My approaches to work

Last year I was asked by a client how I approach my work, and unusually for me, I didn’t have an answer. So, I’ve been examining just how I do approach it and these are the answers I’ve discovered for myself.

Firstly, I tend to divide my work up into different categories with different slants for each. Pure functional (Tools and such items), Commissioned functional, Commissioned Sculpture and Personal Sculpture.

Pure Functional:
With tools and other pure functional work, form must follow function. There is no point making a tool that does not perform. While to some this might seem to be a limitation on creativity, I have found it very liberating. Having set rules to work within can help to focus you mind, which frees you up in so many ways. This has become so true to me that I often use tool making as a way loosen up or clear my mind in-between other projects.
Rounding Hammer
As you can see with this 3lb rounding hammer I made, there is still plenty of scope to create sculptural forms. In fact I often feel that tools are the purest form of sculpture. Just look at the stone axes of early human endeavour. Those tools were, in my eyes, our first ventures into the sculptural world.

Commissioned Functional:
Here there are several things at play, all vying for attention. You have, as with the tools, a function that must be respected. Your client, who is paying you, wants the piece to work for them in a set way. If it’s a gate, for instance, it must span the gap, it must open. These are a given. Then, you are responding to the environment which also leads you to your client. They have put this space together so it is a good indicator as to their own vision. I want this type of work to work for my clients. Mostly, I find people approach me because of my portfolio so they are already open to my style of work, I don’t tend to get many conflicts here. Then I have my own reaction to the space. Usually when I see a space, I want to fill it. (Don’t know what that says about me. No puns intended). The combination of all these things helps to form my approach, not necessarily meaning the creation of something that will blend in with its surroundings. If I feel the space needs something that will create contrast, that is what I will design and I have occasionally turned work away as I felt the customer was asking for something that would not work in the space.
Above all I want to produce work I’m happy with, otherwise I might as well work for someone else and not have the headaches that go hand-in-hand with having you own art practice. I love this type of work because you are developing a relationship between yourself, the client and the space. It can lead you into unexpected areas and push you in ways other types of work don’t. Also it is a great moment when your client sees the work for the first time and you have exceeded their expectations.

Commissioned Sculpture:
Mostly this for me has meant public pieces of sculpture. Here you are responding to a particular brief and, surprisingly, it can be where you find yourself being asked to compromise your work the most. I try to find an area of the brief that interests me and focus on that; if the brief is really uninteresting there is very little point in getting involved in the project. I get a lot of my inspiration from a deep-set belief in my work and if I don’t believe in the project I won’t produce the work to do it justice. Obviously as with commissioned functional work, I am also responding to the environment in which the piece will be set. I want above all to create a conversation between the brief, the environment and the work, getting a good feel for the space is crucial. The biggest difference in my approach to this type of work is I have to fully design it on paper. This is something to which I’m a little resistant. My medium is hot forged steel, mostly, and drawing my work out has always felt like I am working to another medium. Now I know it has huge advantages, and working in this way has pushed me and my work which is a very good thing. But I still have to be dragged to the drawing table every time.

Personal Sculpture:
What I define as personal sculpture is work that I’m only creating to satisfy my own feelings and needs without a view to the reaction it will provoke in others. My first approach here is where I have a fully conceptualised idea in my head. I don’t sketch it and I don’t change it. It tends to just flow out of me in a frenzy of compulsive forging. Sometimes I will see something in the making of the piece and will have to decide whether to adapt the piece or store the idea for future work but on the whole I’m trying to bring my vision of the piece into fruition in its entirety as I conceptualised it as with this sculpture: A war crime by any other name.
A war crime by any other name

I also have this method where I have a concept which in itself is fully formed in such a way that I have a framework and maybe a series of way points and a loose idea of how to hit those points. This sculpture, The gift that keeps on oppressing, illustrates my point.
Gift 5

Gift 8

Gift 2

I knew I wanted a cube frame for it and a void at its centre that was under stress. But I didn’t know exactly what that would look like. So I created the frame and made the first inset spike, then each subsequent inset responded to the pieces before. This also helped me overcome one of the other problems I foresaw, which was how to create a randomness to the spikes at the same time as framing the void. Sometimes with this type of approach it can feel like the sculpture is working you rather than the other way around. This can feel a little unnerving, even terrifying, and can be almost all consuming at times. At the end of making this piece I felt exhausted and drained, so much so my wife called it “the black hole” for the two months I worked on it.
The thing that stays constant throughout these differing approaches is the pure joy it is to light a fire and manipulate hot steel. You can’t beat it! (Pun intended)

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New short film shot in my forge.

This is a short film entitled The Blacksmith. Shot in my forge by film maker Pete Killane.

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The Blacksmith

Here is a new short film made in my forge by film maker Pete Killane.

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Erosion of forged mild steel. A theory.

Never being one to accept things I’m told on face value, I’ve often thought about what in the blacksmith’s world is accepted wisdom on erosion of mild steel. For those of you who aren’t into metallurgy here is a short explanation.

You might have noticed old ironwork form anywhere between 100 to 500 years in your area which is rusted but not eroded. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, it is most likely wrought iron which, while being made of the same ore as the mild steel we mostly use today, goes through an initially different smelting process. This in short means it has a totally different molecular structure to mild steel. The structure of mild steel is crystalline, while wrought iron is fibrous. Adding to this, wrought iron will have inclusions or impurities caused by the smelting process. This fibrous structure, according to conventional wisdom on this subject, lends itself to a greater degree of burnishing through the forging process which gives it a surface that will be more resistant to moisture-penetration. The burnished surface is what we smiths call millscale, it has a dark gray or black colour which is where blacksmiths get their name. Millscale is densely packed iron and carbon along with other trace elements.
Conventional thought on this is that when a rust bloom forms on wrought iron that has been forged correctly to form millscale, it makes it almost impervious to water penetration and, therefore, more resilient to further oxidisation. Oxidisation of iron is what causes erosion. Conventional thought also says that the same is not true for mild steel that has been forged due to its crystalline structure. Because it does not burnish down in the same way as wrought iron, it will not give the same levels of water penetration prevention.
I have thought about this a great deal. Both materials looked the same once forged. To me they both seem to burnish to the same degree. But looks can be deceiving and, as I don’t have a handy electron microscope to check out the molecular differences to surface density, I went looking for studies into the defences in erosion rates of forged mild steel and forged wrought iron. Surprisingly, I could not find any such research. Now, I’ve only got Google at my disposal so that does not mean that such a research does not exist but as I couldn’t find one I decided to create my own limited experiment. I forged a simple BBQ out of mild steel, using only traditional joinery and took care to forge all of the material used, creating an even millscale throughout the BBQ. The BBQ has been left out in the elements ever since, seven years now and used often. It has moved to three different houses with us, not to mention trips to the beach and around the northwest Mayo. 001002004
As you can see, it has formed a rust bloom but there is zero erosion. Seven years is not a conclusive time period and this is not a controlled experiment but it does lead me to question conventional wisdom on this matter. I’ve see fabricated mild steel structures show signs of erosion in that timeframe, so why not this structure? Could conventional thought on this subject be misleading? As yet I feel it is too early and too limited a study to give a conclusive answer. However, it does call into question what we believe to be the truth about the material we use as blacksmiths and the way we treat and finish it. It is my theory that mild steel, when correctly forged using traditional joinery and not welded with modern welders, performs very well compared with wrought iron. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject and if you can point me in the direction of any studies or others experiments in this same field, I’d be glad.

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When the world gives you lemons…

I used to bemoan my lot when I didn’t have a big project to get my teeth into. I felt it was a barrier to my creative development and also to the development of my skill level. How was I to advance if my projects weren’t getting bigger all the time? Then I realised every project was a chance to move on, both creatively and technically. This was not some epiphany but rather a gradual understanding that every project that passes through my forge is an opportunity, regardless of its size or nature, to advance my skill base by perfecting the techniques I already know and developing new ones. It’s also an opportunity to develop new sculptural forms.


A case in point was several small business card holders I was making this week. It’s a very small job but very small jobs are sometimes what keep the wolf from the door. I approach each job, be it tools, architectural iron work, functional iron work or sculpture, as a piece of sculpture. This job was no different and I applied my own set of sculptural ideals to it.


Firstly, as with all my work, it must be fully-forged. I’m just not interested in fabrication, this is why I became a blacksmith. This, on the face of it, can seem to a lot of people as though I’m limiting myself. I don’t see it that way, for me working in this way leads to a greater level of creativity. I see it with my students all the time: by teaching them a few forging techniques, then challenging them to design anything using only those techniques, their creativity is boosted, not diminished. After all, necessity is the mother of all invention, so I hear.


Secondly, for me the cardinal crime in art/craft is creating a piece that blends into the background. I don’t want my work to be something you can just walk by without noticing. For me, it should be tactile, inviting people to touch and handle it, commanding attention. All too often I feel artists and craftspeople are trying to be stylish, to create a “classic” design. I don’t believe you can create a classic design by following styles or tends. I try to please or amuse myself and hopefully what I create will speak to other people. I hear people talking about adhering to the brief, I say “Feck any brief!”, if you have a good idea it will appeal to people. 90% of my customers are coming to me because they like my work and the way I make it. Usually their brief is as simple as “it has to fit into this space” or “it has to do this job”. In fact very few of my customers even ask to see a sketch of what I intend to do, they trust me and my response to their particular need.

So, this very small piece of functional sculpture – a business card holder – has to hold cards and those cards need to be easy to access. Other than my own preference for using forging techniques, I’m free to do whatever I like. I wanted the holder to work in conjunction with the cards, not against them. The point of this piece as I saw it was to bring attention to the cards, not overpower them. So I kept the form small, using simple techniques: hot cutting, pointing, necking, drawing out and bending a bar of steel 50mm wide, 6mm thick and 160mm long. These are all skills I’ve used before but as I’ve said, this presents another chance to improve them. To move forward in my chosen medium. To understand that medium a little better.

To make lemonade from my lemons.

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Is everything art?

Is everything art? It’s a question I have heard posed a lot over the past 18 months. But is this the right question? Haven’t we asked this before? I believe the more poignant question is: why don’t we cherish each other’s individual perception of what art is? Or even our own ideas of what art or craft is. I often feel we have empowered others to dictate to us what art, craft and good taste is. This has become so acute that the art and craft world has become predictable and homogenised, at least in my view.
This is the point, it’s my view and it’s no more or less valid than anyone else’s view. Personally, whenever I see an exhibition billed as “interesting and thought-provoking”, it’s a sure fire sign to me that it will be neither of these things. This idea that an elite has a better idea of what art is has led to (again, in my opinion) a disconnect for most people with art. This is best illustrated by the annual drop-off in visitor numbers from our publicly-funded galleries. This is a direct result of giving this small elite permission to only project their idea of what art is.
In the craft world this has manifested itself in the rise of fashion being confused with craft. Fashion is its own thing, it has its own support networks and very good publicity opportunities that by far outstrip most craft opportunities to promote what they do. I’m not saying there is no craftsmanship or artistry within fashion; I’m saying, in my opinion, that in itself it is not the same thing as craft or art. More and more I’ve noticed fashion being lorded in craft and art galleries. This gives most visitors a confused message and tends to leave the galleries looking a bit like a jumble sale. As a result we see dropping sales in these places for craft and art. Not because people don’t want to buy art or craft, or fashion for that matter, but because they don’t see the connection or relevance that fashion has to the other work on display. I have seen the support networks set up for the craft industry slowly be redirected to boost fashion at the cost of craftspeople. There are less and less opportunities for us to exhibit our work as more space is given over to fashion. Less and less funding, as more is given to fashion, and fewer opportunities for support from the bodies set up to support art and craft as they turn their focus more and more to fashion.
I think all this stems from the fact that we have given too much power to people who don’t know any more than the rest of us, and quite a lot less than most practising artists and craftspeople, about art and craft. It is high time we started wrestling this power back and realising we are the experts.

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Not Dying

Not Dying is a short film that is an exploration of forge-work as a sculptural medium. Charting the creation of “Hand of the sleeping giant” a sculpture hand forged by myself . Filmed by film maker Simon Watson. Filmed on location at: The Forge, Castlebaldwin, County Sligo, Ireland. Music by “Four tet”

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