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A lot of games feature some sort of wooden armor, but it's usually pretty low-level and mostly useless. However, I think that with a knowledge of flora and a healthy dose of imagination, there exist possibilities for plant-based armor that can actually provide some useful protection. Maybe papyrus is as strong as Kevlar, or there is a certain type of pinecone that is malleable. I don't know.

But you! Do you know? Is there a historical precedent for plant-based armor, or perhaps a plant that would be kind of useful for armoring?

If I had to choose, I'd ask for medieval-level technology, but I will definitely upvote any answers that are sufficiently interesting.

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    $\begingroup$ Just because most games with wooden armor treat it as mostly useless doesn't mean that it is. Most games portray maille as a "medium" armor, that is lighter than plate armor, but it is actually heavier. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Feb 24 '15 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Thorin Oakenshield is watching this question carefully. $\endgroup$ – IchabodE Feb 24 '15 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ The Tsurani in Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar novels don't have much metal on their world, so they used laminated hide or wood $\endgroup$ – drzaus Feb 24 '15 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ I can tell you from personal testing that a copy of CGI For Commerce will stop a .22 and buckshot. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 24 '15 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @drzaus I see you beat me to it. I was going to make the same suggestion. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Feb 25 '15 at 16:20
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Historical examples

You won't see much plant-based armour in historical records, the already mentioned paper armour notwithstanding. As best as I can tell, the primary reason for this is that leather tends to be superior to most plant materials you can find. It's easier to process and form, and easy to combine with other materials to form composite armour.

That is not to say plant-based components were not used; besides the obvious use of plant fiber for textiles to make brigantine and other similar armours out of, for a long time, resin was the basis for most glues and laquers used in armourcrafting.

Japanese armourers would use resin-based laquer on metal or leather scales, improving their durability and - in conjunction with silken cord also used in copious quantities to hold the scales together - were able to fashion a composite armour of sorts, that was surprisingly resilient to piercing, given the low-tech materials used.

Romans would combine wood and glue to make plywood, out of which they would fashion scuta, which were used by the legions to great effect.

Options for plant-based armour

Assuming that plant-based components or strengthened textile armours are not good enough for you, ther are a few pre-requisites for purely plant-based armour to appear in the first place:

  1. Armour-quality/sheet metal is either too expensive or unavailable
  2. Leather is either unavailable or there is a strong cultural taboo against using it
  3. There still are metal-based weapons, or weapons of similar performance characteristics, necessitating use of armour

In that case, you can either take the cheap option, or get more creative.

The cheap option is that you posit the existence of a plant, maybe some kind of reed or something related to sugar cane, that has similar characteristics as leather and can be unrolled into sheets which you can process much like you would leather.

If you have to get creative, then processing is going to make or break this approach. @fredsbend already mentioned a couple of options involving selective breeding and exotic processing. One idea that I particularly like is "feeding" the plant metal (or some other) compounds so that they get incorporated into the fibers; this would let you create the equivalent of modern composite materials with relatively primitive means.

But in the end, if you were to create purely plant-based armour, your best bet is probably plywood. Even if you only have wood (and peoples like Pacific Islanders were able to fashion quite impressive weapons out of hardwoods), you can finely slice it to get veneer, which you can soak in water to make it more malleable and then layer on a form to create your armour pieces, rotating each layer to make sure there is no single "grain" direction that would make the piece prone to cracking.

For glue, you would use some kind of resin, and some other similar solution for the lacquer. Hopefully the result will be both resillient and flexible; the latter property will be more important (and likely provided by the resin more than the base material itself), as it will keep pieces from breaking of when hit hard.

If you have an exotic plant like the kind I described earlier, you would probably use it in much the same way.

Depending on the exact mechanical properties of the armour, you can either fashion an entire cuirass out of it (if it is sturdy enough), or use it to create segments for a lamellar armour, or scales for, well, scale armour. The nice thing about making an armour this way is that it's pretty easy to shape and you don't need a furnace or a blacksmithing workshop to make it work.

The end result will be a lot more laborious than leather armour would be (although it might end up being cheaper), and not as good as quality steel armour (or armour made out of fantasy metals), but hey, it beats getting skewered.

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I've heard of Chinese Paper Armour that was made by laminating sheets of paper. Mythbusters even did an episode testing it out.

The results are summarized here where they say:

Ancient Chinese armies used armor made from paper that could give the same protection as steel armor.

Plausible

Kari spoke with antique armor expert Greg Martin, who explained that paper armor was in use as early as 600 BC and was built up from layers that may have been impregnated with resin or shellac. The Build Team tested several formulations for penetration resistance and found that a thick layer of folded paper, with no resin, gave the best results.

Using an armor sample of either 1/2 in (13 mm) paper or 1/32 in (1 mm) steel placed over a block of clay, they tested resistance to blunt force, swords, and arrows. The paper did as well as steel in the sword and arrow tests, failing only the blunt-force test, so the team decided to build a full suit of paper armor to match against a period-accurate steel counterpart.

Each team member ran one of three timed courses in both armor types to evaluate speed, endurance, and agility; paper outperformed steel in all three. Finally, they attacked the suits with arrows, swords, and two different firearms—an 18th-century flintlock pistol and a 19th-century .45 revolver. Both armor types resisted every attack except the .45, leading the team to classify the myth as plausible. They pointed out, though, that the paper armor could quickly begin to disintegrate if it got wet or took repeated blows (both of which happened during the full-scale tests).

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    $\begingroup$ Come to think of it, this reminds me of an episode of Burn Notice where they reinforce a car with phone books to make it bulletproof. It's crazy to think that paper can be so strong! $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Feb 24 '15 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh Mythbusters tested that one, too. It didn't work as well. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Feb 24 '15 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @KSmarts I haven't seen that episode, but according to this summary it worked fine against pistols, just not against rifles. $\endgroup$ – David Moles Feb 25 '15 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ That's chinese paper armour you're talking about, the quoted text even says so. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Feb 25 '15 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeL. Good point, fixed it. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 25 '15 at 13:18
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I'm not aware of any particular examples in history, but if your world allows for plants that don't actually exist we can consider a few different options.

The first is that instead of fashioning an armor plate out of the plant material would be to cultivate the plant to grow it for you. There are numerous examples of plants being manipulated into different shapes by different methods. One idea I had would be mushrooms. Mushrooms, like many other fungi, produce cell walls of Chitin. Chitin is the same strong material that makes up insect exoskeletons. If there was such a mushroom that grew large enough and the cap turned hard if processed correctly, then you could make some decent armor plates from the caps. With some clever work, you could manipulate the caps to grow in more specific shapes that would better fit the body. Building a framework that forces the cap to grow into a shape might work. Unfortunately, light manipulation is not possible since mushrooms do not photosynthesize.

Some nuts have extremely hard shells and seem to be naturally cross-hatched (a desirable feature in any armor). If there were such a plant that grew nuts large enough, they could be used as armor plates. And also like the mushrooms, they could be forced into certain shapes with a framework.

Many animals have evolved armor structures made from several different materials (e.g. scales, shells, nails). Unfortunately, no plants that I know of have evolved anything similar in strength to animal structures. But whose to say that it could not happen? As long as you can give a decent biological reason why an armored plant evolved armor, then your world will be believable. The first obvious thing would be intentional breeding. Human selective breeding has done some very interesting things with the plants we use and eat. A more natural approach would require a change in your environment that necessitates armor for the plants' survival. So there would have to be at least one creature, weather characteristic, etc. that can relatively easily tear apart that armor. If it is some kind of large creature, people would be marvel at its strength and prize its teeth or claws or whatever it uses to tear apart the armor. This means your plant armor is now upstaged by the far more interesting animal. The animal could be a small insect, perhaps. People won't marvel at a termite.

The problem with wood armor is that it is only strong along one line of the three dimensions. Along the other two lines, it splits very easily. This could be resolved with crosshatching, which most armor even today does despite the material it is made from. If there were such a plant that grows rapidly and wire-like and was also hard, like bamboo or oak, then it could also be cultivated and manipulated to grow into the shape that you need. The effect would be a hard fabric-looking piece of armor made from wood-like material. I'm not sure how you might manipulate the plant to grow this way or of a natural pressure that would make this evolve.

While still considering non-existent plants, you might consider compounding a unique plant with an interesting processing method.

One way you might process a plant based material would be accelerated petrification. There is some evidence that some woods partially petrify in the right conditions (i.e. mineral bath). Your "plant smiths" could carve the shapes they want then soak them in a solution that hardens the plants like stone. They would still be susceptible to cracking, but probably a bit stronger than regular wood. Conversely, your people that use this plant based armor might just be fortunate enough to live next to a petrified forest. So they essentially make stone armor, but it came from plants originally.

Another idea is a plant that is unusually high in mineral count. You can construct a plant that is so high in iron that it is not uncommon to find thin sheets of it within its fibers. Your armor workers could use this plant to make essentially metal armor, except the difference is that they don't mine the metal ore. They grow it. Again, I'm not sure of selective pressures that would make this plant, but I would bet that at least a soil very high in iron (or whatever mineral) is necessary.

The last two ideas are probably not what you were thinking when you said plant-based armor, so I'll stop there.

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The first and most obvious example is the idea of Bamboo armour allegedly used in feudal Japan, but ( as mentioned in the comments below ) Japanese armour was in fact made of leather and metal. Although there is not historical evidence for it, the springy yet tough nature of bamboo suggests to me that it could potentially be used at least as a component of practical armour. There definitely is evidence of paper armour from China. These certainly have some advantages in a warm climate and also they are plausibly relatively inexpensive.

Some Laminar armour from parts of Siberia used wood and leather.

There are not a huge number of examples though, possibly because to provide useful protection wood needs to be considerably thicker than metal and although it would probably be lighter, it would also be more bulky and cumbersome. Given that being able to evade a blow is usually more effective than being struck on armour, the trade-off may not be worth it for the protection afforded.

Of course, one area in which wood was often used defensively was shields- I don't know whether those count as armour or not.

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  • $\begingroup$ Shields most definitely count as armor in my opinion, though I did not originally think of them. Good answer. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Feb 24 '15 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ The "bamboo armour" is a borderline xenophobic myth that for some reason gets constantly repeated. The truth is that there is no historical evidence the Japanese ever seriously used bamboo as a material for armour (note that there is no mention of that in the article you linked, either); they used metal where they could and substituted leather where they could not. The closest thing we know happened was the chinese paper armour mentioned in another answer, and even that was likely more of a desperate times kind of thing. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Feb 25 '15 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Good point on that article, I'll update my answer. Does suggesting that different cultures used different materials for armour make me a xenophobe, though? That seems a rather strong accusation. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Feb 25 '15 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @glenatron Please don't take my previous comment as calling you a xenophobe; rather, I was calling the myth borderline xenophobic. It is an oft-repeated something that has no basis in historical record (and would be a plainly stupid thing to do anyway), but likely goes back to late 19th/early 20th century view of the Japanese as primitives who still used swords in the 1850s. It doesn't help that it often gets pulled-out as a counterargument to the "katanas are superior" school of thought, which is the opposite extreme. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Feb 25 '15 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ I've edited the answer- bamboo is quite light, springy and strong, so it has some qualities that one might want in armour, but you would need something less penetrable over it, I think. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Feb 25 '15 at 13:47
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First and foremost is what are you trying to stop? Arrows? swords? axes?

Silk was an effective body armor because of the number of layers, and as the others pointed out paper was used as well, IN MANY LAYERS. But it depends on what you defend against. Bamboo would be useful against swords, it has a a good resistance to cross cutting, but an ax or an arrow head that hits along the grain might split it.

Burlap in many layers could act similar to silk and possibly stop arrows from penetrating flesh. Though if you were going that way, I would go with hemp. It is one of the strongest natural fibers, cheap and easy to grow and can actually be comfortable.

Like silk, it would be less likely to reduce movement and that is always a bonus when in combat.

A wooden shield or an embossed shield would/could be a great added advantage. Most shields were metal bound wood, for several reasons, wood is lighter, cheaper and easier to manipulate.

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    $\begingroup$ Silk was also effective because it is very hard to penetrate, so when an arrow passed through armour and a silk underlayer, the silk entered the wound rather than breaking and could be used to carefully extract the arrow with less risk than cutting it free. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Feb 24 '15 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ @glenatron I forgot about that specifically! $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 24 '15 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ Silk is also exceptionally strong. Most forms have greater tensile strength than steel. Prior to the invention of synthetic fibers, bulletproof vests were made of silk. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Feb 24 '15 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ Is silk plant-based? $\endgroup$ – Josiah Feb 24 '15 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Josiah no, it comes from the silk worm, though they do eat mulberry leaves. That's why it's used as an example instead of offered as a solution. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 24 '15 at 23:05
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Wood

If you've ever tried to chop a piece of wood across the grain, you'll know it's quite a resilient material. Like a bike helmet, or a crash zone on a car, it absorbs a blow by sacrificing a part of itself.

A direct impact on a thickish piece of wood backed by flesh will be effectively absorbed at the expense of some of the armour's integrity. A slash would be ineffective. Only a piercing weapon moving at speed like an arrow, or a chopping weapon moving with the grain would penetrate.

Sacrificial armour

This suggests a form of armour that is designed to be destroyed over the course of a fight. The combatants slowly degrade each other's armour with axe blows. The first to breach the opponent's armour will win.

Of course, this assumes the presence of chopping or piercing weapons. Are weapons similarly made of plant material?

Bamboo

My understanding (from my sensei) is that Karate was originally developed to allow an unarmed blow to pass through the gaps in slatted bamboo armour. Bamboo is light, tough and flexible and will protect against slashing and blunt weapon attacks. The weak point is in the joints.

Laminate

Wood has a grain. An impact against the grain is blocked by the fibres. An attack that follows the grain can easily split the entire block. Laminate materials such as plywood layer slices of wood at 90 degrees, binding the grain together.

Plywood is an extremely tough material. A thin piece easily bears the weight of a man. It can also be curved and shaped against a mould. Once the glue dries, the laminate piece retains its shape.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some woods are really hard and tough like Huon and Iron bark. They are just hideous to cut- breaks lots of steel tools but would be excellent armour once smoked to reduce water content/warping and treated to prevent insect degradation. $\endgroup$ – user2617804 Nov 6 '16 at 8:38
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Some great answers here already. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the quilted cotton armor worn by the Aztecs (Wikipedia, another link). I've read that the Spanish conquistadors would sometimes shed their steel body armor (which made them feel very hot in the Mexican climate), and use the native cotton armor instead, which was much more breathable and flexible while still providing good protection.

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Armor, like all warfare, has always been dependent upon context. Under what conditions will this armor be worn? What weapons is it defending against?

If you are thinking of using wooden planks in place of metal plates, you probably are not going to produce anything worthwhile. Wood is going to interfere with movement due to stiffness, yet not provide significant protection in return. Fortunately, armor made of many layers of fibers has been used to great effect, and would provide significantly better protection for the weight (though entail considerable labor). The multiple layers absorb and distribute the force, offering the wearer considerable protection.

The Greek linothorax was built of many layers of linen glued together. This made it stiff yet still pliable, and it was considerably lighter in weight and cooler than wearing a bronze cuirass. The glue of choice was made of animal fat, but surely a plant derived lacquer would suffice. Some have suggested that these were reinforced by metal plates, but no actual evidence of that has been found, while experiments with reconstructions of just linen proved very resistant to both arrows and slashing weapons.

Various quilted armors have been used as well. Medieval gambesons were linen or wool coats quilted together and stuffed with more wool or scrap cloth. This could certainly be just linen for a vegan solution. While often used with metal plates or underneath mail, many such quilted armors were meant to be worn on their own.

Wood shields have been heavily used - their low cost and light weight made them popular. My favorite shields would be viking round shields, but they were generally covered in rawhide which considerably strengthened them to resist splitting. The Romans laminated sheets of wood together to make their iconic scuta carried by legionnaires. These did use a little metal for the boss in the middle and later to reinforce the edges, but are not strictly necessary (center boss could be a hardwood). Less impressive shields have been made of just wooden planks with straps for a grip - they work just fine for warding off many blows or deflecting incoming missiles. They are cheap and plentiful, and won't wear out your arm after a few minutes of fighting (big metal things are fine on horse, but gets onerous if actually carried and held in hand).

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There's the greek linothorax and the medieval European padded jack, which was frequently of linen. Linen is a fiber from the flax plant.

http://www.uwgb.edu/aldreteg/Linothorax.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambeson

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