Michael Hart has been running his own blacksmith business since he left Plumpton Agricultural College and finds inspiration for his ironwork from wood and the behaviour of plants found in the High Weald.
What inspired you to become a blacksmith?
As silly as it may sound I kind of fell into it. My girlfriend's stepfather performed blacksmithing demonstrations at the Museum of Kent Life near Maidstone and he invited me along. The first time I stepped into a forge I was 18; at the time I was at sixth form treading the path I thought I should take but I never felt comfortable with it. I still remember my first time picking up a hammer, making plenty of mistakes and one hell of a mess, but I loved it and that was the click! I had never known what I was going to do, I just knew I needed to enjoy it, and finally I had found it.
What techniques/style do you use and why?
Everything I make has a high focus on traditional techniques such as rivets, mortis and tenon joints; fire welding; and other hot working techniques. These techniques produce much higher quality pieces in both construction and aesthetic. I love to make organic shapes and forms such as hop vines and day lilies. These pieces are enhanced by the use of traditional techniques such as fire welding, in this instance the lines and movement of the ironwork is much cleaner and fluid. I naturally tend to make a lot of items with an art nouveau style. I do however, like to contrast that with large and industrial pieces inspired by artists in Eastern Europe as well as the Victorian's habit of over-engineering pieces to give a very industrial feel.
Regarding why, for the fun of it!
How and what about the High Weald landscape and its features or materials inspires you?
I have lived in the countryside all my life and that has had a large impact on me and the ironwork I design. I take a lot of inspiration for my ironwork from woodwork and the behaviour of plants. I also draw inspiration for designs from the seasons, autumn being a key one with its falling golden leaves. I really enjoy mixed medium pieces where I meld organic woodwork/stonework to organic ironwork on items such as tables, chairs and stools
What support did you get to be able to start up your own company?
To cut to the chase, being self employed is exactly that, relying upon you for work. Consequently I have invested all my earnings into my business over the past 4 years. I will shortly be taking delivery of a brand new Power hammer I have ordered from China. It is a milestone in my career and along with a few other industrial bits of equipment will massively speed up production at the workshop. Being self-employed definitely has it perks but it is a massive test of your will power and motivation to stick at it through the thick and thin. It takes time but you won’t get there if you don't put the hours in - and there are a lot.
My first coal forge was lent to me by a good friend in order to help me find my feet. In the past I have also hired workshops from other smiths and fabricators for very reasonable prices. I’m currently driving a friend's van around as unfortunately mine has broken down. Without this I would have been unable to work and could have likely gone bust. I have been very fortunate with friends willing and able to help me out.
Were you good at art/design at school? What did your teachers say?
You may laugh, and you’re allowed, but art was my worst subject at school. I found it very frustrating because my teacher’s main focus was on the students that displayed natural flare. I was one of the kids sat at the back scribbling away and trying to get it right, failing and not getting the guidance I needed. I’m still not great at drawing, but I don't need to be when there are so many other mediums for expression, wood carving, metalwork and stain glass being just a few.
When did you know you wanted to be in this career?
I wanted it from the moment I first picked up a hammer. It was however another two years until I set steps in motion to change it from a hobby into a career. I had moved to Wales for University, it seemed like the safe option, but I had to work myself into the ground to get an average grade. Knowing I had never been a strong academic I saw it coming. By the middle of my second year I arrived at the conclusion I had given University my best shot, I was stressed out, depressed and wanted out. I finished the second year but spent most of the second half in my garden forging. Everything was outside and I quite literally forged in wind, rain and snow. But every second I loved it. University got put in the rear view mirror and I can safely say it was the best decision of my life. I enrolled at Plumpton Agricultural College outside Lewis to study blacksmithing where, for the first time, I knew I was on the right path.
What do you like most about your profession?
Tricky - what I dislike is probably the shorter list. I suppose to sum it up, it is something I'm good at that never gets old. I rarely make the same thing twice, designs are always bespoke and I never get bored because things change day to day and month to month. There is the privilege and luxury of working for myself: one day I may be fixing a tractor; the next I'm restoring ironwork for a church; and after that I'm talking to someone about making a bespoke staircase with artistic freedom on the design. One month I may be so busy I don't know where to start, the next it may be that quiet I get to develop ideas, ways to find more business or make ironwork for my house.
What is your tip for getting other students involved in this profession or inspiring children?
A Forge can be quite a dangerous environment to work in, burns and hitting fingers with a hammer being common place for beginners.
Ultimately it’s a simple case of stupid hurts and common sense goes a long way but you can never be 100% safe. To anyone that is keen I would recommend approaching Plumpton Agricultural College near Lewes - contact Ricky Delaney in the metal-smithing department.