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SAMSON -- MASTER SWORD MAKER
Excerpted and updated from the The Barbarian Keep, Issue No. 1: a magazine published by the Robert E. Howard United Press Association for mailing #144. Copyright 1997 by Edward Waterman - presented with permission.
On February 27th, 1997, I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Jody Samson, who is one of the world's most renowned sword makers. The interview was informally conducted outdoors, at the back of the building and behind the formal showroom, where his shop is located. Jody Samson is one of the world's top six master knife and sword makers, and is most widely known for making the swords featured in the movie Conan the Barbarian. However, his reputation as a master sword maker was considerable years before he landed the job for Conan. Born and raised in California, Mr. Samson learned his trade from the late John Nelson Cooper, who was a giant and pioneer in the knife-making field. Beginning in 1969, Mr. Samson apprenticed with Cooper during his spare time while he was studying art at a local college. In 1974, Mr. Samson opened his own shop and began to make swords and knives for a living. First and foremost an artist, Mr. Samson thrives on the ability to create one of a kind custom swords, which he calls "sculptures in steel."
Mr. Samson sells his knives and swords primarily to the movie and television industry. However, he still makes swords and knives for individuals as well. Each of his swords are hand made. His keen eye and steady hand is a testament to his masterful skill. Every line is straight, and every surface is immaculately polished to a mirror finish. He uses no measuring tools to achieve this, but eyes each blade and shapes each sword with a master's touch. Mr. Samson takes great pride in his work.
Mr. Samson's workshop is a surreal fantasy-land. From the doorway, it seems like a small 10x10 garage, but as soon as you walk inside it is like being transported to another world. Piled on the center table are several candle-holders carved in the likeness of dragons, bobcats, skulls, and other gothic and dark artifacts. All three walls are covered with belts, swords, shields and walking sticks that Mr. Samson carved and sculpted himself. Many are carved in very odd forms resembling snakes or skulls. There is a small statue of a dragon embryo in the center of the table that he takes considerable pride in, and rightly so. It is a magnificent piece of artwork. At both sides of the shop are tables supporting grinding, sanding, and polishing equipment. Littered throughout the shop are various hand tools, blades, pins, and other pieces of swords. A small desk sits in the far right corner, cluttered and piled with papers. A movie poster from Conan the Barbarian hangs prominently on the adjoining wall. Any visitor would be awed by the eclectic mix of fantastic oddities decorating Mr. Samson's shop. It is certainly an artist that works here.
Mr. Samson looks a bit like a Viking of old. Looking like a man in his mid-forties, he sports a grizzled beard and long dark hair speckled with gray which is drawn back into a pony tail. He seems strong, perhaps a result of his craft, but more unsettling is his demeanor. There is a sense of wild ferocity about him. Perhaps his fierce eyes, or the quiet manner in which he speaks and muses, belying a living volcano beneath. It is obvious that he is a man of great intensity. An artist. And yet, he is uncommonly modest. He dislikes talking about himself or "bragging", as he puts it, about his work.
The questions and answers that follow have been re-organized and in some cases paraphrased for accuracy and simplicity:
did you get into the business?
I liked fantasy when I was a kid. I read all the Conan books. You know, Robert E. Howard was a good writer. There's very few people who can paint a picture as well as he did. Maybe Tanneth Lee. She's done some nice work, but Howard was good! I was also into Renaissance Fairs. It just seemed like sword making would be fun to do. So it all just came together and I simply started making swords.
It can be difficult to get into the business. Well first, there's not that many sword makers. A couple hundred sword makers, and maybe half a dozen good ones. There's a few thousand knife makers. Most of the guys, I'd say about 80% of the people have another job and do it as a hobby, or they're retired. The full-time guys that have been doing it for a long time are kind of rare. And it takes a long time to build up a reputation. You have to go to a lot of shows, which I used to do, to have people judge your work.
you heard of Dr. Jim Hrisoulas; he's one of the world's foremost experts
on ancient swordmaking and steelmaking?
do you think of those inexpensive swords made in India or Taiwan?
do you mean when you refer to balance?
you have a favorite kind of sword?
you make other weapons or anything other than swords?
you make weapons out of anything other than steel?
do they use to make the sparks fly in the movies, when two swords
hit each other?
For the movie Conan the Barbarian, I made four swords of each. Four of the Father's swords and four of the Atlantean swords. Tim Huchthausen is the guy who did the handle carving on the Atlantean sword, and I ground the blade. The Father's sword was all mine, the one with the skull. Well, Ron Cobb actually designed it. He and some production people gave me blueprints to work off of, and I first carved it in wax. Centuries ago, Cobb used to write for the LA Free Press, he was a cartoonist, and now he's a designer. He does some good work. I've got a wax of the Father's sword and we've got an Atlantean sword up front in the showroom.
The swords we made for Conan the Barbarian weren't practical swords, they were just good looking swords. They were heavy. The Father's sword, with the skull on it, was about 6.5 pounds and the Atlantean sword was 8.5 pounds. A real sword would be about 2.5 pounds. Swords are very exaggerated in the fantasy movies. Think about a really good athlete, like a boxer. He's got 16 ounce gloves and he has to stop every three minutes and rest. So if you've got a 6-7 pound sword, you can't fight with it. Speed kills. Speed is critical in a swordfight. And swinging around a heavy sword would wear down your speed pretty quickly. You don't cut down stone pillars with real swords either, or cut through chains and all that. It doesn't work. Only in the movies.
does the guard on the Atlantean sword extend up along the blade? Isn't
holds the copyrights to the Conan swords?
the hieroglyphs carved on the swords mean anything?
you make Valeria's sword too?
the beginning of the movie Conan the Barbarian, there is a
scene where Conan's father is forging his sword. Is that how a real
sword would be forged?
always seems like the top experts in any field all know each other.
Is that true for swordmaking as well?
you like Star Trek?
Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't quite what I visualized as Conan. He just didn't have the same essence that Robert E. Howard gave to Conan in the stories. It's important for there to be a kind of tension in the person, in the way they move. Maybe somebody like Jack Pallance. When he was in Barabbas and driving the chariot, he had the madness and the energy. Or Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments. When he was walking around, he was smooth and fluid, and he had an energy about him. Arnold to me seemed a little funky. I would have chosen the guy who played his father, William Smith. When he was younger he was the guy! Because he had the cheekbones. He was in this movie Piranha, with Peter Brown, where he played this mad hunter guy in the wilderness in the Amazon. Totally crazy, he had this "look". And that's how I pictured Conan. You know, really smart nobody's fool. Besides, he had black hair.
Making the Conan Swords: An Interview with Jody Samson
Albion Armorers is pleased to present this interview with Jody Samson, discussing the production of the original Conan movie swords, and the new editions that will be available through FilmSwords. This interview was conducted by Jason Dingledine in Mr. Samson's shop in Burbank, Ca.
AA: How did you end up being the maker of these swords? What were the challenges you faced?
JS: I was anxious to get the work and agreed to take the project on before I could take any time to really think about it. After the studio people left, I sat there thinking "I've never done anything like this before!" I have to admit that I panicked a little. I had done a lot of sculpture before and made hundreds of knives and swords, but had never combined the two, or even carved a single guard for casting. The principles seemed to be the same as doing sculpture, so I figured I'd give it a try and see what happened.
AA: John Milius (Director of Conan the Barbarian) has graciously offered to loan Albion his original swords from the film. How many of each sword were made, and approximately how long did take to create each sword?
JS: There were three of each, and I worked on them over six months. That's kind of amazing, usually six weeks is a long time to work on a movie. There were also fiberglass versions made for fight scenes, and I understand that a company in Spain, due to time constraints, was asked to make additional copies in steel for some other scenes during filming.
AA: Popular myth has it that these swords were very heavy -- some sources say as much as 12 pounds, and that weight had to be added to them so that Arnold Schwarzenegger could "feel" them. How much did each of the original swords actually weigh? Would you consider them usable swords?
JS: Film swords are in a category to themselves - usually they have to look "larger than life" in order to translate on the silver screen. But these swords were actually much smaller than they might appear on screen. The Father's sword weighed around 6.5 lbs and the Atlantean weighed around 8 lbs, which is nowhere near 12 lbs. (laughs) and no weight was added to them, for any reason. Besides, most of the swords you actually see in the film were fiberglass castings -- like in the fight scenes -- which weigh hardly anything at all. The real swords were only used in "beauty shots" -- the close-ups, etc. As to weight in general -- I make real swords, and most of my pieces are very light. But these were heavier than usual because I was working from Ron's production designs and I wanted to replicate those as closely as possible -- and remember, Ron was designing for the big screen.
AA: Were the blades on the original swords permanently mounted in the hilts, or could they be disassembled?
JS: They could be disassembled. The blade had a short tang, to which I welded a threaded rod. The pommels were drilled and threaded to match and then screwed on.
AA: What kind of steel did you use?
JS: Because these were only intended to be used as props, I used 440C stainless. It takes a nice mirror polish, but it is not a steel I would use on a functional sword. Our new versions will be of 5160, which is what I use most often.
AA: What were the original hilt components made from, and did you finish the hilts completely, or did the studio?
JS: Well, the castings were bronze, and yeah, I did the finishing work. I antiqued them and then buffed the highlights, giving them the "worn" look John Milius was looking for. The grip cores were made from brown canvas micarta which I didn't polish, but left rough. The only thing I didn't do was wrap the handles. The wrapping was done by the prop department.
AA: When you started work on the hilt components for the Father's sword, how many versions where prototyped before the studio accepted the final design?
JS: Two versions.
AA: I believe that in another interview it was mentioned that the original carving was a low relief?
JS: Yeah, it was real flat. Like a medallion. They wanted it higher. So I carved the skull hollow, to lessen the weight.
AA: How was that done? Isn't it difficult to cast something that is hollow?
JS: Actually, the waxes were molded in two separate pieces (each side of the guard) and put together. Then the guard was investment cast as a whole in bronze.
AA: Besides these two hallmark swords, did you create any of the other weapons or armor for the film?
AA: Tim Huchtausen carved the hilt components for the Atlantian sword -- was it difficult fitting the blade to a hilt that you did not design yourself?
JS: Not too difficult. I made a pattern for the sword blades first, and Tim worked from the pattern. Tim carved them in clay (Mr. Samson usually works in machinist wax when carving his hilts), and I ground the blades while he (Tim Huchtausen) was doing the castings. Those castings unfortunately weren't as good as this (Mr. Samson reaches for an Albion Crom casting on a table behind him), especially on the inside. This (Crom casting) requires just a little bit of clean-up, the others took quite a bit of fitting. The arms on the Atlantean alone took me several hours each just to clean them up. One reason that our new versions of the swords will actually be better than the original fillm swords is because the bronze foundry we now work with is much better. There will actually be finer detail - detail that was supposed to be on the originals but was lost in the casting process. On film that doesn't make much difference, but in person you can really see it.
AA: Were any of the swords that were kept by the cast and crew members after the film brought back to you for sharpening?
JS: (Mr. Samson smiles) Yeah, John had me sharpen his original Father's sword - then he sent it back to me a few days later to unsharpen it -- it was too dangerous to leave around his house like that. When I sharpen something, it's very sharp.
AA: In Conan the Destroyer, Conan carried an Atlantean that looked different. The grip and the ricasso extensions looked longer, and the lines of the blade did not seem as well defined. Why is that?
JS: I didn't work on Conan the Destroyer, so I am only guessing here. It looks to me as though the swords used in that film are fiberglass copies that do appear to have some modifications made in them.
AA: For the 5 Atlantean swords that you were allowed to recreate a few years ago, for Arnold Schwarzeneggar to display at Planet Hollywood -- were there any differences between those and the film originals?
JS: Well, I ground the blades for Tony Swatton. Tony put on handles that were longer than the ones that I made for the movie. John (Milius) loaned him one of the swords to make the molds from for the hilt components. However, since they were molds made from the poor castings on the originals, they were not very detailed. The runes were also only shallow surface etched from a new pattern, and the lines of the design were much thicker. The lines and runes on the original swords were taken directly from Ron Cobb's drawings and are finer, and etched as deep as 1/32 of an inch. That's what we are doing on the new ones as well.
AA: Are there any kind of nostalgic feelings or memories that you think will come back, as far as you handling the originals and creating the new limited editions?
JS: No, a sword is a sword. (laughs) I'll be a little more nervous this time than I was that time. Back in 1979 when I started making these swords the first time, this was just another job in a string of such jobs, and I didn't think it would have the impact that it has had on my work.
AA: With the recent approval for the production of Conan 3, do you look forward to the opportunity to work with Mr. Milius again?
JS: Always! I hope that I do get that opportunity - and that Ron and Tim are involved as well. It has been great to work with them all on recreating the swords from the first film, and it would be even greater to work with them on creating swords for a new film.
AA: In the 20 years since you created the movie originals, has there been any major equipment changes that have caused you to change the way will make the new Limited Editions?
JS: No, I'm using the same equipment. I bought my BurrKing just before I got the job, and it was one of the newer products on the market at the time. Previously I had used stone grinders, but these are better. The BurrKing is getting rather old, but I think it is fitting that the last thing I should do with it is remake these swords with the same machine. By the way, the first knife that I ever made was done by hand with a file. Cooper (John Nelson Cooper) wanted to see how dedicated I was to doing this. (Jody laughs) I guess I was.
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