Search This Blog

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Basic Blacksmithing Course

Last weekend I had the pleasure of becoming a new custodian of some very old skills, the honour of learning them from Oxfordshire Blacksmithing legend Clive Sanderson, and to top it all off, the privilege of working in a forge that dates back to 1790 and is now a scheduled ancient monument.

The intensive 2 day course covers the basic skills of traditional blacksmithing exactly as apprentices have learned them for centuries. Obviously you can't replace the hours of practice and opportunity to observe the master at work that you would get with a proper five year blacksmithing apprenticeship, but with 1 on 1 tuition and a little concentration it's surprising how much ground you can cover in a couple of days. Clive explained and demonstrated all of the following skills, which I then had plenty of time to practice on my own workpiece.

Fire management
Cutting and splitting
Forging to section (square, octagonal, round)
Drawing down and tapering
Upsetting or jumping up
Punching and drifting
Decorative Scroll work
We even managed to have a go at a bit of fire welding too.

Around the same time as I was born, Clive was starting his apprenticeship in a village blacksmiths shop three miles down the road. By the time I could walk he was making money at it and by the time I could ride a bike he had served his apprenticeship and could call himself a blacksmith. 

The techniques Clive teaches are absolutely traditional, they have been preserved and cherished since the iron age, like a living flame passed from one generation to the next.  Clive's pride in these techniques is inspiring, and has made me want to produce what I believe to be a perfect result every single time I use them.  I suppose this is the key to how craftsmanship gets passed down along with the skills.

The forge we were working in is part of Tooleys historic boatyard in Banbury. This little brick shed survived the wholesale redevelopment of the town centre ten years ago and it now sits rather incongruously among the mobile phone shops in the middle of the Castle Quay shopping centre. It isn't some touristy museum with a flickering orange lightbulb in the hearth and a recording of hammering to give it some atmosphere. It's a proper working forge, complete with heat, dirt and genuine expletives when someone is learning the hard way just how long metal stays hot.

By the end of the second day I had a new portfolio of comfortably understood blacksmithing skills and the confidence that I had used each of them at least once and achieved an acceptable result.  I also had a rather special candlestick to show for my efforts which also serves as a permanent reminder of both the individual techniques and a deeply rewarding experience.

If you'd like to find out more about the blacksmithing courses, book yourself in for one, or perhaps commission a piece of work, you can contact Clive direct at Charles Branson Design or via Tooleys boatyard on 01295 272917.


  1. You lucky man !! ... it looks a good place to work in, reminds me a little bit of my Great Uncle Andrews shed, the traditional black and red that would house his engines and threshers until 1940 when he retired at seventy. His forge and tools were down the far end complete with a very pre-war IXL lathe. Drinking in the 'Dirty Bottles' in Alnwick a few years later I met Alan and he told me he could remember Andrew and how he was known for his mechanical skill. I hope you do more smithing, white as well as black.

  2. I forgot to mention, I have here three volumes pub by CoSIRA half a century ago, they are photo guides with accompamying text that are invaluable for the layman to get a 'feel' of what is going on.

    'The Blacksmiths Craft' .. basic moves.

    'Wrought Ironwork' ... real high end precision and artistry.

    'Decorative Ironwork' .. more general appeal.

    Well worth seeking out.