Dragonfly Forge

Michael Bell, right, and son Gabriel work in their forge outside of Coquille on Tuesday, Feb. 2.

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COQUILLE — There's a small shed about ten miles outside of Coquille that, if Michael Bell wants, can double as a torture chamber whenever night falls.

Sledgehammers and mallets — every shape imaginable — stand on their heads, strewn around on the shed's scaffolding. Next to welding masks (plural), cranks, clamps and wrenches line up in a row, hanging from their intersections like empty clothespins. Dozens of thick belts, wide enough to fit a torso, dangle off the walls. Machinist files are stuffed into cups by the handful, sticking out like a steampunk cactus. 

In the center, away from the saws and the towering machinery, sharpened slabs of steel lie on top of anvils.

"Like a dungeon or something," Bell described his shed. "But you don't see rings and chains on a stone wall."

There's nothing truly nefarious going on. Bell does make weapons, but it's not nearly as sadistic as his tools appear. The 69-year-old California native is a world-renowned swordsmith and has been banging out blades since 1970. 

Since 1987, Bell has made authentic Japanese swords from scratch in his own Dragonfly Forge — he calls it a "smithy" — from scrap metal he gets from Oregon Pacific in North Bend. His swords are all across the globe and don't come cheap. The most Bells has ever gotten for a sword was $17,000 to a Japanese-American man whose family lost their swords at internment camps in World War II. 

Hollywood has come knocking for Bell's swords before, but he turned them away. Bell was contacted to supply swords for Tom Cruise's movie "The Last Samurai." They weren't into paying his price and he wouldn't want to give them for free for "all the credit in the world."

Just a few months ago, Bell appeared on TruTV's "Super Into." Bell was flown out to New York to show RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan — Bell didn't know who the rapper was before meeting him — how to forge swords in a backyard in Brooklyn.

Teaching novices like RZA is part of Bell's racket. Over the course of the summer, Drangonfly holds 25-30 students at $1,375 a pop for a five-day course to make a small sword. People come from as far as Berlin and Athens, some camping out on Bullards Beach or even in their trucks to make a sword over the course of a week. 

"I ask people when they're done how it compares to what they thought it would be when they arrived," Bell said. "A couple of them just shake their heads and say there's a lot more to it then they thought, 'cause there is."

On average, Bell makes only about 6-8 swords a year, but works on several at the same time. Right now, he's shuffling through eight simultaneously. 

"I take the time I need," Bell said. "I love deadlines, but I have to impose them myself. If I make unrealistic promises, it's not good news for anybody. Sometimes it will take several years for a real elaborate one to be done."

"People don't realize," Anna, Bell's wife, said as she zipped around the shed. 'It takes hour and hours. Months even."

What compelled him to a life of swordsmithing? Bell has always been around Japanese culture and art, since he was a tyke. His father was a portrait painter and college art teacher, encouraging artistic endeavor in the household. When Bell was six, he moved to Japan for a year and a half, and trinkets from that stay littered his house while growing up.

In 1968, he bought a blade from an antique shop to restore, "put lipsticks on a pig" and fell in love with working with blades. From 1970-1975 worked as an apprentice to Nakigima Ikioshi, who didn't speak much English, but would always caution the life of a swordsmith was "long hour, small pay," but Bell didn't care.

Still doesn't. 

"If it's not a passion, you're in the wrong business," Bell said. "I told people the only reason to do it is if you can't imagine being happy in life not doing it." 

And that advice must've resonated with his son Gabriel, who went to college for mathematics and computer science, but decided he wanted to work with his hands instead of being in front of a screen all day. A few years ago, he called up his dad and said he wanted to become a swordsmith too. The two are now business partners.

Only Gabriel got into the family business, but Bell's son Nicholas is a chef and daughter Raquel is a surgeon, which makes Bell proud that his kids are all "affiliated with stuff that goes cut."

And the choice to get into the family business isn't something Gabriel regrets.  

"Since I grew up experiencing swordsmithing firsthand, when I decided to pursue the art professionally, I didn't have false illusions. I saw firsthand that the life of an artist is constant struggle. Anyone looking for money in swordsmithing is mistaken," Gabriel said. "An artist pursuing his passion has to take sacrifices."

Reporter Yourgo Artsitas can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 236, or by email at george.artsitas@theworldlink.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DucksTheWorld.


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