The Apprentice Armorer's Illustrated Handbook For Making Mail

A Clear Systematic Guide for the Do-It-Yourselfer


Welcome. Are you the kind of person that has several hours of free-time available each day? The kind of person that rocking chairs dread? Are you the kind of person who can recite an entire episode of Gilligan's Island? Have you mastered all of the Nintendoª games and are looking for something new? Does bungee jumping no longer hold any thrills for you? Have you macrometed all the plant hangers your family and friends can stand?!

Well, if you are the kind of person that's really hurting for a new hobby, then become an Apprentice Armorer! Making mail is easier than pulling your own teeth, more time consuming than Differential Calculus, and more fun than doing the dishes. (Seriously.)

This handbook is intended to provide a simple, systematic approach for making Mail Armor. While many books describe the use of mail and may show a picture of a person wearing it, the materials and processes for making mail have not been well addressed. This handbook contains clear illustrations and lessons-learned, so that anyone who has the curiosity can indulge in a new hobby. As a hobby, making mail may be rather new, but the concept has been in use for millenia. From the time of the Romans until about 1350 AD, Mail was the warrior's principle defense against cutting weapons. The progression of armor from mail to plate was necessary for protection from the force of the blow. Mail provided little defense against a well swung club. Mail was available only to the gentry of the day, as its labor-intensive production made it prohibitively expensive to the common foot soldier. It was the principle armor of the knights of the Crusades. The typical knight would be covered head to toe in mail with a Heaume (helmet) and Shield besides.

Unfortunately, the weight of mail of the Teutonic nations versus that of the nomadic cavalry of the East was a great handicap to the freeing of the Holy Land. The lighter mail of the Moors enabled they and their horses much greater mobility in the field. The Crusades proved to be very costly to western kingdoms. By the time of the mid-fourteenth century, an improvement made to the spanning mechanism of the crossbow greatly increased its power. A crossbow quarrel could then pierce mail with ease. To counter this threat, armor plates were sewn inside a tabard. The tabard was then buckled on over the mail shirt, providing more protection as projectile weapons became more common. Throughout this period, mail continued to be the mainstay of the knight's protection. Not until the early seventeenth century, with the increased use of firearms, did the use of mail decline.

So, while mail will still not protect the wearer from broken bones, or provide thermonuclear protection, there is a lot of fun to be had at historical festivals wearing armor you have made, that looks great and costs little.

There are more options in material available to today's apprentice armorer than in the past. Contrary to popular legend, it has been historically difficult to find dwarves or elves who could make mithril, although some fine shoes were available for a time.(1)

Mail was, and still is, an expensive item, not because of its materials but because of the time required to assemble it. Current prices list a mail hauberk at $800. By assembling the rings at home, the apprentice armorer will literally save hundreds of dollars in labor.

Historically, the rings were made from relatively short lengths of drawn wire fastened together with a small rivet. The wire was iron or pearlitic steel with a low carbon content and was not very strong. The state of technology during that period did not allow the armorer to draw long lengths of wire or to produce wire of the strength and hardness available today. There was some variation in the manufature of the mail. The general method was to join one ring to four others, but sometimes alternate double rings would be used or additional rows of rings would be added above or below. Another pattern that was occasionally used was a six-in-one pattern which, together with the four-in-one pattern, will be detailed in this book.

The first chapter of this handbook will provide the apprentice armorer with sources of material. Chapter 2 will discuss assembly methods and give step-by-step instructions for assembly of the basic four-in-one "International" pattern. Chapter 3 details the more intricate six-in-one pattern.

(1) Reference "The Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien and "The Shoemaker and the Elves"


There are two main options available to the apprentice armorer for making mail. The first is to buy rings that are already formed, the second is to form the rings from wire. A mail shirt requires 5000 to 9000 rings, depending on ring size and shirt size. Making rings from steel wire is the cheapest means of producing mail, but involves considerably more work than buying pre-formed rings. Spools of steel wire are available from hardware stores in either galvanized (zinc) or unplated varieties. 300 series stainless steel (wire or rings) is also a good choice. It is more expensive and may be hard to find, but is softer to work with and easier to maintain. Another metal option available to today's Armorer is titanium. Titanium is desirable for its high strength to weight ratio. Both stainless steel and titanium alloys are available from welding supply houses as spooled wire. The spools are usually sold by the blah blah blahblahblah. Check the Yellow Pages under Welding.


Rings are available as keyrings from many hardware or locksmith stores at the economical bulk price of approximately $10- $15 per thousand. These single or double split rings are typically spring steel with zinc plating to prevent corrosion. A very notable source for high quality double split keyrings is direct from a manufacturer, The Worth Manufacturing Co. of Wisconsin. The Worth Co. produces double split rings in a range of sizes with zinc, nickel, and copper plating. These rings are medium gauge spring steel and make a very robust mail. The nickel plating has a bright, polished steel finish and the zinc has a grayer, brushed steel appearance. The copper plated rings make a nice color contrast against the nickel. Metallurgically speaking, interlinking zinc rings with copper rings, or zinc with nickel, is not recommended because galvanically induced corrosion of the platings will result. Write for a catalog and order blank to:

The Worth Manufacturing Co.
PO Box 88214 Sherman Ave.
Stevens Point, WI 54481


Making rings from a spool of steel wire is not really difficult, but must be done well to achieve the desired results. 10-20 lbs of (mild steel) wire will be needed to make a full sized shirt. Stainless steel wire will weigh more, titanium wire about half as much. Titanium wire can be difficult to work with as it work-hardens readily. (Work-hardening is the metallurgical process that allows you to bend a paper clip back-and-forth until it breaks.)

Coiling the wire to make the rings can be done several ways. A basic wire-winding apparatus can be built from materials readily obtainable at a hardware store. Figure 1 shows a basic fixture and Figure 2 depicts the operation. The idea is to wind the wire onto a rod in a controlled manner to produce uniform rings. A threaded steel rod of 3/8 or 1/2 inch diameter is the basic component. Assemble the winding apparatus in the following way:

Figure 1: Front View of Wire Winding Apparatus. Approximate dimensions are shown. 1"x4" and a 2"x4" can be used for the frame. Angle brackets are recommended for rigidity. Also recommended is to press-fit short pieces of steel or copper tubing into the holes drilled for the rod, which will allow easier turning of the rod. The apparatus will need to be firmly attached/clamped to a work bench or other surface so it won't tip during winding.

Figure 2: Top View of Wire Winding apparatus. WEARING GLOVES, Insert the end of the wire into the hole drilled thru the rod. Line up the wire with the threads and begin turning the rod. A simple handle is shown here, but other methods could also be used. It is important to keep an even tension on the wire as you turn the rod.

  1. The wooden frame can be made from one 18" piece of 2"x4" and two 6" pieces of 1"x4". Brace the corners with angle brackets to make the wooden frame rigid.
  2. Drill a holes in each 1"x4" to pass the rod through. See Figure 1. The holes should be large enough to allow free rotation of the rod. In addition, inserting pieces of steel or copper tubing into the holes to act as a sleeve for the rod is recommended. Drill the hole such that the tubing will fit snugly. (For example: For a 3/8" dia. rod, drill a 1/2" hole in the frame and insert 1/2"dia. tubing.)
  3. Drill an 1/8" hole through the rod about 6" from one end. Use a bit-type made for drilling through mild steel. Remove any burrs from the edge of the hole so that the coil will not catch on it when it's time to remove the rod.
  4. Attach a handle or crank to the other end of the rod to wind the wire. Since the required effort will vary with the wire thickness, heavier gauge wires may require using a better means of turning the rod, perhaps a longer crank for more torque.
  5. Firmly attach the apparatus with clamps or bolts to a work bench or other surface so that it will not move around during the winding operation. Attaching it to the kitchen countertop is recommended only for bachelors.

    During the winding operation, gloves should be worn to protect the hands and to improve the feed of the wire onto the rod. Unroll a length of wire from the spool (~6 ft of 16 gage (.0625 dia) wire will make an ~8 inch coil). Insert an end of the wire into the hole in the rod. For best results, coil the wire onto the rod the same way it came off the spool. Turn the rod evenly, checking the coil for uniformity.

    When the coil is finished, cut the end of the coil from the starting hole. Holding the coil in one hand, unthread the rod from the coil. Take care not to distort the coil. Using heavy duty wire cutters or needle-nosed tin snips (to ensure a clean cut), clip a straight line up the coil. Cut slowly to maintain a straight line. See Figure 3. The rings should be uniform with a minimal gap, but no overlap of the ends.

    Screen the results and remove the rings that have too great a gap or are distorted. The ring ends should move together to form a minimal gap without overlap.


    This handbook identifies three main steps to assembing mail. The first step is to make ring assemblies from the basic rings. The second step is to make chains from the ring assemblies. The third step is to join the chains to make basic sections of mail. With the basic sections of mail, most any item can be made by attaching enough sections and subtracting the extra; kind of like laying a tile floor. The purpose of organizing the assembly steps into three parts is to simplify and speed up an otherwise tedious process. This system will allow the apprentice armorer to mass produce the component assemblies and avoid eye strain.

    To further reduce the fatigue of the apprentice armorer, it is recommended that soft drinks, popcorn, and a TV be available. The TV program should be something entertaining, but not distracting. For this reason, top rated prime-time shows (ex. Cheers, Simpsons) are not recommended for the apprentice. As the apprentice becomes more experienced, reruns of Cheers will become acceptable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is always a good choice.

    The first pattern presented for the aspiring apprentice is the four-in-one pattern. Logically, four rings pass through each ring in a symmetrical interlocking pattern. The apprentice is advised to master this pattern before moving on to the more intricate six-in-one pattern. Mastering the basics will enable the apprentice to spot mistakes more readily and increase the apprentice's appreciation of the art.

    The six-in-one pattern uses almost twice as many rings to make the same size area as the four-in-one, and is more time consuming to assemble. When this is factored into the economics of producing an article of mail, it is easy to understand the popularity of the four-in-one pattern. The six-in-one pattern is "really cool - Naomi.", and can be incorporated into the four-in-one pattern with out much trouble along the shoulders for a nice effect.

    The following pages illustrate how to attach the rings to form mail. Depending on the type of rings used, some tools will be needed to help. If double split rings are being used, a sharpened wooden dowel (see Figure 4) is recommended to hold the ring apart while interlinking other rings or ring assemblies. If the rings are made from wire using the procedure previously decribed, a simple pair of pliers is recommended for closing the rings.

    Proceed to Chapter 2- The 4 in 1 Pattern
    Proceed to Chapter 3- The 6 in 1 Pattern
    Return to Palmer House BS