From his workshop in an old cowshed on a hill farm in the Peak District, blacksmith Dan Liggins uses traditional techniques to design and create new ironwork, as well as replicating and restoring old ironwork.
"Whilst this is more labour intensive than modern methods, I believe the extra effort shows through in the quality of the final product, and gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction," he explains.
Liggins got into blacksmithing whilst studying archaeology as a mature student at the University of Sheffield, where he became interested in trying to replicate Bronze Age tool construction. He says he was attracted by the very simple idea of "heating up metal in order to change its shape" and a passion developed from there.
A true craftsman in the making, Liggins started off by informally apprenticing himself to a practicing blacksmith ("turning up to help for free") who spotted his talent and encouraged him to start taking on his own commissions. By 2003 he was in a position to set up on his own and so Black Dragon Forge was born. He has since won several awards and been granted "Master Blacksmith" status by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in London.
While the skill did almost die out in the 1970s, blacksmithing has made a very definite comeback with courses now being offered at colleges across Britain. "I think that people as a society appreciate not just hand made things but also traditional skills," says Liggins. "Things that are not generic and not of the shelf." His clients include historic private homes, churches and local councils - anyone with an appreciation for properly crafted ironwork.
Churches and the importance of craftsmanship
Originally from Sutton Coalfield, Liggins especially enjoys working with churches because they in particular tend to appreciate the craftsmanship and quality of his products, he explains. "In heritage settings, and especially churches, the handmade nature of the work and the traditional techniques used have the effect that the work looks as if it has always been there rather than an intrusive modern addition."
Furthermore, the abundance of imagery and architectural embellishment make the design work a pleasure and relatively easy, he adds. "I incorporate motifs and elements already at the site to ensure my work ties in with its location."
A recent ecclesiastical job was for St. Helen's Church, Darley Dale in Derbyshire - home to an ancient yew tree as well as the grave of Victorian engineer Joseph Whitworth - and was an external hand rail (pictured in the photo gallery at the botom of this page) over 50m, in two parts, along the winding path from the church gate to the doorway of the village hall at the rear of the church. He also made some brackets for a rope hand rail in the church tower stairway.
Other recent church projects have included arched gates matching window bars for Campsall Church near Doncaster (also pictured below) and the restoration of a weathervane for a church tower.
Liggins' work requires strength and manual dexterity, but also a strong artistic sensibility which he finds is most satisfied when working on these historic and sacred sites. "The setting, amongst the combined craftsmanship of generations of craftsmen, inspires me to do the very best I can," he says. "I also take satisfaction from the knowledge that my work is likely to grace the church long after I am gone."
Liggins is happy to travel to do on site consultations, as well as working from a client's photographs or an architect's design. What a project will cost varies considerably simply because it depends on the complexity of the design as well as the thickness of metal used and the overall dimensions. "The cheapest thing I have made is a £3 bottle opener, but there really isn't an upper price limit," says Liggins, adding that anything he makes will be between 10 and 30 per cent more expensive than its mass-produced counterpart.
Further to this, clients should be patient once a project has been commissioned as it can take months rather than weeks to complete."The process is a labour intensive one and the emphasis is on precision and achieving the highest possible quality, not a quick turn around."
Profile written by Olenka Hamilton
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