pavise shield

(Disclaimer: the first part of this page was written by Karsten, for reasons which will soon become obvious.)

This page: construction of the wooden corpus
On to page 2: linen canvas and gesso coating

Although the focus of our re-enactment is more on the civil urban side of medieval life, certain military aspects have their allure, too. (Strictly speaking, our new tent is a military asset as well, since the paint scheme is derived from burgund campaign paintings...) Ever since becoming aware of them, I've been increasingly fascinated by a particular form of protective equipment - the Pavise shield. Originating in the 14th century and named after the italian town of Pavia, these shields became quickly popular all over Europe, reaching even remote Ireland in time. Despite the italian name, Bohemia became a major military user and center of production for pavise shields. The famous pavises from the arsenal of the town of Klausen, for example, can be traced to Bohemian workshops.
The pavise was mostly a crossbowman's or archer's shield, providing cover from missiles while they crouched behind it, readying their weapon for another shot. As such, their height varied between 70 and 130 cm, and their width between 50-60 cm. Often, a second man carried and steadied the pavise in battle, his pay even surpassing the marksman's: their tactical value must have been remarkable.
From a modern perspective, what I find most astonishing about the pavise is their usually lavish, even gorgeous decoration. These tools of war must have suffered considerable punishment and damage in battle, yet they were often painted with lots of skill, attention to detail and obvious artisan's pride. The pavise paintings may not quite reach the level of their purely decorative wood or canvas counterparts, but they are certainly equal to e.g. book paintings. (I remember reading that the guild of shield makers and shield painters quarreled a long time about who was more important - until they were merged.)
So, when Christmas 2009 came around, and I had the opportunity to use my father's carpenter's workshop for a while, I decided to surprise Bettina with a new addition for our camp: our very own pavise! Following hints from this very informative discussion thread, I made a construction plan and built the wooden corpus, which the following section will detail...

January 27, 2010: The plans (picture 2 and 3) were made with Inkscape, a free open-source vector graphics program, by tracing off a photograph of a historical pavise (picture 1). I didn't realize until well into the build process that this would introduce perspective errors into the plan - fortunately no errors that couldn't be worked around. As you can see, the bottom edge of the shield is swept up in the drawing, whereas in reality it should be flat against the ground when viewed orthogonally. It really seems obvious in hindsight, but I somehow didn't think of it when tracing off the photo.

bohemian pavise pavise construction pavise construction

Bohemian pavise and building plan

I started by cutting sections off long boards of pine wood (picture 1). The use of fir is documented in surviving historical examples, and the pine was readily available, which I felt was close enough. I guess the soft, yielding wood helped to absorb the kinetic impact of missiles back in the day, something I hope I'll never have to put to the test with our replica. :-) Another consideration was to keep the transport weight down.
In the next step I reduced the thickness of the three left and right boards from 22mm to 15mm, using an electric planer (picture 2). I really like this tool! I didn't worry too much about losing stability here - the wood will be reinforced by canvas and gesso later, which I think will add considerable strength to the construction. I left the two center boards at their original thickness.
Then the inner halves (C1 and A3, resp. C2 and B3 on the plan) were glued together (picture 3). When planning the construction I tried to anticipate good attack surfaces for the c-clamps, which actually worked out quite well.
Simultaneously, the A1/A2 and B1/B2 planks were joined (picture 4). The small piece of wood beneath the planks ensures an 8 degree angle between them. The sides of the planks were adjusted to this angle with a circular saw beforehand.

pavise construction pavise construction
pavise construction pavise construction

building the pavise, stage 1

After the glue had time to set thoroughly, the inner halves were glued together (picture 1). I was somewhat concerned that the earlier join might not hold under the lateral pressure of the c-clamps - fortunately, it proved strong enough. After a setting pause, the outer composite parts were attached (picture 2), completing the basic wooden corpus of the shield. This last step requires a lot of long c-clamps! It's really starting to look like a pavise, now (picture 3).

pavise construction pavise construction pavise construction

building the pavise, stage 2

The time has come to smooth out those hard angles and define the shape of the wooden corpus, using my next-favourite power tool - the hand-held belt sander (picture 1). A respirator mask is quite indispensable for the task, though, as well as hearing protection (picture 2). This thing is loud and produces lots and lots of ultra-fine dust. You can see that the protruding ridge is left rough for now (picture 3)...

pavise construction pavise construction pavise construction

building the pavise, stage 3

The characteristic 'beak' of the pavise was quite simply achieved by glueing a block of wood to the ridge, cutting it into an approximate shape (easy with a japanese razor saw!) and rounding the slope with the belt sander. The ridge was sanded in the process, smoothing the flat surface but keeping the sharp edges.

pavise construction pavise construction
pavise construction pavise construction

stage 4, shaping the 'beak'

Finishing touches: the gutter needs to slope forwards at the beak. This was one of the few work steps not accelerated by power tools, I used a rough rasp and a file here (picture 1). Finally, the back side, which was unfinished and ugly until now. To work the concave surface, I used a flexible sanding disc with coarse sandpaper (picture 2). This produced even more dust than the belt sander, due to not having a filter bag! But I got a nice, smoothly rounded inner surface where hard, flat angles (and slightly misjoined boards) had been before (picture 3). This concludes the wooden corpus construction! Build time: approx. three days.

pavise construction pavise construction
pavise construction pavise construction

building the pavise, stage 5

January 29, 2010: If you are wondering whether I liked my Christmas present - yes, I really do :-) Yet, before it can decorate our living room there is still a lot of work to do... After having finished the corpus, Karsten will have to strenghten the pavise with thick linen. On top of the linen, white gesso will be applied as primer coating so that I can start painting the pavise.
Karsten even constructed a wooden transport frame specifically for the shipping of the pavise (picture 1) so it savely made the trip from northern Germany (Karsten himself was taking the plane). You can also see that I can easily hide behind the pavise - it would be big enough to hide the cat also :-)

Bettina behind pavise Bettina behind pavise

the pavise has arrived in Tübingen

On to page 2: linen canvas and gesso coating