For John Gruber, mastering the arcane craft of was a long, complex process, kind of like the medieval era itself. But the inspiration hit hard and fast. He sums up his eureka moment with characteristic jovial bluntness: “I saw a guy get his nose broke with a stick!”
The stick in question was a lance, and the guy was a modern-day knight. Gruber — today the owner of The Surly Anvil at Smith Mill Works in West Asheville — had stumbled upon full-contact jousting while attending his first Renaissance fair. Although not much of a history buff, he’d grown up with dreams of hand-to-hand combat spurred by Star Wars and backyard lightsaber duels with painted Wiffle Ball bats. Hooked by the authentic action of jousting, he became a squire at the fair and soon picked up a lance to take the field himself.
But Gruber’s first armor, borrowed from another knight, wasn’t properly shaped for his body: he remembers looking “like a stuffed sausage” in his plate mail. After repeated impacts to the shoulder, he built up scar tissue that eventually snapped, requiring a three-inch screw to pull the joint back together. “The injuries weren’t enough to keep me from doing it again. I just knew I needed a good-fitting suit,” he recalls.
Gruber decided to make it himself. He spent the winter after the injury reverse-engineering his loaner armor, studying the workmanship to inform his own efforts. “The material itself taught me everything,” he says. “By looking inside the suit, I could even see what hammers were used based on the shape of the dimples.”
Now, the self-taught smith crafts custom armor for enthusiasts from across the country. While Gruber makes a few concessions to modernity — the 4130-chromoly steel he uses is the same material found in aircraft tubing, while a gas torch replaces the traditional forge — his designs come from the ornate Gothic style, which originated in 15th-century Germany.
Drawing on a chalkboard in the converted garage of The Surly Anvil, Gruber illustrates how a knee’s curve and a breastplate’s swooping designs both arise from the same simple geometric arch. “It’s just like the steeples of a German church. They’ve got the same lines,” he says.
Gruber currently has a six-month waiting list for new orders, but he hopes to train apprentices for extra help in the shop. He says those interested in the craft shouldn’t be put off by the apparent difficulty of the medium. “Once you introduce heat, all metal be-comes clay,” explains the smith. “A knee is a bowl — there’s no black magic to this stuff.”
The Surly Anvil, 80 Cowan Cove Rd., Asheville. For details, call 828-747-0781 or visit surlyanvil.com.