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Young artisan learns ancient skills

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Posted on December 12, 2011 |
By Christian Woodard



armor guy2087.jpg
MICHAEL MCENERNEY IS able to create a wide variety of chainmail patterns with just a few small tools. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

VERGENNES — “I’ve always had a secret love for weapons and armor,” said Michael McEnerney.

The 20-year-old apprentice armorer from Vergennes recently completed his first major project, a scale mail and chain mail vest that weighs over 40 pounds. The breast is an interlocking fabric of anodized aluminum scales, bright green and subtly cupped. As heavy as the piece is, it looks as delicate as feathers.

Armor-making is just one of the arcane skills experiencing a revival in Vermont. McEnerney has been apprenticing with his brother-in-law, Joe Peltier, who also makes knives and other articles of medieval craft at his forge in Shoreham.


MICHAEL MCENERNEY OF Vergennes shows off the chainmail and scalemail pieces he has spent more than 100 hours making from interlocking metal rings and aluminum scales.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

“Armor is in the family now,” McEnerney said. “My older sister, Katie, married into the craft.”

Katie Peltier is proud of her husband’s skill and his desire to pass on his crafts to younger artisans.

“In the last couple of years, Joe takes young folks with some spare time and teaches them,” she said. “Hammering relieves tension, it’s a loose atmosphere, it’s relaxing. They don’t all go on to become knifemakers, but it gives them a product they’re proud of.”

For his part, McEnerney, who spent almost 100 hours on his vest, is content for now to stick with making armor.

“It’s still pretty new to me, but I’m looking into making other patterns,” McEnerney said. “There is so much variety.”

At its simplest, chain mail is a mesh of interlocking metal rings. It provided flexible protection to warriors of old, and now provides a satisfying hobby for today’s replica armorers. The links can be riveted, welded, or bent into a wide range of patterns with different aesthetic and practical results. Scale mail uses a similar design, but includes an overlay of meshed metal plates that gives it the look of the scales on a lizard or, perhaps, a dragon. McEnerney is also hoping to add leather components to the vest to make it more historically consistent.

“I’m shooting for practicality and historical accuracy,” he said.

The vest is made of 14-gauge galvanized steel and aluminum scales. Though forest green aluminum plates may not have been available to medieval armorers, McEnerney said that his construction methods were consistent with the type of protection worn by royalty.

Despite its intricacy, a chain mail vest doesn’t require complex tools or expensive material. A spool of steel wire, a mandrel to wind it around, and a pair of pliers and cutters completes the workshop.

Pierre Vachon, at Frog Alley Tattoo and Leatherworks, builds his chain mail with only three tools — a pair of smooth pliers, a pair of knurled pliers and a set of clippers. Vachon, who first learned the craft while acting in Scotland, has made armor for movie sets, medieval re-enactors and collectors.

“Plenty of people make it, but nobody wants to buy it,” Vachon said, referring to full mail shirts like the one McEnerney recently finished. Though he has built full suits of armor, these days Vachon makes what sells; most of the chain mail on display in his shop is ornamental — interlocking bracelets, extravagant necklaces, and hanging candle cages in a Japanese “square mail” weave.

“I know about 30 or 35 weaves,” said Vachon, who learned most of the patterns from other armorers. He’s also invented a few of his own.

Vachon’s work looks to the untrained eye like it was created by wizardry, but he remains humble. Both he and McEnerney say that the hard work is mostly in visualizing a design, then devoting the time to bring it to completion.

“You wrap the wire, then snip it into rings. It’s just bending them open and closed, open and closed,” McEnerney said. “It’s not an expensive passion, but it takes a lot of time. It’s addicting, really.”

McEnerney hopes to use his love of armor and medieval weapons to someday become an “educational armorer,” teaching kids to appreciate patience and craft.

“No matter what the skill or product is, these secret loves should be shared, honored and respected by our locals. Many of our highest art forms have been lost as a secret and unique skill by the few who knew them,” he said.

According to Katie Peltier, when her husband first started making knives and armor, 15 or 20 years ago, he was one of the few blacksmiths in the trade.

“Now, young kids are getting into it. There are other blacksmiths just in Shoreham,” she said.

Even with this resurgence, traditional blacksmithing is far from a mainstream craft.

“We’ve lost a lot of skills because people didn’t share it. My brother-in-law, there’s not a second he wouldn’t give to share what he knows,” McEnerney said.

“Joe has a real creative itch,” Peltier said. “If he can’t find it, he’ll make it. Or make it work better. It’s not just the knifemaking, or the armor, it’s the type of people. All the information and the way it’s passed from person to person. It’s really a unique flavor.”

Christian Woodard is at christianw@addisonindependent.com.

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