Back when I was first joining Drentha in 2010, I would make leather handles by wrapping them with a long strip. This looked okay, but took a lot of leather (that also wasn’t always easy to get in a correctly-shaped scrap). Now that I have a bit more experience, my methods have improved, and I use a bound handle treatment that’s more reminiscent of what would be found on a period sword. It takes a little more time, but it looks nicer and isn’t as prone to loosening.
I’ll be demonstrating on a flanged mace with a fixed cloth cover.
For materials, you’ll want:
Some good glue, ideally waterproof with a long drying time. Titebond 3 works well.
A square of leather, the length of your finished handle by its circumference plus about an inch in size
A similarly-sized square of fun foam
A roll of cotton twine
A sharp razor blade
First, a few words about the structure of your handle. Assuming you’re using a permanent cloth cover instead of plastidip or tape, You’ll want to allow at least an eighth of an inch on either side between your handle weighting/bulking up and your pommel and blade. This will give you room to cinch down the fabric all the way to the core, where it sits out of the way and doesn’t alter your handle profile. This worked here on the haft side, where I bothered to sew a nice tube. On the pommel, where I just took a square and folded it up like a dumpling, I didn’t allow myself nearly enough room, so there’s some extra fabric stuck under the tape. If you have a drawstring cover or plastidip, just go straight up to the blade.
Also, about materials for counterweights: I can’t recommend lead wire enough. The only downside to it is that it’s used mainly for salmon or steelhead fishing, so I haven’t been able to find it in walmarts and such in PA. In the northwest, however, any sporting goods section will have it. Amazon does as well. It’s about the consistency of solder, but far cheaper, and it cuts with a pair of pliers. I make my handles by laying one strip of it, straightened out, on either side of my core and taping it down lightly. After that, I apply a bit of double-sided tape on one side to keep things from sliding, then spiral-wrap the handle with the lead. This makes a very even elliptical shape with a good density. After seeing if I need more weight, I’ll wrap it again, either all the way end to end, or halfway up near the blade. Going halfway gives a waisted handle shape like found on many longswords, in which case you might want to smooth out the transition with some leather or wrapped string. Otherwise, the only other thing this needs before we begin is a quick wrap of cloth tape to smooth individual lead wraps out.
Your first step will be to take your string, anchor it at the top of the handle with two half hitches or a clove hitch, and snugly wrap the string all the way down the handle to the end, at which point you’ll tie it off. As you wrap, take the tail end from your starting knot and tuck it under your wraps. This will prevent fraying of the string and keep the knot secure. On the finishing side, you can just tuck the tail end underneath the leather later – it’s not optimal, but it’s the option we have unless you want to get adventurous with tucking the tail under the knot before tightening it.
If you want to set your project down, you can half-hitch (single overhand knot) the wrap without making a significant impression in the final product. I recommend doing that at least a couple times as you go to ensure you don’t lose a bunch of time if you drop it.
Left: Starting the wrap and tucking the tail, with a half-hitch on the last wrap so I could take the picture
Right: Finished wrap
You can use a messy twine for this, since you’ll never see it; if jute or hemp is what you have on hand, go ahead and use it. For the last step, though, you’ll want something with a cleaner finish, such as cotton. Paracord will also do, but for a throwaway application, best to go with the cheaper option.
This step will give us some texture (which is a bit more important you’re using a wooden handle instead of a lead sushi roll), and also a bit of shock absorption.
With your handle all strung up, get your fun foam and wrap it around the handle; you’ll be using this to get a pattern for your leather. This isn’t a terribly hard shape to cut out, but if you miscalculate, better to do so on this than whatever potentially nice leather you have slated for your actual handle. You want between a quarter and a half inch of overlap widthwise and a snug fit lengthwise. For a straight handle, you’ll just have a rectangle. Our handle is a little bigger at the bottom thanks to excess from the pommel, so you can see where the pattern kicks out a little to compensate. If you’ve done your job well, the edge of your pattern will show a fairly straight line, which you will want to have lined up on one of the broader sides of your handle.
Once you are satisfied with your foam pattern, go ahead and cut out your leather. Which leather you use is entirely dependent on what effect you want. Thinner stuff such as deerskin is stretchy and easy to use, and will show what’s underneath it in some detail. Leather in the 2-4 oz range is ideal. Chrome tanned leather will work just fine – that’s what I have here. Thoroughly wetting (and dyeing, if you’re so inclined) veg-tan works very well, because the ensuing stretchiness lets it conform to contours – especially handy if you’ve done a lot of shaping. Keep in mind, though, that fancy embossing is going to get flattened out. I have one sword that uses this method with some very thin croc embossed leather; it looks okay, but it has no texture, and it didn’t take the new imprint either, so in retrospect, I should have used something else for that.
With your leather cut, you’ll want to skive your widthwise edges. Skiving will thin the edges so they don’t make a lump at the seam, and you don’t have a raw edge that can get easily picked loose. This is easy to do with a good sharp razor blade. Just set your leather on a cutting board and cut with your blade at as shallow an angle as you can with the tip just at the bottom edge of the piece. You’re not trying to remove surface area here, just depth. If you’re having a hard time getting your edge thin, you can cheat with a bit of sanding. Elastic leathers, such as the aforementioned deerskin, likely won’t need this step – which is good, because doing this on a stretchy piece is a nightmare.
You are now ready to actually apply the leather. Get your glue and string ready and dampen your leather – just on the inside if you’re using chrome tan, since it won’t be inclined to soak water or get stretchy when it does, or a thorough soak for veg tan. Apply glue thoroughly on the inside of the leather and spread it out.
You’ll want a good bit in the middle, so you can get it down into that string, not much at the inside edge, and next to none at the outside edge. As you tighten it down, glue will migrate towards the seam and try to squeeze out, and you don’t want glue on the outside. You’ll still want good coverage at the seam, so nothing can be picked loose, but excess leaking out will show – especially if you’re using veg-tan and you oil or wax it after this. The glue will resist whatever finish you apply and leave light spots.
Next, hold your leather up to the handle, wrap it around, and hitch your string up at the blade end, cinching it down tight. This will be how we clamp the leather down while the glue dries. Wrap the string all the way down, forming the leather into place and managing glue overflow with your other hand. Make sure your wrapping here is even; you will be able to tell in the finished product. In this case, don’t bother securing the ends of the string like you did in the under-wrap.
Tie it off when you reach the end and leave it to sit at least overnight. (bedtime story optional) If it’s especially wet, it might need longer.
Once you’re confident it’s dry, discard the outer layer of string and trim up any messiness at the ends – be careful so that you don’t damage your weapon cover underneath. With that, you’re done. Here’s a picture of the finished handle, showing the texture the leather picked up from the final wrap. That’s why you want a decent twine without a lot of stuff sticking out of it – it will show up on the final product.
To add a raised band in the middle, like on a viking sword, skive the ends of a thin strip of leather at 45 degrees and mount it in the middle with tape or glue. I’ve in the past attempted this below the first string layer, but since the string will resist going over it nicely, I’d suggest doing it over the initial string layer. Here’s one I did with a carved handle underneath and a leather band in the middle. The tight contouring in the middle made it hard to get the wrap consistent, but there’s the idea.