Family forges history at Baltimore ironworks shop

Peter Krug in a room full of work samples made by his company, G. Krug and Son, the oldest continually operating blacksmith shop in America.
Peter Krug in a room full of work samples made by his company, G. Krug and Son, the oldest continually operating blacksmith shop in America. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun)

Upon entering the G. Krug & Son blacksmith shop, I was handed a pair of safety goggles and immediately knew I was in for a treat.

All around me were the goings-on of a bygone era. Peter Krug, owner of the Baltimore workshop that has been in business since the early 19th century, crafts steel scrollwork by hand, the old-fashioned way: hammer and anvil shaping red-hot metal heated in a 2,500-degree forge.

You don't know hot until you've stood in front of that forge on a summer day in a building that has no air conditioning.

All of that heat is the genesis of some of the most beautiful wrought-iron gates, railings, fences and ornamental ironwork around, created for clients ranging from homeowners to museums. Known for Old World-style blacksmithing, G. Krug & Son is the oldest continually operating blacksmith shop in North America.

Still in its original location on Saratoga Street, just north of Lexington Market, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with newer additions constructed in the mid- to late-19th century, it includes the small original structure built around 1810 when Augustus Schwatke established a blacksmith shop on the site.

The Krug story begins a few decades later, when Gustav Krug traveled to America from Germany in 1848 and became a journeyman apprentice to Andrew Merker who had taken the over from Schwatke. Gustav soon became Merker's partner and then sole proprietor when Merker retired.

"In 1875," says Gustav's great-great-grandson Peter Krug, "the business became G. Krug & Son. I am the fifth-generation Krug."

Well, one of that generation. His elder brother, Stephen Krug, worked alongside him in the business for almost 30 years until he retired about four years ago. Like the family name, much of the business has remained unchanged for over 150 years, and everything is still crafted by hand, using mostly centuries-old techniques.

Inside the shop, which Peter Krug occasionally opens up to group tours, you'll find equipment nearly as old as the building itself alongside newer, more efficient machinery designed to cut the labor time without altering the handcrafted look and feel of real wrought iron.

The machines speed up the process, but most of the decorative work and craftsmanship is still done by hand or with the assistance of antique equipment that has been updated for modern use.

"It is like working in a museum; we use lots of the old equipment," says Krug. "We still use an old drill press, a large bench grinder and a power hammer that were originally steam-powered, and [we] had them retrofitted for electricity."

Although steel has replaced wrought iron as the preferred material, there's little visual distinction between the two and much of the work Krug and his team produce is identical to that produced by his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather.

"We always have preserved our heritage," says Krug. "We have files of drawings that date back to the 1800s and refer back to those when doing work in historic neighborhoods. We are always aware of the Krug style, and when we design new pieces [we] do so keeping that style in mind."

Of course, times change, and there isn't the same demand for decorative ironwork now as there was at the height of G. Krug & Son's prominence in the late 19th century. At one time, the business employed over 100 people, and it was hard to find a building in Baltimore that didn't include something produced at the shop.

However, the decorative value of ornamental ironwork remains strong, and the shop now typically employs anywhere from eight to 12 full-time employees. Of those, a little more than half are active in fabrication.

Like most architectural components, wrought iron can be purely function — unornamented security doors, for example — but it has also been elevated to an art form. And it's no surprise that someone who has dedicated his life to perfecting the craft would be drawn to the artistry.

"I love working on ornamental gates and railings," says Krug, "and we have done some really beautiful curved interior stair railings."

With a client list that includes homeowners, interior designers, architects, contractors, churches and museums, the range of products being fabricated in shop is wide and varied. The day I visited, Krug was hammering out scrollwork at the forge and, in the workshop upstairs, employees were fabricating a flagpole holder for the Walters Art Museum and an intake manifold for an automobile.

"Probably my favorite project is the first really ornate work I ever did," says Krug. "A few years after I started working full time, I made the crestings [arched ornamental sections across the top] for two ornamental pedestrian gates at Johns Hopkins University — one for the entry to the lacrosse fields included a crossed lacrosse sticks motif and the other incorporated the Maryland seal."

Still, not every project includes highly decorative components, and lately Krug and his team have been enjoying a mix of restoration work along with new commissions.

While properly maintained wrought iron will last pretty much forever, less diligent maintenance results in rust and deterioration. Krug's shop is producing more restoration work than ever before and is just now wrapping up a major fence restoration project for Washington's Old Naval Hospital, built in the 1860s.

"We have lots of history and old patterns in our archives," says Krug. "We know how things were put together originally and can reconstruct them and put them back together again the way they would have originally been done.

"Sometimes," reflects Krug on the recent influx of wrought-iron restoration projects, "we even come across Krug work that had been made maybe 150 years ago. It's kind of like an old friend coming back into the shop."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.

G. Krug and Son

About Peter Krug

Peter Krug, a fifth generation blacksmith, worked for his father during high school summer vacations and gradually learned the basics as a helper. Although it might seem there would be expectations for joining the family business, Krug says, "my father never pressured me or my brother Steven to be part of the business."

But after a year in college, Peter realized his destiny and started work full-time in the shop. He further honed his skill and artistry under the tutelage of Randy McDaniel at the Carroll County Farm Museum and through workshops at the Peters Valley Craft School in Layton, New Jersey. He has been working as a blacksmith full-time for 33 years.

Where to buy

Specializing in custom wrought iron and wrought iron restoration, G. Krug and Son works directly with clients to design and fabricate products individually suited for each location. Although the cost of custom, hand-made products varies widely depending on size and complexity, Peter Krug says that a basic driveway gate ranges from $4,000 to $5,000, while pedestrian gates start around $900. Smaller items such as fireplace tools, custom furniture, wine racks, lighting, and hardware are also made to order upon request. Call 410-752-3166 or go to gkrugandson.com.

Made in Maryland: A series

Today, furniture from all over the world is easy and often inexpensive to come by, but there remains a demand for quality furnishings made by hand. Maryland is home to dozens of businesses producing hand-crafted, often one-of-a-kind furniture, mirrors, lighting and other items for the local market and beyond.

So we're turning the spotlight on some of the Maryland companies that produce top-quality furnishings for the home. Some are small shops, consisting only of one or two people crafting custom pieces for clients with specific needs. Others have grown to become large companies with a national footprint, establishing a presence in some of the country's toniest locales.