Kootenay Studio Arts (KSA) student Josh Koss is piecing together history in an effort to explore his passion for medieval armour.
Using ancient techniques mostly lost in time, Koss is using his training in the four-month Blacksmithing Program at KSA to forge replica helmets employed on the battlefields of Europe during the 15th Century. With hammer strokes and heat, the 25-year-old is using his formal arts education to fuel his fascination with the past.
“I’ve always been into knights and Vikings and medieval stuff,” says Koss, who is originally from Ottawa. “Ever since I was a kid, I would always get my mom to buy the plastic armour at Walmart. When I was 16, randomly browsing the internet looking up stuff about ninjas, I stumbled upon an article on how to make your own chainmail. Something just clicked in my brain: people actually make armour. I dove into it after that.”
Josh Koss with two of his medieval armour helmets in different stages of production. Using ancient techniques, the Kootenay Studio Arts student is discovering how metal work was carried out prior to sheet metal.
Koss is not the first KSA student to shape metal into replica armour, but his technique is something that hasn’t been tried at the Victoria Street Campus in Nelson.
Throughout history, armour production has been a vital tool of warfare. A labour intensive process, prior to sheet metal the sweat equity that went into outfitting soldiers was extensive. The exact methods used by medieval armourers are in question, but modern scholars have put together clues using a detailed examination of extant historical armour.
As part of his classwork, Koss researched a technique from the bucket makers of Bienno, Italy who have been forging deep steel vessels with water powered tools for hundreds of years. Using individual heavy plates of steel, Koss is using heat and the specially designed tools he created to hammer out his helmets.
“He’s taking it back a step because it’s hundreds of years old,” says KSA Blacksmithing Instructor Kevin Kratz. “It really gives everybody an idea how little things in metalworking have changed. It’s been exciting for everyone and we have all participated in it. It’s been educational.”
A Fascination with the Past
After graduating high school, Koss enrolled in engineering at the University of Ottawa. After his first year he decided to take a different direction and registered in arts school where he spent three years focusing on drawing and painting.
While in art school, his love for armour continued and Koss started experimenting with metal work. Setting up a little shop in his basement, he used resources on the internet and contacts with other armour enthusiasts to guide him. He discovered a healthy culture of armour creators and collectors online.
“It’s super specific and nerdy,” Koss says with a chuckle.
This past summer Koss hit the road and headed west. His destination was the Shambhala Music Festival near Salmo, but planned to explore employment options in British Columbia afterwards. While enjoying the festival, Koss came upon the booth set up by KSA faculty and staff which was providing demonstrations in blacksmithing and bronze casting.
To make his helmets in a traditional manner, it took plenty of hammering to get the job done. Koss was assisted by his KSA classmates.
“I had never actually heard of Nelson before coming out to Shambhala,” Koss says. “All of sudden I come across this school where they were doing the bronze casting and blacksmithing. I had been doing metal work for six years, so I figured I might as well move to Nelson for the program. I enrolled two weeks before the program started.”
With the enthusiastic guidance of Kratz and the well-equipped KSA blacksmithing studio serving as fuel, Koss pounced on his opportunity to take his armour making to the next level during the four month program.
“I have dove into the craft part of it, I don’t really think about the use part of it as much anymore,” he says. “The actual act of making it is fascinating. Looking at real medieval pieces, which are beautiful and high works of art. It’s turned into a weird obsession.”
Though Koss is using techniques previously not practiced at the KSA studio, Kratz is more than happy to help foster the experimentation.
“It’s a big component on how I like to run the program,” says Kratz. “Dictating what they do is great, but they need to have the freedom to experiment. What Josh is doing is still within the course outcomes. He has to do a production run and he is doing a production run of helmets, which I never really expected him to do.”
Outfitting a World of Collectors
With the blacksmithing component of his Sculptural Metal Diploma now complete, Koss is moving into the four-month Bronze Casting Program portion of his studies where he will continue to build his armour making skills.
“It certainly doesn’t feel very much like school and I’ve learned a lot more than I ever have in more conventional types of school,” Koss says of his KSA experience to this point.
The evolution of the helmets being produced with historical accuracy kept in mind.
Koss has received interest from armour makers around the world for the work he has done over the last few months. Though labour intensive—each helmet will take Koss at least 20 hours of work to complete from start to finish—there is a market for high end replicas. After graduation, Koss will continue to explore what his options for turning a passion into profit.
“I have been at armour for six years and I’m almost at the point where if I put in another solid year of dedicated study I will have enough of an understanding to be able to go into business as producing plausible, historical armour reproduction,” he says. “It’s really the merging of the world of blacksmithing and modern armour making… I’m super excited about it.”