De Re Metallica

In April of 2015, Jamie Lundell won a ten thousand dollar check from the History Channel for forging a Roman gladiator sword. The blade, which took him five days to fashion, was the length of a man’s arm and sharp enough to puncture bone, welded from 108 layers of steel all compressed within a fraction of an inch and patterned like clouds of petrified ink. Below the hammered bronze hilt adorned with buffalo horn caps, a blood-red inscription burned in the olivewood handle: Audentes Fortuna Iuvat. Fortune favors the bold.

Demand for ancient swords has flagged somewhat in recent millennia, but to the judges of Forged in Fire, the reality TV show tournament Lundell competed in that spring, this did not seem particularly relevant. In every episode, four blacksmiths from around the country were summoned to a studio in Brooklyn, where their mastery of ironwork was tested in tournament. By his third round, Lundell had already proven himself by transforming a two-inch ball bearing into an arced fighting knife whose superior construction outclassed the work of two other contestants. For the final round, he and his rival returned to their home forges to produce the most faithful replica of an ancient sword they could muster. Both were pieces of art, but they had to cut, too. What mattered to the judges now was the sharpness of the edge and the construction of the handle, the temper of the steel and the trueness of the blade, all of which they tested on human-sized dummies with faux organs inside. When the credits rolled, Lundell walked away as the champion.

“It definitely helped me pay off my loans,” he tells me in earnest. More than a year has passed since the episode aired, and we are standing between two anvils in Dragon’s Breath Forge, the workshop in Wolcott, Connecticut, where Lundell wrought his winning blade. He has worked here for the past fourteen years. The building is the size and shape of a large greenhouse, but instead of shrubs the floor is crowded with vises and sledges and menacing power saws. It resembles the ideal filming location for an industrial-themed horror movie, the precise type of place where one would not want to find oneself lost in the middle of the night or held captive by a vengeful clown.

Fortunately, however, it is eleven in the morning, and I am in the presence of a master. He is currently inspecting a brick-sized piece of metal, called a billet, which he tells me will form the blade of a new sword by week’s end. I ask him how the billet is constructed.

“Oh—these are just five sheets of ten-ninety-five and fifteen-twenty.”

I wait for him to elaborate, but after a moment of silence I strike myself as embarrassingly dull and offer a few vigorous head nods. He seems satisfied by this response.

Lundell, who turned thirty-six this year, looks like a character from Game of Thrones but has the demeanor of one of its fans. He sports a haphazard boxed beard and a brown ponytail that hangs down the back of a flannel jacket. When he speaks, he sounds less like a blacksmith than a computer engineer from Minnesota: kind-voiced and unaffected, frugal with his words, and sort of confused as to why I don’t understand the particulars of his profession.

Jamie Lundell at work.

Dragon’s Breath Forge advertises itself as a producer of exotic weaponry: battle axes, Viking spears, Arabian split-tipped swords—even Hobbit knives. The market for such items is larger than one might think, but it isn’t particularly reliable. In 2005, the Forge became a subsidiary of Falling Hammer Productions, the decorative ironwork parent company that provides the better part of Lundell’s paycheck. The distinction, however, is largely nominal: in addition to Peter Swarz-Burt, the Forge’s founder, Lundell is one of only four blacksmiths on staff, and every piece of steel they sell is born in the same flames. (Incidentally, three of the four, including Lundell, have all won episodes of Forged in Fire.) Lundell spends about two days each week working with the other smiths on projects commissioned by homeowners typically from Greenwich or Manhattan, whose tastes tend to fall short of his imagination: balcony railings, Gothic gates and lighting fixtures, the occasional praying mantis garden sculpture.

Today, however, he is working for a different kind of client, and this client requires a sword.

Those who conceive of the United States as a democratic republic might be surprised to learn that they also live under a system of monarchies. The twenty kingdoms of the Society of Creative Anachronism are spread out across five continents; seventeen of them are located in the United States alone. (If you live anywhere along the East Coast from Maryland to Quebec, you are a denizen of the Eastern Kingdom, where Lundell is a Society member.) The SCA’s unofficial motto is “The Middle Ages as They Ought to Have Been”—which is to say all the fun of archery, blacksmithing, and calligraphy without the unseemliness of chamber pots. The SCA hosts for its thirty thousand members what some might call Renaissance fairs, but to dismiss them as such would be to misrepresent the scope of the enterprise and the dedication of those involved. Each kingdom is districted into principalities, which are further subdivided into baronies, shires, and cantons—all of which are presided over by a king and queen who fight to the metaphorical death for their stations.

Lundell got involved in the SCA eight years ago when one of his clients, Gelleys Jaffrey—moniker courtesy of the SCA, pronounced like “aisles” with a soft ‘g’—informed him of its existence. Since then, he’s battled (with wooden swords) in a number of combat competitions, but he’s never made it far enough in the semiannual Crown Tournament to break into the royal family. (He has spent time with the king and queen, however; I’m given to understand they are lovely people.)

In about three weeks, Jaffrey will be knighted, and his wife has commissioned Lundell to make him a realistic Viking sword for the ceremony. Lundell forges a few weapons a month—orders tend to spike around the holidays—but each blade is unique. Before starting work on a piece, he draws a scaled diagram of the finished product. This week, there’s a piece of graph paper hanging on the wall promising a blade with an aqueous pattern similar to that of the sword that won him first place in Forged in Fire. Instead of using something so prosaic as wood, though, he’ll construct the handle from a moose antler recovered from the plains of Montana. Depending on the amount of metal and labor, a custom weapon from Dragon’s Breath Forge might set you back anywhere from five hundred to five thousand dollars. This one quotes roughly at two thousand.

The other smiths are drinking coffee in the office, and the only thing that appears to be breathing besides Lundell and me is the forge that sits in the middle of the room. As the heart of the operation, it stands on a metal table, a hollowed barrel of concrete about the size of a human torso, inhaling a steady flow of propane from a five-foot tank and holding its breath at twenty-four hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Behind the shimmer of the forge loom two colossal power hammers, about seven and twelve feet respectively, apparatuses that resemble cartoonishly large sewing machines with the ability to draw out scalding blanks of metal. Lundell uses the larger of the two power hammers—a hand-me-down from a World War I shipyard—to create billets like the one he showed me, a metallic sandwich made from five layers of two different steels, twisted and cut and reworked several times to form the swirled pattern that will reveal itself in the blade.

While the billet is heating in the forge, Lundell drains his coffee and offers me a pair of earmuffs. It takes about twenty minutes for the steel to reach the ideal working temperature, brightening from charcoal gray to a muted red to a glowing orange. At this point, the steel is not quite molten, but it’s hot enough to hammer into shape. His arms sheathed in elbow-high gloves, Lundell withdraws the billet from the forge and places it in the jaw of the seven-foot power hammer. He presses the lever with his foot, and immediately the room fills with the deafening sound of metal crashing against metal, not bright or tonal like a bell but deep and penetrating like a jackhammer. As the force of the impact draws out the rapidly cooling metal, little cracks of gray oxide begin to crust around the billet’s edges. With every blow, the scales appear to dislodge not from the surface of the hot steel, but from within, flaking off the supple core in ashen crystals like snowpack under a ski boot. Sensing a change in the metal that I cannot detect, Lundell rushes it back into the fire: if it gets too cool, it could develop stress fractures under the hammer, or even snap in two. He continues this cycle—heat and hammer, heat and hammer—for about thirty minutes, until the billet is more than two feet in length. As Lundell works, I mirror his movements, gracefully focusing my faculties on staying out of his way.

While the billet is still hot, Lundell uses a band saw to cut a “v” at the end of the sword-to-be, forming a serpent’s tongue in the metal that he pounds with a hammer to a point. He takes the steel to a belt sander to profile the edges; sparks shoot out on the concrete floor as the bar becomes a blade.

Now that it has returned to its normal state of grey, the blade looks like little more than a blistered piece of sheet metal to me. Lundell walks by with it in hand, and I feel a rush of heat blow past my skin.

Iron turns out to be, as far as metals go, a fairly diplomatic element. Unlike silver or gold, the so-called noble metals that do not readily bond with different atoms, iron plays nicely with others. In certain situations, as when surrounded by hot air or water, it can be prevailed upon to give up its electrons. (More often than not, the byproduct of such a transaction is rust.) In fact, iron is so gregarious a metal that, although the most abundant element on the planet, it is almost never found by itself in nature. Instead, most of the Earth’s supply is locked up in a type of blood-red ore called hematite, rust’s more put-together cousin.

Occasionally, however, iron will take other electrons for its own. Some six thousand years ago, an unsuspecting disruptor in the Caucasus happened upon this detail and ended the Bronze Age forever. In what was likely an accident, perhaps after a forest fire or a burst of lightening, humanity found that heat could release pure iron from its ore. Over the next few millennia, the process of smelting would be refined and employed in the production of devastating new weaponry, until eventually it was perfected and commercialized into the industry that now provides for nearly all of the comforts and necessities of the modern era. Without this discovery, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, every railroad and skyscraper and satellite would never have risen from the ground.

Once the Bronze Age ended around 1,000 B.C.E., iron quickly became a mainstay of everyday life—from swords to cookware—and blacksmiths, like the bubonic plague or Starbucks, were everywhere. (In fact, perhaps one of the only things Patti Smith and Dwight Eisenhower—i.e. “iron hewer”—have in common is that they are descended, like everyone else with their last names, from blacksmiths.) It was only a matter of time before more of the black metal’s mysterious properties were revealed: In the 14th century, smelters and blacksmiths found that carbon—typically in the form of charcoal—could dissolve in hot iron like sugar in coffee. The more carbon trapped between its metallic crystals, the harder the finished product becomes. When enough carbon is smelted into iron to make up one percent of the total weight, the iron takes on the properties of what we now know as steel. By the time the process was refined in the 1860s, steel, stronger than its virgin metal and less brittle than the carbon-saturated cast iron of traditional cookware, had rapidly replaced wrought iron as the material of choice. In the United States, the demand for smelting charcoal during the Civil War was so high that soldiers could hardly navigate battlefields for all the trees felled for fuel. Mills and foundries began to pop up throughout the Union, and the same railroads built from the steel produced there allowed for its transportation across the country.

By the turn of the 20th century, the country’s insatiable hunger for manufactured metal had delivered one of its most booming industries. For Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, who amassed a fortune four times larger than that of Bill Gates when he sold his steel company to John D. Rockefeller, the story of steel was in some ways the story of America. In 1901, U.S. Steel became the largest corporation in the world, one of the many steel producers that would herald the Technological Revolution. Where blacksmiths once had to hoard old gun barrels and wagon tires for scrap metal, they now could depend on ingots of uniform and near-flawless steel, ordered and shipped by mail.

Steel was, quite simply, the new normal. But the mass production of steel also siphoned jobs away from village smithies and into manufacturing plants, some of the largest of which were the steel mills themselves. In factories, the old methods of fusing together near-molten pieces of metal through hammer and anvil, both inefficient and labor-intensive, disappeared with the advent of oxy-acetylene gas torches and electric arc soldering. Blacksmiths were replaced by machines and welders, iron by steel and plastic.

For fans of computers and airplane travel, much of this was in retrospect a convenient change. But industrialization moved so quickly in the United States that history barely took stock of what it had lost: In just a few generations, the age of the blacksmith, society’s steward for the last six thousand years, had ended.

There are very few people these days who (to borrow a somewhat plastic-age phrase) have always known they wanted to become blacksmiths. For his part, Lundell didn’t even realize his talent for metalwork until he was in college.

“I never thought I was going to be a swordsmith,” he says, “because I didn’t know that was a thing you could be.”

But there had been signs, of course. At an early age, he became singularly enchanted with all things medieval. Throughout his childhood in Middletown, Connecticut, medieval-style Legos, Dungeons and Dragons, and fantasy novels held particular appeal for him. “My favorite G.I. Joes were always the ones with swords,” he remembers.

In high school, he and his friends started to dabble in live-action role-playing games (LARPing, for short), a kind of interactive re-imagining of sundry fictions. Inspired by the books he read, Lundell worked with his friends to create their own LARPing universe with full scripts and plotlines, which they acted out while sporting tunics and foam-padded weapons they made themselves. It made for exactly the sort of training that is necessary for success in the SCA.

After enrolling in Wheaton College, Lundell first planned to major in creative writing. Severely dyslexic, however, he soon discovered that he much preferred reading fantasy books to writing them. He knew from his high school ceramic classes that he enjoyed working with his hands, and during his sophomore summer he took a course in metalworking at the Museum School of Fine Arts. He’s been hooked ever since.

It’s the resilience of metal that he loves, he tells me, tossing a piece of bronze in the air and letting it tumble on the concrete floor, unmarked. “It’s so much more durable than ceramic or glass.”

His first-ever blacksmithing piece was a set of silverware, but it wasn’t long before he branched out. When he graduated in 2002, Lundell convinced Swarz-Burt to take him on as an apprentice at Dragon’s Breath Forge. Since then, he’s become the resident specialist in “historically probable” Viking weaponry.

He’s also started to pursue more approachable projects, namely tap handles for a local brewery and a line of jewelry, all of which are ripe for featuring on his Instagram page. The piece of bronze I pick off the floor is a pendant Lundell cast in the shape of Mjölnir, the legendary hammer Thor uses to slay a world-eating serpent during the Norse equivalent of the apocalypse. It’s available for thirty dollars on the Forge’s Etsy page, under “Viking Bling.”

It’s been a couple of days since Lundell profiled Jaffrey’s knighting sword, and he’s ready to process it through the final heat treatments before he joins it to its handle. He places the tang—the svelte end opposite the sword’s tip that he’ll insert into the moose antler handle—under a power drill and bores two holes in it. Helices of steel spring out of the blade and litter the floor around the machine like locks of hair in a salon. He threads a piece of wire through the tang to make an eye hook before we step outside onto the asphalt lawn behind the Forge, where the other  blacksmiths have been attending to a human-sized, propane-fueled silo with a central core of molten salt. (As it happens, molten salt does not look discernibly different from liquid water or simple syrup, though it tends to be about fourteen hundred degrees hotter.)

Lundell suspends the sword on a long metal rod and steps up onto a tree stump next to the silo. He gingerly lowers the sword into the outer chamber to preheat it. If there’s any moisture left on the blade when it touches the molten salt, it could splatter in his face like superheated frying oil. He begins to jig the sword in the salt, up and down like a length of fishing line, as the other blacksmiths look on from afar. Swarz-Burt hums Darth Vader’s Imperial March from Star Wars while they make ice-fishing puns for the next ten minutes.

“Holy mackerel,” says one blacksmith.

“I don’t like the scale of that joke,” says another.

When Lundell withdraws the blade from the silo, it shines a sun-bright orange. Unlike the blistering air inside the forge, the even, liquid heat of the salt doesn’t risk oxidizing the blade and relieves it of unwanted stress points.

Lundell plunges the sword into a metal canister filled with room-temperature oil. Flames erupt out of the brim and lick the blade, and the shock of the heat exchange causes the walls of the canister to vibrate like a tuning fork. I can’t tell if the acrid fumes that have just filled the air are coming from the crusted salt or the scorched grease, but in any case the room smells profoundly of heavy industry. Burnt oil and blackened salt stream off the quenched blade in rivulets as Lundell blots it with a dirty towel. He looks down the length of the blade to ensure it hasn’t developed any warps.

“No woogity!” he says with relief. There’s a commonplace kitchen oven in the corner of the workshop set perpetually to 425 degrees. In a few hours, he’ll place the sword in the oven to begin the tempering process, to soften the brittle blade. For now, he hangs it up to cool.

When I tell Lundell that I go to Yale, he immediately recalls the name of Samuel Yellin. Yellin, Lundell tells me, did much of the ironwork for Yale’s residential colleges, including the gates below Harkness Tower. He was also arguably the country’s most famous blacksmith, at a time when the province of metalworking had retreated almost entirely to the artistic sphere. By the time he died in 1940, his ironwork could be found at four other Ivy League universities, the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan.

There was a time when some of Yellin’s contemporaries called him a genius, but the years when people called him anything were few. Those were the twilight decades after manufacturing revolutionized the economy, when the blacksmith still figured more prominently in public life. By the sixties, the role of both traditional and artisanal blacksmithing had all but vanished in the United States. At the time, the historian Alex W. Bealer predicted that the blacksmith would soon be an extinct species: “One can expect to see the general blacksmith disappear entirely before the end of the twentieth century. Probably he will pass unnoticed and unmourned by most.” One hundred and fifty years ago, there might have been thousands of blacksmiths like Lundell in Connecticut, all gainfully employed in local shops or factories. Twenty miles away from Dragon’s Breath Forge, the Hooker Carriage Company in New Haven, once one of the largest coach businesses in the country, used to retain 250 smiths on its payroll. It was liquidated shortly after World War I, wiped out by the automotive industry.

I ask Lundell what he thinks about this prospect––if, like typewriter repairmen or taxi drivers, he feels personally victimized by modernity. It seems to me, standing here between a two-hundred-pound anvil and this century-old power hammer, that it doesn’t much matter what relics he’s able to revive from the past. Blacksmithing will never again be what it was.

But if Lundell is as bothered by this fact as I am, he shows few signs of having considered it. “It’s certainly not as common as it used to be, but I don’t think it’s in any danger of being lost,” he says. He notes that there is no shortage of hobbyists and professionals signing up for classes at the Forge, most of whom want to learn how to make swords. And besides, the advantage of working with metal is that it rarely ever disappears.

“One of the things that really drew me to blacksmithing is that I know the things I make are going to well outlast me. You go into these museums, and you look at these swords that are a thousand years old,” he says. “It’s like a little bit of permanence.”

He knows, for example, that the sword he’s making now will be passed down for generations. After he polishes the surface to a mirror shine, Lundell will hand the weapon over for Jaffrey to keep. The knighting ceremony is coming up soon, during an annual SCA tournament called the 100 Minutes War.

“You should try to come—although I’d try to dress up if you can,” he says. “People tend to get pretty into it.”

November 19, 12:30 PM: The 100 Minutes War is in full swing, and things are not looking good. I’m standing at the periphery of a nondescript park in Sparta, New Jersey, between a Porta Potty and a man fashioning arrows out of foam padding and duct tape. I had been unable to salvage any of my childhood Lord of the Rings Halloween costumes from the recesses of my closet, and I’m starting to feel acutely out of place in my street clothes. Hardly more than thirty of the 100 Minutes have elapsed, and already one of the King’s subjects has been inauspiciously struck on the nape with a wooden cudgel, knocking him unconscious. The crowd of about 150 people, dressed in all manner of capes, helmets, and armor plates, clear the field to make way for an ambulance and a couple of EMTs, who appear surprised to find that there’s a war going on. We exchange glances in self-conscious solidarity.

“I know the things I make are going to well outlast me.”

I have been trying for the past hour and a half to obtain the scheduling details of the knighting ceremony, with very little success. A number of people have offered to help me find whatever it is that I am looking for—the camera and denim are dead post-Enlightenment giveaways—but when I inquire about the accolade, they tell me that it’s a surprise and could I please refrain from mentioning it.

DSC_0165

Eventually I come upon a clearing at the far side of the park, where a small veiled tent has been erected on the grass. A man wearing a cerulean tunic and a beaded beard-tie informs me that Jaffrey is sitting inside the tent, waiting for the court to summon him. He knows by now that he’s being considered for knighthood—the announcement was made this morning—but he still has no idea about Lundell’s sword, which his wife ordered confidentially as a surprise adornment. The man I am talking to once commissioned Lundell, known as Ulfgar the Nice in these parts, to make a battle axe for him, so he knows what kind of creation Jaffrey is about to receive.

“He’s gonna shit kittens when he sees it,” the man says.

After the sun sets, the few dozen people remaining head to a small clubhouse by the side of the road, where a pair of fife players with unique senses of pitch announce the court’s assembly. At the front of the room, Queen Anna and King Brion Tarragon sit perched on their thrones, surrounded by a retinue of about twenty nobles. Also in attendance is King Edmund of the Middle Kingdom, on visit from the Midrealm, a region known elsewhere as the swing states. He sits beside the bespectacled Queen Anna, whom he gifted upon his arrival with a fifth of Patrón (it’s her favorite).

After some thirty minutes of procedure, including a debriefing of the War casualties, the King and Queen begin the ceremonies. The man I talked to earlier has been promoted to an earl; another is made a lord. In both cases, the Queen presents scrolls of cardstock embellished with calligraphy and gold seals, which before bestowing she displays to the audience in a prolonged flourish. Oohs. Ahs. At one point, a ringtone version of the mockingjay theme from The Hunger Games goes off from someone’s phone in the back of the room.

Finally, the court summons Jaffrey from the crowd. He kneels before the throne as King Brion produces a pair of spurs.

The knighting ceremony.

“These are a symbol of rank. But before I put these upon you that you may ride in the King’s name,” he says, “is there a member of the Order of the Laurels who would have words about this gentleman?”

A middle-aged woman standing near the door bounds into the aisle.

“It is my great honor and pleasure to be that voice!” she declares. “I am Mistress Aneleda Falconbridge.”

Chivalry and art are not so dissimilar,” she says, continuing at a ruminative pace. “For it, like art, must be practiced, in order to appear effortless, and in order for it to appear constant. I have watched this man—my friend—practice the art of chivalry…and I recommend him to you for this reason.”

Four others come forward to speak for Jaffrey, including a duchess and a mistress from the Order of the Pelican. Sir Cedric of Armorica, of the Order of Chivalry, is last.

The sword he wrought will not be wielded, but for now it does exist. That is all that iron in earth can hope for.

“All I will say right now is something I’ve said to him many times over the years, and it still holds true,” he says. “Dude, you don’t suck.”

Applause breaks out.

“Is there a belt?” asks the King. A subject presents him with a belt, which he bestows upon Jaffrey.

“Is there a sword?”

Lundell, standing obscured near the exit in a red poncho, steps forward.

“There is, your honor!”

The clubhouse erupts into a collective gasp as Lundell offers the sword, sheathed in a brown leather scabbard.

“With this sword,” the King says, “you carry the strength of our kingdom. Carry this with honor, and use it in justice, and in our name.” Jaffrey places the sword by his side, and, after being presented with a chain, takes his oath.

“I pledge my allegiance, my advice when wanted, my sword…and my fealty,” he says, a tear in his eye. “This I swear to you, until I die, or this world is destroyed.”

In a decidedly anticlimactic moment, the King forgoes Lundell’s sword—perhaps for fear of scoring Jaffrey’s shoulder—opting instead to pick up a prop with blunter edges.

“And so it is,” King Brion says, “that we dub thee once, we dub thee twice, we dub thee knight.”

The room erupts once again in cheers. Jaffrey’s wife is blotting her eyes with a Kleenex. The court disbands, and I feel a tinge of vicarious indignation for Lundell: the audience never got to see his sword. I look for him somewhere in the crowd and spot him congratulating Jaffrey, a smile lining his face. He seems far from piqued. The sword he wrought will not be wielded, but, for now, it does exist. This is all that iron in earth can hope for. As the clubhouse clears out and people start heading to their cars, I log into Instagram and search for Lundell’s name. There are a number of photographs, dated from a few days ago, of the work he just relinquished.

Caption: #handmade, #viking, #blacksmith.

The sword is poised on a worktable next to the original graph-paper design, where the whorls in the blade just catch the light.

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