Most people think of steel as rigid, impenetrable, unyielding.
That’s why it is used in skyscrapers, motor vehicles, bridges and ships. Centuries ago, armor crafted from sheets of the iron-carbon alloy protected knights and soldiers from enemy sword blows.
Ryan Evans, on the other hand, thinks of steel as fluid. Under his hammer, sheets of steel flow into shapes he polishes and rivets together into helmets, breastplates, greaves and other accoutrements of the medieval fighting man.
Evans, 35, has been making armor for several years, first as a hobby and now as a home-based business catering to reenactors.
Working with 16-gauge steel, he crafts historically correct armor representative of pieces used in 15th century Europe.
From his earliest boyhood in Lawrence County, Ohio, Evans has been drawn to knights in armor, and as a young adult spent his spare time with fellow enthusiasts in a nearby chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization devoted to recreating and reenacting pre-17th century European culture.
He also is a born craftsman, the son and grandson of accomplished woodworkers. But metal is his medium, and he talks about it almost affectionately: “I love metal, the way it moves, the shapes it can take, its durability.”
A 15th century craftsman would have apprenticed under a master armorer to learn his craft, but in the 21st century, Evans had to teach himself. That meant poring over every book he could find, talking to other makers and searching the web for information.
The first thing he will tell anyone who will listen is that authentic armor is not the heavy, clumsy, clunky suit of popular perception.
“What you see in TV and the movies is a myth. If you fall down in armor, you can get up. It doesn’t take a crane to get on a horse. An entire suit would weigh 55 to 65 pounds ... The armor is so beautiful and fluid, a full set covers completely and moves beautifully. It’s very articulated,” he said.
Evans’ basement workshop in Bellefonte has racks of specialized hammers he uses to transform flat sheets into subtly curved pieces that follow body contours.
Some of them are similar to tools used in silversmithing and others are more conventional tools he has ground and refashioned for metalworking purposes.
Most of them have striking faces Evans keeps as highly polished as his finished armor, because any blemish on the hammer is transmitted instantly to the metal.
There’s a raising hammer, which coaxes convex shapes from flat sheets, a flat-faced planishing hammer used to smooth and refine forms, and a polishing hammer with flat and convex faces that has multiple functions, from removing dents to making rolled edges.
Such tools are expensive so, when he can, Evans finds conventional substitutes, like a mason’s brick hammer on which he ground the edge for use in shaping grooves.
Other tools include a mushroom-shaped anvil over which he drapes a piece of steel for hammering into a helmet and a concave form for shaping the helmets from the inside.
It can get pretty noisy; when Evans plies his planishing hammer to a vambrace — a forearm protector — the sound is a sharp “plink.” But the plinks come about four times per second and echo off the concrete walls.
Later, pounding the correct curve into a helmet section with a mallet, each stroke reverberates like a gunshot. Evans wears ear protectors and, when necessary, a heavy glove, to protect against the noise and vibrations.
Shaping the metal is a process Evans thinks of as “functional art.”
“An armor maker is part artist, part engineer. A good piece of armor not only looks good, it does what it is supposed to do. It protects the wearer but it doesn’t hinder movement.”
The pieces originate in patterns he drafts himself; custom-made armor requires measuring and fitting, almost like a tailor working with metal instead of cloth.
In the early stages of construction, he fastens parts together with modern nuts and bolts, then replaces them with historically correct rivets to complete the pieces.
After hammering the pieces to shape, he uses a grinder and polisher to shine them to an almost mirror-smooth finish.
Evans works at a local carryout to make ends meet but hopes to continue developing his armor business.
He also makes other art and craft items from steel; area shoppers may have seen his wares at last year’s Poage Landing Days.
Contact information is on his website, foxandflame.com. It takes a good four to six months to complete a full suit of armor, and it isn’t cheap — a helmet can cost $250 and up, depending on the level of detailing and extras. A breastplate and backplate would cost at least $500.
That would be a small price to pay, however, for protection against an enemy knight’s lance.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.