Master blacksmith Nick Vincent, founder and past president of the Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland, says he started out modestly 29 years ago — a hammer, an anvil and very little idea of what he was doing.
"The first things I ever made I made in my back yard in Reisterstown," said Vincent, who now operates Nathan's Forge, his one-man blacksmithing enterprise, in Uniontown.
"I made some hooks, and they were awful," he added with a grin.
Vincent has come a long way since then. His small, makeshift backyard blacksmith set-up in Reisterstown has long since been replaced by a warehouse-sized shop in the back yard of his meticulously restored 19th-century home.
Working long hours with his propane-fueled forge and precision-made tools of the trade — like his Peddinghaus German Pattern anvil and his Kuhn CF 40-kilo power hammer — he turns out a wide range of decorative and utilitarian creations — from antique nails, hooks and ornamental hinges to elaborate plate stands, towel hooks and toilet paper holders.
He also makes an array of high-end items, such as exquisitely wrought sculptures, tables, table lamps, fire tools, gates and railings.
Some of Vincent's larger commercial commissions include fashioning 7,000 pounds of decorative bronze scrolls for Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in Delaware, and a slew of ornamental scrolls and railings for the University of Maryland Medical School, in Baltimore.
"Blacksmithing is like everything else, whether it's playing piano or writing stores or anything else," he said, reflecting on his 30-year learning curve. "It's that 10,000 hours — you practice and you throw away a lot of stuff until you come up with something that's recognizable or functional to the point of being what it's supposed to be."
Asked how many hours he spends in his shop in an average week Vincent has trouble answering.
"I don't have another job; this is what I do," he said as he hunched over his anvil. "It's my livelihood ... and it's also my hobby."
Vincent grew up in Reisterstown and worked as an economic forecaster in the telecommunications industry until blacksmithing got the better of him.
Now his "hobby" keeps him in constant motion. At any given time he's at work on various projects in various stages of completion.
One of his latest projects is also one of his most ambitious — a decorative pendant lamp rendered in the "Tidewater" or "Bay Country" motif that has become Vincent's specialty in recent years.
The porch lamp has been assembled from about 20 individual pieces including ornamental crabs, fish and herons, along with the basic lamp assembly itself. Like most of his creations, it started out as a rough idea fleshed out with preliminary drawings. "Everything starts with a drawing, or at least an idea, he said."
It took about a week's worth of long days at his anvil and work bench to cut and shape the components. He made the porch lamp on commission for one of his oldest friends and best customers — who will pay several thousand dollars for it.
"I used to do a lot of Colonial reproductions, but I don't do that as much anymore, because that market has shrunk," Vincent said. "There's more people with newer houses who are interested in non-Colonial things, so I kind of branched out into this tidewater or low country thing.
"As far as creativity, that also gives me a lot more latitude than just copying Colonial stuff," he said. "And as long as they keep buying these pieces, I'll keep making them."
In order to reach his target market — upscale homeowners building, furnishing or redecorating houses on or near the waterfront — Vincent spends a lot of time on the road, displaying his wares and talking about his art at crafts fairs, festivals and similar venues up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Nantucket to Chestertown and Ocean City.
Vincent said when he first started down the blacksmith's path he was much like those who are now his best customers, except back then he couldn't find any place to buy the sort of items he now makes.
It all started when he and his wife were remodeling an old house and he wanted to add some decorative antique metal fixtures such as hooks, hinges and latches.
"I needed some hardware, and I didn't know where to get it, and I figured I could make it myself," he said.
He bought his first anvil, along with a small, hand-cranked, coal-fired forge. "I just had a little backyard setup, and as long as it didn't rain or snow too hard I could work outside," he said.
At the time, there were no blacksmithing classes offered locally and there was no Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland, an organization Vincent later helped found. It now has about 200 members and offers blacksmithing classes at the Carroll County Farm Museum and elsewhere.
Vincent took his first classes at a weekend workshop in Dover, Del. That led to his first commission, which was making antique nails for a museum restoration project in that state. He used the proceeds to buy more tools and to take more classes.
"You can stand around in your back yard doing this, but you don't get very far unless you're around other people," he said. "So I also started going down to Arlington, Va., ... to meetings and workshops held by the guild down there."
He also began volunteering at the Carroll County Farm Museum, which by that time had its own small blacksmith shop. The museum eventually became a nexus for a handful of locals interested in learning the craft.
"At the farm museum, I had a place to practice and a place to work in the winter time," Vincent said. "There, you're in front of the public and talking about what you do and making little pieces, and the Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland kind of grew out of the guys who volunteered there.
"Originally there was old Marshall Crumbacker, who ran the shop down there from when the museum opened until the 1970s," he said, referring to the patriarch of local blacksmiths for whom the farm museum's shop is now named.
"Then the next group was Randy McDaniel and Ken Schwartz. The two of them worked there until about when I showed up. Ken went on to Colonial Williamsburg in the early 1980s and now he's the master of the shop down there. Randy is in Redding, Pa., still doing high-end blacksmith work up there.
"We had six or eight people in the guild when we started out, and now we have over 200 members," he said. "We also have a whole teaching facility at the farm museum, which is one of the nicer ones around in the country for what you pay for classes."
In 1991, Vincent decided it was time to chuck his day job and devote himself to full-time to the job he loved best.
"I was 10 years into blacksmithing ... and I began selling at a wholesale market in Philadelphia and people bought like crazy," he said. "One weekend I just had an incredible show, and I came home and quit my job."
He now works longer hours than he ever did as an economic forecaster, but has no regrets.
"Pretty much all the time I have I'm working, but I don't mind putting in the hours, because this is what I do," he said as he leaned over one of his benches and peered at preliminary drawings for another work in progress.
"And I'm always impressed with what I come up with."