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Dorset lives – A test of metal

Adam Greenwell is an artist in iron, but what spurs him on? Michael Handy went to find out.

When he was at school, and thinking about what he wished to pursue as a career, three ideas came into Adam Greenwell’s mind: thatching, traditional boat-building or blacksmithing. New EU regulations on what was, and wasn’t, permitted in small boat-building scuppered that idea, and the thought of being a thatcher was, unfairly in retrospect, dismissed when he was doing one of a number of part-time jobs while still at school. He recalls: ‘I was doing a gardening job, just mowing a lawn, up and down, and I thought that thatching might also be an “every day the same thing” job as well.’

Although he acknowledges now that this may rather undervalue thatching, he nonetheless decided to try his hand at blacksmithing. He later discovered it might have been an inherited choice, as he explains: ‘My great-great-granddad was a blacksmith and foundryman and he won a medal for pattern making.’

Adam Greenwell with his solid silver Queen Elizabeth Trust medal

Adam Greenwell with his solid silver Queen Elizabeth Trust medal

Adam applied to Hereford college and took a national certificate, then a national diploma in the metalworking crafts, before taking a year ‘off’ to do work as a blacksmith. It was in this period that his life was to change.
‘One day, a letter, with information on the Queen Elizabeth Trust, dropped through the door. I filled in a form, was accepted onto the scheme and I first got a City and Guilds in welding and fabrication and then a degree in Architectural Decorative Iron Work.’ It was a long and physically-demanding journey, though; days would start in the forge at 8.30 and Adam would often not finish before nine in the evening.

When he graduated, and received a solid-silver medal from the Queen Elizabeth Trust, he was one of just six to receive it; indeed he was the only blacksmith to have received the medal, and remained so until 2010, when another was awarded. A degree certificate and medal was all very well, but it didn’t get him any work, nor the wherewithal to open his own forge. He struck a deal with Plymouth College where, in return for a couple of days’ work a week as a technician, he would get the use of the forge for the rest of the time. Soon, however, he realised, he was spending more and more time helping the students with their projects and techniques, but less and less working on his own account.

Adam Greenwell starts the process of creating a ram's-head fire companion set from a square-section piece of mild steel

Adam Greenwell starts the process of creating a ram's-head fire companion set from a square-section piece of mild steel

Finally, he struck out on his own, first at Bailie Gate, Wimborne, and now, in his current premises, at the Old Beef House, by Stubhampton Farm. The nature of the work that Adam does is varied, but the manner in which he does it, is not; the overarching principles by which he works are of quality and longevity, dictated by the materials he chooses and the techniques he uses. He has created furniture, outdoor sculpture, and even had a look at building bridges; it is certainly not ‘everyday the same thing’. Although he clearly loves the creative element of his job, he is no more immune to the need to make a living than anyone else, and so is launching a catalogue of high-quality, hand-made goods that people can buy, rather than having to commission. However, he is not in any way abandoning the bespoke work, it is merely a question of finding clients who understand what quality is all about.

‘I like working for estates because the people who run them understand the difference between price and value. They understand that to buy something which will last for a couple of hundred years, rather than a couple of years, is not a false economy. They only want to pay for it once, and have it done well.’

This table is one of Adam's more modern designs

This table is one of Adam's more modern designs

Not all clients are as understanding, though, and Adam sees part of  his work as that of education: ‘It can be difficult when you’re quoting on a job to explain the difference between proper wrought iron gates – which have tenon joints made invisible and the whole gate heated to 1200°C and allowed to cool again so that all the crystalline metal fibres are at their strongest – and gates where someone has just spot-welded bits of metal together.’
Where someone just wants metal gates, it is hard to sell them on the idea of a raw material that costs as much per foot as six metres of mild steel would cost. But there is a benefit, as Adam puts it: ‘The difference is that properly worked wrought iron will never rust.’

Before any of the five techniques of forging – drawing, shrinking, bending, upsetting, and punching – can be carried out, the metal needs to be heated to the correct temperature; this is determined by eye and experience

Before any of the five techniques of forging – drawing, shrinking, bending, upsetting, and punching – can be carried out, the metal needs to be heated to the correct temperature; this is determined by eye and experience

The other difference is that wrought iron takes more skill and experience to work than steel. Although softer to work, iron is more difficult to work with as it cannot be treated as roughly as steel; a blow struck when it has cooled too much will permanently damage its structural integrity.

Watching Adam work, and hearing him describe the colours at which metals can be worked is an education. Knowing that when a metal is black it can be at 800°C, as opposed to being cool at the dark grey end where his ungloved hand is holding it, is obviously a useful bit of knowledge.

Adam would love to bring his knowledge to a wider audience, and although his catalogue collection will be his bread and butter, he will still hanker after work for organisations like the Historic Churches Trust, who specify the materials that must be used. ‘Once you make hinges for a door in a church, you know they will be there as long as the church is there,’ says Adam, and it is clear that he can conceive of no better outcome for a piece of his work.

• Adam’s work can be found at www.dorsetironworkstudio.co.uk; the catalogue collection will be available from June 2011

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