The Blacksmith
Crafts - Labours of love
text by Alice Shopland for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust

Guy Garey Blacksmith "In an age when everyone wants everything done faster, a devoted craftsman is keeping an old, slow tradition alive.

It’s a common misconception that Portobello blacksmith Guy Garey is cheating by using a power hammer to help him shape metal. Actually, power-assisted forging has been around for a very long time. His 150-kilogram-rated pneumatic hammer has a respectable family tree, featuring such predecessors as a steam hammer that was in use circa 1820. Working metal successfully isn’t just a matter of shaping the outside, Guy says, you have to move the material all the way to the centre.

“If it’s 25 millimetres thick, there’s no problem working it by hand. But, if it’s 200 millimetres thick, for something big, like a ship’s anchor, then you’ve got a big problem!”

Guy had dabbled in blacksmithing while a student in San Diego, as an antidote to the cerebral work of finishing an English literature degree (Guy says he has noticed a trend developing in recent years whereby desk-bound intellectuals “want to get in and get their hands dirty, and actually make something”. One recent blacksmithing class he taught included four PhDs.) Fifteen years ago, he was inspired to get seriously involved. Making “a complete hash of things” initially didn’t put him off. “Iron is a stubborn material, but you just have to be more stubborn than it is!".

His description of iron’s allure makes it sound like the uptight heroine meeting her square-jawed hero in a romance novel.

“It’s an inherently contradictory material because of its two extremes – it’s hard, unyielding and difficult, but it yields itself with the right application of force and understanding to the most intricate, graceful, sinuous lines.”

Although he’s largely self-taught, Guy (who has dual United States/New Zealand citizenship) acknowledges the advice and inspiration of his US-based mentor, architectural smith Mark Bokenkamp.

Blacksmithing is one of the few crafts to use a living tool – that is, fire – and Guy reckons that’s part of its fascination for worker and watcher alike. He has a constant stream of visitors to his forge at the Otago Peninsula Museum and Historical Society, and he was amazed that 1000 people turned up to the opening day at his new forge two years ago.

Guy works on a coal-fired forge, but most of the time he’s working in mild steel rather than wrought iron. Just as it’s traditional for blacksmiths not to be completely reliant on their biceps to swing the hammers, steel has been their standard material for longer than most people think: since the mid-19th century, in fact, when steel became easily manufactured.

Guy makes industrial and artistic (or architectural ) work. The latter makes up the majority of his output, and includes everything from railings, chandeliers, hinges and other door and window accessories to furniture itself.

You can see examples of his work at the Stone Store in Kerikeri and Pompallier House in Russell, as well as on the gates of the Globe Theatre in London . At Pompallier, he was making replica tools and says it was “a great detective game to" figure out how they’d originally been made. The level of skill reached great heights in the old days, something we all aspire to now”.

 

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