Balthazar of Glenrock keeps his blacksmithing shop in the garage, where at least once a week the door is open.
On the floor inside sit an anvil, power hammer, belt sander and forge, all of which Balthazar built himself. A dry-erase board maintains a list of what’s needed (finger guards, greaves, Valsgarde, bazubands), and a shield hangs on the wall next to a Super Soaker.
Other hobbyists might mess with their model trains or restore their ’57 Chevys here. Balthazar builds metal-
Ninety-nine percent of what people find by Googling “armor” is mass produced, stamped out by machine. Balthazar means no offense. He knows armor is expensive. It’s just that the hand-made stuff is more authentic. It’s the imperfections only a human can create that make the suit.
Balthazar will build armor from different time periods and geographies, but he prefers German armor from 1490 to 1500, what he calls a “high point in form.” The armor had a grace to it, rigid and pointed lines. After that, armor became more clunky in appearance, with surface decoration.
“I mean, you can look at a ’69 Corvet and it’s got just a good, nice grace and form to it where you look at a F150 it’s not graceful, but it can have the coolest paint job in the world,” he said. “An application where you paint and apply is its own skill in itself, but I just like the grace and form that’s built into it by getting the curves and shape right.”
Balthazar von Knopf was born one Travis Blankenbaker.
He’s a welder by trade, 33, and lives with his wife, Robyn, and three stepchildren in a house where a miniature armored knight stands guard at the front door.
Blankenbaker had always been a history buff, with particular interest in the Civil War. But he liked the beauty and sculpture of Medieval armor, too. He tried to work with sheet metal, bending it into shape.
Blankenbaker read a newspaper article about a big event in Pennsylvania hosted by the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization that reconstructs life in the Middle Ages. The group was what he needed to learn more about building armor and using it. The first thing Blankenbaker made was a gift for his father about 15 years ago, a 27-inch-tall miniature suit of armor with all working hinges.
Society members take on personas as a way to research a period of Medieval history, to “learn it through living it,” Blankenbaker said, which is why he created Balthazar von Knopf.
It wasn’t a random choice. Balthazar is a family name.
He can trace it back to 1711, when the first three brothers in the family emigrated from Germany.
The name allowed Balthazar to focus his research where he wanted to: 15th and 16th century Germany, a major armor production center.
When Robyn Blankenbaker met her future husband, she knew nothing about the Society for Creative Anachronism. When he told her he made armor, she thought this: Really?
How do you get started in that?
At the start of their relationship, when Robyn would call after work and ask what he was doing, the answer was always the same. He was in the garage, making armor.
Balthazar was constructing his first plate suit. It took two to four hours a day for seven straight months.
At her first Society for Creative Anachronism event, a Knights Templar approached Robyn and bowed. He kissed her hand and addressed her, “My Lady.” The courtesy, chivalry and formality made her giggle.
Later that day, some drunk guy came up to Robyn and a friend. The Knights Templar reappeared and deflected him, Robyn remembers.
He told her that’s what a knight does.
Said Robyn: “That got me hooked.”
Their wedding had a Medieval theme. Robyn made a traditional German wedding dress, with lace and nearly 1,000 pearl beads sewn on shades of dark and light purple fabric. Balthazar spent five months building wedding armor based on an early 16th century German Gothic style. He was up all night before the wedding perfecting it.
A suit of armor weighs 50 to 70 pounds. Balthazar can wear it, fall in it and get up, nimbly do pushups in it. If he can think it, he can build it.
Balthazar bought a couple dozen books on armor and read as much as he could through inter-library loan. He builds in as historically accurate a method he can and makes most of his own tools.
“When you do it how it was done back then, the quality is there,” Balthazar said.
Word of his craftsmanship got out, and people started requesting parts. Balthazar made his own stamp, a mark of his work found on each piece, and named it RJB Ironworks after his three stepchildren: Rachel, Johnathon and Brian.
A map on the wall tracks his clients’ locations from the last two years, from Florida to Texas to Wisconsin to Oregon. He has made parts for people in Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Balthazar estimates about 1,000 people nationwide build armor but only several dozen make historically accurate, elaborate pieces that are combat ready.
The garage is Robyn’s, too. From her work station there, she makes Medieval glass work, enameling and jewelry.
The two will likely be there until Balthazar can no longer hold a hammer.
“There is not enough time in one lifetime to make every type of armor, to make every type of suit,” he said.
Still, Balthazar has rules so as not to disturb the neighbors. A knight is always a gentleman.
In the garage, there is no hammering after 9 p.m.