Crafting Aluminum Blades: The trend towards aluminum for stage weaponry

by Jay Duckworth
Aluminum Blades
Aluminum Blades
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We have a pretty well stocked armory in the basement of The Public Theater. Old swords, new swords, flamberges, schlagers, hilts, pommels—you name it; we probably have it. But when we started the process for this summer’s Coriolanus, our fight director Steve Rankin requested that we have some custom blades made of aluminum. It struck me that a lot of requests lately for blades have been aluminum. It is in fact a trend in the last decade. But why? We have been using iron and carbon in blades since 1100-800 BCE. Why the change?

I spoke with weapons experts, J. Allen Suddeth and J. David Brimmer, to get some insight. Suddeth is a fight master, and past president of the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), works as a fight director with Disney Theatricals, and has taught at Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, SUNY Purchase, and the Lee Strasberg Institute. He’s the author of Fight Directing for Theater. Brimmer is a violence specialist and is also a fight master with SAFD and teaches at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Some History on Aluminum Weapons
Brimmer said he first started using aluminum weapons back in the 1990’s. “Back then they were crude, but the technology has come a long way. They are lighter and easier to handle. When I was doing Life In the Theatre with Patrick Stewart on Broadway in 2010, we used these great aluminum blades that were wider and longer than the 35’’ standard length. Aluminum is also very theatrical; you can polish them to a mirror shine to catch light and when mounted well, they ring like a bell.”

Suddeth agreed, adding “In a house of 1,000-2,000 people you want the blades to be seen. They are easier to maintain since they don’t oxidize like steel and the lighter weight means it’s less taxing on the performer. If you are doing an opera, where after a fight they go right into a song, the performer is less winded.” He also cautioned that you need to keep the metals segregated when fighting. “Aluminum will get hacked up by the steel because it’s far too soft. Keep like material with like.”

I did want to know when steel blades are better than aluminum ones. Suddeth explained, “When you’re doing Shakespeare or a medieval play you want steel. There is a certain physical realism that comes with heavy steel as well as the weight of the sound when it hits the stage floor.”

Fabricating Futuristic Aluminum Blades
Our Coriolanus takes place in 2100 after global warming has devastated the planet. Rankin requested six 24-inch long blades all aluminum and suggested that I make them out of flat stock. When ordering I was a bit thrown off by the price. “We are in a trade war with China and that’s where we have been importing aluminum from so the price fluctuates with the market,” Brimmer said. So, I loosened up my wallet and bought the ¼-inch flat stock. After dulling a box of metal jig saw blades, I learned that the only way you can cut stock that thick is with a grinder. We made the backups from 1/8-inch stock. So, it's important to restate: use specific aluminum cutting wheels on 1/4-inch aluminum. 1/8-inch bar stock can be cut with a metal jigsaw blade.
aluminum flat stock blades

In order to have the swords look as if they have an edge, I ground down a ¾-inch wide chamfer on both sides of the ‘sharp edge’. I used multiple grits of sandpaper to get the metal flat again then used jeweler’s rouge and a leather strop to buff the edges to get a mirror-like shine. Design-wise I drilled holes in the body of the blades to look as if they were pulled from scrap like a lawnmower blade or a support for an industrial shelf; this helped the weapons feel more in the world of the play. I then steel-wooled the sides of the blades and used self-etching spray paint to rust and age them. 
Aluminum blades with handles attached

I taped two strips of ½-inch plywood under the handle and drilled from the metal side down to make the handle grips. This ensured that the holes would all match up. I countersunk holes on each side of the wood to sink in the machine bolts and added Liquid Nails adhesive to keep the handles in place. Then covered them with rubber and leather depending on the status of the characters using the weapon.

Learning is Growing
I learned a lot speaking with Suddeth and Brimmer. It’s always dangerous to say, ‘this is how it’s always been done; change is bad’. Reach out to the leaders in the field that you need to be working in. Ask questions, look for gaps or needs that people have and adjust to make a more equitable playing field for everyone. Remember, if you are not growing, you may be beginning to rot.