Now I love Fantasy Art and I love all things sharp and pointy, so when the opportunity arose, I jumped feet first at the chance to ask the legend that is Kit Rae some questions that I’d had burning away for some time.
Anyone who has ever even considered purchasing a sword, especially one that has a fantasy design, will have heard of Kit Rae. I have collected swords and knives for nearly 18 years and the day I got my first Kit Rae piece I remember being very happy indeed. I’m the proud owner of ‘The Fang of Baelin’, a beautiful dagger that has two polished blades at each end of a sturdy handle. I also have the amazing ‘Valdris’, which epitomises the joining of aesthetics and functionality.
Kit Rae was born in 1966, in Burlington, Ontario, Canada and is a maker of Fantasy swords, knives and daggers, as well as creating amazing fantasy art. We caught up with the master of Fantasy art to discover more about the world of Sorcerers, Dragons and really big sharp things.
BF. You are a Fantasy Artist but what came first, the blades or the pictures?
KR. Pictures of blades. I was always drawings swords and weapons as a kid. I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I grew up in the era of Dungeons & Dragons RPG’s, so it was natural to lean that direction, but I drew and painted all sorts of things, mostly surreal art. Being a big fan of mythology and Tolkien, I got into studying historical weapon designs, then when I got bored with that I started creating my own designs.
BF. What inspired your style and what made you want to make blades?
KR. I suppose my style came from many places. Being a Tolkien fan, I had illustrated the various swords his books books when I was a kid. The same with the swords and knives in Frank Herbert’s Dune, but all that was relatively historically based design. The fantasy element came from seeing the fantasy book covers that I read as a kid. That’s when I developed my style and started into the more sculptural look of my hilts, and the curvy, flowing fantasy styled lines.
Seeing some of the custom made knives in the 1980’s was also an influence. Custom knife makers were a relatively small group of people, but the first time I saw the work of guys like Bill Cronk, Buster Warenski, Fred Carter, and the Paul Ehler’s designs made by Gil Hibben, I found that other people were doing this stuff for real. Those guys were making anything from regal looking medieval styled blades to full on, multi bladed fantasy weapons. Just steel art, not meant to be functional, but it evoked a dangerous and beauty.
Much later I actually got to work with Fred Carter and Gil Hibben, helping to bring their knives to the production market. Since my style was so similar to what Paul Ehlers did with his designs for Gil Hibben to make, I ended up designing most of the production fantasy knives for Hibben line made by United in the 1990’s.
BF. Was there a progression or did you dive straight into fantasy?
KR. I started in the business doing mostly functional knife design. Hunting, sporting, tactical, and a lot of novelty collectible stuff. In the early days that’s what required of me with the company I worked for, but I kept slipping in little fantasy elements, and when that stuff started to sell, I just moved more and more into that direction. I still do a lot of functional and tactical design today, though I actually know what I’m doing now. The stuff I designed in the late 80’s was all crap.
BF. How did you learn how to forge blades?
KR. From watching other people do it and visiting knife makers. I also learned all of the production knife making processes and techniques from visiting factories. These days I don’t do much of that at all. I just design everything on paper, create CAD for all of the parts on the computer, sculpt or 3D modeling hilt parts, then have tool makers build tooling to cast parts and press blades out for machine grinding. All of my swords and knives are production made, or semi production with a lot of hand finishing, so I let other people do the hard work of actually making them now. I stay busy enough designing, engineering, supervising product development, and painting art.
BF. Can you describe the process of how you create a piece from concept to finished piece? specifically how an idea becomes a design.
KR. I start with ideas on paper. I have hundreds of little sketches on scraps of paper that I have drawn over the years. Sculptural pommel or cross guard designs, interesting blade shapes or blade grinds, just pieces that pop into my head. Every now and then one jumps out at me, or I see a way that several different elements can come together into one design. Then I draw up detailed drawings at 1:1 scale. If the magic happens I continue with it. If not, I just keep trying different ideas until it either comes together or I scrap it. The next stage is usually a foam core pattern model at 1:1 scale, just to see how it feels before building it.
I then draw up the cross section showing how all the parts fit together, then projection 3D views with dimensions, basically everything needed to get tooling made from a control drawing. We’ll build the whole thing in 3D on the computer before we start tooling, so I can be sure all of my sculptural shapes are translated.
BF. Is an idea ever too crazy or are you a believer in just expressing the mind?
KR. Both. There is a fine line between a semi functional design that evokes something ripped from a fictional culture where it could actually exist, and something clearly non-functional like my Vorthelok sword. I try not to go to far with the over-the-top designs, because they can come off as silly, heavy metal biker’s nightmares if you are not careful. But sometimes those work too, even when they are over-the-top they go. I also know which on my designs have sold well in the past and which don’t, so I’m sure that is always in the back of my mind too.
I have learned restraint over the years, so I don’t design something so complicated or expensive that it can’t be made. I try to stay within a cost window, because I want the average person be able to afford whatever I design. I’m not making things for the elite. I have to push the envelope occasionally to get as much into a design as I can. That has been part of the fun throughout my career, the many times we have been able to push the various processes into places that were not possible before, especially in a production environment, where it can be very restrictive. Nothing cool comes from just doing the minimum of what is currently possible though.
BF. Have you ever had any really mad commissions for people?
KR. I do not do any commission work for the fantasy blades I do. I only create what I like personally, and if others like them, they are available to own. I have several hundred to several thousand of each piece made. Sometimes they are hard to find, especially after the run is complete, but they do get out there to various dealers so people can get them if they look.
Now if a company wants functional knife designs, I do take commissions for that type of work. About half of my time is actually spent doing that for various clients, but I do not put my name on those designs. People would probably be surprised at how much stuff is out there under different brand names that I have designed, done engineering work on, or product development work on. Harley-Davison, Colt, Rigid, Remington, et cetera. One of the hottest selling tactical axes in the market right now is the M-48 Hawk that United Cutlery makes, which is my design. I see them everywhere here, all over the internet, but it does not fit with what people know me for, so it’s not something I want my name on.
BF. How did you become involved with United Cutlery?
KR. I did some graphic design and artwork for one of the original owners of United, a guy named Kevin Pipes, who runs a huge retail knife business in Tennessee. In the mid 1980’s he and a few other partners, all major players in the knife business, created United. I started doing freelance work for them and they eventually hired me full time. I did various graphics and designed products for a few years, but they really needed a proper designer. I decided I needed to learn what the hell I was doing, so I studied knife making, CAD, and engineering for a few years. I became their lead designer and ran product development there for about 15 years, while doing my own fantasy knife and sword line on the side. They have gone through a few different owners through the years, and I run my own business now, but I’m still heavily involved with them. It’s a lot of fun creating products with the current owner, Clint Kadel, and his crew down there in Georgia.
BF. What films and TV shows have you worked on?
KR. I have rarely worked on films or TV shows. Occasionally I am asked to design for films, but more often than not those end up being on screen for a few seconds or on the cutting room floor. I see my stuff used a lot, but the prop masters usually just buy things of mine off the shelf of to use. I don’t know about it until I’m watching something and see it. I used to see my knives regularly on the X-files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even in the Star Trek television shows and films. The last good scene in a film I remember is when I was watching Sam Raimi’s Spider Man II movie and Harry Osborn was using my Knight’s Dagger. I looked close and saw that it was a China knockoff of my dagger, not the original, but that’s my luck.
I just designed the Michonne katana used in The Walking Dead TV show. The prop master asked us to make the props but we did not have the time to do it. I love the show, and their design ideas needed some help, so I drew the whole sword and scabbard for them with detailed patterns, and that’s what is in the show.
Mostly people hear my name associated with film and tv because of the replica work I’m involved in through Kit Rae Design Studio. We do development and engineering work for weapon replicas from licensed film, TV, and video game properties for clients. Stuff like the Lord of the Rings line, The Hobbit, God of War, Darksiders, the Frostmourne sword from World of Warcraft. I don’t design any of that, I just know how to get them made so designs remain intact and accurate when they are made into production replicas for the fans, and help with the marketing end.
BF. With your art, both edged and graphic, is there always a story? where does that story come from?
KR. When I draw or paint a scene, in my head I always create a back story about what is going on in the art. It just so happens that most of my art these days all takes place in that same mythology that I created, so things eventually linked together to form a story. I have always dabbled in amateur writing, so when I created the Sword of the Ancients series, I started writing some of that mythology down. It evolved into a complex 10,000 year outline. When I create a new weapon, I always have in mind what point in the history that piece exists, so I flesh that part of the mythology out in a short tale.
BF. Can you tell me about Swords of the Ancients and how it came about?
KR. It’s a bit long, but my line of fantasy knives was doing relatively well by the mid 1990’s. I wanted to do swords next, but the expense in tooling and materials to create a production sword was huge, but my manufacturer and distributor had concerns about how to make it work. I created two designs to start it off, Kilgorin, the sword of darkness, and Elexorien, the sword of war. We were trying to come up with a marketing plan for the kickoff and I mentioned to United’s owner that Elexorien was actually my design for the Anduril sword from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. I was a Tolkien fanatic as a kid, so I explained what LOTR was to him, and then we thought, why don’t we pitch the idea to the Tolkien estate about doing a licensed series of swords from the books? The idea was that LOTR would sell much better than Kit Rae. I had no problem with it, because I love Tolkien and knew those books inside and out, and the swords.
We sent them a proposal for the series with my first two designs, and my Sting design. Kilgorin was submitted as a sword of Sauron, even though Sauron never used a sword in the books when he had a physical form. The Tolkien estate blew us off. We found out later that another company did the same thing and actually did get the license.
So, back to how to market this thing as my own, I decided to call it the Swords of the Ancients collection, so it could be an ongoing series. United’s owner suggested I write out the back story behind the swords for use in marketing. I did that, but I wanted the mythology printed and included with the swords as well. Since I was a fantasy artist, and the mythology was being created, it just seemed a natural thing to paint that scene from my mythology and include an art print with the swords. It thought it was cool to put the whole universe together like that, and it worked. Those first two swords put my name on the map, spawned the fantasy sword market, and created a whole business in China just to knock my designs off by the tens of thousands.
BF. Have you ever wanted to express those stories in other ways, say in a book or in song writing?
KR. I don’t consider myself a very good writer, but I always wanted to develop a series of hard edged graphic novels from the SOTA story. I have just never had the time to do it. I have written a few pieces of instrumental music inspired by my SOTA mythology.
BF. When creating your scenes what is your preferred medium?
KR. I prefer pencil illustration over anything, but I also paint in oils and acrylics. These days it’s almost all digital. I was familiar with the drawing and paint brush tool sets in Photoshop, so I decided to try my hand at doing a full color painting on the computer about 15 years ago. I sat down with a pressure sensitive drawing tablet, and worked out how to duplicate the way I painted and airbrushed. Now I have it down to where I have duplicated my exact style when painting or airbrushing using real paint, but with digital paint. I can’t even tell the difference anymore. The only sad thing is there are no originals anymore, just the prints. I do draw a detailed pencil illustration before I paint, so I do have those originals.
BF. As a professional artist who in your peers do you look at and admire?
KR. I’m old school. Frank Frazetta, the early Boris Vallejo work, the artists who did the covers and graphic stories in Heavy Metal magazine in the 1980’s. Book cover artists like Jim Burns and Michael Whelan. Those people were the fantasy art masters I grew up with. H.R. Giger and Moebius were also huge influences, as were film concept designers like Ron Cobb and Ralph McQuarrie. Seeing Ron’s sword designs for the John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian movie really did it for me too.
BF. I see you your hobby is music, specifically Guitars, how did that start?
KR. The first time I heard the Ramones, and the first time I heard David Gilmour’s guitar solo in Comfortably Numb, and that triplet time delayed guitar in Run Like Hell. That made me pick up the guitar. I taught myself to play in the early 80’s and have been at it ever since. At some point I started collecting all of the different types of electric guitars – Gretsch, Gibsons, Rickenbackers, Fenders. It became an addiction.
BF. I know you love Pink Floyd, who else do you love to listen to?
KR. I grew up when punk rock was big. I hated 80’s pop music, so I gravitated back to the 70’s and got into Tangerine Dream big time, and the rock masters like Zeppelin, Floyd, The Who, Hendrix, Queen, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis and his solo work. On the other side I was into the The Stooges, Ramones, The Clash, B-52’s, Gary Numan, all the standards in alternative music for the time. These days it’s stuff like The Black Angels, Jack White, the Black Keys, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr. I always have music playing in the shop.
BF. What have you done as a result of your love of music?
KR. Bad habits like collecting vintage distortion and effect pedals, like the Big Muff Pi, and making a monster website about them.
BF. Can you tell me about ‘Big Muff’?
KR. The Big Muff Pi is a guitar distortion pedal created back in 1969 by Electro-Harmonix. Guys like Jack White and Dan Auerbach use them. Many years ago I found out David Gilmour used one, so I bought one. Then I found out there were all of these different versions, different circuits and graphics, and all the wacky things Electro-Harmonix went through. I sort of became an expert on the things, so I created a website with a history about them. Now Electro-Harmonix is asking me to consult to them about what features to include in a new version they are working on. The website is BigMuffPage.com.
BF. Have you designed guitars?
KR. I dabbled in it a while back when a guitar company used some of my art on an artist series guitar, but you can’t really top the best guitars. The Strat, Les Paul, and Gretsch 6120 already do it all for me. There are so many great guitar designs, and a glut of me-to guitars. It just seems silly to add another.
BF. How well do you play?
KR. Moderate. You need to put the time daily to keep your chops good, and I don’t have enough free time for it these days.
BF. Any aspirations to start a band and record some songs?
KR. I used to have a band called Emotional Smoke with a few friends. We wrote several songs, but never got around to doing any proper recording, just some rough demos. We just liked to play together and make noise, but being an artist and full time knife designer did not leave much time to really keep it going for more than a few years.
BF. How about a Swords of the Ancients concept album?
KR. My songwriting, lyrics, and musical style don’t really work with the SOTA world. I have written a few guitar instrumentals inspired by the mythology, but that’s it.
BF. What’s in the future for Kit Rae?
KR. I have a few new additions to the Swords of the Ancients line in the works for later this year. I also designed a sword cane that should be ready to hit the market in a few months. A new throwing axe is coming too, my other hobby. My company is also supervising the prop weapon replica development for United Cutlery’s Hobbit movie replicas. That has turned into a bigger project than I thought, now that it has gone from 2 films to 3. I’m basically engineering turning the rubber and alumnimum bladed props into real swords for collectors to buy. My Vorenthul sword and Death’s Head Dagger were just released last month too so that is what I am focused on at the moment.
BF. Any plans to come to the UK this year?
KR. None of my dealers in the UK have ever asked actually me to do a store visit. I do them here in America, to meet fans and autograph my swords and knives. It’s getting harder in the UK for people to find my blades with the restrictive laws you have there. It’s unfortunate that a few idiots ruined things for the sword collectors there, but a few of my blades still get through, just not the ones that look “dangerous”.
I have to say it’s been a huge pleasure and an honour to write about one of the greatest designers in the world of edged weapons and I’ve enjoyed learning what helps a great designer and artist create such works of pure beauty.
As controls on edged weapons becomes tighter and tighter, the privilege of being a Kit Rae owner will be reserved for less and less people in the UK. As Kit says, the few have ruined it for the many, and as a result we are no longer able to freely purchase some of the great designs Kit has produced. Perhaps the government will realise that Chavs don’t stick each other with 5ft long fantasy blades, they do it with kitchen knives and stanley blades so why can I go into any supermarket and buy one of those no questions asked? Luckily there are still some dealers in the UK who will get you Kit Rae swords, the best two being Barrington Swords and Battle Orders.
My Thanks to Kit Rae for taking the time to answer some questions and share his influences with us. If you want to know more about the man himself and look at some of his amazing work then head on over to his website for a little look see.
Just to finish, and to put two finger up to the UK government, here I am, in the flesh, Machine Steve with two loves of my life ‘The Fang of Baelin’ and ‘Valdris‘. catch ya later.