English immigrant flourishes as blacksmith Peter Wilkinson creates heavy industrial, decorative work. IRON ARTISTRY

May 08, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

'Twas under a spreading chestnut tree that the village smithy stood, the poet Longfellow said, and the mighty blacksmith wielded his hammers with arms as strong as iron bands.

But no more, said Peter Wilkinson. The physical antithesis of the legendary village blacksmith, the 32-year-old transplanted Englishman produces the same artistry in iron and steel using the education, technique and modern equipment that he said has replaced sheer muscle power.

Mr. Wilkinson learned his trade in a five-year apprenticeship -- studying college-level mechanical engineering, metallurgy and practical metal fabrication.

"At the time, I was the only apprentice industrial blacksmith in the southeast of England," said Mr. Wilkinson, a native of Guildford, Surrey.

Industrial blacksmiths, he explained, are trained to do everything from turning white-hot iron and steel into heavy industrial equipment to fashioning intricately curved rails that sweep flights of stairs gracefully from one floor to another.

Decorative wrought-iron and cast-iron work -- railings, furniture, massive gates -- produced by 18th and 19th century blacksmiths and founders -- is among the most eye-catching features of many of Britain's stately homes as well as of many of its more humble buildings.

Mr. Wilkinson aspires to this standard. "I'm an English blacksmith. Don't call me an ironworker."

In fact, he added, restoration -- particularly jobs that other companies have refused -- has become something of a specialty. It has helped him to forge, speaking metaphorically, links with architects and restorers in the Baltimore and Washington areas.

His largest job, physically, involved repairing a 60-foot-by-12-foot stained-glass window at a Masonic Temple in Washington. Someone fell into the window from a scaffold, shattering the glass and bending its bronze supports.

"Two other companies said they couldn't do it. We looked at it and saw no problem. It's fixed; it's fine," Mr. Wilkinson said. "The only real problem was commuting to Washington every day."

While he is reticent about discussing his customers, Mr. Wilkinson proudly produced photos of the graceful interior railings he made for the Virginia home of a former secretary of state.

Among his local projects is the "historically correct" metal work forged for a Colonial-style mansion owned by a Baltimore County contractor. Door hinges and drawer pulls, lamps and even two weather vanes were designed based on careful research of period authenticity, he said.

Mr. Wilkinson, and his three-year apprentice, Randy Slaysman, 22, a Towson State University student, "look for the unusual and difficult," he said. "Everything we do is one of a kind; that's why I call the company Unique Metal Works."

Both men live in Rodgers Forge, which seems appropriate, Mr. Wilkinson noted, because the area was named for a blacksmith shop founded in 1808 at Stevenson Lane and York Road.

Unless you are looking for something "different," like compound curves or even double compound curves, don't call Mr. Wilkinson to hammer out a new railing for your front porch. He farms out routine jobs to other firms.

"I won't duplicate a project," he said. "There's no challenge doing the same thing over."

One "different" job in progress is a steel bed frame for a well-known Baltimore family. The headboard centerpiece will be

painted as a basket of flowers by an artist once the metalwork is completed and polished.

Another is a massive iron ring, surrounding a cluster of iron "grapes," made as the door pull for a wine cellar. "Every piece is hand-forged. It weighs about 20 pounds," the blacksmith said. "There is a lot of hand work in everything we do."

Mr. Wilkinson said his favorite project, from design to fabrication, is an iron chandelier that projects shadow pictures of African animals on the walls. He made it for a local woman.

"It's a statement," he said. "She had been to Kenya and saw what's happening to the animals there, and I love Kenya, too." He said he has refused several requests to replicate the piece.

After completing his apprenticeship in 1982, Mr. Wilkinson worked in heavy industry briefly and then as a sort of village blacksmith in England. But he is a self-described non-conformist who "doesn't like rules." One day, he said, "I grabbed a bag and took off for Los Angeles."

Having seen Southern California in the movies, he wanted to XTC sample the area for himself. He knew his strong English accent would be a key to many doors: "Americans really love it."

Stints as an industrial blacksmith building heavy construction and mining equipment were followed by work with a movie company, restoring antique metalwork, including gold and silver tea services.

This experience led him to meet many celebrities and he worked for some of them. "I spent 3 1/2 weeks at ["Star Trek" actor] William Shatner's house. I had a whale of a time out there, even though sometimes I was so poor I'd get a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread to eat for a week," he said.

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