and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
As part of the team running Mystery Hunt this past year, I worked on some pretty unusual assignments — figuring out how a walrus moves on a chessboard (more on that later), dragging a friend through a hedge maze logic puzzle while wearing a blue dress and a pinafore (that too), and painting bright blue weeping willows and a rabbit in a purple suit (also that.)
The most challenging assignment was to make a vorpal sword. Since this year’s Hunt was Alice-in-Wonderland-themed, one of the major plot points was a mid-Hunt runaround* that ended with teams fighting the Jabberwock. Of course, everyone knows that if you’re going to fight a Jabberwock, you need a vorpal sword.
What everyone doesn’t know is what the hell a vorpal sword looks like. If this had been a Lord of the Rings hunt, I would have been all set, but for better or for worse Lewis Carroll didn’t leave behind ten appendices’ worth of caterpillar genealogy and explanations of Jabberwock hunting to refer back to. I was on my own.
There have been many interpretations of the sword, including the vorpal sword with an elaborate handle from the recent Alice in Wonderland movie, the good-at-decapitating vorpal sword from Dungeons and Dragons, and the vorpal chef’s knife from American McGee’s Alice in Wonderland.
I ended up taking my inspiration from the Jagdkommando Tri-Dagger, a beautiful and slightly menacing piece of kit from Microtech. A spiral blade seemed as vorpal as anything, and while a two-pointed cross-section would virtually disappear when viewed edge-on (inevitable in a few places as the blade twisted), a three-pointed cross-section like the Tri-Dagger’s would keep its visual weight for the entire length. It was something eye-catching that I could make using a laser-cutter — though it would take a lot of stacked pieces, once they were cut, it would be pretty easy to assemble them.
After making some initial sketches over winter break, I started refining the design in Illustrator. I knew I’d be using a half-inch dowel for the center shaft, and from there it was fairly simple to make the crossguard, grip, and pommel. I used the dimensions of a replica of Eowyn’s sword as a reference for the proportions of the blade relative to the hilt, because eyeballing the length of a blade has historically not worked out so well for me. (I took a blacksmithing class this time last year, and what was supposed to be a letter opener ended up well into dagger territory before I cut it down.)
The inimitable Kat kindly cut the pieces for the sword for me — two pieces for the pommel, twenty-one for the grip, eight for the crossguard, and a staggering one hundred and thirty-two slices for the blade itself. All of the pieces were cut from 6mm birch plywood, and we went through about six 12″ x 12″ sheets, including one test sheet and one sheet that was just used for an extra set of blade slices, as a precaution.
My very favorite part of the sword is the cabochon in the middle of the crossguard. I found it at Joann’s when Dad and I were looking for origami paper for my sister for Christmas, and the vetting process consisted entirely of me holding up three options to Dad and asking, “Which one looks the most vorpal to you?”
Once I had the cut pieces, the paint, and the cabochon all ready, assembling the sword was simple enough: I painted the pieces for the crossguard and grip, glued them together, fitted them onto the dowel, capped them with the pommel, and then started stringing the pieces of the blade.
I could have been much more systematic about how I put the blade together. Since I was short on time, I just put glue on each piece, strung them all onto the dowel, twisted the blade into the right approximate shape, and then painted on a few coats of thinned-down glue to smooth everything out. Over the course of three days of Hunt, the sword took some damage…mostly because Jabberwock hide is notoriously tough, and only partly because tacky glue doesn’t bond wood well at all.
I’m now in the process of re-making the sword. If it had survived Hunt intact I wouldn’t have messed with it, but since it already needed repairs, I figured I’d see if I could make the blade look a little smoother on a second try. I recovered the individual slices by soaking the blade to weaken the tacky glue, and I’ll now string them and glue them one at a time, using a jig to keep the rate that the blade twists consistent. Once it’s glued again, I’ll use something that isn’t mod podge to fill in the jagged edges between the pieces, if need be. (I’m contemplating spackle and resin, but I’m not sure what would produce the smoothest finish.)
Overall, though, I’m thrilled with how the sword turned out. It was a challenge — after all, it’s not every day that one has to make a vorpal sword — but figuring out an interesting sword design that I had the resources to build, actually painting and constructing it, and seeing people’s reactions as they picked it up and noticed the spiral blade, was an absolute pleasure all around.
One final note: for anyone who’s interested in the templates for the sword pieces, drop me an email and I’m happy to send over the .ai files.
*a series of puzzles that requires a team to actually move around campus, instead of sitting in a room drinking coffee and furiously Googling things