500 hammers, years of experience, and an amazing workshop: the man behind your favorite swords
Tony Swatton is founder of Sword and the Stone, a company that creates swords, armor, and props for Hollywood. He also owns 500 hammers. “But I can quit whenever I want,” he told me when we spoke. If you’ve ever seen a sword or a blade in a movie, there is a very good chance he created it.
He’s now working on a series of YouTube videos called “Man at Arms,” where he creates reproductions of famous weapons from pop culture, including weapons from Game of Thrones, Adventure Time, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “I started at the age of 7, cutting gemstones, getting into silversmithing by the time I was 13, when I was 15 I started making knives, at 17 I saw a guy making armor and copied his tools and made some armor, by 24 I had a retail shop supplying the movie industry with swords, jewelry, armor, costumes, that sort of thing,” he told me.
It may be easy to list off that timeline, but it represents decades of work, training, experimentation, tool collecting, and practice. It’s not just a matter of being asked to make many different kinds of swords and blades, it’s a question of being able to do it quickly.
A tool fetish
“Most of what I make are props,” he explained. “They’re made out of aluminum, and they look fine, it doesn’t have the functionality of the pieces I make at Man at Arms. At Man at Arms we’re doing heat-treated, tempered, sharpened, real pieces and then do performance testing on it.”
He described his workshop as an expression of his tool fetish. “You can do a lot of the stuff I do with a ballpeen hammer, a wooden stump and a section of railroad track for an anvil, and a barbecue for a heat source. You’re not going to be able to work it as fast or efficiently as what I can do with the tools,” he explained. “Some of the machines I have are $50,000 to $100,000 machines. It’s a long term investment for me.”And again, that equipment allows him to work with both great precision and speed. “If I’m making aluminum swords I can make 35 swords a day. If I’m working on something like Pirates of the Caribbean, where we’re doing around 200 swords, it was two weeks of actual production time.” Suits of armor, on the other hand, take hundreds of hours.
He once created a suit of armor for a five year-old child for a commercial in 96 hours. “That’s using all the power equipment and tools I have here, and a competent crew,” he said. “At the end of that 96 hours I couldn’t move my right arm and I lost peripheral vision in my left eye. I was kind of exhausted.”
That suit of armor was done in aluminum, which looks good for the camera but won’t hold up to any kind of actual combat. “I do steel armor for people who do full-contact jousting as well as re-enactment groups, live-action role-players, or the SCA. I don’t do that much of that anymore. Most of my suits of armor start at around $20,000 or more, so that makes it prohibitive for most individuals who are going to be fighting with it,” he said.
Doing something new
Sometimes art directors come to him with a very vague idea of what they’re looking for, and Swatton goes into his library of 3,000 reference books on arms and armor to design something new. Other times they know exactly what they want. Sometimes it’s just a design doodled on a napkin.
The fun comes from working on an item that is new and interesting. One of his earliest projects was creating Captain Hook’s prosthetic hook from the Steven Spielberg film. That was created with sterling silver and forged steel. “I did the Excalibur sword for Spamalot for Tim Curry, when he was in New York, and I had a chance to go out and see the show and meet him on-stage after the show.” At the time he was also working on Zorro 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and was largely recreating work he had already done for the previous films. Curry’s sword was something new, making it a much more interesting project.
His history of starting with gemstones, moving into silver, and then working on other forms of metals gave him a strong background to tackle a wide variety of items. “All of those techniques in non-ferrous precious metals carry through to working in armor,” he explained. “And then when I got into heating the stuff for blacksmithing, it carried through. The progress of how I started out, and doing many different things helped a lot.” This is how you get repeat business in Hollywood: You get a reputation for being able to work quickly, in high quality, and make it look good.
In fact, it’s a little bit too slick. I brought up the way the YouTube videos are edited, and the fact that it looks almost too like a cooking show where all the prep work is done off-camera. He said that each piece for Man at Arms takes between 20 to 30 hours to create, but the show only lasts a few minutes. There’s only so much you can show in that time period. Nothing is pre-made.
“I’m really happy with how they edit it. I actually have final say after Jamie Lannister’s sword,” he told the Report. If you watch that video, he discusses the “blood groove,” a sort of long notch in the sword that was supposed to allow blood to flow from a wound so that there wouldn’t be a vacuum effect that would keep the blade from being withdrawn from the victim’s body. In the video he describes what the blood groove is, but the portion of the discussion where he characterizes it as a “myth” was removed in editing. The Internet went crazy, and now Swatton makes sure no such errors are made. “That had the Internet trolls going off,” he said.
Even though most of these techniques are based on classical methods, the equipment allows him to work more efficiently than using purely “authentic” methods. “The forging hammer I use is a self-contained pneumatic forging hammer that I bought about five years ago. That is a 60 kilo ram weight, so that’s 134 pounds,” he said. “I can swing up to a 3 kilo hammer, so it’s 20 times stronger than what I swing. It’s 40 times stronger than what most normal people would swing. If I had a team of strikers, people with sledgehammers, it wouldn’t be as efficient.” Not only is it more efficient, it’s more controllable; every strike is delivered with the same amount of force.
So for someone who has all this material, and a dream workshop, what does one do during a day off? “I’d actually go out to the local desert or mountains and collect agates and tourmaline, go hiking and mine my own rock and cut it up. You get some exercise, you’re exploring, and you’re prospecting, finding something. Then I’d take it back and make things. In the process of gearing up for the next Man at Arms cycle I’m making a dozen full-scale eggs out of lapis and fluorite, just for an Easter Egg hunt I’m having with my family. I make time to do what I like.”