Solid as iron, family of blacksmiths minds tradition


August 16, 1994|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Sun Staff Writer

At G. Krug & Son Inc., the iron works on Saratoga Street, the new is almost indistinguishable from the old. Custom-made iron window grills, railings and other products are made almost the same way as they were around 1850.

Steve Krug, president, and his brother Peter, a blacksmith, are the fifth generation of Krugs to make their livings as blacksmiths. Their great-great-grandfather began working in the blacksmith shop around 1850 and bought it around 1870. An early Baltimore map shows a blacksmith shop at the location around 1810.

For the Krugs, carrying on the family tradition is a proud and demanding task. It has meant putting up with quirks of a 185-year-old building, an ever-changing neighborhood, and the fickle demands of fashion.

Mr. Krug is preserving as much of the past as he can. A room on the second floor, believed to have been a dining room, is now a private museum. Patterned and old metal designs hang from the walls. A very large iron chandelier, electrified, hangs over a table with ornate iron legs.

Two glass cases are full of very old designs, such as iron finials that were used to decorate the top of railings and gates. Century-old designs, hand-drawn, are locked in drawers to protect them from handling.

Q: At one time blacksmiths were a necessity. Now, the only time most of us see one is at a museum or a county festival where the blacksmiths provide entertainment. What made blacksmiths obsolete?

A: In the past, iron work was a basic part of the city. There were iron lamp posts, boot scrapers. If you went into a bank, an artistic iron teller cage stretched along the wall. Theaters might have fancy ticket windows. You don't see this any more.

If you needed nails, locks or shovels, you had them hand-made by the blacksmith. There is no reason for that anymore because these are things that are manufactured and sold through large stores.

Q: How has your family's business survived for nearly 150 years? After all, coopers, shoemakers and tanneries have disappeared from the streets of Baltimore.

A: We make products people still want, like basic iron window grates or grills to fit over exterior doors.

Demand has actually increased as crime has increased in the city. That makes up about 30 percent of our revenue. A no-frills, average-size window guard would cost a minimum of about $150.

I wish people didn't have to barricade themselves in their houses, and I don't like profiting off crime. But security window grates and door grates were something that blacksmiths made 150 years ago for shop keepers and some homeowners.

The biggest change is that in the past homeowners routinely ordered decorative railings for inside and outside steps and decorative fences and gates.

Now, we may get three or four jobs a year for very detailed ironwork such as gates and railings. That makes up about 70 percent of our revenue, and one job could cost up to $100,000.

We could handle one or two more jobs a year, maybe, but not much more than that. For one thing we don't have enough employees -- we have nine. That kind of ornate work takes a lot of time.

A blacksmith shop used to be a necessity; now we are a frill.

Q: What about the homesteaders who moved into the city and rehabbed houses. What effect did they have?

A: The Renaissance of the city from the early '70s to the late '80s did bring a lot of business. We had up to 12 workers then. The people who were moving back to the city were purchasing a lot of gates and fences and wanted things really nice.

That was a time when people wanted to live in the city and were willing to invest in their homes. We don't see those kinds of jobs anymore. Some of the sentiment [about living in the city] has drifted away.

Q: How do you find employees? And how are they trained? Schools and colleges are pushing high-tech education, such as computer training, not blacksmith skills.

A: It's difficult. There are associations of blacksmiths that teach these skills. And there are really people who want to learn how to do this.

Mostly we hire welders, who at least understand the basics, and then we try to teach them how to be blacksmiths.

Q: Has your family lost any ironworking skills over the years?

A: Not much. But I don't think we could duplicate much of the real fine work. For example, I don't think we could do tiny scroll work anymore. [The scrolls are about the width of a pencil eraser and about the thickness of a piece of cardboard.]

And we couldn't reproduce other decorative pieces either. And we have examples of very old, very delicate metal ribbons -- re-creating that would be extremely impractical because of the hours it would take to make.

Q: How do you deal with the pressures of tradition? Do you want to keep everything just as it is?

A: No. Every generation has had to make changes some way because if they hadn't they wouldn't have stayed in business.

Living in a building this old means constant maintenance. We had to erect a steel beam on one side of the building to keep the wall from collapsing.

We have also invested in some modern equipment, and we'd buy more, but it's real expensive. Some of the old equipment takes longer to use and is harder to use.

The biggest change we are facing is to decide whether or not we want to move the business out of the city. A lot of our customers are afraid to come downtown because a lot of them think it's dangerous.

Q: Will there be a sixth-generation to take over this business?

A: I hope that one of my daughters, or nieces or nephews will do it. But we are not pushing them. The best way to learn is to work in the shop and gradually learn a little bit every day.

Q: How long do you think this business can survive? At some point technology may make everything you do obsolete.

A: I firmly believe we will always survive because nothing can duplicate our custom work. That would be like asking a computer to paint a masterpiece.

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