Little has changed about the blacksmith’s work since the second millennium BCE when ancient Hittites first discovered that iron ore could be forged and tempered to make tools.
‘That’s what I love about this,’ says two-times British champion blacksmith Simon Grant-Jones over a flagon of tea in the kitchen of his Sutton Poyntz home.
‘When you think about it the only real innovation that has affected our work since then is electricity. That’s it. Most of what a blacksmith does today has been done in exactly the same way for three thousand years or more.’
He recounts the legend of King Alfred who in an attempt to incentivise his tradesmen to deliver their finest work promised a feast would be held in honour of the best of them once the job was finished. When he awarded the honour to his tailor the furious blacksmith downed tools and refused to work and before long the other trades had to stop work as their tools were broken or worn out.
At this point St Dunstan, patron saint of blacksmiths, appeared and persuaded Alfred to change his mind and hold the feast in honour of the blacksmith. However, the jealous tailor crept under the table and slashed a chunk out of the blacksmith’s apron with his scissors, which is why the traditional blacksmith’s apron has a frayed edge or a wedge cut out of it.
‘Blacksmiths were known as the King of Trades because we made everyone’s tools. I never wanted to be anything else, but at school I was told it was a dying trade and I’d never get any training so I became an engineer, which stood me in good stead in lots of ways but wasn’t what I wanted to do.’
At 32 Simon managed to get an apprenticeship under the now defunct CoSIRA (Council of Small Industries in Rural Areas, a forerunner of Natural England) studying under Paul Allen of Motcombe Forge and set up in business some twenty years ago.
A Fellow and Licentiate of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, he has produced a string of prize winning competition pieces, appeared in several BBC TV programmes and sits on the committees of the National Blacksmiths Competition and Blacksmiths Guild as well as organising the blacksmithing at the Dorset County Show. His professional projects range from large-scale fabrication work to restoration jobs, but he specialises in making traditional tools for trades such as thatchers, hurdle makers, stonemasons and wheelwrights that are no longer in commercial production.
‘People can say they like a decorative piece or not and that’s OK, but there’s no hiding place with a tool – it either works and it’s good or it doesn’t and it’s not. Simple.’
To demonstrate he picks up a worn out shear hook, a sickle-shaped tool used for trimming thatch. Its wooden handle is worn through and the blade is barely half an inch wide in places, about a quarter of its original size.
‘It was in use until the day it was given to me by a thatcher as a template. It’s a short one popular in Devon, Dorset ones tend to be longer, about 16 inches. They’re the only tool for the job really, although I’ve heard of thatchers using petrol hedge trimmers on roofs – terrible.
‘It took me a couple of years of making hooks and passing them out to thatchers to be tested before I perfected it, but now I’m the only person in the country making these. They’ll last for generations.’
In his forge are other such tools – a Dorset billhook and its double-edged Yorkshire equivalent, a turnip cutter’s hook with its distinctive spiked nose, a hurdle maker’s knobby hook and a clogger’s knife used to make tent pegs and wooden spoons as well as clogs.
‘It’s a niche; a service if you like to traditional trades. If we don’t stick together then the traditional ways of working and all that knowledge built up over generations will be lost.’
Simon also manufactures lewis pins – traditional hand worked iron tools that use a scissor-like split pin or dovetail three-pin action in a seating (hole) made in a block of stone to enable it to be winched and moved.
‘The split pin lewis dates back to Roman times and the technology behind the three-legged lewis comes from Ancient Egypt,’ he explains.
For all the extremes of temperature (more than 1500°C in the coke fire) and power in the forge, the art of the blacksmith requires delicate control of heat, hammer and quench bucket to shape metal with any degree of precision. Poor judgement or a moment’s distraction can see work lost or ruined.
‘I took the phone out of the workshop because I was fed up of trying to explain I was in the middle of something and seeing work just melt in the fire. Experience teaches you a lot, but the whole process still fascinates me – how the type of fuel affects how the metal behaves, that kind of thing. Metal is hardened by adding carbon then tempered so it can be worked. We want good even-tempered metal, not bad tempered metal that’s so hard it shatters under pressure.’
Recently Simon has had a run of making handrails for village churches in order to comply with health and safety advice for clergy. It’s unusual work that requires a legal document, or faculty, to be issued by the diocese – a process that can take some time. But Simon sees it all as professional development and embraces it like a man half his age – eager for new knowledge, different ways of doing things that will improve his craftsmanship. He picks up a set of iron pliers on a heavy chain. It’s a farm tool used to lead a bull by the nose.
‘The old farmer who used to live next door told me it needed a pin to secure it in the pinched position as he’d once lost a bull with a shake of its head. That’s how I find out about things. There are people I’ve worked with for years and no money has ever changed hands, we learn from each other.
‘I sometimes think I should have a change of direction, but I keep coming back to this; it’s what I do.’
First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine