a lot of research searching for the color they used in the television show I decided on what is known as Green Bice. The pigment is formed from the mixing of Blue Vitriol and baking soda (copper sulfate and Sodium bicarbonate)

William Martin: Hoping you handled the pigment wearing gloves. Copper Sulfate is poisonous.

John Logan: Once the reaction happens and forms the pigment it is safe. I wouldn't drink it, but probably could.

Rick Barnes: The copper sulfate was also used on a lot of old tool boxes. Because it’s toxic, it prevents rot.

Einar Severinson: How exactly does one obtain Sodium Bicarbonate in the Viking Age? There are natural deposits, but nowhere near Scandinavia that I can find. There are chemical means to synthesize the stuff, but seems awfully sophisticated for farmers & fishermen.

William Martin: As common as it can be elsewhere, blacksmiths likely were the first to start trading for it and as its manifold uses were discovered, it may have become a standard tradegood.

John Logan: Reading historical sources you can also use chalk (calcium carbonate) or potash as the alkaline. The reaction is much like the acid and base experiment to make volcanoes, but with the copper in the Blue Vitriol you are left with carbon dioxide, water, and copper dihydrate which is the pigment.

Raising the shield boss.

Devin Robinson: Why not dish the boss?

John Logan: Dishing thins the metal in the center; raising thickens the metal at the edges. Raising also allows you more control / creativity with the shape, rather than with dishing you are stuck with the shape of your hollow form. Both are viable processes, though for this I needed to raise.
Another misconception of shields is that they had a hard iron rim to protect from sword cuts, though most shields found in archaeology have either wood or leather rims - again to keep everything as light in weight as possiple. I went with wood to continue to only use material from the one tree.  I believe wood rims have been found both in Gotland and Ireland. 

Robert Harbin: Correct, as well as a couple in England. Nice to see it done right!

Final photo of the back of the shield showing the trenailed wood straps and the bark cordage sling.

Ivan Ivanowich Schultz: May I ask for the reason why you have chosen that specific angle for the handle, instead of the "normal" 90 degree on the planks? - On your other photos it looks like the handle is turning the "right" way - nice work ;-)

John Logan: It was up to how the planks shrunk as they dried.  More nature than any choice of mine. 

Einar Severinson: Linden (Basswood in the States) is excellent for cordage. Oak is good too. The under-bark is readily separated and twisted for this purpose. Makes an excellent live demo as children can safely twist a thin twine and take it with them. Twist three twines together in the opposite direction as the twine and you've made rope.

Mark Green:  What is the total weight?

John Logan: Just over 4 pounds
A shield worthy of a warrior named Lagertha.

  ©   For information contact Jack Garrett at info@vikingsofbjornstad.com