In the western highlands live the warlike Oelha tribes. The Oelha are infamous raiders left over from one of the hordes that ravaged the land generations ago. Oelha frequently steal cattle and attack outlying villages of the neighboring kingdoms or other clans. While being warlike and vicious the Oelha are also fine craftsmen and metal workers their lands are poor in metal. This means that most of the metals Oelha have go straight into the nobility and straight into swords. The Oelha need some sort of armor to be able to successfully raid further into their neighbors territory since they would come into contact with better arms and armor the further they travel. The Oelha's solution was to make armor out of the trees that surround their homes.

What I'm wondering is: would wooden armor cut into scales and sewn together be effective armor? Would wood be able to hold up against weapons common place in the Medieval High Period? Ex: long swords, long bow, pole axe, etc

Note: they have access to lots of oak trees

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    $\begingroup$ What might affect the answer to some degree is what types of trees grow there, are there just pine/spruce/aspen or are there any hardwoods, I mean real hard woods (not balsa) like oak and ash or even the really hard woods like mahogany and teak. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 4:33
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    $\begingroup$ I mean... I woodn't count on it. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ Further... does your tribe posses the skill to make fabric from tree fiber? Many layers could perhaps tip the balance. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ What is wrong with leather, or even linothorax armour? $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Plant-based Armor $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 16:08

7 Answers 7


So, wooden armour did exist in a few places where suitable metal for making arms and armour did not exist. In similar places you might also find bone armour. Here's an example of some aleutian wooden armour:

Aleut wooden armour

Here's a Haida armour suit, with wooden helmet (though they cheated and used leather over the wooden breastplate... may just be decorative, but I'm unsure on that). The Haida had access to some metal (like copper) but nothing particularly useful for weapons or armour.

Haida wooden armour

The critical thing there is that metal weapons did not exist either. The amount of wood required to usefully defend the wearer against metal weapons is just too bulky and too heavy. It isn't impossible, obviously... people used wooden shields after all, but shields let you use a much smaller chunk of tree that isn't nearly so inconvenient, and is also easier to make so you can bring spares with you.

Oelha frequently steal cattle

Then clearly they will be using leather and boiled leather armour, which is known to work and be staightfoward to make, and would use material that they would already have access to.

That's not to say you couldn't use a hybrid design if it better fit your theme... here's a hybrid wood and leather outfit from siberia:

chukcki or yupik wood and leather armour

These things (as well as having the interesting winged design, overgrown pauldrons that were used like sewn-on shields) could be made from leather, bone, baleen or whatever other tough stuff you might be able to get your hands on. It worked for the Yupik and Chukcki, because they lived in cold places and used arrows tipped with stone or bone. As soon as they could get their hands on metal, they used that instead.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't help picturing the siberian dude in the image as doing a dance from his pose. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan now you've said that, I can't unsee it >:-( $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan It looks like he's ready to slap on a jetpack and take flight like this: duckduckgo.com/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ You guys make jokes, but IIRC those guys were well known for being violent raiders that made the Vikings look like pansies, and it took the modernization of Russia to stop them - I think I remember reading that their last known raid was in the 19th century. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Dent7777 A quick Google search turned up this: jstor.org/stable/659393?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 1:59

I don't have any evidence backing me up here, but I imagine it would be terrible against a well armed army. That doesn't mean it doesn't have uses. Similar to samurai who had paper plated armor, it would be useful against lightly equip soldiers, small militias or armed peasants.

But once you get into the heavy metal armor, shield walls with pole arms poking through and above, and arrows raining down on you, its not much of a battle. The formations used in the battle are going to make it incredibly hard for your soldiers to compete with.

As a note, I doubt wooden armor would be 100% necessary. A soldiers behind a tall shield doesn't need the best armor, nor does someone holding a long spear. And as long as you can hit your enemy before they hit you, you don't need to worry too much. Its a fairly fun concept in games. You don't need armor if you never get hit.

So as this is your world, your story, you could simply make your Oelha very skilled warriors who engage in small skirmishes, rather than in large battles. Make them take advantage of the land and the terrain. Woodlands to stop cavalry and obscure the vision of archers. Mud and wet ground to bog down heavily armored soldiers.

Wooden armor can be made to work. It is better than nothing, but it won't hold much against a metal weapon designed to fight soldiers in metal.

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    $\begingroup$ Agree. "Raiders" means you are stealing stuff from people in the countryside. They are not fighting wars of conquest. They try very hard not to mix it up with anyone really ready to fight. It is kind of like "if you are a car thief what kind of bulletproof vest do you wear?" Answer: if you are a car thief avoid police with guns. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ "paper plated armor" - what is it? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 6:54
  • $\begingroup$ @ZmitserJaphimic It should probably be paper plate armor, Without the 'd'. Basically rectangular plates made out of paper that are joined together. You can probably google "Paper Armor" for more examples of it. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee looks like it was gambeson made from silk in China. And no samurai. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 7:10

Go Go Ghengiz Kahn.

Ok, so you have a metal poor country. That's ok, you can make up for a lack of metal with other things. Mobility and ranged weapons are what comes to my mind. It's a classic case of if you don't like the Answer, Change the question. On perhaps, if you don't like the probably outcome of the battle plan, make a different plan.

The OP mentions access to lots of Oak. Fantastic, it's not the pinnacle of bow making materials but it will serve and it can make excellent arrows. drop some other excellent bow wood trees in the area like Yew or Hedge. So your people are going to be Archers. The qualities of being an archer is going to have a huge impact on your armor design anyway.

Next, you mention that they are raiders. Now they could be on foot, or you could have them on horseback. Either way, you don't want them to be over encumbered. Boiled leather would do for most. For those that are more likely to be in combat time after time a wooden scale mail might work. It would be better than nothing. Here is how you could do it. Take each scale and fashion it out of oak. Then wind silk around it, mostly across the grain to help prevent splits, or to at least keep the damaged scale mostly functional if it does split. Silk has the highest fiber strength I can think of for the weight. Then attach the scales to the boiled leather in whatever pattern is effective and that moves with the archer.

The fact that this kind of armor may not hold up against a direct attack from a great sword can be made immaterial by staying away from the great sword wielding jerks and shooting the horse out from under them and putting a ton of arrows in the joints of the armor and through the eye holes and such.

If you make your archers mounted, yet another whole level of stuff opens up to you. You can get lost in Wikipedia for hours studying the Mongols, the Huns, Scithians and on and on. Just look at light cavalry tactics. Incorporate these ideas to make them influence your armor design, not the other way around.

  • $\begingroup$ The Mongols had the advantage of metal arrowheads, metal armour (for everyone who could get it) and even then they never managed to conquer Poland, being driven back by well armed and armour european armies. Putting arrows into eyeslits is for hollywood, not history! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime One could argue that Poland had the advantage of terrain that was not very good for Mongolian hit and run light cavalry tactics. Mongols came from huge grasslands, not heavy forests. It's also true that an arrow through the eyeslit is much more Hollywood. A rain of arrows would definitely cause problems for everyone who could not afford excellent armor, even without metal arrowheads. Arrowheads also do not take a lot of metal. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ The use of any material in arrowheads implies a complete logistic chain that provides a supply of such things. If you can't guarantee your supply of metal (and note that metal arrowheads intended to killing people aren't tiny or delicate) then you absolutely do not use it on things that you're expecting to lose, possibly forever, at the first instant of battle. If you have a small amount of metal, you'll be making spearheads first, then swords or axes and armour, then other weapons and expendable things. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime - There are some good answers going into the details of this on answers to this question on the History site. Basic answer is that the Mongols chewed up lesser units in the field, but had no good counter for large amounts of heavy cavalry backed by a good Castle network. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @T.E.D. There's some good stuff in there, thanks. I shall bookmark that for future reference; there was a question here recently that touched upon "barbarian horsemen from the steppe" which could have benefitted from some of that stuff. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 19:19

First of all: when military were gaining access to iron armor - they were making armor from it. Even fancy looking japaneese armor is a steel lamelar armor (and they are the first when thinking about non-metal armor). Also, they were in position that you describe: low amount of iron. Yet they had to produce protection for troops.

Second: wood is made of fibers and split very well. Small lames ever more. Sort of composite stuff would be requred for "scales": plywood, for example. And since we have advanced composite armor, can it be sort of linothorax based?


I think as long as the design of the armor distributes and dissipates the force of a mass weapon like a pole-ax, two-handed sword, or broadsword, then wooden armor could work.

Oak will be strong but its straight grain would be a disadvantage unless it was laminated. Wood Ipe or Osage Orange are very strong and have a twisted grain that makes them resistive to splitting. They dull woodworking tools quickly, so I think they'd stand up to swords, daggers, axes, and maces.

Might provide better protection against arrows if the grain was tight and twisted or laminated layers

The wooden armor may not have the durability of traditional metal armor, might require repair and replacement of pieces between fights.


Broadswords, for example are designed for the primary purpose of breaking bones, not so much cutting. A pole-axe when thrust against the chest of steel Armour would slide-off to one side, when swung hard, might break something.

Steel armor was designed to deflect ranged weapons, arrows, slingshots. It's not a lot of use against close-range weapons. A sword must be countered with a sword. An early example of a great-sword weighing more than ten pounds:

enter image description here

Attribution - thearma.org

This would, when swung by a trained full-grown warrior would crush metal and the flesh beneath at the very least - perhaps the bone too, unless deflected by a sword or other obstacle.

Wooden Armour would possess no such advantages of deflection of ranged weapons. A Pole-axe swung might be thwarted by heavy wooden Armour, but the force would still take it's toll on the recipient. Arrows would not be deflected, nor pole-axe thrusts. An opponent could be speared and then finished-off at leisure.

Blows from swords: against wood, maybe the force would be spread-out more, if the wooden pieces are sufficiently thick and heavy. Stabbing thrusts could result in the sword getting stuck, giving a surprise-advantage to the Oelha, but then a twist on the hand-guard then further thrust could penetrate and finish the fight.

A potential solution to the problem of wood's "splitting along the grain" issue would be binding each "scale" with fiber. Such fibers as are easily processed can be found in nettles, hemp, the cambium of lime trees and aspen - or even cotton could work. (ETA. It occurs to me that animal or even human hair could fit this roll too, the rituals of your tribe may require it.)

Your warriors of the Oelha, are going to come home looking like pincushions, but if they possess sufficient skills with their weapons - hopefully intact.

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    $\begingroup$ "Broadswords, for example are designed for the primary purpose of breaking bones" yeah, no. Maces and hammers are designed for breaking bones. Swords chop and stab, and if they're big and heavy enough they can crush and break too but that's hardly a primary design goal. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime The one pictured above is described as "blunt", yes they cut unprotected flesh (as will any blade notched by strikes of other blades when drawn across flesh), but steel Armour wasn't easy to cut (crush, yes, but not cut, that's why multiple layers of cloth and leather were worn underneath - to absorb impact), unless you can nominate an episode of mythbusters where they did that. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ That's why people used maces and warhammers against heavily armoured opponents. When they did use swords, they used things like half-sword techniques, where blunt sections on the blade were used for gripping, not striking, and the tip of the sword was used for thrusting. Swords were always sharpened, and the sharp bits were used for killing. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Confoundedbybeigefish., you seem to be confusing "great swords" and "broad swords". They are very different things. The sword in the picture above is a "great sword" and killing people was actually a secondary use for it. It's main purpose was to chop through enemy polearm staves, leaving the enemies unable to attack. On the other hand, broad swords are just normal swords and not really any different than an arming sword or side sword. As rapier style thrusting swords were developed, these older style cutting swords had blades that were comparatively "broad", hence the name. $\endgroup$
    – krb
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ Also, great swords did not exist in the high medieval period specified in the question. Great swords are renaissance era weapons. $\endgroup$
    – krb
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 13:37

Wooden armor would be good enough against common bow and slungs. In fact it will be better than steel one, because of smaller weight (and better mobility). But that's all pros. All other medieval weapons would cut and crush wooden armor through. Even old-greek goplite bronze spear and roman pilum would be deadly weapons!

But there is a catch. In medieval epochs only small number of warriors had something more than shield and spear:

  1. In early medieval (think of viking setting) most warriors had only basic cloth or leather armor. Not everyone had even helemets (even some "poor knights" had only horse, shield and spear (and casual cloth as "armor")). And swords were mostly weapons for battle group leaders (common weapons were spear, axe and knife) and special elite groups (like berserkers)
  2. In "medium" medieval (think of "king Arthur" setting) only knights and there battlegroups had desent armor and "classical medieval weapons". They were a key but small part of an army. Garison troops and infantry had poor armor and weponary: helmet was the only metal armor piece in most cases.
  3. In late medieval (think of Duma's novel setting) invention of powefull and compact arbalets and first firearms render all but the most heavy armor useless. It lead to division of troops to extreamely heavy knights and cuirassier and light mobile troops with no armor at all (except helmets, may be) - pikemen, crossbowmen, etc.

All this mean that in any case your "wooden men" had armor better than most of the opposing enemy soldiers. The only problem for them would be that elite high-trained and high-armed core. To solve this problem they should have good tactics (to cut this core from the rest of ther army), high numbers (compared to this core) and high spirit to withstand great casualties. "Wooden men" would also be good at sieging secondary castles (where there is no or few knights), raiding villiges and towns, destroing economy of medieval states

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    $\begingroup$ Don't confuse an arming jacket with "casual cloth". It is surprisingly effective all by itself. Now, do you imagine that all these medieval societies were stupid? They had ready access to wood, and used it for shields, but never made armour. That it because it is terrible against the sorts of metal tools that every peasant had to hand, who had to chop wood most days! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ And now I think of it (3) isn't quite right, as combined-arms forces like the spanish tercio persisted into the 17th century, and the front ranks of a pike formation generally wore armour so they didn't get stabbed to death in short order. It wouldn't stop a musket round, but it wasn't intended to. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ 1st:medieval societies were not stupid, but ruther poor and had little care for low-class lifes. Where it was not the case (like Switzerland) infantry had better armor. 2nd - i'm answering "what if..." question. That means I don't care much about justifcation of wooden armor application. I consider situation where "wooden men" and medieval army clashing as given, regadless how things came to it. $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Not sure if poor quality is the main reason wooden armour wasn't used. It was used for shields to great effect and you'd think a wooden breastplate wouldn't be that much different. It could even be ply construction like many of the shields were. They weren't designing this stuff to be impervious but to lessen the chance of being badly hurt. I suspect the time taken to make such armour wasn't worth the effort. Did anyone wrap bark around them for added protection? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 4:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Daniel I've already mentioned shields in my own answer, and haven't used the word "quality" anywhere. I've also reasonably used the example of known human history, where no-one used wooden armour when they could use metal weapons. On the assumption that all humans in history aren't complete idiots, that's a powerful argument against any ideas about how wooden armour could be made to work. I'm not sure why you think bark would help; that's the easiest bit of a tree to chop through. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 6:43

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