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An ancient craft for a digital age

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Creating the stuff of nightmares, dreams and everything in between in the heart of Mennonite Country, Floradale’s Thak Ironworks is taking its blacksmithing to the television screen.

Robb Martin of Thak Ironworks has spent years developing new and ancient forms of blacksmithing skills. Martin and crew share their passion for the craft in a pilot episode of their new television show Metal Masters for the first time on History May 14 at 10 p.m. [Elena Maystruk / The Observer]
Robb Martin of Thak Ironworks has spent years developing new and ancient forms of blacksmithing skills. Martin and crew share their passion for the craft in a pilot episode of their new television show Metal Masters for the first time on History May 14 at 10 p.m. [Elena Maystruk / The Observer]
Encompassing everything a guy would watch on TV – fire, swords, tools and the rare skill of iron craft – and everything a modern blacksmith would want to tell the world about the trade, the Toronto-produced show Metal Masters will follow the activities of Thak’s artisans in the dim wood and stone shop at Floradale and Florapine roads.

“Blacksmithing is an ancient trade – it’s been around for thousands of years. We come at it from both a traditional and very modern approach. We use electric welders and grinders and things like that. But a lot of the actual forging and the actual techniques and tools are the same things  that they were using hundreds of years ago: there’s really no way to change that or fake that,” said owner Robb Martin.

The show, airing its pilot episode on May 14 on the History Channel, follows Martin and fellow craftsmen Tom Martin and Ryan Leis as they forge everything from swords, convoluted sculptures and armour to old-school tools and more. After searching all over North America, Toronto’s Castlewood Productions’ – the creators of Cash Cab and CBC documentaries – discovery of Thak was quite ordinary, and very much modern.

“Google,” said executive producer Andrew Burnstein of how the two parties got together.

It was a good fit. “They use their imaginations to create sculptures and generally wild and crazy things.”

“Muscles, hammers, sweat and dirt ticks all the right boxes” for a show about guys for guys and of course everyone else curious about rare, cool professions.”

Is it surreal for a business like Thak, often blaring heavy metal music from the shop, to exist in such a quaint rural area?

“Not for me. I think people look at me a little bit funny but that’s the environment that I like to work in. I think my Mennonite neighbours have come to accept me for what I am. I’ve been around for 25 years,” Martin said.

Martin’s love for the ancient trade began as a teenager when he took a course at St. Jacobs’ first blacksmithing shop. From there he was hooked, built his own forge on the family farm and apprenticed at St. Jacobs’ Forge and Anvil.

“There’s actually more than you think, probably several hundred in North America. But still, when you look at the population it’s still kind of a one-in-a-million demographic – we’re few and far between,” Martin said.

Old wooden shelves in the Floradale shop house a collection of books akin to a small library Nostradamus might have owned. It’s filled with research Martin used to learn some of the traditions of his trade. It all comes together in a show the blacksmith hopes to be funny, entertaining but also educational. The shop has put out everything from artwork and railings to armour, costumes and props for films.

“We’re always all over the place coming up with new and interesting pieces for people. Our first episode we’re working on swords  and armour but we’ll also be touching on a lot of  historical builds like tools, things from different cultures, different times and also futuristic post-apocalyptic stuff,” Martin explained.

Producers hope for the show to take off after several airings. On May 14 the pilot airs at 10 p.m. eastern time and the next day at 7 p.m. on History.

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