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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Weapon maintenance

by Dr Peter Westerdijk august 21, 2004

When African blades are rusty, or worse, pitted and partly eaten by corrosion, it is always a sign of neglect.
Africans in the old days were keen on keeping their weapons in good shape. Photographs dating back to colonial times show warriors with arms in top condition, brightly shining as the result of regular cleaning.
When we find rusted surfaces, either superficial rust or deeper corrosion,

we can clean them by applying waterproof sandpaper of various grains, ranging from fine for lighteke weapont rust to more heavy grains for serious corrosion.
Always use a lot of water to keep your paper clean. A dripping tap gives you just the amount of running water you need for the job.
Never work your surface too bright; just clean is enough.
As for copper and brass weapons or wire of the same materials applied to handles and sheaths, touch them as little as possible to maintain an old appearance.
When cleaned, seal off the surface with an acid-free wax or a thin layer of weapon-oil and corrosion for your items will be a thing of the past.

Click on the images to see more and visit

1) Ceremonial axe of the Teke, Kuyu and Mbochi.

 Congo Brazzavile and Congo Kinshasa
This type of axe never served any military purpose. Its function lies in the ceremonial sphere, as they were carried by chiefs and judges as a symbol of power. It seems that blacksmiths of the Kukuya, who belong to the great Teke nation, produced most axes of this type. They also made them for export. Locally these axes were also copied in the same general region. This example dates back to the last quarter of the 19th century.

2) War knife of the Fang of Gabon

Fang-Sword-detail.jpg (65455 bytes) The most widely -used weapon of the Fang was the so called ‘fa’, a sword-like weapon that is carried in a wooden sheath covered with the skin of a monitor-lizard. This 19th century example still retains its original iron carrying loop and leather band.
3) Throwing knife of the bird-head variety, Kota and related peoples of Gabon.

Kota bird throwing knife-0258-detail This type of arm was not intended as a missile, but served instead as a symbol of power as well as a cult instrument in societies that were set on fighting witches and other antisocial evil doers. The blade is supposed to have the shape of a Calao-bird’s head. The wooden handle is partly wound with brass wire. This 19th century piece shows a rare variation: two eyes instead of one.

4) Ceremonial axe of the Sappo-Sappo of Congo

Sappo-Sappo-32-heads-0263-detail-back.jpg (238324 bytes) The Sappo-Sappo are a mixed population group which contains elements of the Tetela, Lulua and Songye. This group was formed around 1880 and specialized in the production of top quality ironwork. The axe shown here is a typical example of the old style of Sappo workmanship and has 32 heads of sculptured iron (16 on each side) The wooden handle is copper-clad. Such axes were no weapons of war, but, tokens of wealth and authority only.


5) Throwing knife of the Matakam of North-Cameroon

Too heavy to be effectively thrown, this type of arm was used solely as a hand weapon and as an item used for swagger, both by young man and adults. No man would leave his house at night without one to keep stray-dogs at bay. This sound example dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.


6) Knife with ivory handle of the Mangbetu of N.E. Congo

A luxury version of the more common Mangbetu knife, this example has an ivory handle surmounted by a sculptured female head, showing the characteristic skull-elongation practiced by the Mangbetu of the 19th century.

7) Knife with ivory handle of the Mangbetu.

small Mangbetu Ivory knife -0255-head Smaller version of the type of number 6. Very fine iron blade and highly detailed sculptured head. This item dates back to the early years of the 20th century.

8) Mandingo sword and sheath

Mandingo-Sword-0266- The Mandingo of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Ivory Coast are well known for their leather-work. Their iron work skills are less well developed. Many blades including the one of this example are taken from European weapons such as sabers and cutlasses. Fine old piece of the turn of the century (1900) 

9) Songye copper bladed axe.

Songue-axe318-detail.Axes such as the present one were used among the Songye of Congo as currency items, during the 19th century. 

They come in various shapes and seizes and usually have a chiseled-out head of a bearded male on both sides.

10) Small knife of the Chokwe of Angola
Chokwe African knife - ClickThese small knives were worn by men and used for skinning game, peeling fruit and the like. This means that this kind of
knife had no vital function, but solely a practical one. It is interesting to see how small the knife is in comparison to the sheath, which consists
of a wooden front and a leather back. The front is normally sculptured with geometric designs and embellished with brass nails.


11) Adze of the Western Pende.

Pende Axe 311detail Ceremonial piece used by dignitaries and sculptors as a sign of their
trade. The hairdo shows influences of the neighboring Mbala, but the face
is classical Pende



Comment from a reader of our African Antiques newsletter :

There are a couple of adjuncts to your treatise on rust removal and prevention. The nomenclature for the sandpaper to which Dr. Westerdijk refers is Wet/Dry and is available at most hardware stores or Auto Body Supply outlets. This is available in grits from very coarse (100) to ultra-fine (1000). Rather than use oil or tap water most professionals use a combination of water and dishwashing detergent or soap. Always start with the finest grit paper possible and work to even finer grits to avoid scratching. Use a light circular motion on heavy rust working to long circles with the finer papers... make sure to dip in the soap solution often. Don't try to sand out small spots it's better to leave them or work a larger area to feather the edges. The hydrophobic action of the soap helps keep the paper free of clogging and also acts as a lubricant making the job easier. A 1/1 mixture of Boiled Linseed Oil and Turpentine protects the cleaned metal better than any other product and is easily removed without damage to the object. 

Jerry Jacob,
San Rafael, California

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