Barbarian Bling

Metalworker Rob Stewart makes history on his forge

Gamut

by Mike Gibson

I hope I'm not boring the hell out of you,â” Robert Stewart interjects, pausing between anecdotes about Norse mythology, blacksmithing, life in Special Forces, and his extensive delving into the martial arts. â“I'm probably not a bit like what you expected I would be, am I?â”

â“Uh, well, that's not entirely true,â” I stammer back, more than a little dazed by the onslaught of information, and certainly far-removed from any state of mind that even remotely resembles â“bored.â” â“I did kind of expect a big guy with lots of tattoos.â”

Which is accurate enough. Indeed, the phrase â“a big guy with lots of tattoosâ” is a necessary, though scarcely sufficient, descriptor of North Knoxville jeweler/metalworker/blacksmith/scholar/karate instructor/aspiring TV host/ex-Green Beret Rob Stewart. He's a large fellow, not especially tall, but weighing in at maybe close to three hundred pounds, distributed across a frame that looks like it was engineered for bench-pressing SUVs.

And his prodigious bulk is appointed with scads of tattoos that reflect both the obsessions of his youth (martial arts) and those of recent years (history and early medieval culture). All of which makes for an intimidating personage, especially when considered in the light of Stewart's Nordic-primitive fashion sense, the long, silvery ponytail and the crudely braided beard, and the thickset forged-silver earrings that hang like miniature horseshoes in the flesh of his overstretched lobes.

But that isn't the whole story. His appearance notwithstanding, Stewart is also chatty, articulate, engaging, almost teddy-bearish in his demeanor. The proprietor of Gunnar's Anvil, a home-based jewelry and metallurgy shop in North Knoxville, he brings his considerable brawn, keen intellect, and strange passions to bear in creating some of the most unusual metalworkâ"runed pendants, traditional Saxon war helmets, Celtic knives and shieldsâ"you're liable to see this side of a history museum on the British Isles.

â“My wife calls the stuff I make â‘Barbarian bling,'â” Stewart chortles. â“I guess it's a little complicated for me to put one term to what I do. Because I started out as a jeweler, then learned to be a blacksmith, and then a knife maker. So â‘metal smith' is probably the best overarching term.â”

The son of a career military man, born in Germany but raised in Colorado, Stewart followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Army straight out of high school in the early â‘80s, and spent the better part of the next 13 years traveling the world as a Green Beret in the Special Forces. After the army, he spent six more years doing what he calls â“free-lance kind of stuffâ"working as a bodyguard and gun-for-hire.

â“Then I reached a point where I had had my fair share of scars, marks, tattoos and bad dreams, and I decided, that's enough. I felt like I was out of touch with humanity a little bit. So my wife Paula and I, we just up and moved to the Virgin Islands.â”

In St. Croix, Stewart discovered a small community of other former U.S. servicemen, including an ex-marine named Jonathan, who owned a jewelry store. â“Don't remember his last name, and don't know that I ever knew it,â” Stewart says. â“The Caribbean is kind of funny that way. But he taught me his trade.

â“I'd always been interested in knives and blades, from when I started studying martial arts in 1972. I designed and taught a whole hand-to-hand program for an entire Special Forces group, and edged weapons were my thing. And I always wanted to make my own knives, but knives that were embellished and pretty as well as being functional.â”

Beginning with Jonathan's tutelage, Stewart learned jewelry making; blacksmithing; bladesmithing. He saved enough money to take a two-week course, and became certified as a bench jeweler. Eventually, he moved back to the states, to Knoxville to take a job in that field with Kimball's.   

In Knoxville, Stewart reconnected with his long-held fascination with history. With the help of some transferable military credits and â“a monster load of classes,â” he earned his bachelor's in history in only a year, with a perfect GPA, and obtained his master's in history, with a concentration on the early Middle Ages, in less than two.

He's currently taking a break after completing a portion of the coursework for his Ph.D. The subject of his dissertation is liable to turn a few heads over in the UT history faculty, especially when the profs in question take a look at the man who will be its author. â“It's about the depiction of killing with edged weapons in Third and Fourth Century literature,â” Stewart says. â“Fighting with edged weapons happens to be something I know a little bit about.

â“All the years I was in Special Forces, you travel around and you're just isolated. You get tired of talking to the guys on your team, so you carry books. It's not all running around the jungle shooting things, so you have a lot of time where you're sitting around on your butt on your cot, reading a book. I carried history books with me, because Medieval history has been fascinating to me ever since I was a child. My mom used to read me Norse mythology as bedtime stories.â”

Stewart might easily be a history professor now, teaching courses on Medieval warfare to wide-eyed and unsuspecting students at some mid-sized state university; but for the fact that his rising profile as a metallurgist got in the way. Employing a motley collection of forges, cutters, and grinding machines, he did freelance metalwork on the evenings that weren't consumed by his studies or familial obligation. (Stewart and his wife have a seven-year-old son named Gunnar, conceived shortly after their arrival in Knoxville.)

On occasion, he'd travel to versions of the Scottish Highland games held in Gatlinburg and Kentucky and North Carolina, and hawk his exotic wares to a clientele who appreciated his scrupulous attention to historical detail.

His travel in the Highland circles made for good networking. â“I would meet a lot of people, give them my card, and then get requests through that. I haven't really had to promote myself so much, because people have put my name out there for me.â”

Nearly everything Stewart makes revolves around some kind of historical conceptâ"especially around the era up through the early Middle Ages, when Celts and Picts and the Norse and other barbarian tribes mingled promiscuously on the British Isles and other portions of pre-civilized western Europe. He forges Celtic and Norse jewelry, armored helmets and shields and swords. And lots of dirksâ"big Scottish knives, a nod to Stewart's own Scots heritageâ"including one he recently created for noted Scottish historian Sir David Ross, the man best know for walking from Scotland to England and back to retrieve the remains of William Wallace, in order to give the famous freedom fighter a proper Scottish burial.

â“I just mailed out an order for someone who wanted a custom fork for their seven-year-old child,â” Stewart says. â“They wanted a dragon-head fork made out of pure silver and bronze for a seventh birthday present. I get some strange stuff like that.â”

Stewart was also tapped for a special Knox County schools program last year, a so-called â“Viking outreachâ” wherein he traveled to local middle schools and taught an hour-long course on Viking Culture for sixth graders, complete with an oral presentation, props, and slide show. Stewart's presentation was captured on film, and subsequently found its way into the hands of a local cable television producer, who was impressed with what she saw.

â“She called me up and said, â‘You know, the camera really likes you,'â” Stewart remembers. â“Which, I'm thinking she's insane, because I sure wouldn't want to film me. But she introduced me to a couple of people at the production company, and it turned into a relationship.â”

The offshoot is that Stewart is now shooting a pilot episode for a history-themed cable television show. With the project still in its planning and shooting stages, he's guarded about the details; but the gist is that the burly retired green beret and tattooed historian will consider different fighting men from history, analyzing their methods, dissecting the weapons in their arsenal. â“It calls a lot on my Special Forces background,â” Stewart says. â“If it does well, maybe it gets picked up as a regular show.â”

But even if his TV career never flies, Stewart's metalworking operation is doing brisk business now; you can see his website at www.gunnarsanvil.com .

The day I visit him, he's putting the finishing touches on an order of embellished silver medallions for a historical society, as well as a set of specially tailored Japanese cutlery for a chef in another state.

â“For most of my work, I'm doing one of two things,â” Stewart says. â“I'm either cutting and hammering and filing, until I get the piece to where I want it to be. Or I make a casting, and pour in the molten metal. Once you get your finished product, it's just a matter of sanding and buffing and polishing, all of the attention-to-detail type of work. Shape it and finish it â‘til it looks pretty.

â“It's not brain surgery,â” he cackles. â“It's more about persistence than anything else. I'm not going to give up on that thing 'til it looks the way I want it to look. And sometimes that means you have to come back the next day.â” m

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