Mak­ing Code

And undir the arme the armynge poyntis muste be made of fyne twyne suche as men make stryn­gis for cross­bowes and they muste be trussid small and poyn­t­id as poyntis. Also they muste be wex­id with cordewen­er­is coode. And than they woll neythir rec­che nor breke.”

How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote” Hast­ings MS. [f.122b] c1450. See this page on chronique.com.

Code, or hand wax, is a sticky mix­ture of pitch and ros­in, or ros­in and beeswax, used to stick indi­vidu­al strands of lin­en togeth­er into a thread for sew­ing and to stick bristles on the tapered ends of the thread to act as lead­ers through the holes in the leath­er. From the quote above we know that it was also used on arm­ing points where it would both pro­tect them from mois­ture and make it almost impossible for them to become acci­dent­ally undone dur­ing com­bat. Its pro­tec­tion from mois­ture and rot is a key com­pon­ent of it’s role in shoe­mak­ing threads, which are exposed to mois­ture more than oth­er gar­ments and which will rap­idly rot out unless pro­tec­ted.

For a full dis­cus­sion of the top­ic of medi­ev­al code, see Marc Carlson’s page on the stuff. I won’t go into it here because that’s a far more com­plete over­view of it than I could give. For mod­ern hand wax, there is an extens­ive dis­cus­sion, includ­ing recip­ies, on the Crispin Col­loquy, the web for­um of the mod­ern day Hon­or­able Com­pany of Cord­wain­ers (incor­por­ated in Amer­ica but with mem­bers the world over), where many bespoke boot and shoe­makers dis­cuss their trade. Note that the first link is to the dis­cus­sion, the site uses frames so there’s no nav­ig­a­tion side­bar on the dis­cus­sion. You need to go to the main page for that, but the site is well worth explor­ing.

I will explain bristles and thread more fully in a sep­ar­ate post soon, I just happened to need to make some more code recently so I took pho­tos along the way.

The code I use is not a peri­od recip­ie. It is what I think is mod­ernly called blond wax. Peri­od wax likely used pine pitch and ros­in rather than ros­in and wax. This means it, and threads made with it, would have been black. I haven’t tried this yet because I haven’t found a source for pine pitch in less than indus­tri­al quant­it­ies.

It is well worth your time to read the links above before you start mak­ing this stuff. In par­tic­u­lar go back and read all the archives of the dis­cus­sion on the Crispin Col­loquy in order, there are some good hints in there on what makes a good wax.

I use a basic 2:1 mix­ture, by weight, of pine ros­in and clean yel­low beeswax. This pro­duces a wax that works for me, at the tem­per­at­ures I work in, with the batch of ros­in and wax I have at the moment. You will almost cer­tainly need to tune the mix­ture to suit your own envir­on­ment and ingredi­ents. I’m pretty sure the batch I made before was 1:1 ros­in and wax, but I was using dif­fer­ent wax for that batch and it came out way too soft in that ratio with the wax I have now. You will most likely need to exper­i­ment to find the exact recipe that works for you.

As you exper­i­ment keep care­ful writ­ten track of the quant­it­ies and ratios of the ingredi­ents, and keep your fin­ished exper­i­ment­al wax in labelled bag­gies. If you do this you’ll be able to re-melt failed exper­i­ment­al tries and know what you’re start­ing with and what new ratios adding X amount of ros­in or wax will res­ult in. It also means that when you find a recipe that works, you can repeat it when you need more or if you are work­ing with dif­fer­ent ingredi­ents you have a start­ing point that should pro­duce some­thing approx­im­ately right.

Before you use a new batch of wax on a shoe, build some seams in scrap pieces of leath­er and see how it works. This will save you build­ing a bad seam in a pro­ject you’re try­ing to fin­ish.

The ambi­ent tem­per­at­ure you work at is import­ant. You need a harder wax in sum­mer and a slightly softer one in winter. If you live some­where with par­tic­u­larly hot sum­mers you may well find that you can’t work in sum­mer unless you have air con­di­tion­ing. Past a cer­tain tem­per­at­ure, the wax just won’t set enough to do it’s job. Bristles will pull off and stitches won’t lock. The only thing to do at that point is to stop work­ing until it’s cool­er.

When the wax is at room tem­per­at­ure and hasn’t been handled it should be hard. I’ve found that if it is at all mal­le­able at this point then it is most likely too soft to reli­ably hold a bristle on the thread. Warmed in the hand it should become tacky but nev­er goopy. It’s a little harder to tell when it’s too hard, but if you wax up a thread and it sheds ‘dandruff’ dur­ing sew­ing or when a thread that has been waxed and left to set sheds where it is flexed then it’s too brittle.

Wax is sup­posed to be sticky, it is not a lub­ric­ant like plain beeswax is. As well as hold­ing the bristle on the thread the wax melts slightly as it is dragged through a stitch and then sets again. The stick­i­ness locks the stitches togeth­er in the stitch hole and con­trib­utes a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of strength to the seam. I have cut the extern­al parts of stitches off and still had to use pli­ers to pull the pieces of leath­er apart because they were held togeth­er with little pegs of waxed thread. This also stops the stitch you have just made from becom­ing loose when you release the ten­sion on the thread. A good test of a wax is if you pull both threads part way through a stitch and leave them to sit for 20 seconds it should take a good hard yank to get them mov­ing again after the wax has set them togeth­er.

Any­way, on to the mak­ing. This pro­cess involved muck­ing about with very hot melted stuff that will stick to you like nap­alm and cause nasty burns. Don’t spill it on your­self m’kay?

Start with your ingredi­ents. Ros­in can be found in vari­ous places but it can take a bit of hunt­ing to find a good sup­ply. That stuff came from an antiques res­tor­a­tion sup­ply place in Bris­bane (thanks Dave!) called Goods and Chat­tels. Mis­tress M found a sup­ply in NZ from a surf wax com­pany of all places. Smal­ler quant­it­ies can be found at arts sup­ply stores but expect to pay about 10x the price per gram there as you would buy­ing it else­where [EDIT: ros­in can be bought by the kilo quite cheaply in New Zea­l­and from main­land paints. Good ser­vice, cheap ship­ping, and the ros­in is good qual­ity. They also sell prop­er spir­it tur­pen­tine]. Beeswax you get from api­ar­ists.

Crushed Ros­in. It pays to hold your hand over the top of the mor­tar and have some news­pa­per spread out as chips of ros­in tend to go fly­ing when you’re break­ing up the big­ger lumps.

Before you start melt­ing any­thing get a buck­et and fill it mostly full of luke­warm water. You’ll need this later, even if you don’t set your­self on fire.

Weigh out your ingredi­ents. Be reas­on­ably accur­ate with this and remem­ber to zero your scales after you’ve put your con­tain­er on before you fill it with the mater­i­al. Yes, I’ve made that mis­take.

I won­der how many points™ 70g of beeswax is? I ended up using 60g of wax and 60g of ros­in in this round, and it was way too soft so I had to go back and redo it. The oth­er prob­lem is that 120g of ingredi­ents is about twice as much as it’s easy to taffy-pull (see below) so if you’re just mak­ing it for your­self, do 60g total. That’ll make a lump big enough for sev­er­al pairs of shoes. If you need to do a big batch pour a part of it at a time when the time comes.

I use a big tin can to melt stuff in. I’ve pinched a spout into this one. If you use a sauce­pan be pre­pared to nev­er use it for any­thing else because you won’t get the wax residue off the inside. If you do use a tin can, make sure it doesn’t have a plastic coat­ing on the inside, or scrub it off if it does, oth­er­wise you’ll get melted flakes of plastic in your wax, and that’s not good eats.

Start by melt­ing the ros­in. I’m hold­ing the tin can in a pot of boil­ing water with pot hold­er used on camp­ing pots. You can do this over dir­ect heat, but you need to be care­ful. Both ingredi­ents are some­what volat­ile when heated and highly flam­mable. I did the ini­tial melt of the ros­in dir­ectly over the ele­ment on low because the boil­ing water wasn’t quite hot enough to get it really liquid but once it was melted I went back to the double boil­er arrange­ment. An actu­al double boil­er or a mini crock pot would be ideal for this.

Once the ros­in is all melted, add the beeswax. Ros­in has a high­er melt­ing point that beeswax so it’s easi­er to melt the wax into the ros­in than to try melt­ing the ros­in into the wax.

When everything is melted togeth­er prop­erly it should be a clear amber col­or and you should be able to see the bot­tom of the tin. Ignore the white blobs in this, the bot­tom of the tin was plastic coated…

Once you have melted everything togeth­er, pour it into the buck­et of luke­warm water. I’ve found that if the water is too cold, like cold tap water in winter, you’ll get hard bits form­ing too quickly.

Keep­ing your hands under water grab the lump, squish it togeth­er and pull it apart. You need to do this under water because the core of the lump will still be liquid and very, very hot. Repeat until there isn’t any more sear­ingly hot liquid bits then pull it out of the water.

A note about the fol­low­ing sequence of pic­tures; I’m doing this with about twice as much wax as I should be and the wax didn’t come out very well because of that. A lump much big­ger than a golf ball is too hard to manip­u­late thor­oughly. You need to be able to squish the wax around in your hand to keep it soft while you go through this pro­cess.

Grab your lump of still-soft wax…

and pull…

smoosh it back togeth­er…

and repeat

This pro­cess is called “taffy-pulling”, which appar­ently makes sense if you’re famil­i­ar with the man­u­fac­ture of tra­di­tion­al Amer­ic­an con­fec­tion­ery. It is crit­ic­al to the final product. A lot of the mix­ing of ingredi­ents hap­pens here and without this step the wax will have strata of wax and ros­in that aren’t fully com­bined. When you’re done with this the whole ball should be a uni­form pale yel­low. The wax will take quite a long time to fully cool. Leave it overnight before you use it.

The balls of wax res­ult­ing from this exer­cise. Note marbled col­or. This wax isn’t fully com­bined because I was work­ing with too much when I taffy-pulled it. I have since re melted one of these balls and added more ros­in and it came out much bet­ter the second time around. I don’t have pic­tures of that though, sorry.

You can store sur­plus wax in air­tight bag­gies. That way it won’t stick to any­thing if it acci­dent­ally gets a bit warm. I’ve heard people say you should store it in water to stop it dry­ing out. I’m not sure how neces­sary that is but I have found that it is more usable 24 hours or so after mak­ing than it is right after it has cooled.

Enjoy. Feel free to ask ques­tions if that didn’t make sense and please share your exper­i­ences mak­ing the stuff in the com­ments.

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