Leather Sword Belt Restoration Project
John Strott used products from Save Your Books for his leather sword belt restoration project. He documented his work and has allowed me to share his process with all of you. It is very thorough and includes photos of the process and the results. Enjoy! ~Sophia
Virginia Militia Sword and Sword Belt History and Leather Sword Belt Restoration
Figure 1 shows a sword, scabbard, and sword belt that recently came up for sale. The items were described as “French–made” because of the markings on top of the sword blade. However, it looked of American Civil War vintage and so a fair offer was made and accepted.
As seen in the photo, the sword belt and scabbard were in fair condition with minor damage to the scabbard and plenty of deterioration and tears in the sword belt. The good news was that enough of the sword belt was intact to offer Civil War period provenance and hope for its restoration. Rarely does one find a sword and sword belt with the original sword hangers and original belt plate of that age remaining together as a set. Of particular interest was the sword belt plate sometimes identified as a rectangular clipped corner belt plate issued to Virginia militiamen (circa 1840-1850) and associated with Confederate Army service. Unfortunately, the seller had no definitive provenance for the ensemble other than a verbal “it was purchased in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” – not likely!
Before I get to the leather sword belt restoration: first, the history.
American Civil War Period import-type US Model 1860 Cavalry Saber and scabbard, ca. 1860
This sword with the leather sword belt is an example of an “Import-style” US Model 1860 Civil War Cavalry Saber. This style sword comes to mind when one imagines the illustrious cavalry charges of the US Civil War. This sword was used in the by Cavalry from 1840 through the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Plains Indian Wars of the 1870’s and 1880’s. It replaced the US Model 1833 “Dragoon“ saber. The sword was never loved by the US Cavalry – officers and troopers alike – and earned the name “The Ole Wrist Breaker“. The weight of the sword when wielded strongly in a downward stroke, developed momentum enough that it could not be slowed by the frail human wrist; therefore “breaking the wrist“! For additional information, please see H. L. Peterson‘s: “The American Sword 1775–1945.”
Light saber replaces heavy saber
The “light” cavalry saber of 1860 (aka New Model) was meant to replace the 1840 heavy cavalry saber. This did not happen until long after the Civil War. The designations “heavy” and “light” do not necessarily refer to the weight of the sword; in fact, it refers to the “shock“ impact delivered during a “charge.“ A heavy cavalry unit was more “heavily armed“ whereas a light cavalry unit was “lightly” armed.
Hundreds of thousands of imported swords were used during the American Civil War. A good many of those were of patterns accepted as standard federal types and ranged from officer’s swords to the simplest musician‘s swords. Both sides of the conflict fielded swords from several countries and, at the onset, foreign made swords might have been the only swords on hand from local arsenal stores. Truly, any sword made before the Civil War could have found service in the Civil War, while very few (comparatively) can be tagged as absolutely having been there. This style sword, by far, is one of the most pleasing to own and display – and having the sword belt with it makes it a treasure!
Sword Handle and Inscribed Blade
This particular sword has a French maker’s name and date on the top edge of the sword. Although difficult to read, it says, “Catabot Freres – Janvier 1857“ meaning “Catabot Brothers – January 1857”. It was probably from Klingenthal (“blade valley”) region in Alsace, France where many different small workshops produced edged weapons. See Figures 2,3, and 4.
Brass Clipped-corner Belt Plate part of the Leather Sword Belt Restoration
The Rectangular Brass Clipped Corner Belt Plate: The sword belt and belt plate are even more interesting. Plain sheet brass buckles and shoulder plates were issue to most Virginia militia units from 1830 to 1850. The plates are made of heavy sheet brass and hand cut, so there will be considerable variety of size and shape. This waste belt plate is rectangular, a long keeper bar was soldered at one end for the belt and a folded sheet at the other end for the tongue. The plate was affixed to a waist belt which was made of white web cotton or blacken leather. Seldom do these belt plate keepers survive and many are found in the field having fallen off the belt when the solder failed. In general, these militia plates were not adequate for the hard campaigns of the Civil War.
Figure 5: Circa 1850 Rectangular Clipped Corner Belt Plate and Figure 6 Riveted Belt Keeper
Original Clipped Corner Belt Plates Found in Civil War Period Photographs
There is definitive proof in photographs that these belt plates were used by the Virginia militia. The next several photos were found on the internet and show a militiaman wearing similar sword belts with the clipped corner belt plate. In Figure 7, a plain brass buckle is being used by a Confederate soldier circa 1861-1865.
Images of Soldiers wearing Leather Sword Belt
These clipped corner belt plates with blackened leather belts were also worn by Union Militiamen in the early years of the Civil War (circa1861-1862) as in Figure 8.
Other Examples of Clipped Brass Belt Plates – Excavated and Non-excavated
Figure 9 is another example of a non–excavated clipped belt plate on a black leather belt of slightly different dimensions than the plate in our ensemble. It is nearly identical to the belt plate on the militiaman in Figure 8.
Figure 9 and 10: Photos of non–excavated clipped brass belt plate from horsesoldier.com.
The non-excavated clipped belt plate shown front and back in Figure 10 was recently sold on the Horse Soldier web site. It is almost identical to the Figure 5 ensemble sword belt plate and retains the soldered–on keepers.
Other examples of this clipped corner belt plate have been excavated from various campsites and battlefields of the Civil War. The Relicman web site shows typical examples of an excavated clipped belt plate. Note the belt plate keepers on the back of excavated plate are missing because they were not secure well enough for hard use.
Leather Sword Belt Restoration Project Continued: Red Rot
As mentioned, the sword belt and sword hangers were in deteriorating condition and suffered from a condition known as “red rot.” Some parts of the leather had deteriorated to the point of breakage. Red rot is a degradation process found in vegetable-tanned leather. It is caused by prolonged storage or exposure in high relative humidity, environmental pollution, and high temperature. The leather “disease” manifests as a characteristic powdering of the leather’s now felt-like surface along with structural weakness from the loss and delamination. Obviously, something had to be done to save the sword belt and the sword hangers or they would continue to degrade and fall apart completely. Figures 11 through 13 shows the evidence of this deterioration.
Leather Sword Belt Restoration: Leather Preservation Tips
Some preservation tips and products for old leather restoration were found on leather book repair web sites. These sites explained that the leather damage caused by red rot is irreversible. However, its spread may be retarded by an application of a consolident such as Klucel-G and then coated with a sealer such as archival wax. Klucel-G is a leather consolident used to treat leather that is starting to deteriorate or become powdery from “red rot.” It creates a permanent flexible webbing which strengthens the leather and prevents the spread of red rot.
In addition, since the leather had separated in places, something had to be done to reconnect the leather pieces. For this it was recommended that an archival glue that dries clear and flexible be used with Japanese tissue. Some Japanese tissues are very tough archival material and can be used for bridging gaps and reinforcing the weak spots in the leather. A sampling of leather restoration products are shown in Figure 15. All of the needed items were purchased online and were used to work on the belt and sword hanger leather.
Four Step Process to Restore an Antique Leather Belt
A four-step process was used in the restoration as shown in Figures 15 thru 20.
Leather Sword Belt Restoration Tips
A few tips helped in the leather sword belt restoration process. The Japanese tissue is naturally very strong; however, in this case, the tissue was “doubled up” to provide an even stronger bond. Possibly even stronger than the leather itself. Archival glue and wax dry very quickly. When gluing, be prepared to work fast by precutting your paper to fit. A very small bush (not shown) was used to precisely spread a small amount of glue over the areas to be secured. Although Japanese tissues come in various textures and colors, in this case, a furniture “scratch repair” marker was used to stain the paper to match. Archival wax was not applied to the back of the belt in order to maintain its natural buff leather appearance. After the drying of applied archival wax to the front side of the belt, a shoe brush was used to buff out the wax. This created an eye appealing fine satin finish. Some results from the restoration are shown here.
Summary of Leather Sword Belt Restoration
As shown in Figure 24, the leather sword belt restoration is completed and joined together again ready for display or storage. The use of archival leather repair products have definitely gone a long way in restoring the old leather sword belt. The crumbling leather caused by red rot has been halted and even some of the suppleness has returned to the original leather. Also, the original black surface of the leather stands out in places much better than before the restoration. The archival book products definitely worked well and did not “overdo” the restoration such that the end result was very pleasing to the eye and good for the leather.
Prepared by: John Strott, Clifton Forge, VA
15 Nov 2017