By Zach Sparks
Members of the Chesapeake Forge Blacksmith Guild have a unique way of hammering out their problems. On Sundays and Mondays, they convene at Kinder Farm Park in Millersville to practice the art of blacksmithing, which was common in the Middle Ages.
“You start off like a Boy Scout, learning about fire management, how to make a fire and keep it going,” explained Mark Ramey, an Arnold resident who is president of the Chesapeake Forge Blacksmith Guild.
Before they can bend, cut and hammer steel and iron objects, the blacksmiths prepare their coal forge, which can exceed temperatures of 2,000 degrees. A chimney ferries the smoke outside.
Sparks danced around Ramey on a January night as he withdrew his steel from the flames. He placed the steel, with its fiery glow, on an anvil and pounded it with a hammer. For him to make a knife blank, he had to methodically repeat the steps of heating the bar in the forge and striking it.
Ramey has been with the guild since 2011. He wanted to learn how to make knives, but he discovered there was more to blacksmithing.
“Some years ago, the average age of a blacksmith was in the 50s,” Ramey said. “Now, you can talk to just about any blacksmith and they will tell you what they’re doing. They want to pass that knowledge along.”
While he was creating a spoon, newcomer Curtis Chestnut of Pasadena asked Ramey questions to glean some of that knowledge.
“The first project is usually a poker or rake,” said Chestnut, who joined the guild in November 2018. “There’s definitely a lot to learn. It’s fun beating it and shaping it to whatever you want.”
Crofton resident Rob Wheelwright self-started for a similar reason.
“You have something physical you can look at,” he said. “Whether it works or not, you have nobody to blame but yourself.”
As he bent metal to create C hooks for his sister’s closet, Wheelwright explained that he was a blacksmith in Missouri before joining Chesapeake Forge in October 2017.
“I got ahold of some books, found some equipment on Craigslist and self-started,” he said.
Wheelwright learned through trial and error that he had to keep his forge at the right temperature and not let the metal overheat. Every blacksmith has individual goals.
Forge welding, Ramey said, is a skill most of them covet. The process joins two pieces of metal by heating them and then hammering them together.
“A lot of it is mental,” Ramey said of the forge-welding process. “Just like anything else, you have to practice, practice, practice.”
Members practice making other objects too: letter openers, trammel hooks, candleholders and garter snakes of rebar. They read newsletters and tips provided by the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America and the Mid-Atlantic Smith’s Association.
The Chesapeake Forge Blacksmith Guild has more than 30 members, and they meet every Sunday from 1:00pm to 4:00pm and every Monday from 7:00pm to 10:00pm. Prospective members are asked to complete a safety course at Kinder Farm Park. For more information, visit www.chesapeakeforge.org.
Members are often willing to help others, said Brandon Fortin, an Essex resident who in May will reach his second year as a member of the guild. Fortin makes necklaces and ornamental pieces, and he loves the idea of making new items from old materials.
“We’re the first recyclers,” he said of blacksmiths.