A Visit to the Lonely Mountain Forge - An interview with Master Metalsmith Joe Piela

<!--±6132|center|The Lonely Mountain Forge±-->

Joe Piela is the founder of a very unique smithy where Middle Earth is the focus of his work.  Joe's work is absolutely phenomenal and forged in the true spirit of Tolkien's mythology!  Elbren was able to catch up with Joe just recently and ask him a few questions about The Lonely Mountain Forge.  

Elbren: Tell us a little about your background as a metalsmith and how you got into creating The Lonely Mountain Forge.

Joe Piela:  At age 13 I started reading Tolkien's books. I really wanted to make weapons and armour like those that the Dwarves and Elves made in the stories. Then during a visit to Hershey Park I saw the blacksmith there working hot steel and I was utterly fascinated. I went to my Grandfather and asked him if there was any way he could help me do blacksmithing. That's when he told me that my family in Poland were mostly blacksmiths. My Grandfather was really a Master Carpenter, but he had learned plenty of smithing skill from his father for the purpose of making tools etc. So, he set me up with my first forges, anvils and other equipment and taught me the basics. From there, I read all the books I could on blacksmithing, swords, armour etc, that I could find. I also spoke to any skilled metal workers who I ran into. I named my company "The Lonely Mountain Forge" in honor of the Tolkien story that started it all: The Hobbit.

Elbren: What makes something "authentic" Middle Earth arms and armor? Book descriptions? Generally accepted ideas/designs?

Joe Piela:  The requirements that I have for authentic Middle Earth Arms & Armour are staying within the guidelines set by Tolkien in the primary books (The Hobbit, LOTR, Silmarillion. Etc), supporting books (The Letters of JRR Tolkien), and his artwork. This does not mean staying rigidly within a narrow framework. There is a loads of room with Tolkien's guidelines for tons of creativity. Tolkien knew a great deal about arms & armour and it shows in his writings and pictures. Those readers seriously interested in this subject should start with reading "The Fall of Gondolin" in The Book of Lost Tales, part II, and Letter number 211 in The Letters of JRR Tolkien.

<!--±6131|right|Anglachel, Sword by Joe Piela of Lonely Mountain Forge±-->
Anglachel, the sword carried by Beleg and then later by Turin
Elbren:  How has the movie release of Fellowship of the Ring affected your work as a metalsmith? Have you seen increases in orders?

Joe Piela: Just a little bit, a few helmet orders.

Elbren:  I would imagine that a great deal of your Middle Earth wares are custom made? Is that true? How precise do your clients get? 

Joe Piela: Yes, almost all are custom made. Most people have a general idea of what they want, sometimes using one of my existing items as a basis for their design. They then usually allow me to be creative with the basic design. Sculpting in a few Tolkien runes here and there is quite popular. On the other hand, my latest rendition of Anduril took months of detailed planning, and then months more of intermittent work. So, occasionally the projects get very detailed and time consuming.

Elbren:   Have you or would you forge a piece for a Middle Earth fan that you know is not authentic at all? How do you handle that?

Joe Piela:  I would if it were something that they really, honestly pictured when they read the books (I haven't ever done so as of yet). If Tolkien's words brought some imagery of an armour item/weapon into their mind, and it enhanced their enjoyment of the book, even if it was an otherwise inauthentic image, I'd forge it for them. The pictures that Tolkien paints in our minds, or the feelings he places in our hearts, really are the most important thing about being a Middle Earth fan (or so I feel).

Elbren:  There are a great many LOTR inspired swords available now, especially from United Cutlery. What is your opinion on these swords? Do you own any?

Joe Piela:  I'll comment on the United Cutlery swords, most specifically Glamdring, since one of my friends owns one of them and I've examined it in person. United cutlery has actually done a pretty good job. The look of Glamdring is actually excellent; it's a nice, artistic reproduction of the Glamdring in the movie, complete with lots of nice runes molded into the cast handguard. As to the practical aspects of the weapon, they've done pretty well. I noted on their website that the tang (the part of the sword inside the grip) has a nice substantial width for good strength. The stainless steel used to make the blade is not the best (nor the worst) material for sword making, though it has a sturdy feel to it. The handguard and pommel seem to me to be made of cast aluminum (the box only says "solid metal" so I am not absolutely sure of the alloy), though it does seem to be a high quality grade. The leather covered grip has nice roping wound around it for good traction. The blade sockets into the handguard for a solid fit, and the front end of the grip has a metal (probably aluminum) band on it to prevent splitting (very important). Amazingly, United Cutlery has managed a very good balance on Glamdring, with a balance point about 3 inches in front of the grip. The real practical test for such a sword would be to use it in simulated combat to see if the various components vibrate apart. Since my friend doesn't wish to try that on his Glamdring, I would make an educated guess that the sword would hold up well to short term combat conditions, though it wouldn't match the fighting performance of a sword with a forged, high carbon steel blade. If you are getting the United Cutlery LOTR movie swords strictly for looks and the aesthetics of hefting a nice, solid, sword that is rust-resistant, then go ahead and buy one & you shouldn't be disappointed. Now, if you want an authentic Middle Earth sword that looks nice and will get you through a long battle, there's some things I can do for you.....:-)

Elbren:   What's the best way to get a piece of Middle Earth arms and/or armor from The Lonely Mountain Forge? Do you act as consultant as well as metalsmith?

Joe Piela:  The easiest way to contact me is via email. You can check out my website to get some ideas, (The Lonely Mountain Forge); or, if you have ideas of your own, just tell me what your looking for or send a sketch. I'm flexible and will work with a patron on a project & give the patron price options (the fancier the project the more expensive). Though I do love putting my own creativity into a design, I really try my best to get the patrons vision of the armour item/weapon into the project. Yes, I do often act as a consultant. Sometimes people will ask what I think of this or that design, or they will have put together their own set of Middle Earth equipment and ask me how authentic it is, what they should change, etc.

Elbren:  Finally, it seems that Middle Earth is becoming more and more a part of OUR world since the release of Fellowship last December. As a longtime fan, do you find this distasteful or delightful? Has it influenced your work at all?

Joe Piela: Well, that is probably the most positive aspect of the release of the movie; an even greater interest amongst the people of the world for Tolkien's writings. Millions of people who might've not otherwise started reading tales of Middle Earth are doing so because of the movies and that's great. The movies have influenced my work very little; since I love the books so much, I would have been doing such projects anyway, whether or not any movies were made. I did make a very fancy Rider of Rohan helmet sculpted in brass which I sent in to the Weta Workshop as a sample of my work, so I was motivated by the movies to do that project. 

Joe can be contacted at The Lonely Mountain Forge
Joe was a featured guest at DragonCon2002 in Atlanta, Georgia in the Tolkien Track where he gave two standing-room only presentations on Arms and Armor in Middle Earth. 

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