MinnEcon@Work: The swordmaker

Craig Johnson once saw teaching as his life’s work. But the lure of pirates and knights proved too great. As a kid, he loved those swashbuckling movies of Errol Flynn. It fed a lifelong passion for swords and sword making.

Johnson, 46, is production manager for Arms & Armor, a company that makes several thousand historical weapons a year, from small knives and rapiers to big two-handed swords. Customers include collectors, movie prop masters and theaters.

We spent an hour recently at the Arms & Armor shops in the basement of an old industrial building in Minneapolis. An audiotape of “The Hobbit” played overhead.

The recession’s hurt the sword making business. Ancient weapons aren’t a necessity these days. Collectors who might have bought several pieces in a year have pulled back.

Given the economy, it’s been “an ongoing struggle to keep it all together and try not to lose a staff which would take years to recreate,” he says. “It’s tough and not getting any easier.”

Johnson, a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network, says he also faces international competition with cheaper work “of dubious quality being done in places like China.”

Staying competitive, he says, means staying focused on quality and customer service — “We need to be the Nordstrom’s of the sword business.”

While the future’s never certain, the business has managed to ride out the tough times. “If your doors are open,” says Johnson, “you’re a success in the sword business.”

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MinnEcon@Work is an occasional series of videos featuring Minnesotans in our Public Insight Network with cool jobs and interesting vantage points on the economy.

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