Need a new dueling rapier? Or maybe a handmade bowie knife with a custom grip sized just for you? Forget the special order catalogs — Bangor has not one, but two blade smiths at work right here in town.
Adam Williams puts in 10 to 12 hours a day in his Winter Street shop, turning out authentic swords, daggers and armor for use by members of the Society of Creative Anachronism, a national organization of medieval reenactors.
Over on Fruit Street, Mark Kunz specializes in made-to-order cutlery, ranging from pocket knives to throwing daggers.
Although Williams and Kunz are only slightly acquainted, their stories are very similar. Both are college graduates in their 30s. Neither has any formal metal-smith training. Driven by curiosity and a love of history and craftsmanship, they acquired their skills from books, other craftsmen and experimentation.
Both have made the precarious leap from regular jobs to pursue their craft full time, and both are blessed with supportive wives whose steady jobs provide a base-line income.
Williams, an Alfred native, took up fencing while earning an agriculture degree at the University of Maine in Orono. During college, he also discovered the SCA in Boston and eventually founded the chapter in Orono. He began making armor nine years ago, but branched into swords and knives when he and his wife, Lucia, also a society member, could not find quality period weapons for fencing and rapier combat.
Williams worked for 14 years at various UM jobs, but found such work unsatisfying. Three years ago he committed to full-time craft work, working out of his white frame house near the Kenduskeag Stream. The business, which incorporates swords, armor, leather work and small items, has been self-supporting since December, much sooner than he’d hoped.
“I have the advantage of being able to work with a variety of materials,” said Williams, during a recent tour of his home.
The design shop and leather-working area take up the third floor of his home. Metal-working equipment fills the basement. The main level of the house is crowded with suits of armor, racks of swords and shelf upon shelf of research material. Cockatoos, parakeets and ferrets (a sideline pet business) rustle and squawk in built-in cages. The overall effect is decidedly otherworldly.
So is Williams, a smallish, bearded man who looks so completely natural in his leather apron and medieval-style shirt and hat that you scarcely notice the jeans and glasses. His basement smithy is equally eclectic. Several heavy wooden stumps stand around the forge area — the dishing stump has a concave surface used to rough out rounded pieces. A metal stake set into another stump is used for planishing, or fine hammering. A third supports an anvil; smithing tools hang from leather straps nailed into its sides. Cheek by jowl with these is an array of modern tools — belt sanders, a drill press and oxyacetylene torches. Small parts are stored in dozens of International Coffee tins.
“Hilt work, the guard and grip of a sword, is my main occupation these days,” Williams explained, showing some of his pieces in progress. “All SCA weapons used in live combat have to meet rigid safety standards. A basket guard can’t have holes large enough to let a rapier point through, for instance.”
Cup-shaped basket guards, which protect one’s hand on the sword, are beaten out from metal plate. More elaborate hilts are built from heavy-gauge steel or brass rod stock welded into the specified configuration of guards and quillons (cross pieces). The average weapon takes from 10-20 hours to make.
While Williams fits many of his hilts with commercially produced blades, he also makes custom blades. An inveterate scrounger, he prides himself on using salvaged materials as much as possible.
Sword blades are cut and ground into shape from scrap sheet metal. Discarded sawmill blades are ideal for this, and several lay around Williams’ yard. Smaller blades used for daggers and knives are hammered from huge springs at Williams’ coal-fired forge. For one set of brigandine armor (leather reinforced with metal plates), he cleverly incorporated an old Texaco sign, plastic from industrial pickle barrels and steel from a transformer casing. The final product would not look out of place on the movie sets of “Braveheart” or “Excaliber.”
“When the neighbors see the black coal smoke coming out of my forge, at least I can say, `Hey, I’m recycling!’ ” Williams observed wryly.
Williams’ rapiers and swords command from $130 to $500. Daggers and knives run from $30 to $200. Full suits of armor can top $1,000. SCA events around New England have been his primary market, but as his reputation spreads, he is receiving an increasing number of special orders from across the United States and Canada.
Williams also has supplied period weapons to area theatrical companies. Several of his sabers were used in Penobscot Theatre’s recent production of “The Crucifer of Blood.”
Knife maker Mark Kunz took the leap to self employment last October, choosing personal fulfillment over higher income. Like Williams, he has ties to the SCA, but his love for knives goes back to his childhood in Clinton, Iowa.
“I got my first pocket knife when I was about 7,” said Kunz. “I immediately tried it out on the kitchen chairs and my parents took it away for awhile, but I was hooked. I did the whole Cub Scout safety thing, always had a knife on my hip. When I was 16, I had a K-Bar with a bump on the handle that got in my way, so I decided to grind it off.
“I got to playing around changing and fixing things and just ended up wanting to make them,” he continued. “To me, a knife is the most useful tool you can have next to fire.”
Over the past 16 years, Kunz has picked up an impressive working knowledge of metal-working techniques. He discusses the finer points of metallurgy with the relish of a connoisseur, fetching different blades from around his living room as examples.
According to Kunz, many steels have a color so distinctive, experts can trace them to a specific place of origin. Alloy content can be determined by the color of the sparks the metal gives off.
Kunz and business partner Martin Beecher met in college in Iowa and were SCA members. They discovered the good life in Maine five years ago when they came east for a friend’s wedding. Within months, both men uprooted their families and moved here and established their business, Mystic Blades.
“Martin’s the blacksmith — the bigger the hammer, the better the job. He does the heavy work,” Kunz explained. “I do the white smithing — design, polishing and finishing the blade, putting on the handle slabs and just generally getting it ready for delivery.”
Until recently, delivery was slow. Both men had other jobs (Beecher still does), and there were problems with landlords who didn’t like the noise or the amount of electricity their tenants needed. Last year, Kunz purchased a house on Fruit Street, and his garage now houses the workshop.
Like Williams, Kunz and Beecher pride themselves on their scrounging skill. This year’s spring cleanup week in Bangor yielded a working planer and a kiln they use for tempering metal. Their current supply of exotic wood for handles comes from scraps saved by a friend laying an expensive hardwood floor. Old sawmill blades, crow bars and other scrap metal lie in rusty piles awaiting transformation.
Beginning with an approximate shape cut from sheet steel, Kunz and Beecher go through a painstaking grinding process to achieve the proper shape and smoothness. The blade is then heat tempered, polished and fitted with handles and a sheath.
“Our mission is to put fine cutlery into the hands of those who want it,” Kunz stated. “By using recycled and scrounged materials, we can keep our prices down. Finding that old kiln saves us about $35 a blade, since we don’t have to send them out to be done anymore. We pass those savings along to the customer. Prices generally range from $35 to $200.”
Their most recent break came when they were offered a booth at last April’s Tattoo Show here in Bangor. Several year’s worth of stock sold out in a matter of hours, and custom orders have increased. One of the more interesting projects to come out of that market is a 7-inch knife ordered by a woman who wants it to complement a tattoo on her thigh.
“The tattoo is this really neat Indian dream-catcher,” said Kunz. “The primitive-looking knife is worn in a garter sheath and fits in as part of the design. We like the challenge of custom work. If you can describe it, we can create it for you.”
For more information, call Adam Williams at 945-4557; Mark Kunz at 942-1701.