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Career Forged in Steel : In an Age of Automatics, Master Swordsmith Carves Place in Time

<i> Steinberg is a Los Angeles free-lancer writer. </i>

The thick, sweet scent of burning coal hangs in the air as Jim Hrisoulas thrusts a three-pound steel bar into his metal forge and begins the painstaking process that will transform it into a long, gleaming blade worth thousands of dollars.

Hrisoulas is a throwback to another time and place, a master swordsmith in an age of deadly automatic weapons. He is among a handful of people nationwide still practicing this centuries-old craft, producing swords, spears and shields for a select but steady clientele.

From his one-man workshop in Sylmar, called the Salamander Armory, Hrisoulas, 32, has carved out an international reputation that brings him business from as far away as Europe and Australia.

He sells an average of five swords a month, priced from $300 for a standard 26-inch blade with a pistachio wood grip, to $2,500 and up for a Damascus sword, named for the Syrian city in which the intricate patterns on the steel originated.

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“It’s pretty,” Hrisoulas says of a Damascus-style knife, “and it cuts like crazy.”

Began as Hobby

Although it began as a teen-age hobby, sword making is now his full-time job. Hrisoulas estimates that he netted about $20,000 last year.

Swords represent 40% of all sales at the Salamander Armory. Custom knives and other cutlery make up the rest.

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About 75% of the buyers are women. “Maybe they’re gifts for their boyfriends or husbands,” Hrisoulas said. “Maybe it’s the warrior maiden trip. I don’t know.”

Orders for swords and lances generally come from movie studios and collectors who like to have the real thing instead of something they pick up in a cutlery shop for a fraction of the cost, Hrisoulas added.

Some customers are avid hunters, including one man from Central California who buys spears, priced at $450 for a 22-inch point, to kill wild boars.

Other clients belong to historical re-enactment groups. They meet at parks on the weekends, don costumes from the Middle Ages and want authentic weapons for their choreographed combat sessions.

‘Childhood Memories’

“I guess it goes back to childhood memories of reading ‘Ivanhoe’ or maybe even ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” Hrisoulas said.

Michael Orosco, a 21-year-old engineering student at East Los Angeles College, met Hrisoulas through the Society for Creative Anachronism, a re-enactment group based in Milpitas, with “kingdoms” nationwide.

“Authentic, pleasing to look at and very functional” is how Orosco describes the armory’s merchandise.

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Orosco has bought a utility knife and three daggers from Hrisoulas and plans to invest in a sword next--for knightings and other special occasions.

Michael Muller of Costa Mesa, another society member, recently bought a $275 Damascus steel dagger from Hrisoulas that he says is “just gorgeous.”

It’s a gift for a female friend, a woman whose honor he fights for on the field when he leaves his job at Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa. He dons his steel-plate armor and helmet and spins back in time.

“A dagger is not only a piece of jewelry,” he said, “but a piece of utility equipment.”

The newest addition to Muller’s medieval collection is a 32-inch sword that Hrisoulas and his wife, Trudi, gave him as a gift. It is worth about $400. “It is the best,” Muller said, the Rolls-Royce of swords, a status symbol for anyone in the society.

“It’s not just a sword,” Muller said. “To have one of his on your belt is really quite something.”

Encyclopedia Reading

Hrisoulas’ interest in sword making dates to 1969, when he was a 13-year-old with a penchant for reading encyclopedias. He was in the M’s, reading about Malaysia and the way the people of that Southeast Asian country laminated sword blades, when he decided to try his hand at the craft.

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“I just started one day,” he said. “You stumble around a lot, but 15 or 20 years ago nothing was out there. Just a bunch of books on being a blacksmith.”

Each blade takes three days to make. Hrisoulas begins with a steel rod that is thrust in a metal forge filled with burning coal. When the steel glows red, in about three to five minutes, it is malleable enough to shape--a job that Hrisoulas performs with a sledgehammer and a swage, a tool that forms the blood groove that runs down the center of some swords.

Next comes the bath to harden the steel. For this, Hrisoulas uses water or oil, depending on the composition of the steel, or for ceremonial swords and knives, discriminating clients can choose from saltwater, wine or lamb’s blood, which Hrisoulas purchases from a Kosher butcher in West Hollywood.

Once hardened, the blade is sharpened and polished, and a grip, fashioned from wood, bronze wire or ivory, is attached.

Hrisoulas displays his wares at about 14 trade shows a year, including custom knife shows and science fiction fantasy conventions.

Swords on the Walls

At his home in Sylmar, at least 20 antique swords and other paraphernalia are affixed to the living room walls.

There is the 8-foot, 17th-Century Persian lance that Hrisoulas found at a garage sale, a spear from Central Africa and an iron shield with gold overlay that dates to the 15th Century.

When Hrisoulas strides across the room to admire his collection, the floor beneath him rumbles slightly. At 6 feet and 300 pounds, with a dark beard and ponytail, he seems to dwarf everyone.

“At trade shows, when I stand up, I can really be intimidating,” he said softly in a voice that sounds as if it belongs to a man half his size.

“I don’t really know why. . . . What’s the difference between making swords for a living and being a machinist with your own company?

“I’m really a big teddy bear,” he said. “But nobody bothers me, so I guess that’s good.”

His wife couldn’t agree more. Trudi Hrisoulas, who met her husband when she joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, said: “His persona in the society is of this really dark, gloomy person who would sooner bite your head off than talk to you, but he is none of those things. He has a wonderful sense of humor. The man is a ham and he’s good at it.”


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