The Sword Guy Podcast, Episode 10
My guest this week is Tomas Suazo, a historical fencer and armourer from Chile. I first met Tomas when he came to train with me in Finland in 2014. He did a Grand Tour of European historical fencing clubs, before returning home to run his own. He's a professional maker of protective equipment for HMA, as well as what I think of as “proper armour”. You can find his work at Broken Anvil: https://www.facebook.com/brokenanvilarmourshop/
GW: Hello and welcome to the show. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I'm here today with Tomas Suazo. So why don't you start by telling us where abouts in the world you are?
TS: Well, first of all, thanks for having me. It's been a while since we talked, but I always have you on my mind when I'm thinking about swords. I'm from Chile. This small, long country in South America, next to Argentina, to anyone who doesn't know where that is. I’m currently living near the capital in a small city called San Philipe in which I have a club and I have my own small business.
GW: What is that?
TS: My business is Broken Anvil, where I build armour reproduction and also build HEMA stuff like gloves and jackets and all that stuff you need for training. Except swords, I don’t do swords.
GW: So you don't do swords but you do everything else.
TS: I do everything else but swords.
GW: Okay, that's interesting. So what made you decide to steer away from the swords?
TS: It was a choice when I started making armour because I had to make a choice. You can’t really do both. I mean, I know people who do both pretty well. But I wanted to do one really, really well. And I'm still working on it. And also building a workshop for doing swords for fencing, it's really hard, it’s really expensive.
GW: It's really hard. This is something that no one who is not a smith will know anything about. So why don't you tell us what makes it so difficult to create a forge that will produce swords?
TS: Well, it is mainly volume. Like if we had enough volume, you can actually build it because it's really expensive, maybe $10,000.
GW: Volume of orders?
TS: Yes, volume of orders. And I thought about this a lot, business-like, because a lot of people have asked me to build swords here, because in South America we don't really have a supplier of fencing swords. We have really good swordsmiths. But they work more on orders, small stuff. They don't do like training failures or training swords.
GW: Yeah, I get emails from places like Brazil every now and then saying, where do I get swords from? And I'm like, I don't know.
TS: There is a very good swordsmith in Brazil called Reido, he’s really good. But he doesn't really go for the fencing type of thing. When I meet fencing, I mean he does blunts and stuff like that. I've seen a few he's done, he's really good but he doesn't build in bulk. He doesn't make training tools. That is I think one of the first needs. A fencer needs a training tool because we all want good looking swords, but we need tools that can be destroyed for training. I think going back to the training it’s really tricky to get the proper metals to do swords. It's really tricky to get the proper ovens to heat them up. And it's really, really expensive, the process to start building swords.
GW: OK, and how is that different to armour?
TS: It's different because mainly it is cheaper to get the materials for armour, in a sense. You can build armour out of mild steel, which is steel with not too much carbon in it. Any works. You cannot do that with a sword. If you have you bad steel the sword will break, the sword will bend, it won’t catch the proper tempering. And that's the other thing. You need to develop a technique of making swords. And you need to test it. You can read how tempering works. You need to try it a lot of times. It can be a science.
GW: Since the last time we met, which is some years ago, I have actually gone to a smith’s place near Ipswich. And I've actually made some woodworking marking knives, Japanese style woodworking marking knives. So I've actually done like forging and heat treating and tempering and that kind of stuff. And yeah, the oven we heat treated the knives in was the size of a microwave because the knives were four inches long. That's like ten, twelve centimetres. An oven for doing that for a sword would have to be about a metre.
TS: The size of the blade.
GW: I’m starting to understand why you don’t do blades.
TS: I mean, it's doable. It can be done. It is really expensive.
GW: I imagine that it's difficult to get enough people to spend enough money on the swords to make it feasible to set up.
TS: Yeah. There's a market though. So if someone is interested in South America we can do something.
GW: Would it be possible to import your blades en masse from somewhere else and hilt them and maybe do some finish grinding and stuff?
TS: It's also doable but very tricky. Imports in South America are trickier.
GW: Of course, yes. I used to live in Peru a long time ago and I imagine things haven't changed that much.
TS: No, in Chile where I live is one of the easiest. It's still very, very tricky to import stuff. And when you import a lot of stuff, suddenly swords are catalogued as weapons here. You actually need a licence, technically. No one does, because this is a law that was made in the 80s in a time of dictatorship and other political stuff. So no one really listens to the law. But if you're caught training with implements of martial art that is not registered, you can go to jail, technically.
GW: You are kidding.
TS: No, that is an actual law. It's like mediaeval style law when there's a grand master that oversees the art. It’s not a used law but it exists.
GW: OK. So. So what do you guys do?
TS: I mean, we just train. I mean, we're careful. You probably heard that there was a lot of social unrest here in Chile two months ago. We never train when there's social unrest. We never go in the streets with sword in hands and stuff like that. I mean, common sense. We've talked to police and there's no issue when they see you training with no protest. As I said, it's not a law that people use.
GW: So if a policeman particularly wanted to be difficult, they could.
TS: I don't know if a policeman will know because… No judgement. I won't get into that topic, but it's a very obscure law. I basically I only know it because of the problem we had years back with some guy that tried to be the one who decided who could practise or not because the grand master can decide who practises or not.
GW: So is there a grandmaster of historical martial arts in Chile?
TS: No. No, there's not. There's a couple guys who call themselves Master, but in Chile the term “master” is different. In Spanish, masters tend to be more like teachers. It's the same. So when someone calls someone master, “maestro”, it's more respect than a title. So it's not a huge issue. Most people who practise here are very aware that the master is the one who wrote the books.
GW: Yes. Okay. So how did you get into this whole sword, armour making and so forth?
TS: So I guess like most of us, I really liked swords when I was little. I really, really do. I still do. And yeah, at some point I discovered on the Internet that I could do chainmail in that time. And I started basically when I was eighteen, twelve years ago. And that led me to a forum when I found a group that did historical fencing. But in that time it wasn't historical fencing. And I started practising and I haven't stopped. That was 2008.
GW: What was the forum? Was it Sword Forum International?
TS: No, no. It was the Chilean forum. Luckily, I missed that part of the forums. I heard some stories…
GW: Sword Forum International had its moments of greatness and it brought us all together and gave us all the place to argue with each other and hate each other as Internet forums do.
TS: There was a Spanish forum, that was like the international forum here. A lot of people argued over a lot of things there. Yeah. By the time that the group was basically self combat. And we slowly started discovering the treatises and the manuscripts. And that led me to find Fiore. And that's what kept me in the Italian tradition until today.
GW: You know, on this show, we do have people who study other arts like Liechtenauer longsword. All sorts of stuff from all sorts of places. And that's perfectly OK. Everybody is welcome. It is very relaxing to be chatting to a Fiorista because we can just take certain things for granted.
TS: I, I, I kind of have bad news though. I'm more of a Bolognese guy now.
GW: No, that's ok. That's OK. So why don’t you tell me a bit about your research interests and the books that you're studying and what you're getting out of them and how you're applying that in the classes and that sort of thing.
TS: OK. That's a big question. As you know, I had a chance to travel all over Europe, training with a lot of different guys. So, you know, seeing everything and everyone. The Italian stuff stuck for some reason, I couldn't really explain.
GW: Six months in Helsinki might have something to do with it.
TS: No, it was three months.
GW: Was it only three months?
TS: Yeah, I know I'm a lot, but because of the visa stuff, I couldn't stay longer.
GW: Oh right, of course.
TS: But there's a great value in learning a lot from everyone because basically the sword is the same, the people are the same. There's some amazing stuff and it gives you a perspective of how to do stuff. But in my travels, I met Roberto Gotti, in Italy. He taught me Marozzo and I fell in love with it, especially his two-handed sword stuff.
GW: So you’re now a Montante guy, are you?
TS: No, there's a good argument there and a lot of people are going to disagree with me, but Marozzo’s sword is not a Montante.
GW: No, It’s a Spadone I know, I was teasing you.
TS: It’s not a Spadone either, it’s a “Spado due mane”. It’s shorter than a Spadone, but it’s longer than a classical two-handed sword. Roberto has it in his collection, a sword that is dated exactly as Marozzo’s treatise. It’s 2 kilos in weight, a lot less than a Spadone, but bigger than a longsword. 146cm long.
GW: OK, it’s more like a Vadi sized sword.
TW: Could be. For me, I’m short, so it’s a bit taller for me. But it handles amazingly. You wouldn’t know how good it feels until you do it. All the people who have the chance to try historical swords know this feeling. You grab it and it feels like it’s part of your body. And that sword is perfect for Marozzo, because it is bigger than a longsword, but it doesn’t get to the Spadone size. When you try to do the assalto with a Spadone it’s too heavy. The way Marozzo moves needs a lighter sword. A strong sword, but lighter, with the ability to change sides immediately. The Spadone Montante I’ve seen always flows with the force of the Spadone, but Marozzo must focus on your strength, your back, your shoulders. You put the strength into the sword. The sword just flows with you and you guide it. The Spadone guides you a bit but I you stop suddenly and you move one side to the other immediately.
GW: You just can’t do this with a full two-hander.
TS: You can, but it’s hard work. In defence of the Spadone people, it might be that I’m not strong enough, I don’t know.
GW: And also you’re shorter than maybe the average European fencer, so maybe that 146cm sword in proportion to you is closer what we think of a Spadone in proportion to someone who’s 6 feet tall.
TS: Honestly I don’t think it’s a big difference. I’m not a very strong person, but I have some strength.
GW: You’re a smith. I mean, I’ve tried arm wrestling smiths and that is a losing proposition.
TS: So I don't think it's basically strength. The problem I think is basically physics. It’s just too much mass to stop in a place. You have to be really, really big to do the same stuff with a sword. And I'm not like a hundred and forty centimetres, I’m one hundred and sixty. And I'm heavy built. So I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue is basically that there's only been a few existing swords. This was a very small period of 200 years. I think it was the transition between a longsword to the Montante because this was by the end when people were not using really the two-handed sword.
GW: Yeah. I mean, the Montante sources are from like a hundred years later. I mean a hundred years is a long time. As historians we keep glossing over just how much changes in a hundred years. Yeah, it's always all old fashioned stuff, it's all pretty much the same. But no, if we're talking about source from 1530 and a source from 1630. There is a whole century of history in between that.
TS: Yeah. If students of Marozzo want to try the proper sword, Caino blades are trying to make a replica of this sword. There are some replicas going around too. They are slightly bigger and it works really well.
GW: I imagine you took measurements when you were there.
GW: OK. If you send those over to me, I will put them in the show notes so anyone who wants to look up those measurements can do that.
TS: I can’t send you some measurements because this is, of course, property of the Museum of Martial Arts. So I would recommend you to go to the Museum of Martial Arts from Roberto Gotti in Italy. And if you can visit, absolutely go, because you can actually take the sword.
GW: You can swing it around. Roberto Gotti is basically continuing the work of Ewart Oakeshott, who is very much of the opinion that you don't know a sword until you’ve picked it up.
TS: And it's true. I mean, the replicas we have built are not the same. I am not passing judgement on smiths. I think there are amazing smiths. But I've never tried a replica sword that feels the same way as an historical one. And not because of the magic of the historical thing, but how feels in the hand. Because all of us who train a lot, our muscle groups are built for swords. And you can really feel when a sword is good. What was the question?
GW: The question was what are your research interests? But this is not a quiz. This is just a conversation.
TS: Yeah. Basically those are my interests in like discovering the proper way of doing things. And that's something the assaltos, which is very, very valuable for me and for the practise. It gives us the system in form. And it's very useful the assalto, and I feel like the assalto is like a dictionary. You can you can discover the whole system and you'll have little parts that you can take and mix and create new ones within the form.
GW: That’s what forms are for. That's why I have forms in my syllabus. It is a set of chapter headings. And when you've learnt the form, you then fill out the chapters with your own experience and knowledge and what have you. And as you get better and more knowledgeable, the form itself doesn't change, but the quantity of information is stored within it increases hugely. You’re preaching to the converted here, the assalti are critically important. Because we just have texts, it’s really difficult to know for sure what exactly was in Marozzo’s head when he wrote those particular passages, because let's face it, he is not the best writer in the world.
TS: No, he’s great, but…
GW: I have Marozzo in the house, obviously, and it’s these sentences that go on and on and on forever. And I'm sorry he was doing what? When to whom? How? It’s tricky.
TS: It’s very tricky. And Marozzo clearly writes for someone who knows the system. I think it explains a lot more than Fiore, for example. A lot more. Yeah, I think it does a lot more than Fiore in explaining and having studied both systems.
GW: You're entitled to your opinion, that’s fine.
TS: I mean, Marozzo doesn't have a three hand technique. But, you know, it has a very big problem with terminology. There's a lot of stuff that says by name that never explains. And there's a lot of stuff that is that is the same, but it doesn't call it the same. And there is stuff that is the same that calls differently. And it's tricky. We have a study group here in South America with some friends from Argentina and Peru and we study Marozzo. And these are very, very long discussions. Like, why is he using this here? Why, if I'm entering on the left, I'm pointing to the right?
GW: It's hard. I mean, Spanish and Italian are pretty close, but they are not the same language. I'm sure your ability to read Italian has improved enormously in the last decade.
TS: It has slightly better reading old Italian than modern Italian.
GW: So now we will have things that we know we ought to be doing more of. So what do you think you should be doing more of in your own training?
TS: Short answer: everything. More specifically, strength training and physical conditioning has always been a weak point for me. So I always tried to compliment that. Well, in Chile, for context, since October last year, we have big social unrest here, a lot of issues. So we haven't been able to properly train. We've been basically in a crisis state since October last year. People know how that feels because of the pandemic now. For us, it's been like since October because we had curfew. We had a lot of problems. I won't get into here, but you can read about it on online and we stopped training about there. We kind of got back a bit over our summer, January and February. But then we had coronavirus. The covid thing has been really hard on us. I also won't get into it because it's a very political issue apparently. But we are just entering the worst. Things are bad here in that respect. So we haven't been able to train at all, all this time. So that's why everything is the main question. And I was also doing weightlifting, like Olympic weightlifting. I think it’s very complementary to fencing. It works really well. It’s been tough months here. But physical training I really, really miss. I don't mean this in any derogatory way, but I really miss fighting skilled fighters. I had the chance in Europe to fight really technical, really, really proficient, really amazing people in a lot of places. And I don't have that here. I don't know how to explain it. We have amazing fighters here. We have amazing people who are trained, but it is just experience and having really, really good people to fight all the time really helps you get better.
GW: A rising tide lifts all boats. And if you’re usually not the most experienced person in the room, you can always learn something easily. When you're in the sort of upper echelons of the most experienced people in the room, then you still can learn a whole load of stuff, but it's just more difficult.
TS: Yes. I completely agree. You can still learn from every fighter, you can learn something.
GW: But the problem is it’s slower from someone who's just handed you your arse.
TS: I think it's like your focus. I focus on technical fighting. I don't like hitting too hard or being extremely fast or anything. I like to be technical. I like to use the sources. I think I'm getting there. And I remember last year when I organised an event here and we had some guys from Colombia who do Destreza and they trained with the Destreza guys in Barcelona. And that's how I felt like, yeah, this is it. The guy's really good. And it was a completely technical fight. It was a dance and it felt so good.
GW: So speaking of fencing. Tell me about the protective equipment you're using, because literally everyone I interview has a pretty strong view about the current state of protection and you actually make this stuff, so if you have a rant, fell free to unload. You're amongst friends. Just go for it.
TS: OK. Well, yes. You said I make stuff. I basically build all the equipment except for the mask. I build the back of the neck protectors, the jackets, the gorgets, basically everything you can need for fencing. But I personally don't use all of it. I like to use a slightly lighter jacket. I like to use elbow pads and really good gloves because I work with my hands. I was using the SPES Heavies for a long time because it was one of the ones that I could get. And I hated them. No judgement for SPES. As I said, I like to do technical fencing, so I need dexterity in the fingers. So I guess this is promotion time, but I built my own gloves.
GW: Tell us about them, what do you make them from? What sort of structure?
TS: They are a plastic that took me so, so long to get. It's tricky in Chile to get those fancy materials. They have a four finger structure where I basically joined the last two fingers into one because one of the main weaknesses of all the gloves is the pinky. You always get the pinky broken. And having them together with the ring finger helps with a bigger protection, have a bigger plate and everything. And it doesn't bother to handle the sword, because those fingers always move together. When you're using a sword, they tend to really move together. And very heavy padding. Very heavy three millimetre plastic in a structure built basically following armoury concepts adapted to the material.
GW: So like overlapping scales.
TS: Yes. Overlapping scales also a knuckle plate. A knuckle plate that falls under the glove and over the fingers so they allow for movement in the knuckles and protection in there. I'm quite happy with the design. They've been improving a lot. They are really tricky to make but I'm happy with them. And I think that with the mask, that's one of the most important part of the protection – the gloves.
GW: Gloves are the hardest to get right. You need to have that dexterity or you are wasting your time.
TS: You will never have the same dexterity with gloves. It’s just simply not possible.
GW: Yes. So there's always a compromise.
TS: Yes. But those are the gloves I use. I need fingers and I don’t have the money to buy the pro gauntlet stuff.
GW: Are you making these in standard sizes? Do you make them to order?
TS: Basically I have a standard sizes and I can make them custom. And I've done it because a lot of girls who practise need smaller gloves. I done it for a few in Chile. It's tricky, but it can be done and it's necessary because if you have a huge glove, it won't protect you. I'm the only one who has been getting hurt with my gloves in a tournament in Argentina. I made a custom pair for a friend there who is very, very tall. He's probably going to hear this later. And I had his gloves because, of course, we have a saying here in Spanish, En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo which means, “In the blacksmith’s home he has wooden knives.”
GW: Yeah, the same expression in English is “The cobbler’s child goes barefoot”.
TS: Yes, exactly. So I didn't have my gloves on because I didn't have time to build them. So I used his and his hands are bigger than my hands, a lot bigger. And I got hit really, really hard on the thumb the day before my birthday. Regards to Danny in Argentina, he’s listening.
GW: He’s the one who smacked you on the hand?
TS: Yeah. Still won though. I had to retire from the tournament as the wound wasn’t pretty. Luckily it wasn't properly broken but it took a while to get healed.
GW: So you make your own gloves. And I assume you are stitching the jackets yourself?
TS: Yes, I do everything.
GW: My goodness. When I decide I need a custom made fencing jacket, I know where to come?
TS: Yes. But in more general terms, in equipment, I think as long as you're using gloves and masks, the rest is up to you. I think those are the most important part, especially for training. You can do training with gloves and mask. I don't recommend doing any training without a mask. Especially with new guys. You probably heard about this American school that they got a guy stabbed through the eye. That is absolutely avoidable and it's your responsibility as instructor to do it. In the tournaments I guess as long as you feel safe I don't see anything wrong with using more protection. You can, of course, argue about the state of the HEMA scene or where it’s going to go, the sport and everything. But I think people need to feel safe practising. And if people don't feel safe without gear, I don't know, I think it's a personal choice in some respects. If you don't agree with how a tournament's doing things don't go. Send them a message saying, hey, guys, I think this could be done differently, I hope it goes well, bye.
GW: So what has been your proudest moment in Historical Martial Arts?
TS: My proudest moment. Last time I went to Europe, 2017, I visited a group in Italy, at Pesse which is northern Italy. They are great. They had a Fechtschule style tournament because they had a mini event. And that's where you basically fight all day. And then people choose who was the really good fighter or the best fighter or the most gentlemanly one.
GW: That's my favourite kind of event. At proper tournaments there’s so much hanging around. And if you get knocked out in the first round, you get like maybe a few fencing matches in the whole day. It’s a total waste of time. That’s a much better way, where everyone is fencing all day.
TS: It’s more historical. I love it too. It gives you a chance to express the art like you're not worried about. If you get snipe on the hands try better make a better guard next time and you can really try and do things. And I was recognised not as the best but as one of the three best there. It felt really good because they were really, really good fighters. They're really, really good. And I felt real proud in a humbling way.
GW: Now you have to live up to it. You have to prove to them that they were right to select you.
TS: Yeah. And also a similar moment here in South America, in Argentina. In a tournament a few years ago when I got elected as a best technical fencer.
GW: An awful lot of people who do historical martial arts don't understand Spanish, don’t read Spanish. And of course, most of the historical martial arts life in South America is conducted in Spanish or Portuguese. So I am imagining that most of my listeners just have no idea what's happening in South America. So could you fill us in?
TS: Of course. I'm a big believer in community. I got the feeling in Europe, when everyone talks, everyone travels. And I think that's a very strong thing for HEMA because we need to share. I've been trying to travel all I can and inviting people here so we can create that. I've discovered a lot of groups in a lot of different countries. I think we're more developed here in Chile in terms of organisations and in materials and stuff. Argentina was also very well developed, but there's less groups there. But they're growing and they're building events and stuff. Brazil is also, there's a lot of groups there, but they are so big that they can't really connect themselves cheaply. The country's so big. So for us in Chile we just take a bus of eight hours and go to an event, but in Brazil it’s days of travel. Days.
GW: I mean Brazil is significantly bigger than Europe.
TS: It’s really big. Really, really big. Argentina is also huge but the groups are focused on an area in the northern Argentina, Uruguay also has some groups that are getting born. And there's like very talented people in Uruguay, very talented. In Peru, there's also several groups, in Lima, in Arequipa.
GW: There are groups in Arequipa? I used to live in Arequipa when I was a kid. I’m very glad to hear that historical martial arts is alive there.
TS: There are groups in Arequipa. Sadly, they study German tradition though, but I’m changing that.
GW: Never mind. The German tradition is good, too.
TS: I’m joking. In Ecuador there's a school, there’s this martial art master who was training in the US and started a school there. And there’s also another school developing there. All of this has stopped because of coronavirus, because everything is just stopped.
GW: You think it will start up again, or do you think coronavirus might be fatal for it?
TS: No. No, I don't think it will be fatal. It is definitely a hit. But I think what’s going to be more troubling for us is that the crisis that is going to come after this, we're going to have a huge economical crisis so it's not going to be fun, but we'll get through it. The people who are in HEMA here are not people who give up easily because it's a lot trickier. But let me finish with the countries, then in Colombia we have a couple of groups. In Colombia there's like also a lot of Vikings for some reason, like Viking reenactments. I mean, in Chile, too, there's a lot of Vikings, they really love the Viking stuff. It’s curious. And basically those are the groups and I know that in Bolivia, there is one guy who's having this sort of school. I basically know almost all of these people because we have tried to gather in events. We had six countries represented last year in the event we organised here called Sassera Concagua, a small tournament event and classes that we do here in my town. And I don't think we can do it this year.
GW: If you have a website or anything for it, send the URL and I'll definitely put it in the show notes so people can find it.
TS: Sure. I mean, I haven’t an updated one because we update it for the event. But I mean, the Facebook page, I'll see what I can do. There’s a lot of pictures going around, and it was a good event with a lot of sharing. And that's how we're slowly building a community in South America. We don't have federations here yet because we don't have the amount of people that we need for doing that. But we are in contact. We are working together. We are slowly building the continent because HEMA is here to stay all over the world.
GW: Excellent. Music to my ears. So where do you see things going in a year's time? Do you think things will be more or less back to normal?
TS: I'm not sure. To be honest, I'm not sure. The things here are a bit tricky because of how poor everyone is. It's just the main issue. We don't have proper services. They told us in March that by June this will be over. And now, they're saying that the worst is yet to come. So I honestly don't know. There's a lot of people in my group that I know that will keep practising. So there are people in all South America that that have a passion for this and they'll keep practising no matter what.
GW: There's a lot there's a lot you can do on your own. There's research and there’s solo training.
TS: I’ve been translating a lot of Marozzo. I'm working on a Spanish translation for the people here. Most people don't speak English here.
GW: So the English translations aren’t much use.
TS: It’s a bit grim, but we’ll get through it.
GW: I have a few standard questions that I tend to finish up with. So what is the best idea that you've never acted on?
TS: The best idea I never acted on?
GW: Yes. Everyone has at least one idea filed away in a drawer.
TS: Basically move to Europe.
GW: Well you tried!
TS: I haven’t stopped. I’m still trying. No, but I think basically building a school like something similar to what you're doing in Helsinki, I think that might be like a good idea. I would try to do at some point if I stay in Chile because I'm into the idea of living somewhere else.
GW: Where would you like to live?
TS: Honestly, anywhere but Chile. But, you know, I love Europe. I fell in love with it, like the whole thing. I loved Finland. I love the U.K.. I love Italy. I love France. I love Spain. They're great places. Of course, they're not perfect, but, yeah, I very feel much at home in many of those places, even though I stayed like for two, three months. And also, it's a lot different in for what I want to do with my life, which is basically fencing swords, building armour, building stuff.
GW: Which sort of implies that you have a workshop that you set up. That’s quite difficult to move.
TS: You’d be surprised.
GW: I moved my woodworking shop from the Finland to Britain, and it was not easy.
TS: Well, my life I mean, because of how my mum works, I've always lived like two years in one place and three years in other. And I've never stayed in one place for a long time. Moving for me is just easy. I know people that it’s very, very difficult for them to travel and move to another place. And I didn't see anything wrong with it.
GW: I was the same, I grew up in in England and Argentina and Botswana and Peru. And then my parents moved to Scotland. I’ve been in Finland. So I understand that moving is easy. But once you've established a workshop there's lots of big heavy stuff in there. Either you have to have the money to replace it when you move, or you have to bring it with you and have a place to put it when you get there. I imagine that’s quite tricky.
TS: You know, like when I went to Europe the first time, I basically sold everything and just went, you remember how I arrived? And you were the first one I met.
GW: You arrived with a rucksack about as big as yourself and that was it.
TS: Yeah. And that was that was all I had. I have a lot more stuff now. But if it means that I can do what I want, which is basically live on my own terms and live with what I want to do, I can start over. I don't actually mind if I had to sell everything and start slowly in another place as I started here after I came back from Europe. I started with a small workshop with no tools. Now I have a proper workshop. I can do it again. It is not a limiting thing.
GW: That’s a very sort of flexible mindset.
TS: You have to be when you try and live fencing.
GW: That’s very true. So my last question for you is, if you had a million dollars or euros or some major currency to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide, how would you spend that money?
TS: That would be awesome.
GW: You can’t spend it on your own gear. You have to improve historical martial arts worldwide.
TS: I know. I think I would do something similar to what, Roberto has done in Italy. OK. I think that that's a very good example of building and improving and moving.
GW: Most of the people listening to this have probably never been to Italy and won’t know what you're talking about. Give us the lowdown.
TS: Roberto is a guy who lives in Italy who has a very big collection of swords and manuscripts. His life is fencing. He loves HEMA. And he slowly built this collection. He opened a museum with a training hall for this collection where people can go and train and touch the originals and read the original manuscripts. He also moves a lot in Europe and doing other stuff, doing tournaments, organising. He was one of the ones who got the HEMA into the European Games if I remember correctly. So he's a guy who does stuff. A lot of stuff. You can have your own opinion of whether that's good stuff or bad stuff, I think.
GW: The museum he’s created, that’s the sort of thing you would like to recreate somewhere? Presumably not next door to Roberto, because that would be a bit wasteful. So where would you put it? In Ipswich next to my house would be the place for it.
TS: You have enough swords already.
GW: So where would you put it?
TS: It's tricky, if I had a million dollars I could travel to Europe and get a visa. But if I wanted to build something worldwide, it will be here. It would be here in South America. Probably in Chile, because it is easier here for me. And basically build a system, a community where people could travel and stay in places, create networks of people who can travel and learn from each other. I think that the possibility I had of travelling and learning from so many people had such a big impact on me and my life. That is something I think people need. If we're going to do fencing the most people who can teach you, like the masters did. The masters struggled and learned from everyone they could, and it works.
GW: So you envision as sort of a centre which has historical weapons for people to use, and historical manuscripts, ideally. And a training space, maybe accommodation for people who travelled.
TS: Of course. I mean, the idea would be to have like a network of places where you can stay.
GW: I think you’re going to be running out of money quite soon.
TS: Yeah. But I mean, most fencers can just stay on a couch. I’ve slept on a lot of couches.
GW: That is true. One of the reasons I got a salle so early, when I set up my school, long before it was a good business decision to get a salle, was so that students who are visiting and have no money could just sleep in the salle and it was free. So I just lowered the barrier to getting people in who could then interact with my students and just generally raise everybody's game just by being another perspective in the room. So, yeah, I'm totally behind the whole – it's a good idea to have a training space where people can sleep. Absolutely. What would you put in this place of yours?
TS: I mean basically everything you need to train, to learn. Now I think I also would be very interesting to have like publishing stuff like, to have a part of that money dedicated to publishing things a lot like Wiktenauer does. I love the work they do. They're amazing. People who are starting now have so much!
GW: I started in the early 90s, so yeah, tell me about it. By like 2002, 2003, things were worlds different.
TS: Because I remember the first proper treatise we got was the Tom Leoni translation that we bought from Chile. And it was a huge effort. I think we wrote to you and you gave us like an early copy of the Getty manuscripts in that time. 2010, I think.
GW: Oh, okay. Maybe I sent you… We had the scans of the manuscripts and Tom produced the translation and one of my students took the translation and sort of superimposed it on the manuscript. And I contacted Tom and I told him what my student had done and I said, is it okay if I share this with people who've already bought the book? He was like, yeah, that's fine. And then I got this deluge of e-mail saying “I've just heard that we can have this thing. I'm going to go buy the book right now.” And it was it was good for Tom’s sales, that's for sure. That’s how we first met, wasn’t it?
TS: And I think after that you invited me and a friend and was like, you can go and stay a month here. And I stayed three months.
GW: My swords have never been so clean!
TS: And that was like the best material we could ever get. Now you can get everything. Everything! And then people don't read stuff because, oh it’s not translated properly. It’s like, dude!
GW: For those of us who’ve been in the field a while, you look at the youngsters coming up, and it’s like, you have no idea. You’re complaining about this and that, but you have no idea. But that's what old men have always done.
TS: Yeah, of course. I mean, I don't hold it against them and it's a good thing. I'm so glad you don't have to go through what I had to.
GW: I mean, someone can get to a level of understanding of historical martial arts in like two or three years that it took me 15 years to get to.
TS: And your generation trained up mine. And what took me eight years, I have some guys who are very natural talent here and they took it in a year. Soon I won't have anything else to teach you.
GW: Well that’s a good stimulus for your own training, isn’t it? It's getting better and better. You just have to scurry to keep ahead of them.
TS: And that's also a good reason. That's something that we've managed with this study group that we built, because most of the guys who started this study group came to train with me from different countries. They stayed with me for a week and I trained them everything I know. We now have discussions about the material at basically the same level. Which is amazing because you stay in this comfort zone of knowing more and feeling that you are better than anyone else, you're shit.
GW: Yeah. You stagnate.
TS: Yeah. It sucks. And I've seen some examples of people doing this, like they get to a level and it's fairly easy to do it here because we don't have that many people who can break the mould and go beyond by themselves. That's really tricky. So that's why I also go to Europe every certain time, because I need to get the ego down.
GW: When you feel yourself a big fish in a small pond it's good to go swimming in a bigger pond every now and then.
TS: You know, in Spanish, we say in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king. And I feel very much like the one-eyed guy sometimes. But the point is that you know that you are the one-eyed guy. I will have to remind myself that I can always be so much better. And I had the chance to train with such good people, with such teachers, such good fencers and everything that keeps me focussed on getting better.
GW: I liken it to medicine. Like a doctor who qualified 40 years ago and has been practising medicine ever since. Their level of medical knowledge might have stuck where it was from 40 years ago and it just missed out every development in medicine in the last 40 years. Or they might be leaders in their field because they kept ahead. And you have no way to know, walking into a doctor’s office, what kind of doctor they are. But usually after about 5 minutes of talking to them you can pretty much figure out whether they were, you know, “I’ve learned everything I needed to learn and I'm a doctor now, I do what I want.” Or whether they have kept up with the latest developments or what have you. You see the same thing with martial arts generally. A level of skill that was perfectly adequate for teaching professionally 15 years ago should be getting nowhere today, because the field has grown so much.
TS: That also has a double edged sword in the sense that, for example, I've learnt a lot. I've grown a lot as a fencer, as an instructor. And I've seen it on my students that they're good fencers, but I still don't feel like I can charge. I don't feel like I'm good enough yet. It's like, yeah, maybe in a few years. Like the imposter syndrome. A lot of people here have that.
GW: Well, the whole charging thing is a really personal decision. And the way I always looked at it was – where I was 20 years ago when I started charging people – It was pathetic compared to someone who's been training for five years now and who isn't charging anybody. But the way I always looked at it was my students pay me for my time and for the time I'm spending learning the things and training so that I can teach them. If I didn't charge for it, I didn't charge for the teaching, I couldn't do this for a living. And therefore all of the time I would spend researching and training I would have to chop away most of that to actually have a day job.
TS: Yeah, I have the same issue here.
GW: So I as I see it, if you being there is doing your students a favour and you would do it better if you were paid for it so you could devote more time to it than you are doing your students a favour by charging.
TS: In my respect. I agree. I completely agree. Your time should be valuable. The problem, here in Chile is that time is not valuable, not for the normal people. Maybe people in Europe or in America, maybe in the United States, they don't really feel this way. But I've seen both sides. I lived in Europe and I lived in this country. The amount of money people can put into hobbies and activities is so much less. So those activities which are not primordial they don't get money. Like, for example, a professional martial arts instructor here charges a guy 20 euros a month for having a gym and training and everything. It’s basically nothing. People live with less than the minimum wage. So when you have something that is not known because a Kung Fu master can charge that and people will pay basically training children. It's not a viable thing training adults here or training for tournaments. It’s a thing that people get a very wrong idea of what it is when they come to the first training of what we're doing. They usually go immediately if they want to feel like powerful knights beating people like that, that people kind of filters itself out really quickly. And people who find the system and find someone who can teach them and find that they can grow in different ways training, they stay and I’ve had a lot of people stay, which makes me really happy. But at the same time, these people have to afford swords, afford gear and training time and it's just too much money for us. In Europe, someone can buy a two hundred euro sword one month and it's not that big of a deal. Here you have to save for a year for a sword. So in a sense, it's like a choice between like, OK, if I start charging for my time and everything, I won't have students or I will have like three students. If I just charge just a little bit just to get the gas for the truck and get the swords there, I might have like 20 students.
GW: Fair enough. And you are selling protective equipment, right? That’s what you make a living from.
TS: Yeah… I did before the pandemic.
GW: So from an economic perspective you have the classes so that people will train. So they'll need equipment which you can then sell them.
TS: That would make sense if I didn’t charge what I charge the guys from my group.
GW: I know what you’re like: “You need it, of course you can have it.”
TS: No, I had this prototype… Yeah… I can sell it to you for like two euros. Yeah. It's the problem with doing what you love professionally is that you do a lot of personal sacrifices that you wouldn't do for a job normally.
GW: Sure. That's absolutely true.
TS: When people say follow your dreams, I say just don't.
GW: If you are sufficiently hesitant about it that you are asking the question, don’t do it.
TS: Yeah, if you don't have any other choice, go for it.
GW: But if it won't leave you alone and you just have to do it then by all means do it and it’ll work out eventually.
TS: You must know it's miserable for a lot of the time. It’s incredibly rewarding. But a lot of the process is also difficult.
GW: For fifteen years I was never more than one bad month away from being completely bankrupt. That was just normal. There were good months and bad months. But one really bad month could have finished the whole operation. For fifteen years that was the level of uncertainty.
TS: The only thing that kept me afloat now for these months is basically I have some savings and I didn't have any debt. I managed to build my stuff without getting any credit. Because if I had some, I would be like… bad. So, yeah, it is incredibly rewarding. I would not do anything else than what I do. I would just build in what I do. But I will not recommend it. One of my Argentinian friends, he’s an engineer, he sent me a message saying why didn't you just tell me how miserable you are so I don't drop everything and start building swords. He’s still an engineer. Sorry if I sound a bit grim, it's just that things are not well here in Chile at the moment. But when this is over. I want to extend my invitations to any instructor, fencer, who wants to come to Chile for holidays or whatever. They can stay with me and they can stay with a lot of other people who do fencing because a lot of people in Europe just received me in the homes, you included. I am really thankful for that. So I try to do the same for everyone to ask. And I had a lot of people from South America and some European people come to me. So I said, I extend the invitation. We have great views, amazing food and some good fencing, too.
GW: And wine too.
TS: I don't drink. So I guess. But yeah, there's good wine, cellar beer too.
GW: So you say you heard it here first folks, make Chile your destination of choice for the holidays next year and you can all stay at Tomas’s house. Excellent, that sounds like a party!
TS: Maybe not all of the same time. We can accommodate a lot of people.
GW: So where should people find you on the Internet?
TS: Well, at the moment, my main contact thing is my Facebook for now. Tomas Suazo on Facebook should be fine. I also have my page for my company, Broken Anvil. It's on Facebook and Instagram. And for now those are the things. I build my company slowly, to not get in debt. I also didn't publish so much stuff that gives me so much publicity. So I oversell which is always a danger when you're working on your own.
GW: And so many martial arts suppliers fell into that trap in the early days.
TS: Yeah. It's really tricky because you need the money, but you need to keep the clients happy too.
GW: Make sure you make promises you know you can keep.
TS: Yeah, absolutely. That's what I try. I'm still in business.
GW: Well thank you very much indeed Tomas. It has been a pleasure talking to you and I hope to talk to you again.
TS: Yeah, it was it was great. Thank you. Guy. I hope you're well. Send regards to your family and come to Chile. We don't have money, but we have a lot of stuff.
GW: Thank you Tomas.
Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Tomas. Remember to go along to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 for the episode show notes and to download your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. And tune in next week when I'll be talking to Kimberleigh Roseblade. We discuss Fiore, going into some depth into some of the wrestling plays, how she manages to be a historical martial arts instructor while suffering from Lupus and many other things. And remember to subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. See you next week.