Making kikko armor

the top of a sheet of kikko armor
the top of a sheet of kikko armor

About a month ago, my friend Madigan and I started working on the construction of kikko armor. Kikko is a form of japanese armor that uses hexagons of leather or steel that are chained together or sewn to a backing.

I first hit upon the idea because I was complaining about how western brigandine and similar armors seem to work… they use rectangles, which of course means that, no matter how you lay them out, you will have angles at which a blade could strike you and find space between the plates. “Much smarter to use hexagons,” I said, and when I turned to google, I was not the least bit surprised that I wasn’t the first person to think of this.

Anyhow, our kikko has been made of hot-water-hardened horsehide (mistakenly called “boiled leather” by some) plates, chained together by 16ga blackened stainless steel. (butted rings.)

an in-progress sheet of kikko armor.
an in-progress sheet of kikko armor.

Step by step:

  • take your vegetable-tanned, 8oz or so leather. Soak it in room-temperature (not cold) water for 10 minutes, roughly. Then immerse it in 180-degree-farhenheit water for 45 seconds or so (the timing matters a lot, and needs experimenting. We settled on 45 seconds). Take it out and put it between a rock and a hard place. You want two flat, non-water-permeable surfaces. (Cardboard did not work so well for us, it sucks the oils out of the leather or something weird like that.) What we did that worked best was put it on a plastic countertop and put a marble cutting board on top, then stacked heavy books on top of that. The water makes the leather pliable, and the hot water fuses the fibers of the leather, making it much, much tougher, but a bit brittle once dried. We left the leather under pressure for about 15-20 minutes. It takes awhile to dry, but will stay pretty flat after being pressed for 15 minutes.
  • It’s easiest to cut the leather while it’s wet, but it’s not essential that you do so. We made two sizes of hexagons. One was a regular hexagon with .75″ sides, one was a twice-as-tall one with 1.5″ tall sides and .75″ other sides. I designed a template on a computer, because our hand-drawn ones were not as regular as we’d hoped. If anyone asks, I’ll post a pdf of it in the comments. We traced the hexagons onto thin cardboard from a cereal box or beer box, then one of us drew as many hexagons onto the piece of leather as we were able to fit while the other cut them out using a boxcutter.
  • We stained the plates with USMC black leather stain. I want to try natural dyes sometime too. But as it was, I followed the instructions on the box, one coat of leather stain and one coat of sealant. I sealed the back too, to avoid mold.
  • We punched holes in them. We used a small sheet-metal punch on some and a pin vice drill on others. The vice took longer but had more control. Figuring out the spacing was tricky, and getting the spacing as regular as possible helps a lot.
  • We chained them together using a barely-modifiedjapanese 6-1 chainmail pattern. The rings we used, which fit well, are 1/4″ 16ga.
closeup of kikko armor
closeup of kikko armor

Lessons learned so far:

  • make sure you dry the leather out before you put it into a plastic bag in your van or backpack for two weeks, or you’ll have moldy leather. If your leather does get moldy before you stain and seal it, use white vinegar to kill it, then dry it out and make sure the mold seems gone before you stain and seal it.

So far, kikko is pretty cool. Even more labor-intensive than straight chainmail, and probably not as strong, but it’s significantly lighter while still staying flexible and pretty tough. We’re making a skirt out of it first, then I’ll probably try some greaves with the plates sewn or riveted to a backing of unhardened leather.

One thought on “Making kikko armor”

  1. Wowa!!
    What a way to find out what my name means…in another language! And once it has to do with warriors it really excites me! I’m a warrior of some kind and a warrior admirer. Love swords and armours and stuff.
    And you guys are doing a Great job and Exciting artwork! Keep it up! Thanks for all the info and instructions.
    DJ Kikko (London)

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