Creating a Russet Finish
The goal of this essay is to give an armourer the knowledge of how to apply a russet finish on steel items. This essay is not for historical purposes, as it uses techniques with modern equipment and chemicals. A russet finish was produced by the Japanese by placing a piece of Armour in a box filled with urine-moistened saw dust. If you're like me, handling bodily fluids is not your idea of how to spend your weekend, nor would you want a box of it placed in or near your house. A russeted finish is about the best finish you can place on your Japanese Armour, with limitations on budgets and expectations of surface durability.
Many people attempt to powder coat their armour for SCA combat. Powder coating involves enveloping the item in enamel. This process is extremely durable, but for the less fortunate, this process is extremely expensive. I had a friend of mine powder coat a suit in his shop for free, and it took five pounds of powder, blasting off the scaling of the hot rolled steel. If you add the man-hours involved, it would have come to a grand total of $1200. I am very glad he was my friend enough to give me a freebie on this one.
Painting your armour can be almost as expensive as powder coating (depending on the colors you choose, and how much your time is worth) and is not as durable as powder coating. It involves using an etching primer, a sealing primer and a few coats of paint. Going out onto the SCA field, you will more than likely develop chips and mars in your painted armour which will lead you to repaint it. The thicker your paint gets on the item, the more brittle the finish becomes.
A russet finish involves rusting the item to a nice brown finish in a controlled environment and then sealing it to stop the deterioration of the metal. It is essentially as durable (if not more so) than powder coating and is less expensive than either process mentioned earlier. Russeting a finish on your armour is even period.
You will need a large plastic box to start off with. I will describe the process as I have gone through it. The box is a Sterlite 90 quart with a white snap on lid. The Box is from Wal-Mart and is transparent. The reason for a clear box is so that sunlight can quickly vaporize the liquid in the box. A dark box might limit the vaporization, causing your items to look blotchy and spotted. Next you will need some type of grating to keep the items separate from the liquids at the bottom of the box. I have found some white modular shelving with plastic tubes for legs. You trim the legs to where the shelf will sit about 2-3 inches above the bottom of the box. If the shelf is too short for the box, get two and cut them in order to place them together to span the length of the box. If you choose to use two shelves make sure you either secure the middle seam with something strong or make the shelves slightly longer than the bottom of the box as to where they incline slightly in the middle to support your items.
One of the best solutions I have found to use as a catalyst is regular Clorox bleach. Do not get the bleach that's safe for colors or silks or anything else, get the hard stuff. I used one quart of lukewarm water to one cup of regular Clorox. The temperature of the water is very important. You do not want the water to be too warm for it will cause too much water vapor and make your items look splotchy. Cold water is not very good either for it will take longer to reach room or air temperature and slow your process down to a crawl. Use two measures of the solution mentioned and pour it into the bottom of the box. Place your shelves inside and you are ready to russet something.
The initial preparation of your items will have noticeable affect on your finish. If your item is too smooth (shiny or mirror finish) then your armour will not rust evenly (or it will not even rust for weeks). If your item is too rough then you risk structural damaging rust. Clean your item with a degreaser and use 320 grit sandpaper all over your item. This grit will increase the surface area of your item to the point where it will not take as long for you to achieve results. After sanding is complete, wipe off your item with mineral spirits to get the last bit of oils or trash and dust off of the item. Take your piece and place it in the box on top of the shelf, and close the lid. Your items will rust according to the place in which you store your box. If you leave your box outside, the normal condensation at the dew point will provide a nice atmosphere for rust to occur. If you live in an apartment or it is too cold outside, then you need to find a small rag in which to wipe down your items with the solution from the bottom of the box. Even if you decide to leave your items outside, it is still a good idea to wipe down your items to ensure an even hue.
You will now need to get some abrasive cloths like ScotchBrite. A fine to medium grit is exceptional. The day after you place your items in the box, you will see the rusting process occur. You need to go and take your items out of the box and rub them with the ScotchBrite. The idea here is not to rub all the rust off your piece, just to break free the loose stuff. After you are done rubbing the piece, wipe it off with the solution-moist rag to get the dust off of the item and to accelerate the process.
When your items have reached the hue you want, take them out of the box and rub them with the fine ScotchBrite to break up the loose rust. Use a mineral oil to rub all over your item. I use baby oil because of its penetrating properties. Apply a nice coat of oil on the item and let it soak in overnight. After soaking, take a degreaser to your item and remove all the oil that's left on the surface of the item.
You now need to seal your item. I work in an industrial paint shop and have access to a solvent called "Blending Clear" it is used in automotive finishes and is available wherever auto paints are sold. NAPA also has a brand from Martin Senior that is inexpensive. The idea of Blending Clear is that it's clear paint thinned way down with a slow drying solvent. This solvent will generate heat and a small amount of corrosion in order to "burn" new paint into existing paint. It contains enough clear in it to act as a sealant for our purposes. If you do not have access to these shops you can substitute this with a mixture from your local hardware stores. Go to your hardware store and find some type of clear in a small container. You will need to find the appropriate thinner for your paint. If you find an enamel based paint you need an enamel thinner, or a poly point with a poly thinner. Do not use a poly based paint and lacquer based thinner. It doesn't work that way. Take your clear and mix one part clear to four parts of slow drying thinner. If you are going this route you may want to get yourself a thin bristled brush. The thinner the bristles, the better. Now, apply a coat of this Blending Clear to your item. Do not try to make a single smooth coat on it or you will run the clear and even though the majority of it evaporates, that nasty run will stay there. Allow to dry and place a second coat on it. You need to find a top coat to place on your now sealed item. I use clear shoe polish as a water proofer. Most car waxes you will find will clean as they wax. This is not good for what we wish to use it for. We need a wax that (over time) will build up as we apply it. Coming up with a nice smooth sheen on your item is a long term event that will happen, you just don't need to worry about it now. I use a brush applicator and work in circles when applying. Just like shining shoes, you need the large horse hair brush to hand buff a small shine on the item. Take a clean lint-free rag and wipe your item off till it feels nice and slick, if your rag is grabbing, you still have a lot of wax in that area or on your rag.
When you engage in combat, your russeted finish will deteriorate due to the pounding it will receive. Unless you scratch the surface with a sharp metal object and go through the finish, though, the maintenance you will need to do to your armour would be something similar to the maintenance of shoes. Use a mild cleanser to wipe off any discolored scuffs that resulted from the weapon's tape. Take your small horse-haired applicator out and rub some clear shoe polish around the area affected. Use your buffing brush and the lint-free rag as mentioned earlier to polish your armour up to the desired gloss and go back out on the field.
Congratulations! You now have a russeted piece of armour (or scrap, whatever you chose to russet). You need to keep your shine kit handy for when someone bean checks that nice new helm, it's gonna scar. Just take out your kit and shine it up like a scuff on a shoe. Just like Big Red, "Looks good on ya!"