Posted 22nd Aug 2012
Artist blacksmith Andrew Findlay practises a craft that appeared to be magical in ancient times – forging metal using a fire, hammer and anvil
The bright ring of hammer meeting metal on the anvil has been heard in Andrew Findlay's Herefordshire forge since around 1750 - but this is a craft familiar from as far back in time as the late second millennium BC, as through history the blacksmith made the tools, household objects, weapons, chains and cables, and practical and decorative ironwork, as well as horseshoes, that mankind needed. It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution, when factory production largely took over, that the number of smiths dwindled.
Andrew's forge, part of the idyllic Eastnor Castle estate, would have seen the daily traffic of the estate's horses, which stood one each side of the fire for their new iron shoes. Today, no horses visit the forge, and Andrew's skill is distinct from that of the modern farrier, but he carries on the same ancient tradition of hot forging metal. With fire, anvil, hammers and tongs he shapes and joins metal to create fabulous pieces for home and garden which have both strength and beauty, as well as making many of the tools he uses in his work.
His first work with metal lacked the artistry of today's pieces - in the 1980s Andrew was making lifts in London. ‘I knew a little bit about forge work,' he explains, ‘so in the lunch hour I used to get the gas torch out and make little sculptures.' A move to Wales saw him working as a mobile welder of such practical but unglamorous items as muckspreaders, but business was slow for a newcomer to the area. ‘I was looking for something else to do and went to the library and found a book on beautiful forge work,' he says. ‘A light went on and I realised how a lot of the works I'd seen and admired were made.'
With an old broken anvil and a pair of gas bottles to heat the metal, he tried to teach himself but it wasn't until he took a course at Chichester's West Dean College with an inspirational tutor that Andrew's career as an artist blacksmith began. ‘I had to earn money doing it to support my family,' he explains. ‘I used to sell my work at market stalls very cheaply and I made enough to live on and it's just escalated from there.'
The only concessions to the 21st century in Andrew's forge are the fan that blows the air through the fire, which replaces the traditional bellows, a furnace that preheats several things at once to speed the process up, and the use of some power hammering. Where a high volume of production is needed, the power hammer does the hard bashing, but Andrew prefers the complete handmade look obtained with his own strength. The tools used by the blacksmith have changed little in a millennium.
The traditional blacksmith's metal is wrought iron - which is a type of iron rather than a style as people often think of it. Andrew explains, ‘Wrought iron hasn't really been made in any quantity since the turn of the century. You can still get it for restoration work but it costs a fortune so my material is steel bought from a steel merchant.'
The steel bars are heated in the fire ready to work. The temperature needed depends on what is to be done with it. ‘For general work you get it to what's called a yellow heat, which gives you enough time to do a fair bit of work on it,' Andrew says. For some processes, such as bending the metal, an ‘orange' heat, gentler than yellow, is required to avoid distortion. Fire welding, where two bars are made into one by heating them to the correct temperature and then joining them on the anvil, needs careful observation. ‘When the metal's in the fire you see sparks coming up in the flame and the sparks explode like a firework,' explains Andrew. ‘When it's at that temperature you have to whip the two bars out really quickly and hammer them together - you've only got like a fraction of a second.'
Read the rest of this feature on p.109 of the September/October 2012 issue...
By Sarah Warwick