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by Edward Waterman

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 went to buy a knife from a knifemaker who lived in Burbank, John Nelson Cooper. He made a lot of knives for Hollywood and was a very famous knife maker. We got to be friends and he showed me how to make knives. The first thing I did was start making swords! And I just started doing it. I was an art major in college, so I worked with everything, in any media I could. Sculpting and drawing. I've been painting since the beginning of my life.

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 steelmaking?
In his first book [The Complete Bladesmith], there was a guard on the cover, I did that. He said they forgot to give me credit for it. But I've known him for years and years. I've been doing it, I think, a little longer. He used to come by my shop, and we would buy steel together.

What do you think of those inexpensive swords made in India or Taiwan?
Well, they are all right to carry around or have at the Renaissance fair. But there's a lot more to swordmaking than making something that looks like a sword. There's balance and flexibility, and other things that you'd want to control. The use of the sword also determines what you do to the blade to have it function in the way it should. Like a rapier would be more flexible. And depending on the guy's style of fighting, you can make the sword so that it would bend toward the tip or in the center. More flexible, less flexible. For thrusting you can make it so it's very strong and it will pierce something even as tough as a steel drum. And you can totally control the weight and balance… everything. Whereas the swords that you buy at the mall are just spit out, and they don't have any real balance. Half the time they don't have any real temper because they're designed as a mass market item.

What do you mean when you refer to balance?
The way it feels in your hand. How well the sword moves. Even though I'm a contemporary sword maker, and I do mostly my own designs. I'm making weapons and not just useless ornaments. I'm making a balanced, usable weapon; and the same sword, if it went back in time, could be picked up and used just like the swords they used at that time.

Do you have a favorite kind of sword?
I don't have any. A sword is for fighting, so I would choose my sword depending on how many people were attacking me, how much space I had to maneuver and swing a weapon, how they were dressed (in armor or not), and if they were armed.

Do you make other weapons or anything other than swords?
Sure. Swords, knives, axes, spears, any of that. Anybody can have anything they want. I'd love to make it. Once, I took a casting of the Father's sword used in Conan the Barbarian and made a belt buckle out of it for one guy. For that, I had to change the design considerably to keep from infringing on copyrights. I added smaller horns, took out the medallion, added longer and sharper teeth, etc., but it looked very nice when I was done. I just like making stuff. If someone comes up with a drawing, I can make it! If you've got a one of a kind sword made for you, which is made by me, you will probably have a collector's item 50 years from now. I'm in books and well known. Not to brag or anything, but it is a fact. A sword that is custom made for you can be a legacy, a gift to your descendants. Sort of like a family heirloom type thing as opposed to something you got at the local mall.

Do you make weapons out of anything other than steel?
Well, I do a lot of stuff for the movies in aluminum. You can't tell what kind of metal they're made of on the screen. Quite a few weapons and swords that you see in the movies are made out of aluminum. I did some swords for Beastmaster III, the one that went directly to video. I made two sword blades out of steel and then 3-4 out of aluminum for the fighting scenes in Beastmaster. Aluminum is a little safer, it's a little lighter, it's less expensive. Aluminum is pretty easy to dent, but you can fix it quickly. You know, you can clean it up easily. And when it's polished you really can't tell the difference. In Beastmaster, I could tell when the hero was using the aluminum sword or the steel one, but most people can't tell.

What do they use to make the sparks fly in the movies, when two swords hit each other?
Special effects. Metal doesn't spark against metal. It's just like the ringing sounds you hear in the movies when the swords clash. I've rented sword-blanks out, because when you hit them they'll make a nice ring. And then they just put that into the movie. A sword-blank is what you call the blade before you work on it. And aluminum rings also. It rings very well. It's plenty strong too. The swords I did for Universal Studios, for the Conan stage show, were aluminum. Aluminum swords don't last very long. Exactly how long they last depends on the grade of aluminum that the swords are made out of. Universal Studios ended up using low grade cast stuff, and the swords were lasting about… oh… a show. The swords I made were aircraft aluminum and they were lasting 7 days on the average. I made those for just the first 2-3 months, and then Universal switched over to the cast aluminum swords because they were a lot less expensive. As long as it looked like a sword they were happy because it was just a show and the sword didn't need to be a real weapon.

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?
Well generally speaking, all we did was link from the handle in front of the guard. They designed the handle to go in front of the guard so you could reach forward, but in real life, if it was a real sword meant for fighting, it would just have a long handle.

Who holds the copyrights to the Conan swords?
I hold statutory rights for the three-dimensional sculpting, but I think Universal holds the copyrights to the swords. Ron Cobb probably holds some design copyrights. I'm really not sure though. It is possible that in about five years the copyrights will not be renewed, and I'll be able to make the Conan swords for people. But unfortunately, there's no way I can do that at this time.

Do the hieroglyphs carved on the swords mean anything?
The Father's sword's hieroglyphs read, "Suffer no guilt ye who wields this in the name of Crom". The Atlantean sword's markings are meaningless. The script they used to write it is not real, they made it up.

Did you make Valeria's sword too?
No. Valeria's sword was cast in aluminum. They brought it to me and I reground it to clean it up, and I polished it to make it look like steel.

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?
Well, you can, but you wouldn't heat it up red hot and throw it in the snow because it would shatter. And usually when you quench something, that's what cooling it is called, the oil temperature is about 120 degrees, and you'd want to quench it slowly. And you wouldn't be engraving the little words, letters, in the blade. And he cast it, you wouldn't do that. Ancient sword makers just got something that looked like metal and poured it into the mold. You can't believe anything you see on the screen. What I do is just buy the steel, it's flat stock, and I cut out the profile and then grind it. The spring steel we have today is homogenous and it's almost exactly what they had in their best steels during ancient times. It's similar in what we have in leaf springs in cars, underneath the wheel. Leaf springs flex like a bizillion times a day and they never break, which is ideal for a sword. It's more important than holding an edge. Everybody says, "Oh it's got to be sharp!", and I say no! You can defend yourself with a dull sword very well thank you. If it breaks you're in trouble.

It always seems like the top experts in any field all know each other. Is that true for swordmaking as well?
Yes. In fact, I recently went to Warner Brothers just to work with Terry English. He's they guy who did the armor for Mr. Freeze in the new Batman movie, and I helped a little with that. He also did the sword for Excalibur (Editors note: Jim Hrisoulas forged the blade for Excalibur, Terry English made the hilt).

Do you like Star Trek?
I don't watch a lot of TV but when I do it's either a Star Trek thing, or X-files, or Babylon 5. I've had some swords in Babylon 5, for the King Arthur episode with Michael York. I did the sword blade, and Tony Swatton did the handle. He was also the guy in the suit of armor who kills Michael York in the episode.

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.

For more information about Robert E. Howard, Conan, and the swords from the film, we encourage you to visit:
The Robert E. Howard United Press Association
and The Barbarian Keep

The Jody Samson Lion Mark