Revived interest in authentic, hand-made products means ancient trades are in demand. Tony Clayton-Lea meets a blacksmith, cooper and a cobbler who have learnt the craft of job satisfaction.
‘Everything seems to be about clever machines these days. In the not too distant future it may be possible to download anything from your breakfast to a pair of shoes and print it off from a gizmo in your kitchen where the microwave used to be.
Its a strange backdrop for a revival in ancient trades such a cooperage, cobbling and blacksmithing, whose tools and techniques have changed little over millennia. Despite the unstoppable march of technology, however, that is exactly what seems to be happening as demand rises for products that are authentic, ‘artisan’, and less disposable. Young people, who you might imagine would be better advised to develop skills more saleable in the digital age, are being tempted to have a go at working with their hands.’
(…extract of article:) Having a sound business sense is something that crafts people consistently need to develop, according to blacksmith Gunvor Anhoj. The 42-year-old Dane and her Irish husband, Michael Calnan have been producing utilitarian and sculptural metalwork from the forge near their home in Blessington, Co. Wicklow, since 2007 [and in the UK since 2001].
‘With an early background in horticulture – she worked on ‘small holdings, old-fashioned farms’ where fields were ploughed using horses and a one-furrow plough – Anhoj embarked on a career as a blacksmith when she was 25. She studied three-dimensional design crafts and blacksmithing at Hereford College of Art & Design in England. She recalls: “I was still completely focused on the traditional aspects of blacksmithery, the craft of it, but as time went by I realised that if you didn’t come up with your own designs then you’d end up just replacing metal leaves and scrolls.”
Setting up their two- person blacksmithing operation just when the recession began to bite made the couple rethink their business model. “There’s a different market in Ireland, so we have hardly done any garden pieces since we moved here, and we have downscaled the sculptural work,” says Anhoj. “If you make big work, you have to be fairly certain you’re going to sell it because the cost [of making it] is expensive. I’m currently thinking of doing some larger pieces, but we’ll see – whether people wish to spend more money on bigger pieces has yet to be seen.”
Anhoj agrees that what she does is more of a vocation than a job, yet she occasionally sees how idealism can short-circuit practicality. “I run courses on the craft, and I suspect sometimes that the idea of having your own forge attracts a type of dreamer who romanticises about changing their life and escaping the rat race – but it’s the opposite,” she says.
“When you have a small business you have to be your own sales and marketing manager, social media expert, website designer, photographer, book keeper etc – and on top of that you have to have a production line, so to speak. “You’re making your main income from a craft that is extremely labour intensive. People picture a relaxed person in the middle of nowhere – hammer in hand… but its actually the other way around: you almost need an extra day in the week. Of course most self employed business owners would say the same. What my husband and I do is a traditional craft; everything is made from scratch, and that takes time. It is very much based on trial and error, which is possibly why even after years of doing it you still have to be completely tuned in, you’re still learning, you still have to put the hours in to develop an idea or a technique.
Vocation or not there comes a point where high hopes have to be tempered with small victories. For the first few years, Anhoj observes, they were delighted to lodge money in their bank account and get paid to use imagination and skills for an end result that is both practical and aesthetically appealing. “That does fade quick enough [especially as most artisan/crafts people end up working to the minimum wage] and so I have found that the main point of doing it – the bit that really satisfies you on a daily basis – is what you have made. Because it’s a craft, you can see the product. It’s almost like a basic urge for human beings to create, invent and explore. We’re not meant for monotonous work.”
Showing their metal.
Anhoj shares her skills with students – she is pictured here (right) with Charlaine Schmid from Switzerland – but encourages them not to romanticise the craft: ‘You have to be your own sales/marketing manager, social media expert, website designer, product designer, photographer, book keeper etc, etc’