Monday 22 January 2018

Recession and boom - both bring their own unique challenges for blacksmiths

Local Heroes

Colm Bagnall and Edward Bisgood of Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin
Colm Bagnall and Edward Bisgood of Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin

Fiona McBennett

According to philosopher Albert A Montapert: "All lasting business is built on friendship." This is certainly true for friends and business partners Colm Bagnall and Edward Bisgood, whose blacksmith company, Busy Park Ironworks, has been going strong since 1990.

Based in Greenhills Business Park in Tallaght, Dublin, the company is the country's largest restorer of period and heritage work and past jobs include the Dail, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Trinity College and St Patrick's Cathedral.

Forging and fabricating in steel, bronze, brass, copper and stainless steel for both public and private architectural projects, the company specialises in the design of hand-forged gates, railings, staircase balustrades, decorative ironwork, furniture, curtain poles and lighting, using traditional blacksmithing techniques.

Bagnall says that while the craft has dissipated over time, there has in recent years been a global revival of traditional blacksmithing techniques.

"There was a real boom in ironwork between 1890 and 1910 but then over the years after that, smithing sort of went to the doldrums.

"However, over the last 30 years or so, through various associations around the world -such as the Irish Artists Blacksmiths Association here and the British Association of Blacksmith Artists in the UK - various people have come together and tried to further the craft and bring it back to life."

The men met at a time when Bagnall says he was at a transition point in his career. Having completed an apprenticeship in metal work in Dublin, he spent some time working in Australia and America before returning home.

Bisgood was running a small business and the pair began talking through different ideas. Both had an interest in architectural metal work and so they decided to go into business together.

"We did a trial time together at the start to see how we would get on. It wasn't too challenging setting up the company together as we were in our twenties and didn't have too many commitments, so it made it easier for us to not earn any money," laughs Bagnall.

"We were willing to experiment and suffer a loss on jobs just to gain the experience and we were quite hungry to learn new skills and techniques.

"Myself and Edward pretty much just run the business side of things now, but when we started out, Edward was better in the office and I was better in the workshop, so we worked like that for about five or six years before we started taking on apprentices."

"It was a natural progression to move away from the workshop and into the office. I do miss it to some degree but it's nice to take on new challenges."

The business now employs a team of between 10 and 15 employees. Bagnall says that the nature of the company's work has changed since they started out and while restoration work makes up a large part of their business, it is an area of expertise that can be challenging without years of knowledge and experience.

"Architectural metal work for pubs, clubs and a few private clients would have been our main jobs when we started the business, yet as the years have gone on it has grown more and more, right through to restoration to one-off stair cases to doors - anything really.

"With the restoration work, each year is different. One year you could be doing so many staircases that you feel you will never see a gate again and then the next year could all be gates.

"It's challenging taking on restoration work, especially in the beginning when you are only learning your skills. You can end up spending a lot of time on a project and losing a lot of money. Sometimes it's nearly cheaper to make a new element rather than try to restore the old."

Bagnall admits that at one point the pair contemplated ceasing restoration work due to the amount of labour involved.

"After a lot of heartache, we were thinking of getting out of it, but then we decided to charge more for the work so that we would see a return on it. We thought that that would stop the work but it didn't. We have since worked on many different buildings around Ireland and are currently restoring the Beaver Row Bridge, a small bridge built in the 1880s in Donnybrook in Dublin."

Running a business in Ireland for over two decades means that the men have witnessed many changes in the economy over the years.

Bagnall says that the recession and the boom each posed their own difficulties.

"The recession was a different headache to the busier times. Business is always challenging and throws up its own set of challenges each week.

"During the boom times, the worry was how we were going to get all the work done in such a short time and then in the recession there is the challenge of not having enough work.

"In some ways, I liked the tighter times because you had time to be a bit more inventive, whereas when you are in demand and under time pressure you have more juggling to do."

Although the men have moved away from the workshop, they still have a love for blacksmithing.

"A lot of it is down to technique and thinking about it, rather than simply bashing the metal out,"explains Bagnall. "It's a dirty job - hot in the summer and cold in the winter, so a lot of people don't want the hardship.

"It's a throwaway society these days - but blacksmiths would be the opposite. Many blacksmiths make their own tools from scrap they have collected - and their toolbox can be a thing of beauty in itself."

Bagnall says that he and Bisgood feel lucky to have a successful long-standing business relationship.

"I don't know if there is any ideal recipe for going into business with a friend. I think that you can just be lucky, as there have been many friends for whom it hasn't lasted.

"I think the day that you stop needing the other person can be a problem. A business relationship is like any other long-term relationship - it evolves. There are always a few quibbles here and there -but once your main focus is getting the work done, that is what drives you."

When it comes to the future of blacksmithing in Ireland, Bagnall remains positive.

"As long as there are people out there giving their full commitment to making a quality item, there will always be the demand for it.

"It's important for blacksmiths to travel abroad and meet others in the craft, as well as helping people to appreciate what we have here so that the craft lives on."

Both Bagnall and Bisgood are certainly looking forward to many more busy years with their company.

"We have only recently started to think of all the jobs we have worked on," says Bagnall.

"We get to work on some fantastic buildings and meet lots of different highly skilled tradesmen on jobs. There is always something different to challenge us and that keeps us motivated. We constantly look for new opportunities and try out new things and we try to encourage our staff to do the same. You are always learning in this job."

Sunday Indo Business

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