Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Forging a new future for blacksmith's craft

Sligo-based Mike Budd uses the traditional blacksmith's skills to create sculptures and bespoke artistic pieces

PROGRESSIVE: Mike Budd uses social media platforms such as Facebook to promote his work
PROGRESSIVE: Mike Budd uses social media platforms such as Facebook to promote his work
Blacksmith Mike Budd is extremeley progressive in his work. Pictured is his metal tree creation.

Cathal Austin

Mike Budd brings his hammer down hard on the lump of hot iron resting on the anvil.

Sparks fly as a hole slowly begins to form in the middle of the piping-hot piece of metal.

The rhythmic hammering ceases as a sliver of iron is carved from its place; this is where a wooden handle will be fitted, the final step in a painstaking process that has filled the day.

His latest project, a hammer, will soon be ready for shipping to a buyer in Canada.

The blacksmith was once the fulcrum of every town and village around the country. When farm machinery needed to be mended or when tools needed to be bought or repaired, the smith was always the first port of call.

A village simply could not survive without a smith, a reality that gave them great influence.

However, over time this influence has waned, their role sidelined by the easy availability of cheap, mass-produced tools.

But Mike Budd believes that there is still a place for the blacksmith.

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He acknowledges the decline in the numbers and influencebut believes that his craft is going through a transitive period where decorative elements of their work that once were peripheral, are now becoming the primary focus.

Repairs

"Once upon a time the industry was built predominantly around tool making and the repairing of machinery, nowadays the lions share of a blacksmith's income comes through decorative work," says Budd.

"There is a perception that decorative work, or design in craft is a new phenomenon that started over the last 50 years, however, there has always been design in craft. It was the minority but now it's the majority."

Born in Hampshire on the beautiful south coast of England, Budd moved to Castlebaldwin, Co Sligo in the early 1990s and has seamlessly adapted to life in the northwest, a region that is unforgiving in both a physical and an economic sense.

"A colleague and I often joke that Ireland is the worst place in the world to set up as a blacksmith, and the northwest is worse still. From an artistic perspective, however, it's the best place. All you have to do is look around you; everything inspires and influences your work, the landscape, the people, and even the weather," he says.

"Ireland chose me in a way; I fell in love with the countryside, moved here and decided to start both a business and a family."

Mike displays many of the stereotypical qualities of the blacksmiths portrayed in books and films. He harbours strong opinions and possesses an obvious stubbornness, which manifests itself in the way in which he works; painstakingly hand-forging iron and steel to produce works of art and design.

Yet Mike is also extremely progressive, and has embraced non-traditional mediums to promote his craft and share his work with the world. He runs a website and regularly updates his Facebook account with pictures of his work. He believes other smiths should do the same.

"Unlike other crafts in Ireland, blacksmiths have tended to shy away from the spotlight, instead of promoting their work in a more open way," says Budd.

He believes that by using social media outlets like Facebook blacksmiths can easily and cheaply promote their work.

"Many people feel that there aren't any blacksmiths left in Ireland, which is not the case. There are about 150 working forges around the country, and over 180 blacksmiths."

The skill involved in producing a piece of hand-forged sculpture is immense; it takes time and patience and requires a genuine interest and love of the craft.

Some have a natural gift in terms of their ability to work with their hands. Budd maintains that he is not one of these people.

"Natural ability can take you far, but only so far. Blacksmithing is not something you become good at by dipping your toe in. It takes time to develop skill," he explains.

"Some struggle with the basic skills but if they have a deep desire and interest they learn to overcome these obstacles. I wasn't a naturally gifted metal worker; I didn't take to the core skills as well as some. I just wanted it."

Perhaps one of the most admirable qualities that Budd possesses is an unwavering self-belief. He has forged himself a career in a field that is extremely demanding of his time and energy.

He doesn't do it for money. His van is held together by gaffer tape and he hasn't been on holiday since 2007.

"When you do bespoke work you actually have to be quite brave, because you're making a prototype each time. Ninety per cent of my work involves making something I've never done before," he says.

"It's not like the piece will go into production - it's the only one I'll ever make. That's what keeps me interested, I need to be challenged and that's the good thing about forge work, it keeps on challenging you."

In terms of his future, Budd believes that there will always be a need for blacksmiths. His craft has gone through massive decline but is also experiencing a new beginning.

"The craft is always changing, that's why I love it; you never know what you're going to be asked to make next."

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