JODY SAMSON -- MASTER SWORD
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:
How 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.
Have you heard of Dr. Jim Hrisoulas;
he's one of the world's foremost experts on ancient swordmaking and
What do you think of those inexpensive
swords made in India or Taiwan?
What do you mean when you refer
Do you have a favorite kind of
Do you make other weapons or anything
other than swords?
Do you make weapons out of anything
other than steel?
What 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.
Why does the guard on the Atlantean
sword extend up along the blade? Isn't that unusual?
Who holds the copyrights to the
Do the hieroglyphs carved on the
swords mean anything?
Did you make Valeria's sword too?
In 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?
It always seems like the top experts
in any field all know each other. Is that true for swordmaking as well?
Do 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.