Forging His Way: Q&A with Hollywood Blacksmith Tony Swatton

The self-taught metal worker is the star of the YouTube series 'Man at Arms'

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Nothing says movie magic like the not-actually-magic work of blacksmith Tony Swatton, star of the YouTube series Man at Arms. In the show, which has its finale on Mar. 18, Swatton recreates some of the most well-known weapons from pop culture and real life. He’s remade Jaime Lannister’s sword from Game of Thrones, Odd Job’s hat, the sword from the cartoon Adventure Time, Raphael’s sais from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman‘s Batarangs and, in the finale, He-Man’s sword. The series has nearly 2 million views at this point, and Swatton is about to start on the next round of episodes, based on fan suggestions from YouTube comments. Swatton spoke to TIME about how he ended up where he is — and why he does things the old-fashioned way.

TIME: So how does a person become a Hollywood blacksmith?

Swatton: I kind of fell into it. I started at the age of 7, cutting gems. I was a young “rock hound,” a “pebble pup.” I eventually got to the point where I was cutting stones at a rock shop, cutting turquoise and malachite, and learning how to do silversmithing. By 15, I met the guy who made the Conan swords. I wanted to make a knife, so I started pestering him [about his work]. At 17, I went to a renaissance fair and saw a guy making armor and didn’t want to wait his year or two lead time, so I went home and copied all his tools—he had a section of railroad track as an anvil and modified hammers and chisels—and made my own helmet. It just went from there. Around 26 years old, I opened up a retail shop in North Hollywood. Some of my first clients were Euro Disney and Michael Jackson, and in 1991, I did work for the movie Hook.

What did you make for Hook?

I made the hook. And a lot of the swords. That was my foot in the door for film work.

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By the time you met the guy who made the Conan the Barbarian sword, did you know that you were interested in films?

We actually traded gemstones for knives. Initially he—Jody Samson—was asking about $600 for one of his custom knives. As a high-school student, I made money like that but didn’t want to spend money like that. So I went home and I modified my lapidary equipment to grind a knife out of an old file and brought it back to Jody and had him critique it. He showed me that the file was brittle and it would shatter, that it wasn’t the right metal or the right process on it, and gave me some tips. We traded for years, and between ’94 and ’98, he was actually working out of my shop here in Burbank.

When you make something like a sword for a movie, does it have to have a blunt edge?

About 90 percent of what I do for film is made out of high-tensile aircraft aluminum, with a 1/8-inch dull cutting edge. They’re very light and flexible. They make actors look good. What I’ve been doing for Man at Arms is making properly heat-treated, razor-sharp performance weapons, completely different from the normal props I mostly build.

How did you get started with the series?

The director of the show contacted me and said they were looking for a blacksmith to make a dozen weapons that he listed. I said, “I’m your guy.” He was, like, “You sound pretty confident.” I replied, “Of those dozen properties you’ve mentioned, I’ve worked on eight to ten of them. In 25 years as a retail shop, these are my clients. This is what I do.”

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I noticed in the Ninja Turtles episode you talked about how producers on a project will sometimes assume you use a computer to make your work. Is it unusual that you do everything the old-fashioned way?

Yeah, I’m an old-school blacksmith, heating the metal and hand-forging it to shape. But I do use a lot of modern equipment. The forging hammer that I mention in some of the episodes is a huge labor saver. I’ve got a project right now where I need to make 60 swords in the next two weeks for a sequel to a big movie. At the same time, there’s a television pilot that also needs another 30 swords and a bunch of shields. I’m able to produce the full suit of armor in 96 hours that would take most people years. [There was] a summer when I was working on Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean and produced over 12,000 swords that year, most of which were aluminum stunt weapons, but some of which were real steel weapons. None of it was done by computer files. It was all hand cut, hand ground, hand beveled.

What has the reaction to the show been like?

I’m just blown away by the numbers. I expected some interest in it but not what’s happening here.

What do you think is behind that interest?

It’s the product that we’re choosing to build. They’re part of out pop culture.

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Why did you decide to do He-Man for the last episode of the season?

That was the sequence of how they put it together. I like He-man. And I do She-Ra’s sword for walk-around characters for Mattel at Comic-Con, but they hadn’t approached me for He-Man yet. They probably will this year.

Do you have a favorite thing you’ve made?

Everyone asks that. I really enjoy each project I work on. And each thing I accomplish and I’m done with, is my favorite project. The thing I’m working on at that time is the thing I’m most into. And then I’m onto the next thing.

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