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Eagle River armorers hammer out a business.

Eagle River Armorers Hammer Out A Business

Steve Belden remembers precisely when he became hooked on things medieval. "I saw Camelot when I was seven years old and always wanted to be a knight," says Belden, now 28 and a courier for the University of Alaska Anchorage. Resigned to life in this century, Belden has done what he can to fulfill his dream. Ten years after meeting King Arthur and his court, Belden joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval and Renaissance recreation group interested in bringing to life, as Belden describes it, the more pleasant aspects of the Middle Ages.

Recently, the former theater major and paratrooper took his knightly fantasy a step further by forming Three Scots Associated Armorers in Eagle River. Belden and partner Chris Cushman are the first to admit that the business of making armor is a bit out of the ordinary. They're also the first to admit that their business arrangement is rather loose - they don't keep regular hours, they're not overly concerned with evenly dividing profits, and they could probably manage their time a bit more efficiently.

But they're also quick to add that, surprising as it may seem, there's a market for what they do and the potential to expand. And they're having fun.

"It's surprising the people who buy this," says Belden, who devotes evenings and weekends to this hobby turned small business. "There are an amazing number of people out there who had the same dream I had when I was seven and saw Camelot."

Belden saw a helmet advertised on the cover of an upscale-market gift catalog geared for people who already have everything. The helmet, which normally might bring $300, was going for $1,500. That convinced Belden that there was a market for hammered steel.

Because he also was disappointed about the poor quality of armor ordered from Outside, Belden decided to try his hand at armoring. He started with a leather brigandine, or top coat, then took a ball-peen hammer, saber saw and sandbag and hammered out a metal elbow piece. He was surprised how well both turned out.

"You just experiment," says Belden. "We found we could do this with a minimum of mistakes."

For Cushman, building armor was a natural marriage of his two loves, history and art. After graduating with degrees in both, Cushman started a janitorial and machine maintenance business in Anchorage. He also dabbled in art, mostly watercolors, pencil, and pen and ink.

Eventually Cushman sold his business, spent a few years working in food service and became a self-taught free-lance photographer. His interest in history - particularly the mid 1400s to 1600 - stayed keen. Like Belden, he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and, when a friend's birthday approached about two years ago, decided to try his hand at building a metal helm.

Two months later, his second attempt was finished. "People saw it, liked it and started inquiring about having other stuff done," he says of his accidental entry into the unusual business of armoring.

Since then, Cushman estimates he and Belden have made about 200 pieces of armor using metal and leather, most of which have been quietly sold to society members or collectors. Sometimes they work on pieces together, conferring on designs and techniques. Other times they work individually.

The third Scot is a fictitious partner. Cushman explains that he and Belden thought Three Scots had a better ring to it than Two Scots.

Everything Cushman and Belden know about building armor they've taught themselves. They study pictures and photographs and strive to make pieces as historically accurate as possible. All components - excluding rivets - are handmade. In keeping with tradition, pieces are hammered cold. Welding is kept to a minimum.

Helmets, which can run from a primitive barrel helmet for $125 to a more detailed close helmet for $450, are among the most often ordered items. Articulated arms and legs that protect the entire limb are frequently asked for, as are shoulder pieces. Chainmail clothing made of thousands of interlocking metal rings - rings they make themselves out of bulk wire - also is popular.

Cushman recently finished a $300 chainmail shirt for a band member visiting Anchorage. The shirt, which had a leather front piece and was incredibly tedious to make, was such a hit that a second band member also ordered one. Although he averaged eight hours a day for two weeks on the initial shirt and figures he could have sold it for $500, Cushman was willing to sell it for less because of the advertising value he hopes to realize when it's worn on stages in the Lower 48.

Cushman hopes to build a reputation for doing quality work, develop markets in Alaska and Outside and start an export business. He knows of only a handful of armorers in the Lower 48 and considers the work of many of them to be inferior to his and Belden's. Anchorage collector Randy Berry, who has ordered pieces from Three Scots, agrees.

"The quality of what Chris and Steve is making is very high," says Berry. He explains that armor ordered from Outside often is made of thin metal, is uncomfortable to wear and can be dangerous. He can get sturdier, custom-built pieces from the Three Scots for the same price. The partners also have been able to rework pieces Berry bought Outside to make them more comfortable and functional.

"They're very careful," he says. "If something doesn't work, they'll redo and redo it." Berry estimates eventually he'll spend about $2,000 for a full suit of armor made by Belden and Cushman. "Armor needs to be made for the individual' it's not an off-the-rack item," he adds.

So far, income generated from the sale of the Alaskan armorers' work has gone into materials and tools, including hammers, hickory mallets, files, pliers, grinders and sanders. Wire for chainmail is purchased locally in large spools. Scrap steel is used for plate armor and is painstakingly hammered into place in a friend's Eagle River garage.

Belden and Cushman, who went public with their business at last year's Anchorage Renaissance Fair, hope to start earning a profit in subsequent years. They also hope to move to a larger work space and to travel Outside where they can do direct marketing at Renaissance fairs and Society for Creative Anachronism gatherings. They're working on developing contacts with businesses in the Lower 48 who deal in armor, weapons and replicas.

Closer to home, Belden and Cushman also are talking with the Anchorage Museum of History and Art about the possibility of creating costumes for a year-long children's exhibit opening in June. Further, Cushman has visited Anchorage-area grade schools to lecture students on the use of medieval armor. That visibility has spurred demand for the company's toy armor, particularly children's shields.

Cushman and Belden are used to the puzzled looks when they tell people they build armor. It comes with the territory, they say.

"It runs the gamut from blank stares to extreme curiosity," says Cushman. Adds Belden without hesitation or apology, "It's a very bizarre business."

PHOTO : Steve Belden and Chris Cushman combat in armor they've hand-tooled from leather and metal.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Eagle River, Alaska; Three Scots Associated Armorers
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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