Blakely blacksmith Joe Piela’s pieces are in the collections of LARPers, cosplayers and hobbyists from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Hong Kong
BLAKELY — Joe Piela entered the world of fantasy in the late 1970s through a tiny four-sided gate that said “The Hobbit” on its front cover. Piela, then 14, was fascinated by author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s descriptions of ornate weapons and armor used by the dwarves and elves that populated Middle-Earth. The newly forged fantasy fan gained such an admiration for these intangible pieces of equipment that he wanted to see them become reality, so he set out to learn skills that would allow him to bring a bit of fantasy into the real world.
Piela became interested in blacksmithing through his grandfather, Michael, who immigrated to the United States from Poland in the early 1920s. Joe learned he comes from a long line of blacksmiths after he shared his newfound interest with his grandfather and, although Michael was a carpenter by trade, he knew enough about the profession to get his grandson on the right path. The two set up a forge behind Michael’s Blakely home (a few doors down from Joe’s childhood home) and Joe finished his first dagger less than a year later. As his skills continued to develop, he began looking for ways to further improve.
“I can’t say I’m entirely self-taught,” Piela said. “I picked up some things from older guys along the way. One blacksmith had a business where he would do ornamental ironwork for houses and and I learned some stuff from him. Other guys I didn’t meet but I’d get their video tapes and they’d teach various techniques. When I got started in this, there weren’t so many books and there weren’t YouTube videos; you had to experiment a lot on your own.”
After graduating from Scranton’s Bishop O’Hara High School in 1982, Piela earned an associate’s degree in computer science from Penn State Worthington and began working at J.R. Systems in Dalton. By 1990, the hobbyist blacksmith had enough business to warrant a full-time career change. Live action roleplaying participants, cosplayers and filmmakers sought the services Piela was able to offer through his knowledge of blacksmithing and respect for the various source materials in which his fantasy pieces originated.
The blacksmith’s desire to create wasn’t based in equipment described on pages; it was inspired by his appreciation for weaponry used on real battlefields. The generation of Pielas before him lived through World War II. That personal connection to the conflict fueled an interest in military history and, eventually, reenactment. It also fueled half his business when he began crafting full-time.
“By 1990, there were several people in the reenactment community earning full-time livings being armor makers because the hobby was booming,” Piela said. “I’ve done a number of Greek, Roman and Celtic helmets that were forged to one piece. One of my claims to fame is I’ve done a lot of Corinthian helmets, which was the helmet the Spartans wore in ‘300,’ in one piece of bronze. That’s not easy to do.”
The Boy Scouts of America have invited Piela, a former Scout himself, to demonstrate his skill set at Camp Acahela’s Harvest Fest event in Blakeslee. It was there that 9-year-old Tyler Sepcoski first met the blacksmith. Sepcoski, now 20, was brought into the world of live action roleplaying through Piela, who helped the Bear Creek resident make a number of items, including a set of armor pieces for the legs called greaves. Sepcoski said he acquired his own forge two years ago, sending him down the path of amateur blacksmithing Piela traversed some decades prior.
“It’s one of those accomplishments where I get to say I made this; I can take a piece of steel that most people would consider a piece of junk and I can fit it into something really cool,” Sepcoski said. “It’s a personal gain, seeing that I can accomplish things. I owe all of my experience to him because, without that, I wouldn’t have learned any of it.”
From history and Scouting to fantasy and roleplay, Piela’s interests have come full-circle like the shield of an Ancient Greek hoplite. The 51-year-old blacksmith — thanks to the economic downturn of the late 2000s — is currently finishing the final edit of his own fantasy novel, “The Dragon Helm of Tevya,” which he hopes to publish via Amazon Kindle this year. Besides writing and working as a candy machine operator at Gertrude Hawk’s plant in Dunmore, Piela still performs demonstrations, helps fellow live action roleplaying participants with their gear and takes on what jobs he can handle.
The equipment described in Tolkein’s tales may have been canonically forged in the dwellings of dwarves and elves, but a dwelling in Blakely has seen the creation of fantasy reproductions, historical resurrections and artistic reimaginings from Middle-Earth and beyond.
Joe Piela entered the world of blacksmithing because of an appreciation for items both fictional and historical, stayed because that appreciation gave him a way to earn a living and never left because blacksmithing remains a desirable service in the circles he inhabits. He may not have a title like The One Blacksmith to Rule Them All, but he did sell to a guy in Hong Kong once, who he said was “pretty cool.”
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter @TLArts