Forging an exhibition

Galvanize Launch Winter gardens .  Michael Kusz with his work Director Cut.
Galvanize Launch Winter gardens . Michael Kusz with his work Director Cut.

Forges at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet will be fired up as the UK’s blacksmiths convene in Sheffield, Ian Soutar reports...

THIS weekend Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet will host the UK’s largest gathering of blacksmiths. The event, part of Galvanize Sheffield, is set to attract more than 40 members of the British Artists Blacksmith Association who will fire up an anticipated 30 forges and produce a piece of public art for the City of Sheffield destined to go on display in the Winter Garden.

As the name artist blacksmith implies, these smiths do not conform to the traditional image of the sweating figure in the village forge hammering away at horses hooves. They tend to make decorative and functional metalwork and sculpture. It is farriers who shoe horses.

But the techniques are the same. The craft of the artist blacksmith is based on the ancient principles of hot forging iron and steel, working with a fire, a hammer and an anvil to shape and join metal that has an individual quality and character far removed from “cut and weld” mass produced fabrication.

There are far more blacksmiths working today than there were 30 years ago but they do a lot more than simply hammering. New methods like computer aided design, sophisticated welding and cutting systems, and power hammers have enhanced the capabilities without compromising the hand skills that lie at the heart of the craft.

There are skilled blacksmiths who work in a traditional style, and many who seek a contemporary expression of the craft in making gates, railings and staircases, sculpture for city centres, furniture for homes and gardens and a whole variety of other items from doorknockers to jewellery.

One of the new breed helping to keep the craft of the blacksmith alive is Dan Liggins who has set up Black Dragon Forge at Stanton in the Peak. “I still use traditional techniques combined with modern techniques,” he says. “But I am something of a purist in the kind of work I take on.”

Liggins studied archaeology at the University of Sheffield and it was developing an interest in how to make tools which took him in the direction of metalwork. After he graduated he went to work for Andrew Renwick at Ridgeway Forge. “It was an informal apprenticeship,” he explains. “I was there to learn as much as I could.”

He consolidated this with some formal training at the Centre for Rural Crafts at Herefordshire College of Technology and was eventually able to set up on his own, undertaking commissions for architectural ironwork or else and restoring items in historic locations that have gone into disrepair.

An example is a series of Edwardian Gates at Ravenstor, near Buxton, a youth hostel owned by the National Trust.

“One of the great things about work like that is you are always learning stuff - from a blacksmith who probably died 150 years ago. He is showing how he solved a problem all those years ago,” says Liggins. “If you see someone staring at a piece of old ironwork it will be a blacksmith.”

Liggins says there are three levels of blacksmithing. “Firstly is being able to make something, second is to be able to make two things that match, and third is making something that matches something someone else has made,” he says.

From Richmond, North Yorkshire, Michael Kusz creates exotic animals and mythical beasts from scrap metal. He explains his journey into forging thus: “Having gained qualifications in Art, I have broadened my skills, refined my sensitivity, gained materials expertise, unravelled symbolism and cultivated a good memory.”

The weekend’s event is linked to BABA’s Something for the Garden exhibition which has been on display in the Winter Garden as part of Galvanize Sheffield 2011 It is the first event on the 2011 calendar at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet.

The public will continue to enjoy free admission to the the unique 18th century industrial works to enjoy some of the time honoured Abbeydale favourites, including guided walks and talks, the popular Living History characters and themed events.

Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust are bidding for for Heritage and Lottery funding to improve Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet.

The £800,000 bid will include plans to build a Learning Centre, new workshops and get the two waterwheels at Abbeydale going again, turning it into a working site.

The first phase of the application will be submitted this summer and if successful a phase two application will follow early in 2012.

If the overall bid is successful, it is estimated work would be completed in 2013, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the invention of stainless steel.