Martin James Heal

On three sides mountains sweep down sharply into Lake Ohau. In winter they are snow-capped which gives a smoothness to the ridges and rocky outcrops. There is a magical quality here that filters through the existing beauty of the area. Ohau is the place where beautiful things should be made. It has been my inspiration since my wife, Jo and I moved here in 2000. Neither of us imagined that we would find ourselves here in New Zealand's High Country after all those years of travel between Europe and Africa, accompanied by our (now grown-up) children.

I studied as an Industrial Chemist and, usually in research, explored the science of polymers, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and sugar. My ultimate achievement in this field was a Ph.D thesis on "Infra-Red Studies of ……" Well, you wouldn't have heard of it anyway! There were no more 'books' left in me so I changed tack and spent twenty years trying to instil a wonder of chemistry and biology to teenagers in England, Zambia and New Zealand. Those years led me to Ohau, the twisted road did lead somewhere after all.

During the summer months I guide and assist clients (on behalf of my boss,Will Spry) to cast fly lines to eagerly awaiting trout. Some monsters are caught and others are discussed with much embellishment.

When the cooler months take over I carve my swords.

During the time of the Roman Empire gladiators who had conducted themselves well and pleased both Caesar and the people were granted their freedom. It was also traditional to present them with a handcrafted wooden sword, a short sword or gladius. This was deemed to be the greatest honour bestowed on a gladiator.

Swords have been used as a weapon of choice for centuries. We tend to associate their use predominantly with European medieval history, linking the long sword to the Crusades, Knights of valour and tales of chivalry. Medieval swords, however, varied in size and weight and many are displayed in museums.

When we moved to Lake Ohau my interest in these weapons, which had played such a forceful part in shaping history, was rekindled. So, in order to continue the tradition of presenting a gladius, I handcraft swords based on those used during the medieval period, swords which may then be given as prestigious and unique gifts.

My raw material is recycled native timber from New Zealand's High country forests or disused artefacts. At some point in time the wood is swept by mountain streams and rivers into Lakes Ohau and Wakatipu and is finally washed ashore. I collect this much-weathered and gnarled wood, remove the detritus and saw it into planks for the blades or into small pieces for the hilts and pommels. Then, with care, I handcraft the main components of a word, honing and smoothing the wood with fine abrasives to increase the light reflecting quality of the finish. Two coats of the penetrating Danish oil are then applied followed by a liquid beeswax polish. These not only protect the wood but also accentuate the exquisite grains, colours and markings. A sword is a pleasure to make as it is unique, a one off, its final form and characteristics being dictated by the raw material.

These are the main tools I use to carve my swords.

All swords conform to typical lengths, shape of blade section and overall appearance to those used during the European medieval period. I call my swords 'Ohau' swords to acknowledge where they were made and to that end each is engraved with my Ohau symbol as well as my own maker's mark.