Stoking the fires of blacksmithing

Welshman teaches the craft -- and its art -- to others in Anne Arundel County

May 14, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Eight years ago, Christopher Holt came across a dusty old blacksmith shop in Wales. From the moment he entered the shop and heated his first piece of hot steel, he knew it was something he wanted to pursue.

He went to work as an apprentice for Welsh blacksmith Ronnie Pipp. He worked with Pipp until 2001 when he heard about a class offered through the Artist-Blacksmith's Association of North America (ABANA), a nonprofit organization that began 30 years ago with 20 blacksmiths and has grown to 5,000 members and more than 50 affiliates.

Holt traveled to the United States to attend the class in Hope, Ark. His plan was to attend the monthlong class, learn what he could and return to Wales. But it didn't work out that way.

"I was so fascinated by it that I wanted to learn more," he said. And the opportunities for blacksmiths in the United States were abundant.

When the course ended, he signed up for a journeyman's program in which he traveled the country learning the trade. He went to places such as Texas and Wisconsin, and finally ended up in Maryland.

Five-years later, Holt is living in Arnold and teaching the fundamentals of blacksmithing in workshops at Kinder Farm Park in Millersville. He is president of the Chesapeake Forge Blacksmiths, an ABANA affiliate that started about 2002.

"I didn't intend to stay in the United States, but I really want to make my living as a blacksmith," said Holt, 28. And the forge guild offered him a chance to learn and teach about the trade.

Holt knew that it would take time to establish himself as a skilled tradesman. He enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College to take classes to become a registered nurse.

"I want to be a blacksmith, but I need to make a living, and right now I can't do that," Holt said. "I am interested in nursing, so it seemed like the best thing to do."

While attending school, he is honing his blacksmithing skills. Already, he said, he has learned much about a trade that encompasses a large field of knowledge.

Wealth of knowledge

Although Holt has acquired a great deal of knowledge about blacksmithing over the years, when he teaches he focuses on the basics. He tells his class that a blacksmith is a person who heats metal until it's soft and then shapes it into horseshoes, gates, grills, railings, sculptures, tools and decorative items.

"When you decide that you want to be a blacksmith, you have to chart your own course in deciding what you want to do," Holt said. "You could never learn everything."

Matt Miller, 25, who makes a living as a blacksmith crafting railings, fences and gates, concurs. Miller, also a member of the Chesapeake group, said it's hard work, but he likes the attention he gets from doing it.

"When people hear what I do, they say that it sounds really hard and they think it's really neat, so I guess I like that," Miller said. But the work is not without challenges.

"I work with some of the hardest substances on earth, and they aren't real forgiving," Miller said. But Miller's interest and dedication is inspired by his desire to create knives, swords and armor for his own growing collection.

"I really get into the Renaissance festival and the swords and stuff," said Miller, who started making such items when he was 15. His collection includes about 30 swords and more than 80 knives.

Taking pains

Although he has seven years' experience, he said, there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't suffer some small injury.

"I get sunburned when I don't wear long sleeves, I have calluses on calluses on my hands, and I get burned quite a bit," Miller said. "Like the other day, I burned my arms and I hopped around the shop for a while, and then went back to work."

Holt said all blacksmiths adjust to the occupational hazards involved in the trade.

"Mainly I get burns on my fingers," Holt said. "But I also have some pretty decorative scars on my body. You just get used to it."

Despite the injuries, Holt said, he enjoys blacksmithing because each project he does is his from start to finish.

"I own a project from design to installation," said Holt, who makes architectural pieces such as gates and fences. "In most other trades, someone else helps with some aspect of each piece."

Holt teaches classes at the park at least once a month and sometimes upon request.

"It seems that no matter where I am -- even at the monthly meetings -- people want to know how to do something, and I show them," Holt said. "But the guild also holds workshops that are more structured, and I do that also. It brings me pure joy to teach people about blacksmithing."

But even teaching has its challenges.

Some people are just harder to teach than others, he said. "Sometimes, you can show a student exactly how to do something, and they have it in their head to do it another way," Holt said. "But it's still great fun."

Miller concurred and said, "You have to be an odd type of person to be a blacksmith. I've done a lot of trades, and blacksmith work is the most diverse. You get dirty every day and work yourself to the bone."

"But I always have fun."

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