I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stepped into Thak Ironworks, a blacksmith forge in the Mennonite village of Floradale, Ontario, but loud speed metal echoing around the dark, almost medieval building, where small fires blazed and a handful of men swung heavy objects wasn’t it.
But I had interrupted an intermediate tool making workshop, hosted by Thak owner and resident blacksmith, Robb Martin. “People won’t pay me $1,000 to make them a hand-forged axe they can use around the yard, but they will pay me to teach them how to make it themselves,” says Robb. “Making a tool by hand, following the ancient ways is empowering for people; a real bucket list activity.”
The majority of Robb’s business is high-end residential ironwork such as beautifully designed railings, gates and range hoods. But people also come to him for his creative body armour, swords, helmets and of course, his workshops.
“Many retirees who have a respect for the old ways of doing things take my workshops, but also younger guys who are into gaming and Viking culture and people who are curious about the art form: trades people, doctors, professors and at least two rocket scientists,” says Robb. “But the people who are interested in the medieval armour and swords are 30-40 year old computer geeks who are comic book and Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and they have some disposable income to invest in this stuff.”
Robb’s interest in blacksmithing started in high school and part of the appeal was to create life out of lifeless metal. “I’m drawn to creating sculptural forms – it’s my artistic outlet,” he says. He sees armour and helmets as wearable sculpture and other people see his work as art too. His medieval armour has been featured in many weddings as well as movies such as the Tin Man, starring Zooey Deschanel and Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster.
Robb even was featured in a History Channel reality-TV pilot last year, entitled Metal Masters. Unfortunately, the pilot wasn’t picked up, but he has become pretty comfortable in front of the camera as he appeared on several episodes of Deals from the Darkside in 2011 and is currently working on a documentary showcasing his sculptural work.
Robb has been in the Floradale forge for more than 20 years. After an apprenticeship in St Jacobs, he set up a small smithy at the front of the current shop location, which was then an auto repair shop owned by a family member. There he built his own forging tools and worked part-time on blacksmith projects, until he eventually bought the entire building and turned it into Thak Ironworks.
“A few years ago, I pimped out the shop to play into the medieval thing, to create an atmosphere of a castle” says Robb. Thak is a dark, wooden and metal place, with heavy doors and cavernous rooms, one with a long harvest table under slopped ceilings, where his amour and weapons are on display.
Robb admits to a certain obsession with this kind of thing but he also knows that when people spend a lot of money on a custom-crafted range hood instead of buying it at a big box store, they want some personality behind the work. “They want the back story of the intense guy in a small town banging out crazy metal works in a forge,” he says smiling. “And I am happy to sell the sizzle.”
P.S. Robb’s favourite topic of conversation: philosophy.