Fire and iron: inside a blacksmith’s forge

CAITLIN HENDERSON and her camera spent an afternoon with blacksmith Tim Bignell as he plied his trade at the historic gold town of Sovereign Hill. 

Caitlin said that as soon as she met Tim, the focus of her photo essay shifted. “I realised the real story was in his warmth of personality and his journey to blacksmithing, not just the physical work,” she said.

In the messy, atmospheric, low light of the forge, she challenged herself “to not interfere”. That meant no flash, and accepting the technical difficulties that came with that. 

THE BLACKSMITH WHO TRAVELLED THE WORLD AND FELL THROUGH TIME

Tim Bignell, 38, hammers iron into a curl. As the blacksmith at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat’s living gold rush museum, this “very traditional” scrollwork uses tools and techniques from the 1850s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The work at Sovereign Hill is a balance between performance and craftsmanship. Tim happily chats from behind a barrier to visitors who wander constantly in and out during the day.

Blacksmithing was a happy accident for Tim, who “fell into” it after taking a weekend job at Sovereign Hill. “I was very fortunate,” he said. “I meet people every day who would love to get into blacksmithing.”

Tim soon overheats, using a traditional bellows to force more air into the forge. He strips off part of his costume, saying “it’s not too fancy” compared to others, but “it doesn’t catch on fire too easily”.

After hammering, the hot metal goes into the quenching barrel. Tim learned much of his trade as a “journeyman” blacksmith, travelling around Europe and apprenticing for food and board. He didn’t know what to expect, but “it was an adventure in the end,” he says.

Steam rising from the quenching barrel obscures Tim from view. He talks about the slow recognition of blacksmithing as an art. “It’s artistic by nature, but not always considered an art form. No one knows quite where it fits.”

On a busy day, Tim hammers the individual letters of visitors’ names into over 100 souvenir horseshoes. It’s repetitive work, but Tim doesn’t forget the positives. “I just like making things, and I get paid to do it. So that makes me happy.”

Tim steps out of the 1850s to answer the phone in his office. Here, he hides away the powerpoints, the cables, the EFTPOS machine and the other reminders of life in 2017. While blacksmithing here is traditional work, the thing he loves most, Tim admits, is “the challenge of designing something new”.