Don Barker, master blacksmith, features in the third episode of BBC2 TV’s Mastercrafts, shown on Friday 26 February 2010. This article is adapted from the chapter on metalwork in the Mastercrafts book by author Tom Quinn:
Think about the traditional blacksmith’s forge and what immediately come to mind are the sensations of working with iron – fierce heat, glowing red-hot metal, the ringing sound of the hammer beating iron on iron, perhaps a horse being shod in the yard….. There is still a huge demand for the skills of a blacksmith, although what they make is often more decorative than functional these days.
Interestingly, the derivation of the word ‘blacksmith’ has nothing to do with the tendency of metalworkers to become covered in grime during the course of their work. Blacksmiths work with black metal – iron – and the work the metal by hitting it: ‘smith’ probably derives from ‘smite’.
Don Barker is a blacksmith with a passion for his work. He is a medal holder and Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths and is very proud to be the first working smith to become Prime Warden of the Company for 200 years. His forty-year love affair with blacksmithing has never waned and he continues to work in the forge, shaping metal into beautiful things.
‘My male ancestors seem to have mostly been blacksmiths going right back to about 1700’, he explains, ‘and I really believe that I’ve been drawn towards the work because it’s as if it’s there in my genes.’
Don in fact trained as an engineer, but in his mid-thirties he decided to quit his job and become a full-time blacksmith. He trained through CoSIRA (Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas), a government quango that ran workshops up and down the country. By the time he qualified, his years of hobby blacksmithing were paying off, and commissions were already coming in steadily. He set up a limited company and has never looked back. In addition to many local commissions for gates and railings, curtain rails and even shackles, Don has worked on some major blacksmithing projects. ‘I did a really important job for the front of Westminster Abbey – a set of traditional gas lamps. I also made four six-feet high bronze lamps and sixty-five metres of bronze handrailing for the Queen Mother’s memorial in the Mall.’
Watching a blacksmith at work is a remarkably satisfying experience. With a minimum of fuss and seemingly effortlessly he can turn a plain bar of metal into something complex and decorative. ‘Apart from getting the forging temperature right,’ says Don, ‘there’s an art in striking the metal in just the right way. And it’s this creative skill that I believe I’ve inherited from my blacksmith ancestors.’
You’ll be able to see more of Don and his work in the BBC2 TV series Mastercrafts in February, and find out more about the craft of metalwork in the book Mastercrafts (pre-order here). Contact Don via his own website.