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Framlingham blacksmith: Meet the artisan

PUBLISHED: 12:08 12 January 2016 | UPDATED: 12:16 12 January 2016

Sparks fly from the coke in the blacksmiths forge

Sparks fly from the coke in the blacksmiths forge

Julian Claxton

We met up with this fascinating blacksmith John Ball talks about the enduring craft of smithing, unchanged since the days of weapon forging

Hammering the end of the latch for the Norfolk latchHammering the end of the latch for the Norfolk latch

Making passage through Framlingham I reach the imposing castle, high above the market town. I would love to stop and marvel at the 11th century architecture, but I am due to meet a craftsman who would have been integral to life in those earlier times, the blacksmith.

A ‘smithy’ was once an invaluable resource to town and village, responsible for making and maintaining the tools and weaponry of the day. The industrial revolution changed the role of a blacksmith, but crucially during the mid to late 19th century the requirement for metal goods, repairs and shodding of horses was of paramount importance. There are numerous accounts from the time from various village blacksmiths – hearing farmers leading horses down the tracks at dawn for their animals to be shod ready for the work on the fields.

The Norfolk latchThe Norfolk latch

A country blacksmith’s work certainly included some farm duties. It would have been a long day by anyone’s standards, typically ending around 10pm.

Continuing my journey along quaint Suffolk lanes, it dawns on me that the view across the fields has changed little in the last few hundred years. The peace and quiet is pierced by several strikes of metal hitting metal – the blacksmith striking the red hot metal at the far end of his workshop is illuminated by the glow of the forge.

Brushing hot metal and cooling it in waterBrushing hot metal and cooling it in water

A tall man, holding a large metal hammer, wearing safety glasses and a leather apron is working with a piece of metal, ready to strike again as the metal radiates a warming glow. Rows of metal rods, all shapes and sizes line up on large racks, waiting for their moment. Large and antique looking equipment surrounds the forge, while in the centre of the workshop is a heavy duty steel table, complete with rough drawings, sections of metal, a range of tools and a delicate latch – a work in progress.

John Ball is every bit the blacksmith I imagined. Removing a small piece of metal from the red hot forge, he explains he is making a Norfolk latch for a client in Wiltshire, twisting the glowing metal rod like a piece of flexible rubber. I stare intently amazed at how the metal co-operates with the master.

Brushing red hot metal rod over the cokeBrushing red hot metal rod over the coke

John never set out to be blacksmith. Back in late eighties and early nineties it was really unheard of. There were a few quirky characters who worked with metal, he says, but that was the scope of the industry that John knew at the time. John took up engineering, enjoying the time spent on the lathes, but he was not so keen on technical drawing, so he left to study art and design.

At the end of his studies a blacksmith course became available as part of a European funded programme to help the regeneration of rural crafts and communities. Six students were selected for the three-year course, course fees paid.

Gently hammering the red hot metal rod to create a scrollGently hammering the red hot metal rod to create a scroll

“I never dreamed I would get selected. My forge was hand-built, essentially run by an old vacuum cleaner,” laughs John. The equipment that now fills the his workshop is a mixture of old and new, some gleaned from country auctions and salerooms. While new equipment has found its way into the world of the blacksmith, it’s clear watching John at work that the nature of the industry remains the same.

He carefully places a long piece of metal with a leaf shaped end back into the piping hot coke, then removes it and places it on the work surface where he begins to shape it. The rhythmic hammer hits the glowing red metal, every blow gently shaping it. I am surprised to see John working on such intricate pieces without drawings.

Red hot coke in the forgeRed hot coke in the forge

“I’m not one for complex drawings,” saya John. “They take a lot of time and just aren’t really necessary. It’s imperative for me that my clients have faith in what I will create for them. We have discussions about the requirements and they generally leave me to create their ideas.” Watching the smithy at work is a joy. The amount of physical effort involved in producing an object so subtle is astounding. There is a certain honesty to the work that is rarely evident in modern finished materials or products, which adds to the allure of the craft.

Removing a small section of 20mm metal rod, John shows me how to create a scroll which would typically find its way onto a set of gates. The rod is pushed through the glowing red coke and into the centre of the forge. When the rod glows he removes it, laying it on the work surface. Holding one of the heavy duty hammers, the tip of the rod is pushed over the edge where he gently brings the hammer down on the glowing end, curling it towards the workhorse.

Using metal pilers to create the scrollUsing metal pilers to create the scroll

Pulling it back slightly, he continues to hammer, curling the red hot tip inwards. By this point the heat begins to disperse from the metal, so it is placed deep into the glowing coke, spitting as the heat takes hold and reacts to the metal. After a few moments John removes it, laying it flat with a pair of giant metal pliers and bending the tip further. The scroll has an authentic feel about it, created freehand without a template. It’s not about creating something identical.

“It needs to have some rawness about it, each piece of metal is different and each creation is a one-off,” says John.

Blacksmith toolsBlacksmith tools

As a Framlingham based blacksmith John is aware of the community, a place he is proud to both work and live.

“Years ago a village or town could not function without the blacksmith and although times have undoubtebly changed, I like to think I am still a fundamental part of rural Suffolk life.” When time allows he works on community projects, one such commission being a memorial tree for the local care home.

Blacksmith in his workshopBlacksmith in his workshop

John sketches the rough design of the tree in chalk on the steel table. It will be a beautiful structure, which will flourish as residents have their names added to wonderfully ornate copper leaves that will be hung from the forged branches.

Leaving John with the metal in the forge and a hammer in his hand, I head out into the fresh Suffolk air towards Framlingham. I have just enough time to pop into The Blacksmith Gallery to view several finished pieces and marvel at John’s work and his mysterious craft.

The Blacksmith Gallery is on Bridge St, Framlingham and is open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. 
To view some of Johns work visit 
www.johnballblacksmith.co.uk

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