Monday, April 8, 2013

Talents I have seen: Robert "Mac" Macpherson

Recently, the blog Boing Boing posted an article about my friend Ugo Serrano (

"Daniel sez, "Ugo Serrano is the greatest living armorer, really. A man who camps at the Pennsic war in a 15th Century Italian villa (hat he built/designed that also flat-packs for storage and transportation). The props he makes for the movie/television industry are a who's who of geekdom from Firefly to Riddick to the Haunted Mansion through Zorro. A man whose art helped begin the entire steampunk movement, yet he's almost unknown outside of the SCA, where his themed parties are as legendary as his tent. If you catch him at the right time, he'll give you a pilgrimage badge that he cast in pewter by hand, just for taking the tour"

I was quite shocked at how incorrect the article was. It had facts correct, but incorrectly attributed them all to one person, Ugo. This is an interesting social phenomenon that I have observed many times: When a person has charisma, (and Ugo is very charismatic) many positive things are often attributed to this person, almost automatically, with little or no "fact checking".  The opposite also seems true. If a person is a scoundrel, then bad things are automatically attributed to them.

Ugo has achieved a type of "Stardom" I see in Hollywood. Fame and praise do not always go hand and hand with talent or achievements. Now first, let me be clear, Ugo is very talented and is certainly worthy of fame. But "helped start the entire steampunk movement", "greatest living armourer"? These are the type of statements that start urban legends and myths. Such as, "A knight needed a crane to lift him upon his horse" or “Gene Simmons (KISS fame, not Spartacus) bites his tongue during his concerts to get all the blood he spits". If it's printed, people believe it. Often these things are never "Undone" and the general public goes on believing them.

Daniel, lists that he is an author of books and I get the impression he is a regular poster on the internet. Well, I hope he does a better job checking facts for his books. Writing is not my skill, building things is and for those who have read some of the things I have posted no doubt know I am the one who built the 15th century house and may know, Robert MacPherson is the craftsman who made my pilgrimage badges, using authentic 14th/ 15th century techniques. Robert is a quiet unassuming man who if you saw him at an historical event, you would have no clue he was one of the worlds best armour craftsman. He is not one of those people who the spotlight finds easily, nor does he seek it out. So to most people, have no idea who he is.  I started to write an article on Roberts work last year, but as writing is not my skill, I started and then never got back to it. Here it is:

 Talents I have seen:

 I had heard about "Mac" many years ago and was told, if you want the best reproduction armour, he's the guy. So I sought out Robert MacPherson, even though I was told he had a 5 to 10 year waiting list. I had seen some of his work and been impressed, but it was not until I ordered a suit from him that I appreciated the level at which he was "the best".

Here are some pieces I had seen of Macs work:

At the time, I thought I knew quite a lot about armour, how it was supposed to look, fit, and so on. Well, ignorance is a funny thing, many times you have no way of knowing what you don’t know. I was about to become more enlightened.

 Let me give you some background: There are many different factors that make someone skilled at reproducing armour or any art for that matter. Not only is there the technical (does it work), but the esthetic (does it look right) and does it fit correctly. Plus, there is the skill (and experience) of the craftsman to have the freedom to be able to make whatever is needed. In other words, he may know what a piece should look like, but without the skills to move the metal to that shape, well “he can’t get there from here” no matter how clearly he sees the destination.

 Today there may be as many as 100 armourers, making some type of armour for reancators, SCA, Rennfair or collectors. Most of these are either making armour for people who can’t afford good armour, or, more likely, have never seen really good armour, so they don’t know what they don’t know. As a result, the armour is pretty poor. But since this makes up the vast majority of work seen by the general populace, they don't know either, so they think its all really great stuff.

Of the really good armourers, maybe 4-6, they work for a relatively small clientele or museums and are not well known outside the museum or living history circles.

Now armour in general spans a few thousand years, in European armour about 1200 years. (400-1600 AD) Technology and the skill of the craft was getting better al this time. With many things it is possible to find those who are very good at one thing or in this case, period of armour, but not other periods. (Although, just about every armourer believes he can make anything)
For example; recreating a 1960’s Ferrari is easier than recreating a 2010 Toyota, due to the complexity of manufacture and techniques. So after seeing Mac's work, it seemed he was the kind of guy, who could make anything you asked for.  I found out Mr. MacPherson did not have a 10 year long waiting list (Another urban myth, one I’m sure Mac thought was flattering, but maddening when he didn’t have work) so, I set up an appointment to discuss making a new armour. Now, when you have a guy like Mac make a suit of armour, it seemed to me, if you go to Ferrari, don’t ask them to build you a truck. At the time I was really into 14th Century European armour. But for mac, I wanted to order something that I didn’t think any other armourer could make well. (I would later learn that even the simple armour , made by Mac is a "Ferrari")  
Well I decided on Maximillian armour. This is a modern term applied to an abundantly fluted style of armour from the beginning of the 16th century. The name comes from Emperor Maximillian of Germany, a 16th century “rock star” of jousting and armour patronage.

I told Mac that I had never been a big fan of this style, but this one suit from the NYC Metropolitan museum of art, really caught my eye. Mac asked me, what is it about this one you like, that in the others you don’t? This was my first clue that Mac was really good at what he does. No one had ever asked me this before. I had to think about it, why did I like this one?  I said, it’s the helmet and the proportion’s I think. OK he said, what about them, do you think? After explain why I like the suit I had a sense that Mac knew better than I did, what I wanted.
I would later find out, Mac had not only the eye to see styles of armour and what made these styles correct for a particular time period, but he had the skills to make the armour look like it should. He also has an incredible knowledge of the subject on all levels. It is quite astounding.
 He pointed out, that the armour I liked at the MET is in fact 3, maybe 4 different amours pieced together, along with extensive restoration. Seen here: (04.3.289) ( 
We agreed on a price (Very reasonable) and I sent him body casts (an advantage to owning a special effects costume shop) and he started. We had a few fittings and each time, I got to see the armour in it rough state and event then, it looked amazing. Here is the finished work:

 The armour he produced was amazing. It looked better than the original (the first time this had ever happened to me) In addition, the fit and mobility were like nothing I had ever experienced. I had worn a lot of armour, both casually and in combat, I felt like I could do anything in this suit. Years later in a combat with great swords (Not my best form) a fellow who was very good and very fast, took a shot at my head, I ducked it and came back to hit him hard enough to win the fight. He later remarked that he was so stunned that in that much armour, I ducked his shot, he forgot to block mine.

I called Mac up after I received the suit and couldn't thank him enough. I told him it looked better than it did at any of the fittings. Mac said he didn’t like some pieces, so he tossed them aside and made new ones. Again, I was seeing why he was “the best”; if the part was not right, it was not right and it made no difference how much work he had put into it, it was remade. In the specialty costume world, it is the same way. If the piece isn’t right, you remake it. You may not like to, but the best of the best shops will and if you want to be one of those shops, you will too.

Unfortunately in the film business, they know nothing of armour, at least not approaching the same level of fit and finish they have for regular clothing. As an example; Years ago, a friend of mine, who is one of the best cutter/ fitters in the business, pointed out that in the movie “Leap of Faith”, Steve Martin was probably wearing $3,000 to $4,000 in clothes during one scene. She was referring to his “T-shirt & Jeans”! Designer t-shirt, designer jeans, custom tailored, shoes….$4k. The subtly involved here it to make them fit him perfectly, yet look “off the rack” and every day, yet still make him look Marvelous! This take a lot more work and expertise than most would imagine. In movie armour, they don’t understand that real armour can fit amazingly well and look very heroic in its original design and material. Because of course, "A knight needed a crane to lift him upon his horse". Not helping this, are modern so, so armourers making mediocre suits that reanactors go “WOW”, “Incredible” “I’ll be in my bunk” over. This is changing. As more people see what is possible by the very good armourers getting their work out there for more than a handful to see, as well as others, such as some in Eastern Europe, get seen by the rest of the world. Real quality armours were hardened steel (Similar to modern 1050 spring steel) and didn’t clank, they went “snickity snick”/. They also were comfortable to wear, easy to move in and didn’t hurt you every time you moved. One of these recent Jousting shows on TV, had some “expert” point out that all armour “bites you” and you just deal with it, it’s part of what makes armour cool to wear! What BS.

This next suit was a mid 15th century English harness made for Tobias Capwell, the curator of the Wallace arms & armour collection. He has jousted in this regularly. My Maximillian  armour was the last suit Mac made from mild steel, everyone since, including this one is hardened 1050 spring steel. Remember, this is all hand formed with hammer and stake, and no welds! All single pieces of steel. Some only .035” thick as like the originals.


I sent these images to a film producer to show him what could be done. His response was "Are these in any way CG?" (Computer generated) He didn't think there was any way these suits pictures could be of a completely real suit and must have been at the very least augmented with a computer. I explained that no, no computers, in fact the suit is all hand made, by one guy.

There is a video from a presentation given by Dirk Breiding , assistant curator of the MET, of Toby running in this suit and at first, you can’t tell he is wearing armour. His gate is perfectly normal. The armour has little to no effect on his stride. (Seen here at 35:10

Mac and I discussed building another suit for me, this one to have etched bands and borders, perhaps some gilt bands. I was thinking of the harness he made just before mine, which was amazing.
The original harness is known as the "KD" harness. Macs is the "Harness with palmettes"
Here it is:

I couldn't decide which period or style and during one phone conversation with Mac, I suggested perhaps using parts of one suit with elements from another. There was a silence on the other end, then in a slightly apprehensive, tone "ah, well....One should pick a style and revel in it." In other words, you don't really want to mix a bunch of styles that don't go together do you? Yet to me, I didn't see these as very different styles, I mean, in my brain  they were only 20 or so years apart, imagine a 1960's mustang with a 1980's Chevy front end,...oh, yeah, that would look awful. OK, lets do a Greenwich harness. This was a style distinctly English from the mid to late 16th century. At a time when there was no king on the throne to "upstage" and you could commission the Royal Armoury, with Queen Elisabeth permission of course, to make the most elaborate  armour you could imagine.
Here is what was decided.

The original (shown here) is now in the Wallace collection in London. This new suit  would be a garniture as was the original, that is a harness with exchange pieces. Consisting of different helmets, reinforce pieces for the upper body and left arm. All used for different styles of tournaments. This armour would have originally had a dark blue finish in the areas not gilded. We decided on the garniture pieces and  Mac started the new suit, this one in hardened 1050 spring steel. Unfortunately part way through this project, Mac damaged his elbow and it made if near impossible for him to make armour. So the project sat unfinished for a few years. Recently I contacted Jeff Wasson, an immensely talented craftsman, who has agreed to finish the harness.

Here are some images of the harness as it is now:

Hopefully, later this year it will be completed. Check back, when its completed I will post images. Oh and the pewter Pilgrimage badges? Mac and his wife Mary Ann make those, along with many other fine pewter goods and they can be found here at "Billy & Charlie's"