Modern medievals



By Andy Harvey

Known for being a liberal arts school, Columbia offers many classes with curriculums outside of the mainstream of academia. However, it may not be the only school pushing the bounds of what is traditionally taught in the classroom.

The Fire Arts Center, 1907 N. Mendell St., is offering a class in Basic Armor Forging, where students can learn how to craft their own set of medieval plate armor. Located less than five miles away from Columbia’s campus, the Center’s little-known Basic Armor course has only attracted 40 students in the past three years it has been offered.

The class is taught by instructor Jon Gruber, a medieval war enthusiast. Gruber’s course is based on the techniques for armor forging that he taught himself after participating and getting injured in authentic, un-choreographed jousting tournaments.

“I had no armor of my own when I started, so I’d get loaner suits,” Gruber said. “And getting unhorsed at 30mph hurts a lot worse when your armor doesn’t fit right. Being injured after wearing ill-fitting suits was what got me into forging them myself.”

Now teaching a Saturday class on the process, Gruber said that despite the skill needed, the course is very laid-back.

“We start out with me just asking the class what they want to accomplish or make,” Gruber said. “After that, I teach a little basic anatomy because they need to learn about the body parts they’re making armor for. Let’s say someone wants to build an upper arm piece; I just have the student move their arm around to get a feel for their own shape. If you don’t understand all the curves that the human arm forms, you can’t fit armor to it.”

From there, Gruber instructs the class in the mechanics of hammering steel. With a selection of 13 different hammers, Gruber demonstrates the function each individual tool performs. The class gets a very hands-on approach, Gruber said, because most of the work done with hammers is something each student has to learn and experience themselves.

“They have to learn to listen to the metal-what it’ll say, feedback on the stresses it takes,” Gruber said. “Even touch is important-feeling the armor in a way that’s almost sensual so you can get a sense of the metal.”

That touch comes in handy when tools don’t perform as required. One tool in particular had been troublesome-a shaped piece meant to create the curve in a gauntlet that covers the knuckles. Gruber eventually decided to re-forge the tool.

“The great thing about working in a forge is that if our tools break, we can just fix them ourselves,” Gruber said.

Gruber makes lessons out of the process, inviting each student to help. After

heating each piece, they pound it into shape, quench it in water to harden the metal and temper it by sticking it back into the forge until the metal’s color reaches a dark blue. After some time spent polishing with a belt sander and a few experimental whacks with a sledgehammer, Gruber pronounces the tool fit for duty.

“Perfect, it’ll be good for another three or four years at least,” Gruber said.

After demonstrating the basics of operating the forge and using more complicated tools, Gruber said he lets each student pursue their own goals independently.

“I remind them that I’m in the background if they need help, and then I just let them loose,” Gruber said. “By then it’s just a bunch of people hanging out, hammering some metal. We joke around, we have fun and the best part is we get work done.”

Greg Carrington, a computer programming student at ITT Tech, is one of the students in the class who enjoys spending spare time fashioning a suit of armor for himself. He’s taken the class for a year-and-a-half now.

After making metal sculptures in high school, Carrington continued to practice metalwork, which led him to the Fire Arts Center’s Basic Armor class. Now focused on producing his own complete set of armor, Carrington has participated in sword-fighting and jousting with Gruber and plans to do more.

“[Taking this class has] honed my craft a thousand-fold; it’s elevated it to such a level that I can fix all sorts of things in the house, especially if it’s made of metal,” Carrington said. “It’s almost unbelievable how much better I am at working metal since I took that class. I’ve taken on things like a sculpture of my Grandma’s that a car backed into, and after working [on it] for a few hours, she couldn’t tell it had been damaged anymore.”

Metalworking isn’t all fun and games though. The coal-heated forge operates at very high temperatures, and for the first weeks of the course, Gruber stresses safety. But frequent exposure gives everyone a tolerance toward the heat, and after a while most students forgo the protection of gloves so that their hands aren’t as clumsy. Gruber’s hands, in fact, are so callused and used to the flames that he never uses gloves, even when moving the coals in the pan, nonchalantly sticking his hand in the stifling heat to shuffle them around until he is satisfied.

“You definitely adapt after spending time in the class,” Gruber said. “Your body becomes tougher and harder. We all build up calluses that give extra time to act if you screw up and get your hands in a hot spot. Even then, none of my guys have ever had an accident.”

Like Carrington, many students in the class have come together from different backgrounds and majors.

Fire Arts administrator Vince Hawkins said people whose day jobs range from plumbers to pastry chefs have all attended the class, and had different things to bring to the class.

“The class hasn’t been running long, but we’ve had a wide variety of people join,” Hawkins said. “From metallurgists to computer programmers, it’s had an attraction for students in a broad range of


Despite the many features of the class, it is a lot cheaper than many students had expected.

“With access to those kinds of tools and materials, I expected the course to cost around a grand, at least,” Feehan said.

Carrington also expected a high price, but after observing a class in action, decided that he’d pay whatever it cost to get in.

“I didn’t discuss the cost with the recruiter until I’d decided to take the class, but I knew how expensive steel materials are,” Carrington said. “I thought walking in it might be a $700-$1,000 class.”

The 10-week class costs $285, and the longer 16-week class is $400. Yet the difference between the two, Hawkins said, is minimal.

“You can still get the piece you wanted finished in 10 weeks, but with 16 you can spend extra time making it nicer, expanding it, and polishing the metal,” Hawkins said.

At the end of the program, students are allowed to keep whatever they’ve finished, from breastplates to gauntlets. They’re also encouraged to sell their work if interested. The Center maintains contacts with several online shops that know Gruber and the work his classes produce personally, and will make offers to students to buy their finished pieces.

“For good work, we can usually sell a piece for $400 or more,” Gruber said. “And that can go to buying more forge time at the center, or just making up the cost of the class.”

Considering what they’d get out of it, many students agreed that the price was reasonable, but even better is the class schedule. With a rolling curriculum that revisits earlier parts of the class often, students can start any week. A low class size of four students or less also allows for one-on-one training with Gruber.

“I’m always demonstrating the basic foundations of the class,” Gruber said, “because the students use them throughout the course.”

The Fire Arts Center, 1907 N. Mendell St., will have a Basic Armor Forging class open house on Oct. 25 at 1 p.m. For more information, visit the website at