West Tisbury’s resident giant swordmaker and Irishman Michael Craughwell makes his official television debut next week when his “Big Giant Swords” reality show premieres on the Discovery Channel.
Since 2003 Mr. Craughwell has been making larger-than-life replica swords as a passion project. He is a welder by trade and a former sculpture student of Cluain Mhuire Art College in Ireland, where he began building “regular-sized” swords. Mr. Craughwell gained notoriety in the past several years for his “big swords”after he began filming his process and posting the videos on his YouTube channel in 2007.
With the help of fellow Islander Mike Robinson, he had the idea to document “just how ridiculous it was” to make the sculptures. The two originally met playing board games, and given what Mr. Craughwell describes as a “shortage of nerds on the Island,” the two hit it off. He enlisted Mr. Robinson for filming his process. “A lot of people on this island are able to help, but not everyone knows what they’re doing with the camera,” he said.
Mr. Craughwell affectionately refers to Mr. Robinson as “AmeriMike” because “it’s weird calling someone else Mike, that’s my name.” As the duo’s videos started taking off (his most popular video now has more than 550,000 views on YouTube), people across the world started taking note of his skill.
“I started getting these messages [from viewers], ‘If you can make that [sword,] you can make this one.’ I ignored them at first,” Mr. Craughwell says of the initial communications. Before long he realized the legitimacy of the requests, and started accepting orders, mostly from men who wanted replica swords from video games or comic books. One of his first tasks was to build a life-size, ornamental replica of a sword from Final Fantasy VII.
Mr. Craughwell soon realized the uniqueness of his craft and the shortage of giant swordmakers in the world: “If there is something just wrong enough in your brain that you actually need one, it’s me or no one. I’ve found one or two other guys that do it, but they don’t make them as often or as detailed.”
He responded to an initial request from someone in Argentina by suggesting they try to find a local builder because the shipping would cost too much. Six months later, the same person emailed him again when he couldn’t find anyone closer to fulfill the order. To date Mr. Craughwell has sent giant swords as far as Canada, England, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia.
He notes that one of the hardest parts of the job in the digital era has been working out how to accept payments from people far away. He typically takes an order and receives a deposit. When the work is done, he sends it via FedEx and collects the rest of the money. He admits that he wishes he was better about pricing the swords more accurately in his initial quotes, but it’s hard to know the time and value that will go into each custom job.
“I like taking on a unique one and making something for the first time, something that you haven’t thought of fully. I like taking it on, but sometimes it can be nightmarish.” Many of the replica swords that Mr. Craughwell is hired to build have never appeared in reality, and transferring them into a physical thing can often create design challenges. He says an ideal situation is when someone commissions a sword from him and pays the deposit, but when it’s complete he’s disappeared. This allows Mr. Craughwell time to price the sword more accurately and sell it at its true cost.
For reference, a regular sword averages about three feet long, and weighs three to five pounds. Mr. Craughwell’s giant swords come in at around six feet long and weigh somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds. Given their large size, they are often not usable as weapons, which gives him peace of mind. Sometimes the swords are ordered for gaming conventions and as costume accessories — someone might have every other element of the outfit in place, but they’re missing the best part, and that’s where Mr. Craughwell’s skills come in. Recently an unprecedented order came in from a fashion model in Brooklyn looking to commission a sword for a photo shoot: “It doesn’t need to be usable, she’s just posing beside it. I’m not sure why she needs it to be steel, but OK.”
Mr. Craughwell’s past work as a welder lends itself well to the physical process of big sword making. “As a welder I have the steel on the table and tools in my hand. [Other swordmakers] work with fixed tools and hold the swords, which wouldn’t work with the big ones. As a welder I’ve fabricated bridges and warehouses, like sculptures.” The craft is clearly second nature to him, and after watching a couple of his videos it’s obvious to see his talent, and his entertainment value.
A production company recognized both and messaged him in January 2014 regarding a possible television show about his work. “When I first saw the message I thought it was a scam,” he said. After confirming the authenticity of the note he went through rounds of discussions and Skype interviews, going “up and up the ladder.” A couple of “Hollywood guys” as he calls them, visited the Island, but most of his initial interactions were done remotely. Once the show was decided, filming occurred on-Island in late summer.
The challenge for Mr. Craughwell wasn’t getting used to being followed and filmed; he was accustomed to that because of his YouTube videos. The hard part came with relinquishing creative control. “Having other people decide what would look good … If I was sitting around dreaming of having a reality show, maybe I would have been nicer. And there were some shouting matches. … In my videos I like to add some little Easter-egg nuggets, obscure references. They were anti-hyper-obscure-references.”
Prior to filming Mr. Craughwell was still working part-time for another artist on-Island, but he is now focusing on his giant swordmaking full-time. Due to high demand, he hasn’t taken new orders in more than a year, but once he’s finished with one more sword he’s “open for business,” which will align nicely with the premiere of his television show.
The first of six one-hour episodes of Big Giant Swords premieres on the Discovery Channel at 10 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 13. Mr. Craughwell hasn’t seen any of the show’s content yet: “I’’ll be just as surprised as anyone else.” When asked if he was doing anything special for the premiere, he mentioned a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) Q&A interview online at 5 pm Tuesday. Then he’ll be at The Wharf with anyone who wishes to join him in watching the premiere, because he doesn’t own a television. “If me being on TV wasn’t reason enough to buy one, I probably never will.”