Sword Restoration

by Bob Smalser

This article appeared in a thread on theWoodNet woodworking forum. It was compiled and reproduced here for easier public consumption. All Text and Images are the property of Bob Smalser.

Our youngest is a full-time college student. But he’s also an Iraq combat veteran and National Guardsman who, in addition to his line-unit duties, supervises a regional Honor Guard team performing color guard honors and veteran’s funeral details over a wide area of a large, western state. NCOIC’s of such details are authorized swords with the dress uniform, and we thought a presentation sword would be an excellent gift upon his promotion to Sergeant.

So I looked at the current crop of new-made ceremonial swords sold by today’s uniform and insignia companies, and after examining the plated, soft-stainless blades, the scabbards assembled with staples and imagining how long the thin gold plating would survive frequent use, rather quickly came to the conclusion that rehabilitating an original sword would be a much better value for what will become his first family heirloom. I don’t pretend to know much about swords, but as a trained gunsmith specializing mostly in restorations as a sideline these past 40 years, I take particular pleasure in restoring the broken and abused pieces rejected by collectors to some degree of their former glory. I don’t try to make them look new, but like a piece that was well-used but also well-cared-for, which mostly involves undoing previous, heavy-handed repair and refinishing attempts.

Hence when I found this abused Henderson-Ames M1860 Staff and Field Officer’s Sword with well-dinged and badly-corroded hilt and scabbard, broken guard pins, bent and cracked quillon, and a stained and burred blade, I bought it. While the M1840 NCO Sword is the most common in use today, the M1860 patterns also included a model for staff NCO’s which is perfectly acceptable today, and this jewel is sufficiently close to the NCO pattern not to matter.

What makes this one a jewel are the National Guard and “by-the-bootstraps” mustang connections. Emmett P. Greene was born in 1856, and was a common stonecutter in Atchison, Kansas. He volunteered to serve with the 22nd Kansas Volunteer Regiment during the Spanish-American War, one of four volunteer regiments raised in Kansas. While the 20th Kansas fought in 18 major engagements in the Philippines during 1898-99, and the 23rd Kansas performed occupation duty in Cuba, the 21st and 22nd Kansas regiments were held in reserve in the United States, the 22nd at Camp Alger, near Falls Church, Virginia, where it was ravaged by typhoid fever. When the regiments returned to Kansas by late 1899, they soon evolved into the newly-formed “National Guard” established by The Militia Act of 1903 passed by the US Congress. State and local militias and volunteer units now had a national underpinning, and E.P. Greene…by then age 47…was made a company commander in the new 1st Kansas Infantry Regiment at Atchison. The sword was a farewell gift at the end of his tour as a commander circa 1903-1906, undoubtedly paid for by passing the hat among the troops of Company L.

While departure gifts from the officers of the regiment were (and are) common, a gift from the noncoms and troops is not, and what makes this gift especially poignant is the engraving appears to have been done by the company armorer…perhaps for want of additional funds. While executed using a professional’s graver and mallet, the well-executed layout and branch decorations on a difficult, concave surface…combined with unfair curves, loops and squiggles…demonstrate a certain native talent and care struggling with a distinct lack of training and practice. However well-motivated, an amateur job on an abused, mundane sword at best ignored by most collectors…but to an old soldier who can clearly picture those who commissioned, supervised and performed the work, it has moral and folk-art qualities that are priceless. Emmett P. Greene would go on to become a monuments dealer in Atchison, and at the end of his life lived in the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers at Fort Leavenworth. He and his wife Harriet had three sons and a daughter.

As the sword will go back into regular service, I’ll clean and repair it, restoring some of its protective coatings as well. There’ll be plenty of time for the sword to regain its patina later in its second life, but I’ll leave some of the honest dings and stains on appropriate areas of the sword to highlight its age. Major repairs and attenuation of abuse come first, and this sword was once driven into a hard surface by hammering the inside of the hilt and quillon. As a consequence, it has hammer marks on the inside of the hilt and a burred blade tip combined with a bent and cracked quillon that appears to have an old attempt at a soft-solder repair. Soft solder turns dark gray with age while silver braze tends to turn yellow. The difference between the two is the amount of heat necessary to release them.

The hilt is made from two metals, cast bronze for the decorated parts and yellow brass for the machined parts. The problem with bronze is you never know what you have without testing it…some bronze alloys bend, and some do not. This one I annealed by heating to around 1100 degrees with a MAPP gas torch and quenching (the exact opposite of the annealing procedure for steel), and found it wouldn’t bend. So I simply reheated the quillon and broke it off at the crack. This is the only way to make a sound repair, as the reason the old repair attempt failed was because it’s usually impossible to clean a partial crack sufficiently to take solder or braze. I prefer MAPP for small brazing jobs because propane isn’t hot enough and oxy-acetylene is prone to get too hot, too fast.

Now that I have two surfaces I can properly clean, I use a fine, single-cut file to bring the surfaces back to fresh metal. Then all the surfaces I don’t want the silver braze to stick to I rub with a talc stick, carving the stick as necessary to reach into the corners. Also note the bronze-lined jaw inserts in the drill press vise so as to prevent scratching the work.

I tin both surfaces using flux and the 1100-degree silver braze, reflux both surfaces and use a hemostat to hold the pieces together until the braze hardens. The resulting repair will resist almost 40,000 psi and, unlike soft solder, is stronger than the bronze itself.

Cleanup is with fine files and 400 and 600-grit wet-or-dry paper. Here I still have some tool marks to remove, but when the brazing metal yellows with age will be almost indistinguishable from the base metal. A sound repair. The quillon is still somewhat bent, but in this alloy is impossible to straighten further without destroying the finial. A key part of restoration is knowing when to stop.

The next repair is the loose folding guard. Disassembly finds the upper hole on the folding leaf enlarged from wear, and it is no longer the same size as the two holes in the brass base it is pinned to. The pin is also damaged, and will require replacement. Reaming all three holes to a larger size isn’t a good option, because it would make the assembly too fragile, so I elect to tin the worn hole with a 600-degree soft solder to reduce its diameter. This particular solder (Brownell’s High-Force 44) is harder than most soft solders, yet will easily ream by hand to fit the new pin. Here I’m cleaning the hole prior to applying flux and tinning the inside of the hole.

There are several options for pin stock. Gunsmith supply houses sell screw blanks in several diameters. Roll pins can be used, as can the lower section of drill bits. All are best cut using an abrasive cutoff when in a Dremel tool as opposed to a saw, then cleaned up and fit using fine files and wet-or-dry paper.

I turn my attention to the unplated, carbon-steel blade, stoning off the burrs using a couple grades of oil stones lubed with kerosene…

…then polishing with Knifemaker’s Green Rouge on a high-speed, 8-inch power buffer with stitched muslin wheel. Green rouge is also suitable for chrome. If the blade were nickel-plated and the plating was perfectly sound, I’d use Tripoli rouge on the buffer. And if the plating was badly-worn, I’d limit myself to hand polishing using Happich Simichrome paste. None of these are sufficiently abrasive to completely remove all the stains from the steel, but providing they aren’t prone to developing into active rust, I’m satisfied to leave them as evidence of age. Coarser abrasives take off too much metal, tend to obscure etching, round corners and dish holes, and their use is always evident to the experienced eye. If the blade was pitted from rust, I’d treat it with phosphoric acid before polishing, which doesn’t attack the steel but fills with pits with a phosphate salt coating that deters further rust.

All bronze and brass parts are cleaned first with lemon juice and a soft brass wire brush to remove the verdigris and heavy stains, followed by Simichrome and a toothbrush and polishing cloth. On only the most stubborn stains do I use 600-grit paper lubed with mineral spirits before light buffing followed by the Simichrome. Test your brass brushes first to insure they won’t scratch. And avoid compounds containing large amounts of ammonia on brass or bronze…ammonia weakens the metal surface dramatically, and on thin guards may hasten their breakage.

I had intended to provide a new leather scabbard and frog with the piece, as that’s generally what is worn today with NCO swords, and engrave the scabbard for presentation. But the quality of even the best of the current reproduction scabbards wasn’t satisfactory and didn’t match the sword. So not having a better alternative, I elect to make some irreversible changes to the original scabbard. I wouldn’t do this to a rare or valuable piece, but these swords were made for almost a hundred years and are common. Further, this one in its day was an inexpensive German import and isn’t a particularly well-made example.

To replicate the look of a leather scabbard, I decide to polish and blue the steel (also an original technique) after removing all the rust by a sequence of soft wire brush on the power buffer, followed by draw filing and abrasive paper on the worst spots, followed by a heavy buffing with green rouge. After degreasing to surgical cleanliness using trichloroethylene solvent (a suspected carcinogen – wear rubber gloves), I apply a phosphate blue solution (Brownell’s Oxpho-Blue) that colors the steel with a thin, phosphate-salt coating that will deter rust. Other cold blue solutions sold in sporting goods stores aren’t anywhere near as durable, and are also prone to after-rust.

Multiple coats of the bluing solution are applied over the course of a day, degreasing and carding between coats using degreased, #0000 steel wool. Cleaning and oiling follow, the oil being necessary to aid in curing the blue to a more durable coating.

To convert the suspension system from rings to frog, I recover the brass frog hook from a cheap import and silver-braze it to the upper suspension band. The leather frog will hide the ring loops. I would have preferred to braze it to a brass plate, which in turn would have been soft-soldered to the scabbard body along with a second brass plate for the inscription…reversible modifications…but this scabbard was made by bending sheet steel over a mandrel and soldering a full-length seam. As such joints were left under tension to resist denting; I am unwilling to risk having it come apart on me by heating it.

A local engraver renders an appropriate inscription to the reverse side of the scabbard, and with repairs and polishing complete I begin assembling the finished sword.

I fit a new leather washer, cutting the mortise using an appropriate chisel.

The original fit of the castings was incredibly sloppy, so after lightly greasing the steel to deter rust, I fit tapered cedar shim stock to make tight fits using a chisel and light brass hammer.

Aligning the ferrules and newly-wrapped handle took some trial and error that involved carefully bending the ferrules and guard bow, and I use shop-made brass-lined pliers to tighten the pommel. I had Tom Nardi in California wrap and wire the handle for me, mostly to see if he uses techniques different from the original wrapping. He does, and the result is more elegant.

The completed sword ready to embark on its second life. I can only hope Captain Greene and the soldiers of Company L would approve.


- Bob Smalser


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