One man fulfills fantasy fashioning suits of armor Craftsman's credits include plays, fairs


When Stacy Keach clanked on stage in the sinister title role in "Richard III" in the Shakespeare Theater production at the Folger in 1990, he wore "Armor by Stagmer."

When Adam West, television's Batman, brandishes a huge sword with a bronze hilt and flaming blade in the sequel to the 1987 locally produced thriller "Maxim Xul," it is "Cutlery by Stagmer."

For Kerry Stagmer, 27, who might be called "Kerry the Red" for his carrot-colored, shoulder-length locks and droopy mustache, it romantic fantasy come true: He is an armorer in the medieval tradition.

Growing up in Catonsville, he read King Arthur and other legends, J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasies and Shakespeare's bloody tragedies.

Later, as he wielded epee and foil for the Oral Roberts University fencing team, Mr. Stagmer had a secret image of himself; most fencers have.

In his imagination, he wasn't lunging and riposting for points in the tightly controlled atmosphere of competitive fencing -- he was dueling in the swashbuckling Errol Flynn tradition, flourishing his rapier in defense of a fair maiden's honor.

In another scenario, he was on the tournament field in chain mail or armor, battering another knight with sword and dagger under the gaze of King Henry VIII and his court.

After college, reality intervened, and Mr. Stagmer went to work as a technician in recording studios. But those images of history and fantasy kept intruding.

Mr. Stagmer joined in the Renaissance Festival, Maryland's annual summer fantasy, selling items from armories in Europe (particularly Italy and Spain) that reproduce armor and weapons from many periods of history.

After studying the items, Mr. Stagmer wanted to learn how to make them. He devoured reference books, haunted museums and talked with knife makers. He sketched and measured and planned techniques, then took his first steps to produce what in eight years has grown into a full line of authentic replicas of swords, daggers, shields, chain mail and plate armor.

"It has been a very long learning process, full of trial and error. More trial and error is done on the metal than on paper in the planning. We're still learning by doing," he said.

The flaming sword for the movie was his most complicated project, Mr. Stagmer said. Two pieces of steel were laminated together with a copper tube between them for the blade. Tiny holes were drilled into the edges of the blade.

A tube under the actor's costume led from a propane tank to an attachment in the sword's hilt. Mr. Stagmer ignited the gas as the scene began but kept the flow so slight that flames were invisible. As the action intensified, he turned up the gas and produced the eerie effect of a flaming blade.

"I controlled it from behind the scenes. It had a blow-back device on it for safety and everything," said Mr. Stagmer. Since then, he said, a customer has ordered a special copy of the flaming sword with a blade of Space Age titanium.

After his eight years in the business, Mr. Stagmer said, "I can make pretty nearly anything anyone wants once I see what it is."

His pieces are for decoration, re-enactment, and for stage and movie costuming, like those for Mr. Keach and Mr. West and for stagings of Shaw's "Saint Joan" at the Folger and at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

At his Baltimore Knife and Sword Co., in Woodberry's Clipper Industrial Park, the product line begins with Viking-era swords. But, Mr. Stagmer said, "the English Civil War is my favorite historic period."

He helps Cavaliers and Roundheads refight those mid-17th century battles through the Laurel-based English Civil War Society of America.

Mr. Stagmer opened his armory about 18 months ago after working for several years with partners in an East Baltimore shop. With its thick walls of granite blocks, the three-story former mill building has a near-medieval ambience.

The 20th century intrudes with the screech and whine of the modern machine tools that Mr. Stagmer and his apprentice, Jim Furlough, 20, of Ellicott City, use to work the sheets of steel.

Mr. Furlough is a self-taught specialist in making chain mail, forming thousands and thousands of small steel rings, then linking them together to form protective head and body coverings by the same method as medieval armorers used.

Sword blades begin as blanks cut from sheets of heavy-gauge steel. They are shaped and polished on grinders and buffers. "These blades are modern steel, which can take much more abuse than the originals," Mr. Stagmer said.

Pommels, guards and leather scabbards complete the work. Some of the guards and pommels are elaborate crocodile or dragon figures cast in bronze by the lost-wax process. Ben Crenshaw, a jeweler who specializes in Celtic jewelry, sculptures the figures. Lottie Gruzs, Mr. Stagmer's fiancee, does the leather work, making scabbards, waist belts and baldrics, or shoulder ,, belts, to carry swords.

Most people who buy suits of armor want them for house decoration. But some buy them for the same reason as in days of old when knights were bold -- to protect themselves in a fight, Mr. Stagmer said.

Several professional groups, including a large one in Florida, re-enact medieval tournaments at Renaissance festivals around the country. He said some re-enactment combatants use

padded blades, while others go in for more realistic cut and thrust, and need the real thing. Some come in for custom fittings.

Swords cost from $135 to $750. Mr. Stagmer charges $800 to $1,500 for a suit of armor and needs four to six months to make it. The cost depends on style and the level of decoration required, he said.

Time is his biggest enemy, because with only himself and Mr. Furlough in the shop, Mr. Stagmer said it is difficult to keep pace with orders. The Maryland Renaissance Festival, from late August to October, is the busiest period.

"I work 60 to 80 or more hours during the week to make what people have ordered on the weekends at the festival," he said.

More information

The Baltimore Knife and Sword Co., a source of arms and armor replicas from the eighth through the 17th centuries, is located at 3409 Parkdale Ave., in the Clipper Industrial Pakr in Woodberry. Telephone information is available from Kerry Stagmer at 366-2800.

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