At the beginning of the year Peter Brunner contacted me to invite me to be one of the master blacksmiths involved in creating a master project at Hammer-in 2017, the biennial festival he runs in Sperberslohe, Germany. I jumped at the chance and felt very honoured to be invited. But I wanted to do something a little different to the normal format of the projects created for blacksmith festivals. I told Peter of my idea to come to the event with no tools and no design and instead create a project with anyone willing to work with me. We would use the materials and tools available onsite and co-design the project between members of the team. To my surprise, Peter thought it was a good idea, although after I put the phone down I started to have doubts. I often get myself into trouble like this; letting my enthusiasm for my artform run away with me, but it does take me to some interesting areas and part of being a blacksmith, or artist for that matter, is making an idea work. That said, it didn’t stop me worrying that this time I might have dug a hole I could not climb out of.
On the whole, I was more excited about the idea of pulling a team of strangers together to create and build a project in four days than I was intimidated by it. This idea had been sloshing around in my head since CANIRON X when Grant Haverstock had sprung the news on me that I was Sunday’s “Guest demonstrator” one day before the event started (Grant and his partner, Jessica Klein, thought this was very funny. They are funny people). I didn’t have any tools with me and with no idea what to do I decided to create an improvised sculpture on the day. We had a lot of fun during the demo and there was an end result (although I had to finish it in Grant’s forge) and the sculpture was not too terrible.
Peter was the first event organiser not to think I was mad and in fact he was as excited as I was. What made this a little more intimidating was the Hammer-in theme which stipulated that all the work had to be park-related. That is, all the work should be something that would be of use in a public park. So, the excuse of “It’s sculpture. It’s meant to do that” was out.
As the event got closer I became a little more nervous. What if no one wanted to work on the project? I hadn’t thought that people might like to see a design and know what they were getting themselves into. When I started to see the wonderful designs the other masters had proposed, the feeling of trepidation deepened, but it was already too late to back out so I tried to keep all thoughts of the project out of my mind. Luckily, I was very busy in my own forge in the lead up and didn’t have time to dwell on it. Not too much anyway. But as my son, George, and I started our journey to Nurnberg I had plenty of time to think about the hole I had dug for myself.
We arrived in Sperberslohe to a warm welcome from Peter and his team and it was a pleasure to watch and try to be of some help in the days leading up to the festival. They were working so hard and it was amazing to see the whole community getting involved. I really wanted to know if anyone had signed up to my project, but no one seemed to know and they all had a lot to worry about. At this point there was a huge temptation to start to pre-design the project and maybe fall back on tried and tested areas of my work. But being the stubborn blacksmith I am, I resisted (I’m very proud of myself for this). I was teaching a course on tong-making on Wednesday, the first day of the Hammer-in, which helped take my mind off the master project. But by the end of the course I still had no idea if anyone wanted to work on my project. Thoughts ran through my head that I could just be that weird Anglo-Irish blacksmith off in the corner making some foolish piece. Again.
One of Peter’s team had the idea of displaying a board listing all the projects with the idea that anyone who wanted to work on them could put their names up and it would work from there. At breakfast on Thursday morning I was very relieved to see plenty of names beside my project on the board. The first hurdle had been cleared and now of course if things went tits-up I could always blame it on my team, which was a relief.
One of the reasons I wanted to work the project in this way was that I often have students ask me about my design process. People tend to worry about concepts. Or rather, not being able to come up with a concept at all. I wanted to share some of ways in which I treat the process. For this project I decided to treat the Hammer-in as our client; there was a parameter for the project which was that it had to be park-related. When you have a set of parameters for a project it often makes the design process a little easier. Form and design follow a function, so it gives the project a pointer from which you can build a design. The first thing we did as a team was to fire out ideas on what you might find in a park. Of these ideas, we focused on three. A litter bin, a fire pit, and one of our team (Penny Strössner) came up with a great concept of a frame in which to take photos for social media. We all set about creating very quick sketches for the three themes. Once the sketches were done, we each presented our ideas. Through this process we could clearly see that the group were inspired most by Penny’s frame concept. We set about using the ideas from each of the frame sketches to create one design. This was actually much easier than it sounds, as by this time everyone was very committed to the project and I felt we had all opened up and gelled together as a team quickly, much quicker than I anticipated. This made it much easier for people to share ideas and problem-solve our design.
Before finalising our design we took stock of the size of material we had at hand. Luckily, there was plenty of 30mm2 bar for the main frame of our project and 80mm x 8mm for the sub-frame, which made things a little easier. Now that we knew our stock, concept, and rough design, we could finalise the design and focus on the processes needed to bring it together. This is where it is a benefit to have a team in which everyone feels comfortable. We were able to problem-solve the forging process very quickly and effectively. In fact, over the three days of forging we only ran into a couple of minor issues, and they were easily resolved. This really surprised me for a project of this nature. Buy this time I was really enjoying the project, my team seemed to be a great bunch of people and I was very happy with how we worked together. We finished up our work on the first day by putting together a three-day work schedule. This gave us a target to aim for each day and I worked in a little leeway as I knew that most of my team were part-time in the forge and we had a lot of forge work, meaning we would be completely reliant on traditional joinery. All that being done, it was time for beer.
The first day of forging was all about getting the frame forged which meant working with the 2.5m long 30mm2 square bar, lots of sledge-swinging and sweating; we even found time to choreograph a dance to the rhythm of the power hammers on site. By the end of the day we had the main frame forged out and spacers made. We were on schedule, so this meant time for beer, of which there was no shortage. I love Germany.
Day two of forging and I made the only real fuck-up of the project. Really I wanted to test my team’s resilience, of course. I forged one of the tenons on the 30mm bar way over to one side and it could not be saved and we had no more 30mm bar. We would have to cut it off and find 20mm from somewhere while keeping the integrity of the main frame. Some thinking would need to be done and for that you need beer, so we got on with hot punching the holes and started forging out the secondary frame from the 80mm x 8mm strap. This was hot work and living in Ireland I found it a challenge with the German summer heat. For my team it was mother’s milk, but I looked like I was made of butter that had been left out in the sun. That said, we made it to the end of the day, hitting our work schedule. Time for more refreshment.
Final day. All the other projects where taking shape around us and we had a collection of bars on the grass. That’s how it felt to me looking at it. But we had rain and cooler weather and, living in the Northwest of Ireland, this was my environment. More hot work was in store, forging the strap and then fullering it out. My team were amazing, as they had been from the start. By lunchtime we were ready to start bringing it together. All we had to do was find that 20mm from the 30mm bar. We did this by creating a fullered design in the centre of the bar and lengthening it out. The team then drilled the holes into the two frames so we could rivet them to each other, while I had a paddle in the nearby stream. Rivets were made and then the exciting part of riveting the whole thing together. This went beautifully smoothly thanks to my team, and we were all very excited to see Peter and his team forge the last rivet closed.
For me this was an incredible experience and I’m most proud of the fact that my team wore big smiles throughout the four days. I could not have wished for a better bunch of people to work with, we had so much fun. So, a big thank you to Gunda Seim, Dirk Tietgen, Bernhard (Penny) Strössner, Axel Berges, Ramon DeCandido, Markus Reingruber, and my old friend, Benj Blaser. You made it a joy.
While I was working with my team, George, my son (who is 15 years old) was working on Georg Reinking’s fantastic project. This was my son’s first forge-in and he learnt so much from Georg. It really was a pleasure watching him work in another team and Georg really made a positive impression on him. My son had so much fun and I really want to thank Georg for allowing him to work on his team. What a great way to spend your first forge-in, working with such a fantastic master.
George and I were sad to leave Sperberslohe, even though we were setting off to spend time with my good friend (and German brother), Bill Linke, down in Kunzelsau. Peter and his team put on an amazing event; it was very good fun, full of things to see and do, and packed with amazing people. We were treated so well by everyone and made to feel so very welcome. The other masters – Александр Сушников, Georg Reinking, Steffen Aurin, Christoph Küllinger, and Lorenz Reisenzahn – all produced amazing projects and were each a joy to meet and spend time with.
I must say a big thank you to Angela and George who took us into their home for the week in Sperberslohe. They made us feel at home, and it was the secret to us looking so refreshed and rested each day.