The air was cold and still outside the old maintenance shed at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster last Sunday, but inside, the shed filled with smoke as four blacksmithing forges roared.
"Welding!" shouted Walter VanAlstine from a corner of the room, a box of powdered doughnuts close at hand, as he melded a steel rod and twisted cable. Sparks landed on his leather apron.
"Hot stuff!" he cried out as he pushed his way through a crowd of about a dozen burly blacksmiths to one of the forges, holding the glowing steel high above their heads before plunging it into the white-hot coals.
Welcome to the open forge, the bimonthly meeting of the Blacksmith's Guild of Central Maryland. From 9 a.m. until after the sun set, blacksmiths came to talk shop and move metal. The guild is one of two in the Washington area. Both boast rosters of more than 225 and growing, with members coming from as far as Pennsylvania.
The Maryland guild operates under the auspices of the Farm Museum, and the Blacksmith's Guild of the Potomac has its headquarters at the Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. But those public spaces are just fronts; the guilds do a couple of iron-tapping demonstrations for wide-eyed school kids in return for a place to work. The real blacksmithing goes on during off hours. That's when it's raw, when burns are shrugged off, forges are made out of Coca-Cola cans and none of it is OSHA-approved.
"Blacksmithing isn't magic," said the white-bearded Allen Dyer, a lawyer from Ellicott City. "It's sweat on a brow. It's human labor. Petrochemicals just leave me cold."
Heat is the heart of blacksmithing. David Morgan of Savage stripped down to his undershirt, jeans and safety goggles at the meeting Sunday as he pounded on the welded steel VanAlstine had prepared for him. In the forge, the steel glowed yellow as the fire reached about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Orange flakes of fire scale flew up from where his hammer landed.
It was Morgan's 50th birthday, and he was spending it in the smithy. He wanted to make a knife, so he hammered out the steel, then folded it back onto itself. Hammer, fold, hammer, fold, layer after layer until a distinctive alligator-scale pattern began to emerge. It would take about eight hours to rough out one blade.
Roger Duncan of Freeland, former president of the Maryland guild as well as its school administrator and forge master, said, "The only thing that stops [us] is arthritis."
And lunch. The meetings are potluck, and the blacksmiths partake of hearty fare -- vegetable soup, beans and homemade chocolate chip cookies. Members discussed their home forges, how to file a blade, their pet projects. "Bullsmithing," Duncan called it.
Ken Zastrow, 71, ate some chili brought by one of the blacksmith's wives and watched Morgan forge his blade until he, too, put down the hammer and reached for the roast beef. Zastrow is a member of both local guilds and edits the newsletter for the Blacksmith's Guild of the Potomac.
He has been blacksmithing for more than a decade. He used to do woodworking, but "it didn't turn me on as much as the iron and steel," he said. His first project was a simple chandelier for his home. Soon he graduated to a 7-by-4 1/2-foot colonial fire crane. There's a "fundamental satisfaction" in moving metal, he said.
Zastrow built a gas forge in the driveway behind his brightly painted Silver Spring home. The forge is aptly dubbed "the brick pile" -- as it's just a metal hood over fire-insulated bricks, all sitting on a barrel of propane. The forge was inside his garage until he set off the carbon monoxide detector and decided he should move it outside.
Even without the forge, the garage looks like "Tool Time" took over. A 100-year-old anvil from England juts into the narrow walkway. Steel stock and old pipes line the walls. Sooty hammers and tongs hang from a tool rack. Behind them is a jar filled with white powder labeled "borax plus boric acid."
"Burns and cuts are not uncommon," Zastrow said. First-aid is rudimentary: "Dunk it in cold water or stick it in your mouth."
Zastrow looks tough in his worn jeans and denim jacket. He can spend hours at the forge in the bitterest cold and most unrelenting heat, hammering out a gate hinge for a restoration project at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown or twisting iron into vines for a mailbox post.
He gets a few commissions for his "creative handwork," he said. But this is not about the money. Most of the blacksmiths in the two guilds are amateurs. By day they are retirees, businessmen, employees of the FBI and CIA, machinists and flooring specialists. But all of that is superfluous out at the forge. Out there, it's just man and metal.
"It's the joy of creation without the commercial pressures," Dyer said. "It's a contact to the past. . . . I just don't want to let it go."