Working as a blacksmith artist

 13 April 2011

Melissa Cole is an artist blacksmith, who designs and makes products from metal using traditional blacksmithing techniques.

Melissa Cole 1 Photo Mark Somerville © 2011
Melissa Cole 1 Photo Mark Somerville © 2011

Melissa produces exciting and original work in her Wiltshire farm-based studio. Alongside entrance gates and railings, she also makes beautiful creative sculptures for clients based all over the South and West of England.

Her work is characterised by contemporary designs with simple lines and detailed hammer work. She often uses mild steel, which is readily available and easy to work with, and is then finished with zinc.

In 2007 Melissa was awarded a Bronze Medal by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. She has received various other awards and her work has been exhibited both publicly and privately in the UK and overseas.

Major commissions include the white entrance gates to Knowle House in Wiltshire and the gates for Asantewaa Arts Centre in Notting Hill, London.

Inspired to be a blacksmith

As a young child Melissa thought everyone had a blacksmith’s forge at home. Her father is the internationally-renowned master arrowsmith and archaeological ironworker Hector Cole.

Melissa, along with her other sisters, loved to help her father in his workshop. As a teenager she helped him make a set of gates for Highgrove House, to commemorate the wedding of HRH Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

“My father taught me all the skills of a traditional blacksmith, including drawing down points or tapers, punching holes, splitting, and bending, shaping and texturing the metal.

"When I left college at 18 I was not entirely sure what I wanted to do. I opted for a degree in Art Education Studies, and was quite interested in ceramics at this stage. During my degree I realised that I loved working with metal. In the holidays I used to go home and work with my father in his forge."

Starting as a blacksmith

"It took me at least five years to become established as a blacksmith. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight!"

After Melissa graduated, she decided to become a full-time blacksmith.

This coincided with the fashion for using metalwork in interiors, such as curtain poles. She continued to learn from her father, who encouraged her own creative ideas.

“I had to find my own way and make my own mistakes. I was approaching blacksmithing from a different angle to my father, but he never encroached on my creativity. It took me at least five years to become established as a blacksmith. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight!

"This job suits me so well, as I just love the opportunity to create pieces which will become part of the built landscape for centuries.

"I also get to meet such lovely people, and enjoy the challenge of turning a straight bar of metal into something beautiful. For me, making physical marks on the metal is particularly important.”

Working in arts education

Working in education is an important part of Melissa’s work. One aspect of this was a two-year residency in a secondary school in Salisbury. The sculptures Melissa helped the students to create are still on display in the school grounds.

“The students just loved creating these sculptures. For me it was great to be able to go into the school and help them achieve so much.#

"Some of the students were failing in the traditional academic sense. Having the chance to use their hands in a creative way enabled those students to excel.”

Another aspect of Melissa’s busy role is her teaching. As well as teaching blacksmithing to adults at West Dean College near Chichester, Melissa also runs courses from her own workshop.

“The students come from all walks of life, and I find working with them so rewarding. Very small classes with just two students ensure individual attention. Most are complete beginners – my challenge is to help them design and create something from scratch that they can take home at the end of the day.”

Developing a niche creative career

Establishing her own niche in the market as an artist blacksmith has been key to Melissa’s success.

“Everything I learnt on my business course has been invaluable. As a self-employed crafts person, you need to know how to market yourself."

“I have developed a very distinct style: simple flowing lines which are expressed both in my sculptural work and in the functional gates and railings that I design and make.

"This is very much my style and is recognisable as such. In addition my career is also includes my community and school work. In this way I have created my own successful niche.”

Working at home from a forge

Melissa lives on a farm, and is fortunate to have enough space for her own studio and forge away from the house.

“The tools I use can be quite noisy and the forge creates smoke, so it is important to get the right location for your studio.

"Being on a farm is ideal, but equally a workshop on the edge of a village could also be suitable. You certainly need tolerant neighbours. I am really lucky as I have all the room I need, including some gallery space to exhibit my sculptures.”

Melissa spends about three days a week in her workshop and one day in the office. The last day is spent out and about meeting clients and delivering work.

“My work requires specialist finishing or galvanising, which might include a coloured or metallic finish. If the finish is waxed or burnished then I do this myself. Otherwise I drop my work off to other professionals to complete this for me.”

Melissa usually starts in her workshop at around 9.30am, and may work until between 6 and 8pm. Having no interruptions is important, as she needs to be very efficient with her time.

“I don’t have a landline or computer in my workshop as time in the workshop is so precious. Staying focussed is important, and I usually listen to music to help me concentrate.

"It can be hard to find time to get into the workshop if I have had a particularly busy stretch working on new designs.

"The job is also physically demanding and although the job keeps you fit, it is important that you stay that way. Nowadays I try to keep my weekends free if possible, and this gives me time to pursue healthy activities to maintain my fitness.

"In the early days of running my own business I tended to work at weekends, just to keep on top of the workload.”

Skills for a creative business

After finishing her O levels at school, Melissa went to college to study for a BTEC National Diploma in Business and Finance, in addition to A level Art. This is a decision she does not regret.

“Simple flowing lines, expressed in my sculptural work and in the gates and railings I design and make - this is very much my style and is recognisable as such."

“Everything I learnt on my BTEC Business course has been really invaluable. As a self-employed crafts person you really need to know how to market yourself.

"I run a regular 'open studio' when anyone can come and visit me at work. Making contacts is vital, and I am now in a position where people contact me for commissions.

"Running a successful crafts business also involves applying for grant-funding, project evaluation, budgeting and financial planning.”

Advice for artist blacksmiths

  • Work out what kind of blacksmith you want to be
    Are you a traditional smith doing repairs in a village setting, or a more contemporary artist blacksmith.
  • Consider the location of your workshop/studio.
    It needs to be accessible for cars and lorries, and also somewhere with good transport links
  • Develop your drawing and artistic skills
    An art access course could be a good starting point. Creating your own designs as a blacksmith is essential, although this can sometimes be quite challenging.

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