The ancient art of blacksmithing has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, fuelled by modern appetites for crafting and sustainability. After years of decline, following the industrial revolution, it is once again being viewed as a serious career path.
There were an estimated 600 traditional blacksmiths in the UK in 2010, but the number is rising. More and more people are studying “the king of trades”, both professionally and as a hobby or one-off ‘experience’ to escape the stresses of modern life. The quality of the metalwork produced and the precision of the detail has seen its growing use in industrial work and architecture.
Blacksmiths work with a forge or furnace to heat metal; shaping and joining together metal such as wrought iron, steel, brass, bronze and copper. There is a distinction between traditional blacksmiths, who still work with hammer, hands and fire, and contemporary or artistic craftsmen, who incorporate modern equipment such as welders.
Blacksmiths today can focus on industrial work, making items such as specialist tools, fire escapes or security grills. Artist blacksmiths produce architectural products such as decorative iron gates or sculptures. Industrial blacksmiths usually work in major mining and engineering sites. Blacksmith artists are generally self-employed; selling art at craft shows, galleries and fairs, producing their own designs and following client commissions.
To be successful, good hand-to-eye co-ordination is a must, as is a basic mathematical ability, for measuring and making calculations. More than this, you need to be a good problem solver – blacksmithing is an art rather than a science, and inevitably things do not always go to plan. Working with fire and power hammers and sharp edges clearly carries danger, and a successful blacksmith must be both confident and wary. It is physically demanding work and industrial blacksmiths, in particular, may be required to do heavy lifting.
You can become a blacksmith either through on-the-job training or by completing a college course and finding a trainee position. Experience of welding, metalwork or art and design using metals is a distinct advantage when looking for a trainee position.
This is a craft very few people have had any exposure to in the modern era. Before making any decisions, you should try to get some first-hand experience, either through a short ‘taster’ course or by arranging a work placement with a local blacksmith.
Once you decide you are serious about becoming a blacksmith, there are various courses available at both further and higher education level. These include year-long BTEC National Award, Certificate and Diploma courses, offered by several colleges around the country. Herefordshire College of Arts (home of the National School of Blacksmithing) also offers a three-year BA in Artist Blacksmithing.
Alternatively, you can arrange an informal apprenticeship with a master blacksmith. Fully accredited Modern Apprenticeships will be available soon.
The current starter salary is £15,000 to £19,000, but an experienced blacksmith can earn £30,000 or more. Trainee salaries will be in line with the minimum wage. Employed blacksmiths typically work 40-hour weeks.
Julia Ross | @iamjuliaross