Blacksmiths create ornamental and functional objects by hot forging a wide range of metals. They apply traditional and modern specialist techniques to form, shape and join metals such as steel, iron, brass, copper and bronze.
Artist blacksmiths work with metal to create architectural and decorative pieces such as gates, sculpture and furniture. Some also restore antique ironwork. Many artist blacksmiths produce work to their own style and designs. They also create pieces to suit specific commissions from individuals or organisations.
Industrial blacksmiths produce purely functional items for use in industry and on company premises, such as specialist tools, fire escapes or security grills. They may also create work to meet specific customer requirements.
Work activities vary according to the type of blacksmithing and the specific project or 'commission':
They may go on a site visit to discuss requirements with a customer and to take measurements. They would then make a working drawing and decide on the types and amounts of materials needed for the project.
They mark up and cut out the metal to be heated in the forge. Each metal is heated to the correct temperature in preparation for shaping and joining by fire welding or modern welding techniques. The blacksmith uses a variety of forge work techniques.
When the construction is complete, the metal has to be 'finished'. If the piece is for indoor use, such as a chair, it might be polished and protected with wax or linseed oil. If it is for outdoor use such as a gate, it might be grit-blasted, cleaned, sprayed with zinc and then painted.
Self-employed blacksmiths need to manage the financial and legal aspects of their business. They must also promote their work through special events such as craft shows and fairs. Training and managing apprentices and other staff may also be part of their work.
Some experienced blacksmiths provide training workshops and sessions on metal working techniques for members of the public and for people already in the industry.
Blacksmiths may occasionally be employed as part of a team of blacksmiths to create and complete larger pieces of work.
As well as the more traditional hand tools, blacksmiths also work with power tools such as power hammers, drills, air chisels and hydraulic presses. They may also use engineering machinery such as centre lathes, millers and grinders, as well as welding equipment.
Blacksmiths usually work between 35 and 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Overtime may be available. Self-employed blacksmiths work as many hours as they need to make their business a success. It can take time for self-employed blacksmiths to develop their professional reputation and contacts.
Blacksmiths work in specialist workshops or 'forges' based in their homes or in industrial sites or heritage centres. Forges vary from small sheds to large engineering workshops. Most of the work is done indoors, but blacksmiths may need to work outdoors to install a piece such as a gate or fire escape.
Due to the nature of the work, forges can get very hot and noisy. There may also be fumes from various forging processes. Blacksmiths must follow strict health and safety procedures to protect themselves. While working, they wear protective clothing such as safety glasses, boots, ear protectors and aprons.
Blacksmiths usually work standing up and have to bend over to work on pieces of metal. The work can involve heavy lifting, particularly in industrial blacksmithing. However, power tools are increasingly used for much of the heavier work.
Starting salaries may be around £10,000 a year, but are often lower.
Artist blacksmiths are based throughout the UK, both within rural areas and cities. Because of the growing interest in decorative metalwork of all shapes and sizes, there has been a small increase in opportunities in this area. However, people specialising in this side of smithing may have to accept other types of work to make a living as their work is commissioned and earnings vary widely.
Industrial blacksmiths are currently employed in mining sites, docks and engineering, but the demand for workers in this area is decreasing.
As many blacksmiths are self-employed or work for small family businesses, trainees may need to move to find a training place.
To start work as a blacksmith, entrants either complete a full-time college course or learn the trade while working as an apprentice for a professional blacksmith. It can be difficult to find an Apprenticeship scheme, so it helps to make contacts in the industry. There are no specific qualifications required for entry to training.
Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.
Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.
There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For further information contact Careers Scotland www.careers-scotland.org.uk, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com or Careers Service Northern Ireland www.careersserviceni.com.
College courses vary in content between providing more traditional blacksmithing skills and focusing on design. The British Artists Blacksmiths Association (BABA) provides general support to people starting in blacksmithing. It has a list experienced blacksmiths throughout the UK who offer work experience.
Suitable courses for starting work as a blacksmith include:
BTEC National Certificate in Blacksmithing and Metalwork (one year full time).
BTEC National Diploma in Blacksmithing and Metalworking - this usually follows on from the national certificate and some forging experience is usually required.
A Diploma will help you make a more informed choice about the type of learning that best suits you and about what kind of work or further study you may want to do afterwards.
There are also degrees and other higher education courses in blacksmithing, silversmithing or metalwork. The minimum qualifications for a degree course are two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications. For entry to some courses, a previous qualification in a craft-related subject is often required. An understanding of design and a high level of commitment are required for most courses. A portfolio of artwork is usually required.
Industrial blacksmiths can train through an Apprenticeship in engineering. This combines training for NVQ's/SVQ's in fabrication and welding, with working for a blacksmith or specialist company.
Herefordshire College of Technology operates the Rural Apprenticeship New Entrants Training Scheme in Forge work. The scheme combines on-the-job training with block release at the college. Training lasts for two to three years, and includes:
- Health and safety
- Care and management of the forge
- Power hammer techniques
- Leaf work, and gold leaf gilding
Students can gain a range of awards from the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, depending on their level of achievement.
Professional bodies, blacksmithing schools and experienced blacksmiths also offer a range of short special interest courses, including residential and non-residential weekend courses and day sessions. These types of courses can provide the opportunity to create pieces for a portfolio of work that can be used for applications for further professional qualifications. Contact the British Artists Blacksmiths Association (BABA) for details.
Roustabouts and roughnecks work as part of a small team on offshore oil or gas drilling rigs or production platforms. Roustabouts do unskilled manual labouring jobs on rigs and platforms, and roughneck is a promotion from roustabout.
The roustabout's job is physically demanding, very hands-on and practical. Most of the work is carried out under the supervision of a lead roustabout.
Blacksmiths tend to develop their skills, interests and reputation over many years. There are opportunities to take additional training and develop specialist areas, which can lead to further work.
In larger organisations, blacksmiths can gain promotion to a supervisory role. With experience, some blacksmiths provide short training courses, either informally, or through their own blacksmithing schools.
Experienced industrial and artist blacksmiths are occasionally employed by museums and heritage centres.
There are some opportunities to work overseas. Short-term jobs in developing countries are sometimes available.
British Artists Blacksmiths Association (BABA), Anwick Forge, 62 Main Road, Anwick,
Lincoln NG34 9SU
Tel: 01526 830303
The Crafts Council, 44a Pentonville Road, Islington, London N1 9BY
Tel: 020 7278 7700
National Association of Farriers, Blacksmiths and Agricultural Engineers (NAFBAE), The Forge,
Avenue B, 10th Street, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LG
Tel: 024 7669 6595
Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths,
48 Upwood Road, Lee, London SE12 8AN
Tel: 020 8318 9684
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.