Ringing in new year at Va. armor shop

Pastime: "This isn't a quiet hobby," self-taught medievalist declares.

January 12, 2001|By Diane Tenant | Diane Tenant,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - Sir Sean DaShiells, Baron of Hollandshire, Master Armorer, Royal Armorer to the Court of Ryland, Earl Marshal to the Fighters, cut his knuckle.

"Ouch."

His journeyman apprentice offered succor.

"Do you need a Band-Aid?"

Sir Sean, Knight of the Golden Spur and Knight of the Silver Garter, graciously declined.

"Nah."

He faced the partially cut sheet metal on the table and again girded for battle. Have at you.

He fired up the power shears, bore in and made an incredible noise.

The entire metal shed seemed to do rapid-fire jumping jacks. Individual teeth quivered in the bow saw on the far wall. The drill next to it rattled frantically. An oval of metal dropped free of the sheet. Sir Sean turned the shears off.

"This isn't," he said with a keen sense of the obvious, "a quiet hobby."

It is, however, a unique little pastime.

Hardly anyone nowadays makes full suits of armor in the shed out back. Sir Sean, known to the mailman as Roy McDaniel, has been doing so for 17 years. He works in a building well clear of his Deep Creek, Va., house, which is where the Band-Aids were.

He considered the half-inch cut welling deep-red between the first and second knuckles. He flicked his hand. Blood splattered.

"Be back in a minute."

Apprentice Littrell Myers sat down before the grinder with the fresh-cut oval. Sparks fired across her leather apron, and the screech of protesting steel drowned her voice. Known to medievalists as Dame Lorain, and to her friends as Trell, she has been studying at Dragon's Armory for 2 1/2 years. Soon, she will begin the test of skill that will culminate her studies: a full suit of armor, custom-fit, hand-made, in her size.

"Mac taught me," she said into the silence when the grinder stopped. "He learned the hard way. He taught himself."

Learning the trade

There were no armorers 50 years ago to teach a boy growing up in Newport News, Va., and later in Norfolk County. There weren't even instruction manuals. But there were books about knights in shining armor, and he devoured them even as he learned to be a mechanic, fixing everything from 10-ton diesel loaders to string trimmers.

He joined a Civil War re-enactment group to satisfy his historical bent and, in 1982, he found a medieval association. The first thing he wanted was plate armor, but nobody knew how to make it. He figured it couldn't be that hard.

He checked books out of the library and examined the pictures with magnifiers. He taught himself to hammer and file a flat piece of metal into a body-snugging curve. Then, one day, someone asked could he fix a damaged suit of armor. He wasn't sure. How much would it cost? He wasn't sure of that, either. But he took it apart, and he fixed it, and while it was apart he drew patterns of each piece.

He went on to create his own patterns: Maximillian, German Gothic, Italian and more.

Mac returned and tossed a piece of scrap into the garbage can. It hit with the solid thunk of a honeydew on a driveway.

"How many years you been doing this now?" Trell asked. "Seventeen? Eighteen?"

"Oh, since '83."

Mac does not disdain power tools in the creation of armor, although he has his limits. He won't stamp the pattern onto the metal, for example, and he won't use dies or presses.

Each piece is traced by hand, then sheared. Mac took a long file and rasped the oval's edge, checking for smoothness with the side of his thumb. It seemed a risky maneuver, considering the oval had already drawn first blood.

You know, Mac said, around the 13th century, they had water-powered drills. "People say they didn't have power drills in medieval times, and I say, `I beg your pardon, but they did.'"

He ran his thumb across the metal one more time. "One thing about armoring - you got to have a feel for the metal," Mac said. "I can't really explain it. When you know a piece of metal is right and ready to use."

The oval was ready. Destined for battle armor, it was made of 16-gauge black iron. For dress armor, Mac uses shinier, thinner 18-gauge cold roll. It takes a good bit of metal. A single knee, for example, has five different pieces, shaped to slide smoothly into and over each other as the leg bends.

Mac curves them with a dishing plate, which resembles a dog bowl. He crushes them into the dishing plate under the brute force of a massive metal ball on a pole. Mac's dishing ball was a knuckle joint from a 50-ton press in a previous life.

Smarter than metal

"When you dish it, you're making metal do what it doesn't want to do, which is bend two ways at the same time," he said. "You got to be smarter than the piece of metal."

The oval having won the first round, he wasn't ready for dishing quite yet. He moved the ball out of his way - THUD - and the whole floor shook. He hooked a short piece of railroad track onto the anvil. The lower flanges of the track had been cut off for half its length. Mac laid the metal on top and began hammering away at it.

The anvil jumped, the ceiling jumped, the railroad track jumped, the whole floor jumped.

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