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I am currently reading the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and the second book introduces us to a unique weapon used by Outskirter tribes who have very little access to metal. Rather than forging swords entirely out of steel, they carve a wooden core with a horn grip and then press-fit a sharpened band of steel around the edge.

This is sort of the same idea as an Aztec macahuitl, but more sword-like and less club-like, and replacing the obsidian with steel. But while a macahuitl is an obvious synergy, improving a club with sharp bits and improving a small obsidian blade with reach, it is less obvious that this is a good idea for a thing to do with limited supplies of steel.

So, is this actually a viable idea?

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    $\begingroup$ If they have limited supplies of steel they could just weld a steel edge onto an iron sword. For that matter, they could just use iron swords, skipping the steel altogether. After all, everybody used plain iron swords for about a thousand years. It worked for the Romans, it would certainly work for the Out Skirters. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 20 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander if the sword is heavy enough, one can easily stub one's toe :) $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP There is a general lack of access to metal, not just steel; one handle-less metal knife blade is considered worth more than several livestock animals in the story. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ I swear I've seen a weapon made of a big long wooden thing, and a tiny metal pointy thing on the end.... I suspect that such a pole-based-arm would be the optimum metal/wood ratio. $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Oct 21 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Aron don't shake it, lest you want to write theater pieces and sonnets. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 9:50
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improving a club with sharp bits

The classic solution to having access to a stick and a small amount of sharp stuff was to make a spear out of it. The pattern has been repeated across many civilizations using many different materials across a very wide span of time (from about a quarter of a million years ago, to Napoleonic lancers, for example). It works well with a wide range of skills and military tactics.

Producing and maintaining a spearhead is a relatively straightfoward task compared to a sword blade, and the old pointed-stick design can be extended to things that get thrown (probably in an emergency, given the value of the material in your case) or things that can be used effectively from horseback in the form of a lance.

Other than spears we have axes and picks which are perhaps a little closer to the "sharp club" idea you're looking at. Both easier to make, easier to repair and maintain that the steel-edged wooden sword idea, both tested on the battlefield.

Outskirter tribes who have very little access to metal

How do they make the steel edge? Creating and working steel is a relatively complex technical task, and it seems mildly surprising that they'd have almost no metal but a comparatively advanced skill with the forge. I'd have thought they'd be much more likely to use stolen or traded steel weapons, or work with more forgiving materials like bronze.

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    $\begingroup$ I’ve always loved how the spear is such a common, convergent solution to the problem of ‘I want to stick a sharp thing into something that is far away’ $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Oct 20 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ How they make it is a good question! If it gets answered over the next three books, I'll try to come back here and mention it... $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ Incidentally, they do also use stolen and traded steel weapons. $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ Also should note that for many (most?) ancient/medieval armies, sword was a secondary weapon to spear (or other polearm) even if all soldiers were equipped with a sword, because the longer reach of the polearm is hugely advantageous. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinModrák I would go so far as to call the spear the second-most important weapon in the history of human warfare, behind only the firearm. Swords got romanticized. Spears won wars. $\endgroup$
    – Michael W.
    Oct 21 at 20:02
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No, it won't work. Wood moves with the moisture; first rain and the wood will swell, 2-3 days after with a nice weather and the pressed strip of metal falls off.

BTW, wood swell/shrink mostly on the radial and tangential direction. Better (or worse) yet, the wood is stronger along the fiber, so you will press your strip on a tangential direction - the direction most affected by the movement with the moisture

For practical calculations, 7% can be used as the average figure for movement in sawn pine and spruce timber, which corresponds to 0.24% per 1 percentage point change in the moisture content.

Example: A 145 mm wide floorboard with a moisture content of 17% is laid in a room with a climate equating to the wood’s equilibrium moisture content of 10%. The change in moisture content is 17−10 = 7 percentage points. The board shrinks 7 x 0.0026 x 145 mm = approx. 2.6 mm in width.


While not as durable as a metal sword, wooden swords as weapons aren't a thing to be laughed out of the door

To explore the actual damage-dealing potential of a wooden sword, slingshot master and unorthodox weapon engineer Joerg Sprave whipped one up from a log and began putting it through its paces. The results are pretty impressive. Wood can do some real damage against cardboard, cloth, and ballistics gel, even though it can't be sharpened to a hair-splitting edge and loses whatever edge it does have very, very quickly.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe they keep their wooden swords soaked in oil. They drip when you take them out of the scabbard so the hilt is shaped like a cup. That would prevent water from messing with them and also be good vs rust. If it were red palm oil that would also be a scary look. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 20 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Daron yeah, nah, mate. You ain't a woodworker, it shows. Drive a nail, rivet or anything you like on a thin piece of wood, you end by splitting it, especially if the row of fasteners follows the wood fiber. Which means you'll need a wider strip - to reach the thicker "meat" of the blade. Which means you'll compress a wider piece of wood which expands more. So, what now? You leave a larger gap between the wood core and the strip of steel? If so, why do still call it a core? For your viewing pleasure $\endgroup$ Oct 20 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi There is also such a thing as glue. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Oct 20 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Whelkaholism even if you do use pilot holes, you have a line of fasteners on the same or very close neighboring fibers. It is bound to weaken the wood quite significantly. And where's the weakness located? Exactly on what is supposed to be the striking edge. (disclaimer: I have woodworking as a hobby, for quite a long time). $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Daron I'm saying you can't attach, with primitive technologies, a long strip of steel on the thin edge of what is meant to be the striking side of a wooden sword. I mean, you can if you want to, but it fail as a sword. Even more, if you look at the description in the OP, the way of fixing it is described as "press fitting" - no fasteners or glue. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 17:52
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Wood and metal are not very good mechanical friends, except for putting a round bit of wood in a round hole in the metal, or vice versa. Handles or shafts, basically. That is not what we need here though.

The thermal expansion ratios differ too much, the response to water differs enormously. Wood loves to absorb water and expand!

However, not all is lost!

If you only want a nice cutting edge, and rely purely on the wood to provide the structural body, then you can use something like this:
enter image description here

We are all familiar with this simple technique to put a really sharp cutting edge onto a very much non-cutting structure.

I've managed to cut my thumb to the bone on a simple aluminium foil dispenser, imagine what you could manage of you put a strip of this along the edge of a nice Bokken.

Your metals strip will need to be demountable, replaceable and reforgeable, because with its extreme thinness it will take damage in any fight.

Consider the extreme example of this technique: a safety razor. That is a lot of sharp edge, using very little metal indeed. Now just juggle the layout a bit to remove the "safety" aspect.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoted for using an excellent example of combining two crappy items to make a pretty dangerous hybrid. Those foil boxes are lethal. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ For another hybrid of a similar design look at where the name "Peaky Blinders" actually comes from $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 8:45
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One quick but critical point before getting into the details. Metal blades tend to be really thin, often as much as structurally possible, so this question really boils down to: can wood actually help you make an effective blade with even less metal?


I think the biggest issue is the use of a wooden core. Combining wood and metal is certainly nothing new (there are plenty of historical weapons that use metal sparingly) but this approach would undermine the advantages of both materials.

We can look at the fascinating (and very effective) wooden weapons developed by Maori communities before they had access to metal. Even thin wood weapons like the wahaika below that provide highly concentrated impact (seriously, these really hurt and can definitely be lethal) are still much thicker than sword blades.

The edge of a Maori wahaika (image source)

A wooden core would probably have to be quite thick to sufficiently handle weapon impact. A thin wooden core, or even just a thin wooden edge on a thicker wooden core, would raise a lot of durability issues when creating a sword-like weapon. Imagine applying metal film on thin wooden chips - I can't think of a way to make that simultaneously sharp and strong. You need to make it relatively thick.

What makes a good sword blade? The complete opposite. To cut effectively, you want very thin, flat blades (not a thick wedge). You would lose a lot of cutting capacity by making it thicker - consider wood axes, which are great at splitting wood but terrible at cutting. A combat axe will feature a much thinner flat blade like the Dane axe (11th century replica) below.

A modern replica of an 11th century Dane axe (image source)

In short: I can't imagine how this kind of design could be thin enough to cut effectively and while still being durable enough to be practical. You are much better off with a proper metal blade - even a small, thin one - mounted on a wooden body.


So, what do you do when you make an effective weapon with only a bit of metal? Throughout history and across the world, this is where pole arms really shine! As several others mentioned, the spear family is probably the thriftiest way to combine a bit of metal with a wooden body. There's a reason they remained the most common infantry weapon for millennia (vastly underrepresented in modern media, but don't let that fool you).

Some examples of various pole arms, featuring different advantages and manufacturing requirements

However, since they are perhaps the least sword-like pole arm, I wanted to add that you can reclaim some cutting capacity with larger (but still relatively small) metal blades. The glaive family is essentially various knives mounted on wooden poles - a good way to get something closer to a sword without much metal (and an opportunity to really optimize, if you need to).

A few different glaive designs, demonstrating a pretty variable use of metal (image source)

It's hard to pick a single best design without a full understanding of the context, since that will determine the right tradeoff between cutting capacity vs metal quantity, but something on the broad spectrum of pole arms would be a much more effective way to combine a bit of metal with wood to create a practical (and sometimes vaguely sword-like) weapon.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, well documented and supported. Welcome to WB. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 22:34
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Perhaps instead of some sharp bits stuck onto the wooden sword, it could be more of a steel-clad sword with a wooden core, hilt, and handle.

Something where to the casual observer it would still appear to be an almost entirely metal sword. I think a very dense hardwood like Leadwood, quebracho, or camelthorn would make for an excellent core. Hardwoods like these also tend to suffer less from shrinkage and expansion caused by changes in humidity.

As far as the edge goes, the outside of the sword would still be all metal so could be made to take as fine an edge as a standard metal sword. Fastening could be done both mechanically using internal burs in the metal or with small screws and also with glues such as tar, sap or pitch.

Yes, it would still use more metal than just a strip stuck in a piece of wood, but it would save metal compared to a standard sword. Probably enough to make two swords out of one.

I could see this being more of a status symbol, (knock-off sword if you will) rather than a weapon intended for actual combat. Although with the right construction it would still be effective as a weapon.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not a bad idea, but keep in mind that in a technologically regressed civilization the availability of screws and availability of epoxy resin may be at the same level of (im)possiblity $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi As far as the epoxy goes, they can probably find some form of sap or tar that could be heated and poured which could become hard once it's cooled. $\endgroup$
    – agweber
    Oct 21 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ @agweber and this will help exactly how? Wood swells and shrinks with humidity, you'll end with a parade sword, not a weapon one can rely in the outskirts. From the perspective of reliability and effectiveness, I'd prefer dropping the wood core and forging a foil or a sabre - that's only 500g of steel. $\endgroup$ Oct 21 at 18:25
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No. It doesn't make much sense.

Sword is a sword because of its combined qualities. It's a piece of balanced metal giving you ability to cut, stab, block and has a certain fairly fixed ratio of durability to mass.

It's also expensive, requires training and has limited range.

Spear is simple, cheap, can be made with almost no metal and you can often kill someone with a sword before he can cut you. It's also damn hard to fight a spearman.

Sword becomes a deadly weapon in hands of someone in an armour, preferably on a horse. Other than that - spear.

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Who needs METAL? Just make a wooden sword. :)

It's like a wooden steak knife, only bigger. Digest out the lignite, press down until it's 23 times harder than wood and 3 times sharper than a metal knife, coat in mineral oil. I'll admit though, while it's impressive to drive wooden nail it is rather sad to watch how slow it is. Miracles should be snappier. I'm not sure how well the sword will really do - but at least you can make more!

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  • $\begingroup$ And more environmentally friendly! ... Well, except for the tree, of course! $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Oct 21 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ There was a series of fantasy books I read back in the eighties (I think Raymond E Feist had something to do with them, or possibly someone he wrote with), in which highly lacquered wooden swords were used by a pan-dimensional invading army. The lacquer was supposed to be super hard and obviously the weapons were much lighter than their metal counterparts, giving them ... the edge (ahem!) in battle. $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Oct 21 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Paul The swords were made from laminated hides that had been stretched and scraped paper thin before being glued and pressed. It was from the Empire trilogy by Raymond E Feist. The swords and armor were not as good as steel but the Empire had virtually no metals at all. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Oct 22 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne - Ah! Hides! Such a long time ago since I've read the series. Thanks for that! :o) $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Oct 22 at 12:05
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Take a good look at the Aztec weapon called maquahuitl which was wood with a bunch of obsidian glued in. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macuahuitl

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ceremonial_Macuahuitl.jpg

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  • $\begingroup$ the OP has said that the weapon is different from the maquahuitl : "more sword-like and less club-like" $\endgroup$
    – hcocox
    Oct 21 at 14:58

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