Blacksmithing in the Cotswolds

PUBLISHED: 10:38 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

The Hereford Bridge, by Cotswold Decorative Ironworks

The Hereford Bridge, by Cotswold Decorative Ironworks

Marcia Graham-Martin takes a look at the ancient craft of blacksmithing. photography by hughie Powell of Cotswold Decorative Ironworks.

When you think of a blacksmith, the chances are you will conjure up an image of a village smithy plying a dying craft. However, although there is no longer a blacksmith on every Cotswold village corner, these days, there are plenty of these craftsmen in this area and they are emerging as artists in their own right.

Gone are the days of a blacksmith who spent his time forging solely functional items for agricultural, industrial or domestic use. Although these skills still exist, the craft has evolved into a highly sophisticated, design-led industry which feeds a buoyant market for decorative and ornamental ironwork.

The birth of an art

The ancient skill of blacksmithing began in the Iron Age, when man discovered that a certain type of rock yielded a metal called iron, which appeared when heated by the coals of a very hot campfire. Men first began making tools from iron, and for a long time, blacksmithing remained a crude art - a way of producing basic necessities such as spears and arrow tips for hunting, cooking pots and spits. It took hundreds, if not thousands of years, for man to learn the science of metallurgy.

Early iron smelters consisted of an oven, built from rocks, that could withstand repeated heating. These looked a little like beehives with a smoke vent in the top and an entry portal on the side. The hearth was filled with charcoal or coke, set alight, and the ore rocks were laid on top. When the temperature rose above 1200C, the iron would flow from the ore and 'puddle' in the fiery coals.

With large tongs, these lumps of raw iron would be pulled from the oven and placed on an anvil. The lumpy piece of raw iron would then be hammered into a flat, rectangular bar which would then be folded over and hammered again to its original shape. This process would continue several times, until all impurities had been driven from the ingot. The finished ingot, bearing the layers of the folding process, was called 'wrought iron.' This was then shaped to a desired outcome, via repeated manipulation with a hammer, punch or other tooling against an anvil.

From the precision of the locksmith, to the work of the mender of ploughs and the shoer of horses, the art of the blacksmith developed. Little of this early ironwork is typical - the catch of a door or the bar of a window for example, were more or less ornamented according to the whim of the smith and, as today, the available budget.

Unfortunately, few early examples of ironwork survive today, because wrought iron may be repeatedly recycled and benefits from re-working. Scrap could be bundled, heated until it glowed white hot, and forged again by hammering into a solid mass to produce an iron of a higher quality.

Where and when blacksmithing evolved depended on fuel and iron ore. Charcoal was the primary fuel in many places and where coal was found, it was converted to coke, a fuel that generated even more heat than charocoal. Given the weight of the ore rock and the large amount of fuel needed to smelt the ore, the earliest ironworks were located in areas where both ingredients were ample and in proximity to each other. The ironworks also had to be in an area where transporting the iron was practical. In early times, that often meant being near a navigable waterway.

Craftmanship reached new heights in the period of Great English Ironwork which started in 1690. Although still applied industrially and domestically, blacksmithing gradually changed direction towards a freer use of beaten sheet metal ornamentation, forming baroque leaf work, swags and masks - techniques that were no doubt derived from armoury. English ironwork took its course through the 18th century, from Baroque to Rococo and into the more austere era of mechanisation.

Industrialisation enforced new requirements for design, strength and accuracy. The carefree blacksmith became a technician. Ornamental work too became accurate, made to drawings and characterised by squareness and symmetry.

For centuries the blacksmith was regarded as the most important man in the rural community. In agricultural areas, including here in the Cotswolds, it would have been he who made and serviced the vast range of iron implements, tools and utensils used on the farm, in the workshop and in the home. And, in the days before the tractor, when farmers relied upon the horse, the blacksmith also spent much of his time engaged in shoeing and other farriery tasks, particularly on large estates.

Today's smithy

These days, a blacksmith is an artisan who creates both ornamental and functional objects by applying traditional and modern specialist techniques to form, shape and join metals such as steel, iron, brass copper and bonze.

Artist blacksmiths, who work both within rural areas and cities, work with metal to create architectural and decorative pieces, such as gates, railings, and furniture. Many produce work of their own style and designs as well as create pieces to suit specific commissions from individuals or organisations. Because of the growing interest in decorative metalwork of all shapes and sizes, there has been an increase in opportunities in this area. Many modern blacksmiths, freed from the need to create for function alone, have ventured into the arena of 'fine arts,' producing stunning sculptures for town centres, offices, museums and private commissions.

Hughie Powell, of Cotswold Decorative Ironworks, has grown his business over ten years and is a shining example of a modern, forward thinking businessman whose work is based on traditional techniques combined with contemporary design to appeal to today's modern market place. He said: "I started out in antiques and architectural salvage and was often asked to supply gates - I saw a market, as I could never find gates that were exactly the right size for the customer - so Cotswold Decorative Ironworks was born.

He converted farm buildings into a forge, based near Shipston on Stour, where three blacksmiths supply customers with high quality, stunning ironwork such as ornamental bridges, estate fencing, tree guards and ornate gates. He has provided ironwork for many large estates in the Cotswolds and even has a few famous clients - Prince Charles, Elton John and Cliff Richard included. Much of his work is exported, and his gates can be found in countries as far afield as Bermuda and Japan.

Hughie has some advice for people looking for a good blacksmith. He says: "A good forging will incorporate several traditional techniques, and the merit of a piece can be assessed by design, the numbers of techniques used, the complexity of techniques and the proficiency with which they have been carried out. This is quite hard to spot at first, but once you start looking at ironwork closely and regularly, you will get a feel for what's good and what's not."

Here's the science bit!

Traditional techniques such as riveting, collaring, punching, wrapping, banding forged ballwork and forge welding form the basis of today's blacksmithing. Heating is now accomplished by the use of propane, natural gas, coal, charcoal or coke and modern blacksmiths may also employ oxyacetalene torches and electric induction furnaces as a heating medium.

Scroll ends are employed (for laymen, the curly bits at the end of a pole or bar) and some sheet metalwork, such as water and acanthus leaf work, is used to produce a three-dimensional impression. Twists, in various forms, introduce a subtle change in form.

The seamless joining of two or more pieces of iron or steel by forging is frequently required and demands great skill. Known as 'forge welding' the material is forged at an optimum temperature. If this is too high, the metal is burned and becomes useless, if it is too low, uniform welds will not be formed. The quality and complexity of a weld produced by this technique, can give a good indication of a blacksmith's overall ability.

A number of modern forgings are very large and heavy and cannot be handled by hammer and anvil. In these cases, use is made of hydraulic presses and appropriate handling equipment. The hammer can have a detrimental effect on the surface of large forgings, and little overall effect on the shape of the iron. The use of a press and dies in these circumstances is therefore essential.

A good forging will be appropriately finished. Forgings to be used inside should be burnished or semi-burnished, and protected by wax polishes or linseed oil. Forgings which are made for external use should be shot-blast cleaned and then sprayed with zinc followed by painting with good quality paints.

The future's bright

Over the years, technological improvements have undoubtedly made the manufacture and working of ironwork much easier. New techniques, on the whole, supplement traditional techniques but in some cases, where they do the same job at a lower cost, they are used as a substitute. In some cases, they enable operations to be carried out which could not be done by the traditional techniques alone.

However, The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths is anxious to preserve the old traditions of blacksmithing, stating that although modern techniques have to be recognised as necessary to the survival of the craft, the tradition of hot forging the material cannot, and must not, be lost.

Ian Coleman, who is team leader at the Centre for Rural Crafts (part of Herefordshire College of Technology) - the largest blacksmithing training facility in Europe - says: "Blacksmithing is very much alive. We have many students joining us each year, and after their training they leave as highly skilled craftspeople who go on to work in all areas of ironwork from jewelry and tool making, architectural ironwork and sculptures. I think there will always be a market for beautiful, handcrafted metalwork - it's goes all the way back to the iron age and it will last well into the future."

- ENDS -


The realization of the magnetic properties of forged metal prompted the invention of the first compass which used a forged iron needle that floated in a round vial. By forging the needle as perfectly as he could, the blacksmith aligned the molecules in the iron. From that point on, sailors could travel without sole dependence on the stars or sun to plot their course around the globe.


(Courtesy of The Worshipful Company of Blacksmith)

In the good olden days when the gods condescended
To visit this Earth and enlighten mankind,
Amongst those who most us poor mortals befriended,
Still Vulcan, our Patron, the foremost you'll find;
When he taught us with Anvil and Hammer to mould
The Ploughshare, the Spade, and the Sickle to reap,
Had we paid for such knowledge a mountain of gold,
The purchase would still to mankind have been cheap.

Moses Kipling, Prime Warden 1828

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