Fencing weapons, either for salle or stage, are not without maintenance needs. This post is offered in the spirit of helpful suggestions for keeping your fencing weapons in good condition, especially for the newcomer.
First, a few disclaimers. I am not an armorer, conservator, inorganic chemist, or materials scientist. My experience and knowledge about preserving objects comes from a successful career as a museum collections manager in accredited institutions in the United States. I have quite a bit of experience with museum preservation, but never presume to be the authority on the subject. What follows is what I do with my equipment — follow at your own risk. Above all else, be sure to read and follow the care instructions from your equipment manufacturers and use common sense.
When it comes to care and handling of your weapon, one must decide on what approach to take with your weapon — is it a fighting weapon, are you concerned about it’s cosmetics, or both? These issues have a bearing on how you proceed. When it comes to handling a weapon, one should be aware of (and respectful of other’s preferences for) the potential for marring of metal surfaces from body contact. One often hears people refer to the oil in skin leaving marks on smooth metal surfaces. It is not the oil one needs to be concerned with, it is the salt that is differentially deposited by skin oils that can lead to etching of the surface such as visible fingerprints. Sodium (technically a metal), when in contact with a different metal (such as your weapon’s alloy), creates a corrosive dielectric reaction, exacerbated by moisture — even simple humidity. This can all be greatly reduced by simply wiping the metal down with a clean rag after handling. As a point of etiquette, use a gloved hand when handling another’s weapon unless invited to do otherwise.
One should always be mindful of weapon inspection — both for care of the weapon and personal safety. This includes prior to facing an opponent on the piste, problems that may arise during a bout, and after a sweaty session in the salle. Cold weapons (such as those left in a car trunk in winter) should be allowed to warm up for a short while before being stressed. When selecting a weapon to fence or drill with, first visually inspect it overall. Check the hilt for tightness of parts. Occasionally, a pommel may need tightened or a loose button replaced. Carefully check all edges of the blade and guard for any possible nicks that can cut jackets and flesh. Sharp edges can easily and quickly be worked out with a file. Check the blade for any pits, cracks, or bends. A defect across the width of a blade is dangerous. Check along the length of the blade. A slow arching bend along the length is usually not a problem, and has even been preferred by some historically. However, an S-shaped bend along the length of the blade causes a great deal of stress in concentrated areas of the steel, potentially leading to a dangerous break. An S-shaped bend should carefully be worked/massaged out to a straightened blade or a gentle arch before fencing.
During drills or a bout, one should immediately halt action if the protective button detaches. If you notice this with someone else’s weapon, you should loudly shout “Halt!” to stop the action because it is not always apparent to the fencer when it occurs. Similarly, one should halt action if a blade “takes a set” or maintains a bend after action. Usually this results in a C-shaped bend. The blade should be checked for cracks and massaged back into place. The steel typically used for fencing weapons is 5160, a very tough and resilient spring steel, but tempering is an important factor in performance. A softly tempered blade will easily take a set, but is less likely to break.
Following a fencing session, one should use a dry rag to wipe down metal surfaces and check for problems. Many fencers throw their weapons in a fencing bag with their sweaty jacket, and leave them. For a short trip home, exposure to the salts and moisture in sweat is usually not a problem — the chromium in 5160 reduces corrosion significantly compared to plain, mild steels. However, leaving a weapon in a sweaty bag overnight or into the next day will often lead to orange rust; corrosion on your weapon and orange stripes on your jacket. A few minutes of preventative maintenance when you get home will prolong the life of your weapon.
Periodically one should give a fighting weapon a thorough cleaning and oiling. This will help identify problems not seen in a cursory inspection and will also prolong the life of your weapon. This process involves giving the blade and metal components of your weapon a soft but thorough rubbing with very fine steel wool, typically wool rated 5-ought or “00000”. This should be avoided if your blade has a protective or cosmetic (colored) coating. Very fine steel wool helps remove any surface deposition such as contamination that could harbor moisture or acids, or the start of imperceptible corrosion. Some choose to use abrasive pads such as “scotch brite” pads. Be careful with the latter — they can be far more abrasive than one might realize. Regardless of chosen abrasive, clean along the length of the blade and avoid circular motion. One should avoid highly polished surfaces, and of course, leather. The use of WD-40 can be of some help with cleaning. Most do not realize that WD-40 is highly refined and acts as a solvent, not a lubricating oil. Ethyl alcohol can also be used on blades and metal hilt parts for cleaning, but only if one is certain that parts have not been lacquered (something not typical with weapons). The museum professional in me would say to never use soap and water (or 70% isopropyl alcohol which is 30% water) to clean metal grime. however, if one carefully and thoroughly dries and oils the metal immediately afterwards, one will likely not suffer any problems. One should avoid abrading patinated bronze or brass surfaces. The patina offers a protective coating that would be removed with abrasion.
Immediately following the steel wool, the raw steel should be treated with a light oil. This fills the pores of steel and serves as a barrier for oxidation. A very light oil should be used sparingly, and the excess wiped off. Oils appropriate for this are sewing machine oil, 3-in-1 oil, or even olive oil. The key here is to thoroughly coat, but remove excess. Some people mistakenly think that WD-40 oil is adequate. However, as mentioned, it is highly refined and will completely evaporate in a matter of days, leaving your weapon unprotected from the elements. In such a state, even modest humidity will lead to corrosion in short order. When oiling a weapon, one should carefully avoid any leather on the grip, pad, or martingale. One could choose to use a wax to provide a protective barrier to your steel. A light treatment of paste wax offers sufficient protection.
Wire-wrapped grips can be protected by wiping with a very lightly oiled cloth. Oil-finished wooden grips can be oiled to clean and maintain moisture. Lemon oil is a good choice. Regardless, use sparingly and allow to cure; one does not want a weapon to slip out of hand.
Leather pads, martingales, and grips should be periodically cleaned and moisturized, but be careful. Usually a light treatment with a paste wax with help maintain moisturizing oils. The use of a leather soap can have enough water content to adversely affect wrapped leather grips.
A brief note about brass and bronze components. There are many home-grown recipes afoot that recommend using various treatments for polish. Some of these include acidic or corrosive components such as vinegar or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). The issue I have with these is not so much about whether or not they work, but unintended harm. If one does not throughly and completely remove the corrosive elements, it is just a matter of time before corrosion starts, usually much more aggressively than from body salts. Also, as stated above, brass and bronze patinas create a protective barrier. The polishing or removal of patinas is not recommended from a preservation perspective. If a polished surface is what you desire, then proceed cautiously.
Although this post is about fencing weapons in the salle, it worth explicitly noting that fine collection weapons should only be cleaned by a certified conservator. It is a tragedy when a fine object worthy of preservation is damaged, often irreparably, by an owner or “antique” dealer, however well intentioned.