In the twentieth century, a larger industry of blacksmithing took root and grew in the railway workshops across the country. They could make almost anything in those huge shops.

My old boss did his time under an enormous bridge hammer at the Hutt Shops. As well as the railway shops, skilled smiths could be found at the Devonport naval dockyards, Wellington Harbour board and all across the country.

In the later decades of the twentieth century, this industrial blacksmithing came to an end, with the disestablishment of the railway workshops in the 1980s. Blacksmithing has now become a studio craft.

By Jon Hall

Workshop decline

The importance of these extensive railway shops continued through a large part of the 20th century, and some exist in a much reduced format to this day, albeit without the blacksmiths. Although this was the largest example of forging history in New Zealand, well equiped workshops existed in other industries.

The dockyards in Devonport and the harbour board in Wellington are fine examples of blacksmiths shops that undertook skilled repairs and production.

The Wellington harbour board purchased pneumatic forging hammers from the company Massey in Manchester, England in 1961. These hammers are large forging machines which require skilled operators, so by these records industrial forging was still very much underway here in the mid 20th century and later. The systematic closing of the large railway workshops started in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s, effectively placing an enormous wealth of accumulated knowledge at risk of becoming lost.

Rise of studio production

At the same time, the 20th century also displayed an interesting crossover point for blacksmithing in New Zealand by way of a revival of interest in ornamental ironwork. Advances in technology shifted the industry focus from blacksmithing to faster methods of constructing with steel. Forging started to give way to fabrication, engineering and electric welding, whereby marking the trade as an outdated process. At the same time, however, there was a resurgence of interest in blacksmithing in the craft movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Boutique artisan forges, although rare, started opening around the country, supplying a range of forged products from hooks and fire side instruments to gates and railings.

Welder at work, Waihi. Photographed by Eric Lee-Johnson, 1958

© CCBY-NC-ND 4.0 Te Papa, O.006823

No longer required for vital work such as bridge building or maintenance work on the farm, the skill of moving metal by hammer and heat passed largely, although not completely, to the artisan.

This shift in focus also signified a loss of many of the precision aspects of forging which were developed through necessity over hundreds of years. Technical forging can be a very precise practice, although it is often perceived by the public to produce rustic or roughly forged objects.

The positive side to this evolution of trade has been the ability of the modern day smith to utilise forging to realise their own ideas, and to combine it with current technical practice of welding and grinding, turning and machining, to create new opportunities for this old craft.

This freedom of movement within the trade has allowed for the development of new skills and directions with the resulting forms often somehow steeped in traditional practice yet blended with contemporary design.

Standard Lamp with wrought iron base, designed by John Crichton, c.1955

© CCBY-NC-ND 4.0 Te Papa, GH021015

Ornamental ironwork

Architectural and ornamental ironwork has existed and developed throughout the centuries alongside the functional aspect of forge craft. This can easily be seen in any European city where complex iron, copper and bronze forgings decorate shop fronts, palaces, castles and estates.

Because of New Zealand’s relatively late transition into a westernised society, this tradition of decorative forging didn’t take hold or develop here. As such, many of the traditional skills known only to the artist smith are rare and hard to find in New Zealand.

Revival of the blacksmith

Today, there is a worldwide network of artist blacksmiths which, although still relatively small, travel and work with each other and attend conferences together. In England the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (B.A.B.A.) has a strong following and hosts international forging events from time to time with participants attending from all over the world, New Zealand included.

In the U.S.A the Artist Blacksmiths Association of North America (A.B.A.N.A.) does the same and has a large membership, while in Germany the magazine Hephiastos showcases the work of European and international smiths, and releases a yearbook which focuses on the life work of masters.

For young people interested in a career in forging, it is very beneficial to first learn the basics then apply to work in some of the many highly skilled workshops across the globe. This will equip them with skills and knowledge from differing approaches and skill sets, after which they can choose the direction they wish to take, supported by a foundation of experience.

Header image:  New Zealand Railway Workshops at Woburn, Lower Hutt, c.1925-1964. Photograph by  H. Burt Ltd. Te Papa,  C.002569 All Rights Reserved

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

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Hall, Jon. 'Blacksmithing in the 20th Century'', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.