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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Skill and development vs. time and resources

Had an interesting conversation today at the kitchen table with the current Mrs Budd (Tiffany) about progressing as a craftsperson and artist. We both work at opposite ends of the same medium, metal: Tiff being an extremely talented goldsmith ( As we live in a part of the world which does not offer much in the way of training for either of us, gaining new skills most often means teaching ourselves, mostly through trial and error. The conundrum there is, it takes longer to gain skills in this way and when do you fit in that time? It’s a conundrum that every working artist/crafts person faces and on a regular bases.

It’s a hard balance to get right; some might think there comes a time when an artist has become fully rounded but in my opinion that does not happen. If you want your work to continue to move forward you can’t afford to live in your comfort zone. If you do, you are stagnating which can be the kiss of death. I look on gaining new skills or techniques in this way: my experience is like a combination tumbler lock, every skill I have learnt is a wheel on that tumbler. So, every new skill learned is an extra wheel on the tumbler which in turn gives new combinations. It also changes the combinations already on the tumbler and propels your work forward into new exciting possibilities. In fact, what I once saw as learning new skills I now see as gaining greater understanding of my chosen medium, steel. The more experience I gain, the more I am able to see and realise the possibilities, and understand hot forged steel.

In order to gain a greater understanding of your work you need to give yourself time to develop new skills and, as we all know, time means money. I’ve done this over the years by designing speculative items like fire sets, candle sticks and sculpture to incorporate skills I want to learn. In this way I’m motivated, as I have a project to finish and at the end of it I have something to sell which helps to pay the bills. So in a way I’m paying for my own on the job training, if you follow.

This time of year lends itself to refection, as the year wanes to a close and, having achieved this year one of the goals I set myself when starting my own forge back in 2006 – inclusion in Metall Design International, an annual book showcasing 11 metalworkers/blacksmiths from around the world. ISBN No:978-3-931951-69-6, in case you want to check this wonderful book out) – I have been reflecting on my journey so far. I started my forge with very little: an anvil, hammer, leg vice and a set of old bellows. At the time I bemoaned my lack of tools, having come from working in a very well equipped forge. Everything slowed down for me when I wanted it be leaping forward but now I realise that this was one of the most fortunate things to happen to me. The lack of tools and money forced me to focus on hand skills and propelled my abilities forward at what I’m sure was a much faster rate than if I’d been able to fill my wish list of tools and equipment. So, training myself became a necessity from the start was quickly incorporated into my everyday work to the point where I didn’t give it much thought. I just set aside time at the start of every project to develop new techniques, and the end of the project to evaluate them.

This leads me on to something fundamental. If we want skill and craftsmanship to continue in contemporary work, we must afford new people coming into the creative sector the chance to develop their skills. Not just put them on treadmills of mass production of craft or art. Otherwise, as in a much of our culture already, we will end up with homogenised work all running along similar themes that we will all too easily walk past without giving a second glance.


How do we do this? How do we afford people the time to develop as artists and crafts people? By simply promoting them. Give them the chance for people to see their work and invest in it. The best way to be funded as an artist is through people buying your work. Most of the media and art institutions we have spend the majority of their time and resources promoting artists and crafts people that are already successful. We have become a reactionary culture where nothing is interesting unless it is already “trending” whereas human history’s greatest achievements have often come from leftfield, from the unexpected. In short, new ideas.

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Quick Progress Report


I have started a few entries since my last, and they will be finished in due course but I feel this one requires a degree of urgency before my time is up with The Model. It shall be short and sweet.

During the week I read a rather funny article from entitled “Thirteen Of The Worst Things About Being An Intern” Unfortunately, I could relate to 11 of the 13 things mentioned. I’ll let you play a game and guess which ones. To be very honest the first few months of my internship made me regret leaving Galway. I felt I had made a horrible mistake both personally and professionally. I had left my administrative job in Lorg Printmakers in which I was using every aspect of my masters, I had left a very good group of friends and I had left a thriving visual arts community that I…

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