The skill of being a blacksmith is one that I have always admired. There is something so raw and enpowering seeing someone using their strength and skill to manipulate metal into a useful or ornate object (or sometimes both!). The history in Ireland of blending metals into their desired shapes goes back over 4000 years and has often been split into those who shod horses and those who created tools for architectural uses.
The Blacksmith used to be central to Irish communities and sadly as the years passed their use became less as we changed due to technological advances and in Ireland we have moved away from being an agricultural driven country. Thankfully, some people have decided to keep this amazing craft alive today as it would really be sad if we lost this skill.
There are so many different kinds of crafts that so many people practise and in 2016 I would like to showcase these on Floralesque so that more people can be aware of some of the amazing talents that we have in our communities. The Blacksmith skill was the first that I wanted to showcase. Derek Copeland is the amazing Blacksmith talent behind Bramble Cottage Forge and he has kindly agreed to be interviewed for Floralesque.
What inspired you to become a Blacksmith?
All my life I’ve had an interest in art and crafts and doing things with my hands. I loved to draw as a child and make things from cardboard boxes (cars, tanks etc). I also did woodwork and metalwork in school. When I left school I studied geodetic surveying in college and left most of that behind. I studied pottery part-time in my 20’s, but then moved away from Dublin for work and left that behind also. When work dried up in 2009, I saw this as a chance to do something I would love. I thought about it for a long time, with ideas about making bread, artisan foods, etc, but they didn’t excite me that much. I knew nothing about blacksmithing, but that I knew it was something I’d never done and would love to try.
In Oct 2011 my wife found a 3 day course run by the Galway Rural Development fund in ‘Appreciation of Historical Ironwork’ and I attended that. There were a couple of practical days which I did and found it to be a lot more difficult than I had thought. I did another couple of ‘blacksmith for a day’ courses early the next year, making small items and on my first one I made a rams head poker. I drove home that night and overcome with emotion I cried with happiness in the car. I had finally found something that I knew I would love.
For those who may not be familiar with the craft of being a Blacksmith – can you please give us an idea of what a typical day would be like?
I usually get out to the forge, which conveniently is an old shed at the rear of my house, around 9 in the morning, having planned what I will make the night before. This will be either a custom order, stock for my market stall, or possibly a new tool. I would then get any pieces of stock metal from my supply and cut them to size for whatever I’m to make. Once all the pieces are marked up and ready, I clean out the fire from the previous day.
When forging, a lot of impurities come out of the metal as it is heated, along with impurities in the fuel and form what is called ‘clinker’ at the bottom of the fire. This has a glassy appearance and feel to it when it is cold, but if it’s not cleaned out; when it gets hot it softens and sticks to the metal in the fire, creating a lot of problems. I then spend a lot the day hammering metal to the required shapes, punching holes etc.
Later in the day I will concentrate on assembly work or finishing pieces with either besswax, oil or paint. I’m not a fan of paint, as it tends to obscure the beauty of the hammered metal. Then I plan what I’m going to do tomorrow.
What object or thing did you use as your first anvil?
I love to have the right tools for the job, so with some savings I bought my first anvil and a leg vise really quickly. We drove up to Newry to an old antiques dealer and bought the anvil I work with today.
What tool has changed or made your life easier in the workshop?
My fly-press. It takes some of the hard work out of doing repetitive tasks, such as punching holes in metal, shaping sheet metal etc.
Where does the inspiration for your designs come from?
Everywhere! My mind, nature, other blacksmith’s work, buildings. Inspiration can come from any direction and usually when you least expect it. Sometimes, lying in bed, half asleep, a basic design will pop into my head and I have to jump out and grab my notebook to sketch it down or I’ll lose it.
I imagine it’s rather difficult to choose… but what to date has been your favourite forged piece?
Without a doubt, my commission for a animal head fire set. It has been my biggest challenge. I was given a small brief and left to produce my own design, which just had to include a few essential elements. The biggest challenge was the animal heads. I had never forged anything but the simplest stylised heads, so had to spend a lot of time teaching myself how to forge realistic animals heads. In the process of making the fire set I had to make around 20 new tools, ranging from chisels, punches, hammers, etc. So that was also a challenge in itself. The design was very natural and as I don’t usually do drawings beforehand, it kind of just made itself. It’s great when someone gives you carte blanche with a project and then are pleased with the final result.
Where do you think that the skill of being a Blacksmith is heading?
At present, there is a bit of a lack of understanding and appreciation of the work a blacksmith does. I think we essentially are artists who use the medium of iron to create pieces that are functional (though not always) and frequently beautiful. There is a real appreciation for other crafts in Ireland; such as ceramics, carpentry, textiles etc., but not so much for ironwork. I hope that through dialogue and demonstrations and the interest of people like yourself, we can educate the public about what we do and create a real awareness of quality forged work and an ability to identify the differences between it and the imitation ironwork we see so often in hardware stores, that disintegrates after very little use. The more we talk to people and explain what we do the more blacksmiths, as a community, will profit.
Is it an easy craft to get into – would you have any tips for someone looking to enter the craft?
When I had my first introduction, 4 years ago, there were no full-time or part-time blacksmithing courses in Ireland. The only options I had were to go to Hereford to study, which was financially prohibitive, or to just build my own forge and start teaching myself. That is what I did, but it is not for everyone. There is currently a short ‘introduction to blacksmithing’ course being set up in limerick, but I don’t think it’s up and running yet. There are a few forges around the country doing ‘blacksmith for a day’ courses, which are enjoyable and, as in my case, can give you an idea whether it’s for you or not, but the learning is very limited. After 4 years I am still learning every day, so there is only so much you can pick up in a day. I do think that these courses help to give the public a real appreciation of the incredibly hard and skilled work blacksmithing is and that can only be a good thing.
What are your aspirations for Bramble Cottage Forge in the future?
I hope to continue to improve my skills and to get more commission work giving me the chance to show the public what I’m capable of and to challenge me. To build a good client base and to continue to educate anyone who will listen about the world of blacksmithing.
Bramble Cottage Forge can be contacted via the below details and on their website and Facebook. They are certainly worth looking at especially if you are looking for a unique, handmade gift that will last years.
All images kindly provided by Derek from Bramble Cottage Forge.