Clare Finney meets Bushey blacksmith Steve Rook
“So this is where the magic happens”, I say to Steve Rook – struggling hard to ignore a twinge of doubt as I consider where I am: Bushey, Hertfordshire, five doors down from a bathroom and kitchen shop. To my left sits a simple semi-detached house with a garden, while in front of me a short grassy track has just ended in a chicken coop and a nondescript yard. One of the country’s foremost artisanal blacksmiths, Steve has been based in Bushey ever since he started blacksmithing 35 years ago, and today he is the chairman of the British Artist Blacksmith Association. Yet when you first arrive, the only indication that metal is routinely being heated to 900 degrees and forged into all manner of ornamental furniture right here is a small sign – metal of course – creaking in the wind with the words ‘Newlyn Forge’ on it. Steve smiles happily. “This is it,” he says – and proceeds to lead me down a steep set of steps into a well concealed outhouse.
The contrast is startling. It’s dark, surprisingly chilly – I’d hoped for a glowing furnace, but the fire had long since ebbed to cinders – and covered with tools and metal scraps, and for a while I wonder if my eyes are still adjusting: there are no machines, there’s no safety equipment, and when Steve holds up a work in progress – a fire screen, for a private commission – it takes me a good few seconds to ascertain what it is I’m actually looking at.
“Are those leaves real?” I ask, genuinely unsure.
“No, they’re made of metal. I drew them on card, then I laser cut them out.”
The texture is perfect – but it is the energy of the leaves that’s most striking, and if they stirred in the wind you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. With customers drawn largely from the rural areas of Hertfordshire and Middlesex, Steve looks to nature often for inspiration for his metalwork, and his portfolio, meticulously photographed, is like a self-contained world.
Fireguards of sycamore trees. Gates of rushes. Stair rails of branches and thistle shaped candleholders. “I really do like nature. It suits my work, too, because I think it adds to the character that they’ve been made by hand, that you’re not trying to copy or make them as if they had been made by machine,” he explains. Like most people in the craft world, Steve struggles constantly with the public perception of ‘art’ versus artisanal crafts – “Art always has a higher price tag, but a lot of craftspeople are artists really; they just come from a crafts rather than a fine arts background” – and by calling himself himself a ‘maker’ he largely manages to avoid being so constrained. Yet art is everywhere in Steve’s influences, on the bookshelves full of art books, art theory and photography – and in the careful aestheticism which he brings to bear upon his work.
As Steve points out, in an age when power tools have replaced almost every part of the forging process, staying loyal to time-consuming traditional techniques takes some justifying. “There is massive difference between industrial work and creative metal work,” he explains. Once upon a time you’d use a chisel and drift for everything: now there are state-of-the-art welding machines, electric drills, laying machines and iron workers that a more utilitarian blacksmith would be mad not to use, but which Steve finds method in avoiding – using a drift and a punch, rather than an electric drill, to make a hole seems perverse, for example. “It takes longer because you need to heat the metal, and punch it, but the end result is so visually different and has so much energy.” The hole is unique, and the metal, rather than ending up in shavings on the floor of the workshop as it would, is forced out around it in a dramatic bulb around the space. You can tell it’s hand fashioned – and when it comes to asking people to fork out hard-earned cash for nice furniture, such hallmarks of authenticity are key.
It’s what we’re searching for. While for the last decade or more, we’ve been obsessed with going online for our lives, now we’re going off it. Our thirst for real life experiences is evident in the rise of such trends as allotment growing, knitting and craft brewing. “If you can see where the joints have been welded, or the marks hand punched, you know it’s been handmade by a craftsman,” says Steve, “and there’s something solid about that. The internet and modern media are so ephemeral we get lost in it, and I think increasingly people are looking something genuine we can connect to.”
Shut your laptop, and the contents recede into the ether. Shut a gate, hand-made for you by a craftsman, and the mere clang of it will echo with ringing assurances of solidity. It’ll be there when you return; it’ll be there when you move on to a new house; it will be there for your children’s children – and because each piece Steve does is by commission, it’ll be yours uniquely. “As a maker, I don’t have a set way of tackling particular things. I don’t have a latch I use every time, or a particular way of doing a hinge. Every time I have a new job I think afresh about how it will work.”
Most of the time his inspiration comes from visiting the site and having a cup of tea and a chat with the client. “Often when you go somewhere you get a feel for what people like, and for what will work,” he says. A classic example is a gate with railings of intricately constructed wheatsheafs, inspired by a client’s farm fields; another is a gate sporting uprights reminiscent of a handle and spout, for a potter. “He makes a lot of jugs,” Steve smiles while, wide eyed, I continue to leaf through his portfolio.
Over the page, the Fleet Street entranceway to the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers grabs my attention: upon closer inspection the gate is stamped with footprints. Next up is Borehamwood Film Studios, who commissioned Steve to produce a gate to celebrate the studios’ film heritage and were duly rewarded with railings in the shape of a negative, complete with icons to represent some of their most famous films. “Indiana Jones films were made there, so there’s a whip, and a whale for Moby Dick and a Lancaster to commemorate the Dambusters.” He points them out, proudly. “I wonder if people will recognise where the Lancasters are from, in future”. Hand-cut, painstakingly and lovingly embellished, it’s easy to see how that job alone took him between six and eight weeks.
So what does the future hold for blacksmithing? To descend into Steve’s workshop is to undo years of mechanisation: he forges his own tools, and credits medieval ironwork as a source of most of his techniques. Just one rail will entail a paper design, a test run and two or three bespoke handmade tools. Does he worry that successive generations might not appreciate the value of such a time-consuming trade? “A few years ago, maybe. When the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (BABA) started, blacksmiths were a dying craft: each thought he was the last one in the country working,” Steve remembers – but, by bringing blacksmiths across the country together, informing new college courses, and, as of June this year, instituting a formalised apprenticeship BABA have reignited the industry. “Today loads of youngsters are coming into the world wanting to be blacksmiths. The only problem is that the cake in real terms is only so big.”
Securing an apprenticeship, completing it in spite of poor pay and getting a foothold after that is not easy. “Many people come into craft in their twenties and thirties, they have financial commitments. They can’t afford to work for £10 an hour,” says Steve. The best age to be apprenticed to a blacksmith is as young as possible; his latest apprentice, Callum, was just 16 when he joined Steve in the workshop. This, after all, is how it’s always been. “It’s never been formalised before, but the deal is the apprentice serves the employer and in turn – because they are paying lower wages – the employer agrees to train you in the aspects of their craft and trade.” The fondness of successive governments to use the term to describe unpaid internships has “totally devalued what an apprenticeship consists of”, Steve continues angrily. Nevertheless, the recent injection of cash into British manufacturing seems set to reinstate this tradition to its rightful place.
It’s not a moment too soon. As I emerge, blinking, into the daylight, I am struck anew by the familiarity of the surroundings. Medieval as Newlyn Forge seems from the inside, it is most certainly 21st century Bushey outside it, and this can only be a good thing. Not only does it put beautiful furniture on our doorstep, but it makes a heritage craft seem accessible to hundreds of young people who are good with their hands, but not sure what to do with them in our tech-heavy society. As the weighty stick of iron, pierced, curved and signed with Steve’s ‘rook’ stamp serves to remind me, some things are best not left to modernity.