5 tips for finding Artist Blacksmithing Training
So the magical glow of orange hot steel being squeezed into shape by hammer alone has caught your imagination and you want to give it a try....
But how? Do you need to go back in time to the 19th century and find a burly toothless smith to show you how to make horseshoes? Well, assuming you don't have a time machine, here are some tips:
1 Go and see an artist blacksmith (but don't all come to me!!)
You'll be surprised how many of us there are out there, hiding in rural sheds and shacks, making things that you wouldn't think possible. There are many ways to finding your local artistic smith. You can simply google away and see who's close to where you are or if that proves tricky, try the bigger organisations such as BABA in the UK or ABANA in the USA. These groups offer information to budding smiths and hold the details of their members who can be contacted via their own websites and directory listings. They also offer student and non-professional membership with preferential rates. If you're really keen and you can pay the fee, this may be worth while, but if not you can use the free information they offer and join later when you're a professional.
Don't be intimidated. We can be a grumpy bunch of scruffs, blinking from the dimness of our forges, but overall I've found smiths to be a welcoming breed, willing to share their knowledge and happy to see the craft continue. If you speak to one who is less welcoming, don't go and see him or her! Find another!!!
[A note here to women who might be interested in the blacksmith's craft: don't be put off by the notion of a macho world of gruff blacksmiths in a men only club.... granted there will be some that still think that way as in all walks of life sadly, but I don't personally know any and there are some excellent influential and talented female smiths in the UK where I'm based and I'm sure worldwide too].
Don't expect a wealth of wisdom and advice or the offer of a paid placement or hands on experience, just go and have a chat. See if you like the feel of it, the smell and the atmosphere. See if you are dazzled by the wonders they create or maybe see if you think you could do better! If you think they might not mind, ask if you can pop in again sometime just to see what's going on, but be sensitive to the fact that they may not have hours to stop and chat while the forge is burning away. You never know, maybe on a second visit they might let you have a go. But failing that.....
2 Consider a short course to get the feel of it
Blacksmithing courses are more abundant than you think. There are smiths offering basic blacksmithing courses over a week, a weekend, a day or even just a few hours. You don't have to set out to learn a heap of techniques, you just need to have a go and see if you like it. There may be some expense here. May be in the low hundreds of pounds or dollars, but it should be worth it.
As most smithing courses are run by working smiths in their forges they are not regulated or certified so course quality will vary and the approach will be different in every case. The best way to navigate this is just to see what others say via the usual internet channels. Better still, go and see what they do before you sign up. I think a good sign is a take-home piece. If at the end of your course you get to take something home, it generally means you've had to pick up the skills to make it. It might be an arrow point, a key fob, a knife or something more ambitious if the course is longer. I'd recommend trying a short course first, but if you're fired up and determined.....
3 Consider a longer course
In some ways blacksmithing offers freedom. Consider this: here I am spouting advice after working in the art for over 20 years, but I have no qualifications in blacksmithing, no apprenticeship, not even a school class in metalwork. ("Who is he to tell me??" You say!). Well, the fact is, in a haphazard way, I set up my own path of training over many years by following my curiosities. I learnt to weld by offering free labour to a fabricator in inner-city London. I learnt basic forgework by working on a casual basis for a master blacksmith in Kent. I set up my own workshop, but still occasionally go on courses including a week of axe making in the wilds of Sweden.
So why am I telling you about courses? Well the truth is, I made life hard for myself, and while it has been enjoyable, it took me a long time and a hard slog to begin making the sort of pieces I do today. Perhaps if I had taken a longer course at the beginning I could have skipped a lot of years of trial and error.
4 Buy some books
In my estimation there are two kinds of useful blacksmithing book and one kind of useless book if you want to get into art blacksmithing and sculptural metalwork.
The obvious choice is the blacksmithing how-to type book. These can be useful, and there are many. The second useful type is the coffee table book, a mixture of inspirational photos of beautiful work with some information on design and a bit of technique. This is the style I chose when writing Artist Blacksmith Sculpture: The Art of Natural Metalwork mainly because over the years I have turned to this kind of book for inspiration far more often than the beginners manual type.
The third type of book is the engineering manual or comprehensive guide to metalwork techniques. If you're starting out, these books only serve to scare you, and in my experience rarely teach you anything. Even after years of experience, I sometimes turn to these books when trying a technique i'm not familiar with, but put them down none the wiser. I suppose google and youtube have now superseded these manuals for immediacy when it comes to fast technical help.
5 Have a go! Make something!
Get started in whatever way you can. Either by building a relationship with the nearest artist blacksmith by making yourself useful, offer to do some of the dirty work for free, such as cleaning up metalwork he or she has finished, organising the forge (trust me, all forges need it. Mine is a disgrace) or just making the tea. In doing the worst jobs, you will see some of the reality of the work you are dying to do. It's not all tinkering at the anvil, there is a lot of hard, grimy repetitive work. If it puts you off, then a rethink is needed.
Buy a forge or make your own and start messing. Hmmm. Maybe I need to write a post on how to make your own blacksmith's forge.... Watch this space.
Feel free to get in touch with your comments, tips, info or questions and good luck with your artistic blacksmithing endeavours! I hope you find it as interesting and enjoyable as I have over the last 20 or so years.
Blacksmithing Education and Training
So here below is a list of resources you can use. I'll write some notes at the top of each to help you navigate the many options. If they are not in your area, or your country or even your continent, have a look at them anyway. This way you can see the kind of establishments they are and find your local equivalents. And please, if you know of any to add to the list, please let me know so we can make this a better resource.
In the UK:
The best place to start would be the British Artist Blacksmiths Association where you can find a directory of courses:
My understanding is that the main two colleges for more serious accredited courses are Myerscough College in Preston
In the USA:
I'd suggest you start here. ABANA provides a very long list of training establishments from small to mainstream. If you don't find anything suitable here, you'll find that many states have thier own smaller blacksmith's association which might prove helpful.
As I'm not in the USA I can't recommend any mainstream courses personally, but I know two smiths who have attended the New England School of Metalwork for two week courses and they spoke very highly of it.
For smaller courses and shorter introductions, there are too many to list. See the points above about visiting a local smith and trying short courses, but if you're in Alaska, be sure to study with my friend Tom at: