The forging of wrought iron or steel to make objects such as gates, grilles, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, agricultural implements, decorative and religious items, cooking utensils and weapons. Many of the blacksmithing crafts have separate entries (see ‘Sub-crafts’ below).
|Status||Currently viable (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Iron Age|
A blacksmith is someone who uses their art or skill to design, shape and join metal components by hot forging and other metal working processes for small batch or bespoke production and/or heritage metalwork conservation. The job may involve the production of large or small-scale work, working to commission or direct retail and may involve site installation. Contemporary examples of items made using blacksmithing include furniture, tools, sculptures, railings, bridges, ornaments and knives. A blacksmith will be using forged metals (mainly ferrous) often with other mixed media such as wood, glass, and stone. They will work in a workshop or studio and sometimes on site when installing or repairing ironwork. Blacksmiths may take a broad approach to their work or may choose to specialise in one particular aspect such as artistic, architectural, heritage, industrial.
Blacksmithing originated in the Iron Age, and reach Britain around 450BC. As the production of iron increased, so too did the number of blacksmiths. Yet, these practices did not significantly advance until the thirteenth century. The craft was an essential social support in every village and town. Even before the advent of the industrial revolution blacksmiths often became ‘specialists’ of one sort or another. This was speeded up by the Industrial Revolution, and whilst blacksmithing in the form of forged metals is still very much part of our landscape industrial forge work would not be regarded by most as ‘craft’ although some small ‘craft’ industrial smiths still operate producing small bespoke forging runs.
The village blacksmith almost disappeared after the World War II with the advent of mechanisation on the land. Today the modern craft blacksmith would be mainly concerned with producing architectural and domestic decorative ironwork and even public art.
Blacksmithing is a multi-disciplinary craft that is based on the traditional core skills of forging, forming, cutting and joining hot metal. Supporting skills such as designing, welding, fabrication, site fitting, machining and finishing are also used, as well as small business management.
Variations are more often contained within the individual craftsperson’s personal approach or within the replication of an historical style or period.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Cost of set up: Blacksmithing requires significant equipment, premises and permissions
Employment opportunities: Although there are opportunities to travel and learn as a ‘journeyman’ there are few full-time employment opportunities. This means that trainees often have to set up their own businesses before they are ‘ready’.
Training issues: Currently most training is in the form of full time college courses and although a blacksmithing apprenticeship scheme is being developed, it is likely that the costs involved will ‘put off’ potential employers.
Marketing and business management skills: Some blacksmiths either can’t access or don’t see the importance of developing these skills and will often fail in their business because of this
Moving into more commercial areas: Blacksmiths find it hard to maintain their traditional skills approach and often move into more contemporary areas of production such as welding and fabrication to improve speed and productivity.
Supply of associated materials: The main fuel used for forging is coke which is becoming more difficult and expensive to source although alternatives do exist.
Craftspeople currently known
Lists of craftspeople can be found on the websites of the support organisations listed above.
Blacksmithing is believed to sit somewhere between ‘currently viable’ and ‘endangered’ – some specialisms within blacksmithing are vibrant while others only have limited numbers of practitioners.
The number of trainees is estimated to be in the order of 201 to 500 – this includes those in both full time education and some form of apprenticeship. However, the number moving into permanent employment/self-employment in the traditional craft would be much lower.
Because there is no clear demarcation between those blacksmiths using traditional skills and those using predominantly modern production techniques, it is estimated that there are between 1,500 and 3,000 blacksmiths using traditional skills in at least part of their work.