An artist blacksmith career

 10 September 2012

Claudia Petley, who designs and creates intricate metal goods with her husband, spoke about her work and career journey.

Claudia designs many of the products she makes herself, while others are created in consultation with commissioning customers.
Claudia designs many of the products she makes herself, while others are created in consultation with commissioning customers.

While she is often too hot and almost always covered in soot, Claudia Petley loves her job as an artist blacksmith. 

Artist blacksmiths and creative metalworkers use traditional and modern techniques to form, shape and join metals such as steel, iron, brass, copper and bronze. 

'Repoussé' work is Claudia's speciality. This is when a sheet of metal is used to create designs in relief form, using hammers and punches.

Claudia works with her husband Paul Shepherd in Herefordshire, close to the Welsh Border. Paul is also an artist blacksmith, and together they produce work ranging from tiny candle snuffers to ceremonial gates.

Skills for working with metals

Blacksmithing and metalworking can vary widely as a field. Blacksmiths can create functional items for industrial or commercial premises, such as fire escapes, security grills gates. However, they may also make decorative items like candlesticks, sculpture or furniture.

Claudia describes her job as ‘working with metal’ rather than being a blacksmith. "That’s only because I work in copper as well as hard metals, and I don’t shoe horses. I would say I am really a metalsmith."

"I don't shoe horses. I would say I am really a metalsmith."

Artist blacksmiths usually work in a forge, where they heat metal until it reaches the right temperature to be worked into scrolls, twists and shapes by being drawn out or beaten.

They must have good technical and manual skills, be able to do basic calculations, and have an eye for design. Once constructed, a piece has to be finished by being polished, waxed or oiled, or by being grit-blasted and painted.

Business skills are important, as is an ability to communicate and interpret design ideas to customers. Finally, an interest in metals and knowledge of their different properties is important, as is an awareness of health and safety issues.

Starting out as a blacksmith

In her early twenties, Claudia gave up nursing training and moved from London to Cornwall. She had always been 'making and fiddling with things', and she missed it. "I really felt the lack of craft in my life, but didn’t know what to do."

"I really felt the lack of craft in my life, but didn’t know what to do. As soon as I started blacksmithing, it just clicked."

Noticing that she was good with her hands, a friend who was a farrier suggested blacksmithing. She found a blacksmith and armourer in Cornwall and went to work with him. "As soon as I started blacksmithing, I felt an affinity with it," she says. "It just clicked.

"I found I had a feeling for the metal, particularly with repoussé work. You can work the metal quite thin, and you can tell when you’re going to punch through. I just knew it was for me."

Setting up a business

Claudia realised this was something she wanted to do long-term. She moved to Herefordshire to do a skills-based course, rather than an art-based one. She learned basic blacksmithing skills such as fire-welding and forging.

By this point, she had met Paul, her husband-to-be, and they set up a business together. Paul had completed a traditional apprenticeship in blacksmithing, so he knew all the necessary techniques. Some of these Claudia was less familiar with: "You don’t get to make gates at college!"  

Paul was also good at forge work. With this in mind, Claudia provided the more artistic side of the work. Together, they made a good match. Neither had any previous business experience.

Looking back, Claudia would like to have taken a business course and to have learned more about marketing. "We know of a community of makers with person who does nothing but promote and market their work. That’s a good idea. It’s difficult to market, sell, raise funds and make things all at the same time.

Selling creative work to galleries

Since then, Claudia and Paul have sold their work at craft fairs and to galleries. They find that smaller items like candlesticks, fire tongs, pokers and chestnut roasters sell well.

"When the work was finished, I stood back and thought: that’s going to be there for hundreds of years."

"We make less from selling to galleries, but it’s regular work, whereas craft fairs are very variable. When we first started going to shows, people used to take thousands of pounds in a weekend.

"But now the quality of goods for sale is so varied that the public has been turned off them. Also, people have become used to car boot sales, and when they come to a craft fair they are shocked at the prices.

While there is plenty of work, it is not always regular. Being paid late for a job can have a knock-on effect, especially if, like Paul and Claudia, you have children to feed.

"Most galleries are good, but you’re filling their shelves for nothing until you get paid. You can often wait months for payment. One kept us waiting for a year."

Getting commissions from clients

Commissions often come from people who have picked up a card from a craft fair, says Claudia. Even several months later, they may come back, especially if they have bought a house or redecorated, and want new, special, pieces made. Others come through word of mouth when customers pass on recommendations to their friends.

Claudia believes the best blacksmith-designers are those with good artistic skills who can get a customer’s idea down on paper before making it. To understand what the customer is after, the blacksmith may have to do two or three designs. Good customer skills are vital.

Pricing the work can also be tricky. The blacksmith should be able to justify what they are charging. "We work out the basic materials and how long it will take us to make a piece," Claudia explains.

"Some customers change their minds so often that we can be faced with three times more work for the original price. We’re not hard-nosed businesspeople. We’re more concerned with how we can make the piece the customer wants. But we have to remember to make sure we are paid for that extra work."

Working as an artist blacksmith

Metalworking can be hard physical work. "You need to be fairly strong. To start with, my legs ached and I had terrible blisters on my hands. but you do build up strength. There’s a lot of bending and you rarely get to sit down.

"You have to be prepared to get dirty. If I go straight from the workshop to the bank, I get stared at."

"No time of year is good – in winter you’re too cold, and in summer you’re too hot. Sometimes we end up putting our heads under the cold tap, we’re so hot and sweaty! You can’t take time off to be ill, but at least you can sweat a cold out."

"And you have to be prepared to get dirty. If I go straight from the workshop to the bank, I get stared at."

But Claudia loves her work. "I love seeing the finished piece, especially if it has tested my capabilities. We recently did a big set of art-deco style interior gates and panels. They were the biggest repoussé panels I’ve done. I designed the whole thing.

"When the work was finished, I stood back and thought: that’s going to be there for hundreds of years. It’s an heirloom. It’s also a crafted thing. It wasn't made in a factory, and it’s got part of my soul in it. There’s nothing to beat that."

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