I've been making things pretty much my entire life, from as soon as I could see over a workbench, I was trying to do something – admittedly, at that age, usually trying to take my fingers off with a chisel. Fortunately, those early efforts failed, and I'm rather more attached to my digits nowadays. With those childhood efforts in mind however, it was pretty much inevitable that I’d end up in some sort of creative endeavour in later life, even if I never expected it to be something quite as obscure as working as a historical smith.
Despite the nature of my work as both an artisan and as a historian, I focused entirely on art and design in school, history was a subject that failed entirely to catch my interest – it wasn't until I went to art college in the late 1990’s and became friends with historians and archaeologists that I was introduced to the idea that history was more than just dry dates and numbers, and through them, found the medieval and renaissance eras which appealed to my interests. I’ll forever be in their debt for introducing me to the fact that history could be about the lives of individual people and the colour and material culture of people’s lives. That sparked my involvement in re-enactment, living history and Historic European Martial Arts, activities which first introduced me to the idea of making replica objects, about a decade ago.
I've worked over the years to create items with an uncompromising eye for detail; working in the videogame industry as an artist for many years, creating 3d objects, I honed my skills in observation of the fine details which brought an object to life – be it a virtual environment, or the objects and props within the world. Transferring those skills to making reproduction arms full-time when I left the videogames industry in 2008 was only natural, and I now study the tiny details of how objects were made, the original methods of construction, to replicate them as closely as possible. It fascinates me to research the methods and the techniques used, and I hope it is the subtle differences that using the right techniques make that stand out in my work when it is seen, or held in the hand.
The Making of...
Every item produced is created to particular criteria, be it a faithful re-creation of an original item for re-enactment and living history, or to fulfil the performance and handling characteristics required of the practitioner of martial arts. Each commission begins with the discussion a customer's particular needs, where details are shaped out to define the overall work required, and basic ideas of date, style, fashion, performance and appearance roughed out. Often, an extensive reference library of photographs is used to illustrate this stage, forming a detailed picture of originals that the customer's weapon is likely to look similar to. Illustrations are sometimes used to draw up images of component parts, and modern 3d digital modelling is used to create a virtual prototype rapidly, which can be viewed from multiple angles.
This virtual prototype also serves to calculate material volume, mass and similar characteristics, to develop a close approximation of the likely handling characteristics of a weapon before it is built, and allow customers to tune the design for their personal taste, if appropriate.
Once a virtual prototype is reviewed and considered appropriate, the blade is either specified for rebated blunts, or for completely custom pieces, is cut by hand and heat-treated for the highest quality of performance. with the blade's tang defined, exact models of the hilt components are created in hard styrene and sculptor's putties, carefully detailed and finished to as smooth a finish as possible, and designed to fit the blade exactly. These are then used to create master moulds, which are in turn used to cast high-quality jeweller's wax duplicates of the master models. The wax castings are then investment cast, be it in steel, high carbon steel or bronze, as appropriate to the customer's needs, and carefully adjusted to remove any distortion or excess material, allowing a perfect fit to the blade.
Hilt components are shaped from high-quality hardwood, bound with jewellery cord to give support and prevent splitting under strain, and bound with the customer's choice of hilt wrappings; vegetable-tanned leather, spiralled wires, polished horn, or other materials.
Finally, the component parts are assembled, and the tang is secured by hot-peining, to ensure absolute strength of construction even against hard use.
Scabbards are manufactured from high-quality limewood or poplar boards, carefully shaped to ensure a perfect fit to each individual sword; even two apparently identical blades will often have small differences of dimension. The core, lined with wool to ensure a smooth, secure draw, is then wrapped in calf-hide and hand-sewn to create a historically accurate scabbard for the sword.