John Laird uses a hammer to shape a piece of iron in the blacksmithing shop at the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum. He will be one of the instructors in an upcoming class in blacksmithing at the museum farm.
John Laird uses a hammer to shape a piece of iron in the blacksmithing shop at the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum. He will be one of the instructors in an upcoming class in blacksmithing at the museum farm. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

John Frank recalls how his grandfather and father used to do their own blacksmithing out of necessity.

“Most farms up through the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s had their own shop in a corner of a shed or barn,” said Frank, who manages his family’s auto and equipment repair business on Triadelphia Road.

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“Horses and mules needed shoes, so you could hire someone or do it yourself,” he said. “Back in the day, people didn’t buy tools, they made them.”

Times have changed. Frank, who is in his 20th year as president of the Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club, now teaches the fundamentals of what many consider to be a lost art to hobbyists and anyone else who wants to learn.

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In 1928, the Franciscan Friars purchased the sprawling property that would later become the home of the Shrine of St. Anthony on the outskirts of Ellicott City for $436,000. Today, it is known for its Italian Renaissance architecture, rolling hills and more than 200 acres of greenery and woodlands.

His next two-day blacksmithing class for beginners age 16 and older will start Aug. 25 at the club’s blacksmith shop at the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum on Frederick Road.

The specialty class mostly attracts the curious, Frank said.

“Some people have blacksmithing on their bucket list of things they want to try, like spinning wool or tinsmithing,” he said. “Others have seen it on a TV show or had a relative who did it.”

The antique farm machinery club was founded in 1995 “to preserve the agricultural way of life that is too quickly disappearing,” the group’s website states. Members moved to their site near the Howard County Fairgrounds in 2005 and opened their museum the same year.

The 150-member club holds a long-term lease on the 400-acre county-owned property off Route 144. That’s where the class’ 12 hours of demonstration and instruction will take place.

On the inside and outside of a blacksmith shop set back on the expansive property sit coal forges that resemble the heavy-duty barbecue grills often found near park pavilions.

Each forge has a hand-cranked blower that allows the blacksmith to regulate the fire temperature, which can reach 3,000 degrees when the coals glow yellowish-orange.

“It takes as much skill, knowledge and experience to manage the fire as it does to manipulate the metal,” Frank observed.

Over the forge’s coals, the blacksmith heats and bends a bar or rod of mild steel — which has a low percentage of carbon and is easy to form. The malleable metal is then transferred to an anvil where it can be shaped further into almost anything with the force of a hammer.

The finished object can be reheated and reshaped into something else — right away or decades later, and as many times as desired.

“The whole science of it and the fire management aspect have a nostalgia to it,” Frank said.

Those taking the class make an item to take with them. Most beginners make a key fob, bottle opener or S-hook for a hanging plant.

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“But there’s no limit on what you can make other than your imagination,” Frank said.

John Laird, who will assist Frank in teaching the beginner’s class, calls himself the club’s “de facto resident blacksmith.”

Laird said he was “bit by the blacksmithing bug” decades ago and has a passion for metallurgy, which deals with the science and technology of metals.

“Blacksmithing in our modern world has roots that go back thousands of years,” said Laird, who connected with the local club when it was located at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock. He lived in that area before moving to Frederick in 2004.

“Most people today think it looks exciting, and the fire and sparks make them want to try it,” he said.

Laird said a popular History Channel program called “Forged in Fire,” in which bladesmiths compete to see who can make the best sword, has also turned people’s attention to blacksmithing.

He described the hobby as “hot, sweaty and gritty” and stressed that it commands a healthy respect for the high temperatures involved.

“Not to scare anyone away, but typical temperatures [in our classes] range between 1,200 and 2,200 degrees, so there’s a real risk of being burned,” he said. Class participants are asked to wear leather boots or shoes and natural-fiber clothing, since synthetic materials can melt, and to bring leather work gloves.

The beginner’s class is a foundational step that permits students to move on to intermediate classes, Laird said.

“Our beginner’s class gives you a skill set in two days,” he said. “Whether you continue is all about how much you’re willing to learn and explore.”

Frank emphasized that the club’s mission extends beyond the blacksmithing classes, which it offers through a partnership with the county’s recreation and parks department.

In fact, the group has its fingers in a lot of pies.

Aside from the museum, there’s a one-room schoolhouse and a farmhouse that demonstrates life before electricity — both of which are popular for school field trips — and 6.5 miles of nature trails open seven days a week.

The club doesn’t have much of a budget for promoting their amenities, though, Frank said.

“We take the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach: We believe if we build it, they will come,” he said.

The club’s efforts were featured in 2015 on the A&E network’s TV show “American Pickers,” in which hosts travel the country in search of places that focus on Americana, Frank said. The episode, which also highlights Frank’s repair business, is rebroadcast almost weekly, giving the club a boost.

“We’ve had people from California, Oklahoma and Rhode Island call us to say they saw the show and would like to get a tour since they’ll be passing through Maryland,” he said. The club always honors those types of requests, he said.

After this month’s class, the club will repeat the course Sept. 8-9, and will also host its annual Fall Festival, Sept. 22-23, at the West Friendship facility as part of the countywide, multi-organizational Farm-City Celebration that lasts two weeks. For details, go to farmheritage.org/farm-city-a.html.

The club’s membership enjoys taking on a wide variety of community service projects, and approaches such opportunities through partnerships whenever possible, Frank said.

The club played host July 28 to 1,500 guests attending the EC Strong Festival, which was organized by the Ellicott City Partnership to raise funds for Main Street businesses harmed in the May 27 flash flood. The property has also been the site of 5K runs and walks, among other activities.

“We’re a formidable group and we’re wheeling and dealing all the time,” Frank said. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

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If you go

“Introduction to Blacksmithing,” a two-day workshop for beginners, will be held for ages 16 and older, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 25 and 26 in a workshop at the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum, 12985 Frederick Road, West Friendship. Cost is $160, and enrollment will be capped at 12 students. Participants should bring a refillable water bottle and lunch. Pre-registration is required: 410-313-7275 or farmheritage.org

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