I had just been told how much the Master Sword would weigh when made out of real materials. With a blade of inch-thick solid metal, it would be massively impractical to carry around. Try using that in battle.
I had never been more aware of Link’s true strength. He swings the Master Sword around with just one hand.
Two years ago, I stumbled across an eBay auction for a Master Sword replica. Well, “stumbled” might be the wrong word – we reported about it here. At the time, it was the most accurate Master Sword replica I had ever seen. It had an engraved steel blade and a hand-woven leather grip. Its creator had even cast a concrete Pedestal of Time with its own leather-lined interior to hold the sword up. The auction started at one cent.
My friend egged me into bidding on it. A fierce bidding war soon took place, but I was determined. I walked away with an empty wallet and a sense of victory.
The sword soon arrived in an unceremoniously bland cardboard box. I opened it, eagerly swung the replica around, and cracked the resin hilt. Nice, Jason.
Turns out it was nice, because that’s how I met Dave.
Right: The finished battle-ready Master Sword.
David Leferink, the Canada-based mechanical engineer who runs Heroic Replicas, was the man behind that sword, and it’s no surprise that he was able to make it so accurate. “I graduated in 2008, took on a few odd jobs, and landed a job at a steel plant,” Dave says. “There, I wrote up work orders, drew parts for customers, and helped manage production.”
What would a real-life Link take into battle and kill a bunch of bad guys with?
Dave did send me a repair kit that I used to patch up the replica, but by then we had more to worry about. I’d noticed the inaccuracies in his design: the soft roundness across the hilt and pommel, the nice-feeling but not exactly accurate leather grip, and the blade-heavy balance. And the thinness of it all made it look like the Master Sword on a juice cleanse.
It wasn’t long before we started talking about making a second, even more accurate Master Sword. The prompt: What if Link, and the Master Sword, were real? What would a real-life Link take into battle and kill a bunch of bad guys with?
To get the most accurate design, Dave and I began pouring through source material. I’ve worked with thousands of pieces of Nintendo artwork over the last twelve years, so I knew exactly where to find it all: in the Zelda Wiki archives.
We ended up having trouble analyzing the Skyward Sword official artwork to come up with the most accurate design. From artwork to artwork the designs of the Master Sword differed slightly. Sometimes the blade was tremendously thick. Other times it had a different design entirely. In one piece of Skyward Sword official art, Link is holding the Twilight Princess Master Sword.
We began pouring through the Zelda Wiki archives for source material
We decided there was only one place to get the truth: from the game itself.
Dave came back with 3D models he had ripped from Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess and imported into SolidWorks, his CAD modeling software. “I imported the low-poly model from Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, and discovered they were identical.” Although they were identical, both ripped models were extremely low-resolution. We felt pretty defeated; if we couldn’t figure out the canonical design from the game itself, what hope was there that there even was a canonical design?
Then, Dave had a thought. “I remembered on my play-through of Skyward Sword there was a cutscene that showed the Master Sword with more detail, when it morphs from achieving it’s ‘ultimate form’. I found a save file online near that cutscene, defeated The Imprisoned for the umpteenth time, captured the scene, imported it into Blender, and isolated the sword.”
Bottom: the final, production-ready model. Dave “traced” over the high-poly model in 3D to achieve the most accurate design.
“With this higher poly model, I was able to use it as reference geometry to ‘trace’ over it in SolidWorks.” But the model import wasn’t the end of it. Lurking in the models were design issues that, left unaddressed, would compromise the accuracy of the entire replica.
Building the blade
Dave’s new 3D models revealed a startling truth about the sword that we hadn’t anticipated. “A practical sword should weigh less than three pounds,” Dave says. “Because the blade needs to be visible in the game, it’s modeled with a blade that, when scaled up, is about 1-inch thick. If made of steel, it would weigh almost fifty pounds.”
It’s easy to gloss over just how huge the Master Sword is
We decided to shrink the blade. But when we did, the sword looked wildly out of proportion. We had two options: Keep the proportions of the sword correct and make a fifty pound display piece, or shrink the thickness of the blade and the hilt.
Dave is the first to admit that creating a “practical” Master Sword is an oxymoron: “If you designed a sword made for cutting grass, killing bats, and smiting evil, it would likely look a lot different than the Master Sword.” And until you take a deep look at the official art and the in-game models, it’s easy to gloss over just how huge the Master Sword is. There’s a beautiful impracticality to the Master Sword that makes engineering one much more interesting and challenging.
In the end, Dave reduced the thickness of the blade to 3/16” and adjusted elements of the hilt accordingly, preserving what we felt were the most important details of the Master Sword’s design: the conical center of the hilt, the shape of the pommel and golden gems, and the size of the wings. After a few more adjustments for manufacturability, it was time to start sourcing materials.
For his original swords, Dave had used low-carbon structural steel and later stainless steel. “These were easy for me to source at my old job,” he says. However, this new Master Sword would have to be combat ready, and stainless steel wasn’t going to cut it. For that, you need a high-carbon steel that won’t lose its edge over time.
“Even when posting my very first sword, the internet was pretty vocal as to what would make an ideal real Master Sword. The short list was to have a tempered high carbon steel, full tang, with a metal hilt. The machinist that does my surfacing (called Blanchard grinding) had some high carbon material on hand, specifically O2 tool steel, used for tooling and knives.”
Dave employed a plasma cutter, which uses jets of superheated particles to rip through solid matter, to cut the blade. Industrial plasma cutters can cut large sheets of steel, making it possible to create many blades at once.
Once the blades were rough cut, it was time to create the swords edge, or bevel. On older blades, which had a uniform bevel, Dave’s brother would grind the edges by hand. However, the real Master Sword’s bevel is not uniform around the blade; it substantially increases in size near the tip. To produce a sword with a variable bevel width, we wouldn’t be able to grind the edge by hand. We’d need entirely new equipment. Luckily, Dave knew exactly what to do.
A CNC (or computer numerical control) mill creates objects by stripping away small layers of material, one after the other, with a computer-controlled drill. First, a designer supplies 3D renderings to the drill, which combines this data with additional data about the object being drilled. To prevent the material being drilled – and the drill itself – from overheating, it’s equipped with a jet that sprays coolant over the material during the entire process. CNC milling can produce virtually any shape you want, as long as you supply a 3D model. It’s also incredibly precise – so when Dave fed his model for the sword’s tip into the mill’s software, it carved a perfect Master Sword bevel.
The CNC mill was also used to create the Master Sword’s iconic Triforce emblem. The real Master Sword’s emblem is embossed; it sits atop the blade. However, it would be massively impractical to produce. To create such a Triforce emblem, you’d need to buy substantially thicker steel, then mill layers off the top of the blade until the emblem was the correct height, producing tons of waste in the process. We chose to do the exact opposite of this: we engraved the Triforce emblem into the sword.
Dave then carefully used a rotary tool to produce an optical illusion. By giving the emblem a reflective texture, it would appear to lift off of the sword when struck with light. With only one blade, attempting to create this effect was a gamble that could have ruined the sword. It worked perfectly.
The hilt is the Master Sword’s most recognizable feature. Forged in the three flames of the Goddesses, it provides a visual indicator of the Master Sword’s power. At full strength, its cross-guard spreads out into the iconic wing shape.
We were all out of Goddess flames, so we decided to use aluminum instead. Aluminum is strong, yet malleable. It’s easy to color; anodization for aluminum is available in a wide range of color options and, as a bonus, provides protection from dings and scratches. And it’s remarkably light; with the high-carbon steel already tipping the scales, we wanted aluminum to keep the weight within a usable range.
But working with aluminum turned out to be more than Dave bargained for when he tried to build a do-it-yourself foundry in his backyard.
“The foundry – I don’t even know if foundry’s the right word – was a bucket lined with concrete with a super-hot fire inside of it with coals and forced airflow via a blow dryer to melt the aluminum. It failed spectacularly.”
The bucket wasn’t insulated enough, so the aluminum didn’t get hot enough to melt. Airflow within the bucket was also inadequate, and his molding techniques probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. “That setback made me seek professional help,” Dave said.
To cast the aluminum accurately, Dave asked one of his contacts to help him make a match plate. A match plate makes an impression in sand, which then gets filled with molten metal.
Dave had a preferred foundry to cast the aluminum. But the foundry was busy – really busy. During the several months’ wait time, Dave worked on resin versions of the sword using separate silicone molds, including a Twilight Princess variant and a spectacular black Master Sword for the charity Desert Bus. These new resin models, based on the newer sword designs, were far more structurally sound than his previous resin attempts. They were also great practice for what was to come.
Dave reached out to the foundry after the specified wait time, and was quoted a several months additional wait. Despondent, he began looking elsewhere. He came across a foundry able to produce castings immediately, but only in bronze.
“Bronze is used in actual sword design for its strength,” Dave said at the time when I asked him if it was worth holding out for the aluminum castings. The upside of using bronze was that the blade would have improved balance and be far more realistic; the downside was that it would weigh three pounds heavier, making it too heavy to hold in one hand.
The weight was concerning. Even with our size reductions, Dave says the Master Sword has a huge hilt: “I originally choose the Master Sword as one of my first props because it’s relatively simple compared to many other fantasy props, but even so the hilt is very large compared to any real-world sword.”
Despite this, we went with the bronze. It ended up being one of the best decisions of the project. The first castings were ready in just two weeks.
A chef’s nightmare
However, ready didn’t mean finished. Resin, a lightweight polymer, will generally hold any shape you pour it in to, making it ideal for props of all sizes. However, when working with large masses of solid metal, the laws of physics stop working in your favor. “The bulb,” Dave said, referring to the conical section in the center of the hilt, “came out looking like a deflated balloon.” Dave needed to reduce the mass in the center of the bulb so that it would cool evenly, otherwise it would deform like a collapsed soufflé. “A chef’s nightmare,” my foodie friend told me.
The solution was to modify the core; a brittle insert placed inside the match plate that displaces the metal. After casting it’s removed, leaving a cavity behind. The core would reduce the mass of the hilt, allowing it to cool evenly and retain its shape. And less mass meant lighter weight; the sword would now be light enough to hold in one hand.
The core did the trick. At last, we had perfect castings.
The colors, Duke
The Master Sword is purple.
I’m sure I’ve made a lot of people angry with that statement. To be sure, the Master Sword has changed colors over the years. First it was silver and red. Then, with Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, it was a deep cobalt blue. But in Twilight Princess and since, the Master Sword is a rich, vibrant purple.
It’s always been a pet peeve of mine that, despite this, I’ve never seen a Master Sword replica in purple. Even replicas based on Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword – even ones that Dave himself had produced (at least the ones I’d seen) are all cobalt blue.
(He later showed me his purple Master Sword variants, proving me wrong – but his sales data showed that people disproportionately favored blue-colored swords.)
It turns out that the Master Sword’s specific bluish-purple hue is just way more difficult to recreate than cobalt blue, which is a standard color of spray paint. While exploring ways to recreate this very specific type of purple, my first thought was to anodize the bronze hilt. Since we were originally planning to anodize the aluminum hilt, this seemed like the obvious choice.
Anodization creates a seamless color that looks like it’s a part of the metal by adding a hard, colored outer layer to the metal that is very thin – just a few microns thick. But color options available to us were startlingly limited; the closest we could find to the Master Sword’s purple was “hot pink”.
We imagined a hot pink Master Sword. We decided against it.
There was a second reason why anodization was not viable, and it related to a technical shortcoming in the bronze castings. Because layers of anodization are so thin, they require the metal to be nearly perfectly smooth to look good. It turned out that the bronze castings simply weren’t smooth enough. To smooth out the hilt’s shape, we’d need to apply something with a thicker layer of color.
For that, we turned to a more versatile option for coloring known as powder coating. Commonly used on automobile parts, powder coating is a durable alternative to paint that, as you might have guessed, starts off as a powder. An electrostatic spray gun causes the powder to stick uniformly on the metal’s surface with static electricity. Finally, heat is applied, causing the powder to melt and form a tough, stable polymer on the metal’s surface. A clear coat gives the object a pristine, glossy finish.
A staggering number of blue and purple swatches arrived at my apartment
Powder coats can be layered on top of one another for various effects, and the layers are much thicker than layers of anodization. Powder coats are typically so thick that I feared it would soften the crisp edges of the hilt and give the sword a rounded appearance, but Dave told me that the coats could be both thin and durable.
Having already done some research, he lined up four potential sources to handle the finish. A key ring containing a staggering number of blue and purple swatches arrived at my apartment two months later.
I spent about a week with the swatches, comparing and re-comparing them to official artwork and in-game models. One particular swatch’s usual appearance seemed remarkably close to Skyward Sword’s purple, but could change to cobalt blue if hit by light at certain angles. It matched every piece of official art I could find and, depending on the angle of the light, even the art for multiple different Zelda games.
I sent the swatch to Dave. Dave sent the hilt to the finisher.
Assembling all the pieces
It’s your standard Zelda quest: collect the pieces of the shattered golden Triforce, and reassemble them.
Well, there we were, collecting the final pieces of the Master Sword. And they were literally pieces of gold – the diamond-shaped gems and tongs for the hilt. By now, the sword was was just over two years in the making.
The gems and tongs were made to fit into slots in the hilt that he had designed. Dave cast them from pewter, a more practical metal choice because he could do the casting in silicone molds at his home: “Casting with pewter can be done with medium heat on a hot plate or stovetop, and many types of silicone can resist the heat enough to make good molds.” Pewter is also very forgiving, an especially useful trait for the detailed, tiny gems. “If you make a mistake in pewter, you can easily re-melt the part and carry on.” However, he cautions would-be metalworkers on boiling up some pewter of their own: “The first rule of pewter casting is: ‘It’s hot, silly!’”
The first rule of pewter casting is: ‘It’s hot, silly!’
Dave 3D printed the gem and tong shapes, which he sanded and turned into silicone molds that could hold the pewter casts, and began pouring the hot metal. “During one pour, I noticed a small plume of smoke come out from the mold. When I opened it, there were a few bubbles, and I realized that a stray hair had gotten caught in the mold.” It took a few tries for Dave to solidify his pouring technique, but he eventually had perfectly casted gems and tongs.
For coloring, we wanted the gems and tongs to look like real gold. We knew powder coating wasn’t an option here; the only way to make them look like real gold would be to use real gold. Dave ordered a plating kit that he could use to gold plate the gems himself.
You can actually gold plate most metals yourself at home, Dave says, using a process known as electroplating. “I did my electroplating at home because I wanted to add the kit to my toolbox. It was much easier than I expected.”
To electroplate a metal object, you first submerge it in a special plating solution which contains the trace metals you want plated to the surface of your object. Running electrical charges through both the solution and the metal causes a chemical reaction to occur, which forces the metal suspended in the solution to become bonded to the surface of your metal object.
In Dave’s case, two steps were required because gold can’t be plated directly to pewter. First, the pewter must be plated with a thick layer of copper. The copper-plated pewter is then plated again using a gold solution. “I was very happy with the results,” Dave said.
Finally, we had collected all the necessary pieces to create the true Master Sword: The blade, hilt, pommel, gems, and tongs. A handle was fashioned from solid oak, wrapped in color-matched vinyl, and tied with the iconic double helix of green ribbon.
The assembly was swift. At last, the Master Sword was complete.
With the two-year project now under his belt, Dave was filled with relief. “I felt confident that I had just completed my best work.”
“The obvious next step would be a Hylian Shield to match,” he says when I ask him what he’s going to do now. My wall gets very excited.
My wall is very excited
For his own business, Dave says he wants Heroic Replicas to become known for this level of quality. “I’m looking forward to revisiting some old projects, taking on new ones, and balancing the workload so that my quality stays at this level. It took a long time to get here, but it was worth it.”
Dave also hopes his story will encourage future makers. “It’s all about learning new things. From the very beginning, from creating molds to casting plastic to doing the designs myself, I learned a lot about myself and my skills.
“You have to dive into it, otherwise you won’t know what you’re capable of.”