Friday 15 January 2016

Any old iron - forging our own companion set

Take a look at the picture that I've stolen from Google on the right and tell me what's wrong with it.
Don't spend too long staring, it's not that important - the answer is absolutely nothing.

Contrary to what I had always believed, the items in the random web store's photo aren't known as a Poker And Shovel And That but are in fact called 'companion sets', and although they're manufactured to look decorative next to a real fire, their purpose is to tend to the logs and coal with a poker and shovel and that.

The ones in the picture are perfect. Probably computer designed in China and manufactured by robots in Thailand with materials from Taiwan then shipped back to China for spray painting by five-year-olds before being sold for the princely sum of £36 to a housewife in Scunthorpe, these companion sets are definitely decorative.
They're also flawless because they were made by machines to a precise specification, which means they're also identical. There are thousands of these exact companion sets 'out there', all made from the same cheaper metals with joints and welds that have never even been inspected by a real person. Mass-produced dullness.
Don't be offended if you have one (mam and dad) - I'm just making a point.

Now look at the picture below and tell me what's wrong with it compared to the Chinese one.

As exciting as a companion set can be.
The nail in the centre of the key hanger (top, centre) was Dawn's first attempt and shall henceforth be known as 'Stumpy'
Again, here's the answer: The finish is discoloured and textured in places; the spirals at the tops of the handles are all different, the shovel is a bit rough around the edges, they smell a bit 'industrial' and they're not painted.
But there are no other companion sets like this anywhere in the world. In the truest sense of the word, it's unique.

That's because we made it <big grinny face>

Yesterday Dawn and I took a trip to see our blacksmith mate Charlie in Gloucestershire, who agreed to let us risk life and limb in his traditional 1800s forge in return for a slice of Christmas cake, which seemed like an unbeatable deal.
Wylie's, The Ironmongers is one of those tiny companies that you don't think exist any more in these days of production lines and corporate greed - it's essentially Charlie with his bushy Olde England publican's chops, a small coal-fed furnace in a drafty and cluttered workshop, a few hammers and an anvil. Everything he does is made by hand and nothing is identical. I know this sounds like an advert, but it's true. It's ace.

The forge was boiling hot and freezing cold at the same time
Having discussed it for many weeks, we decided that we wanted a companion set that instead of cluttering the hearth or floor on a stand, was fixed to the wall on a bracket.
Then my self-diagnosed OCD appeared... if the poker and shovel and that were all on one wall that would make everything visually lopsided so we eventually decided to have two brackets, one on each side of the fireplace and turning in to the opening in an L-shape, with one item hanging at the front above the hearth and a second one just inside the opening. Same on the other side, of course.

Sticking with our theme of reusing original materials that we find in The Lodge when we can, we wanted the brackets to be made from lengths of hand-forged wrought iron bar that I had found above the suspended ceiling in the oriel window (they originally tied the frame to the house but weren't attached to anything any more), with the hanging hooks made from large original hand-made square nails that I also found up there.

The brackets were originally
tie bars used to hold the Living Room
window on to the front of The Lodge
The 10 hours we spent with Charlie saw tea, sausage sandwiches, cake and lots of hammering before we near froze to death in his other workshop where the final bit of welding took place.
Before that we made more nails for the brackets - only two that I had brought were suitable; heated, bent, hammered and snapped one bracket before getting the other two right; walloped the heavy poker, shovel, brush and tong handles in to shape (with mild steel provided by Charlie); cut and hammered the shovelly bit and made an impromptu key hanger with half of the snapped bracket and left-over nails. Charlie did most of the work, naturally, but what we lacked in knowledge and talent we hopefully made up for in brute force and enthusiasm.
Dawn lost two fingerprints on the poker before remembering that even no-longer-bright-red-and-glowing hot things hurt, I've probably done lasting damage to my forearm muscles with the weight of the hammers and Charlie came worryingly close to losing his chops in a never-ending shower of sparks, but it was an excellent day and keeps us well on the road to doing as much as possible ourselves during the renovations.

I've already re-pointed (with lime) some of the inside of the fireplace where the old mortar was failing and painted the galvanised metal register plate with two coats of red oxide and four coats of heatproof matt black paint. The plate has also been sealed as much as possible around the edges with a black heatproof Mastic-type mortar to lessen drafts and muck coming through.
All that needs to be done before the log burner goes in next week is to dust-proof the brickwork with a breathable fixative and put the companion set brackets up - then maybe we can stop huddling in front of the portable electric fire that I'm facing right now as it gently snows outside.

We're sooooo close to normality.

Now get ready for the action shots:

Health and Safety precautions were offered, but politely declined. Gloves and goggles were thought non-essential and we considered H&S rules as more of an arbitrary set of loose guidelines for the day.

Dawn prepares to fire a red hot nail straight at Charlie's Gentleman's Area.
He won't be laughing then.

We made more nails than necessary so we could choose the best for the brackets.
The leftovers were used for a key hanger thingummybob.

Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand. Hit the punch, not the hand...

Dawn didn't need this piece of metal for anything but it was all sparkly
so she walloped it anyway for the photo.

Charlie's magnificent facial adornment is a thing of glorious wonder.
But there was cake in it.

It really is as simple as 'heat it, hit it' but for weakling novices like us it was more difficult than that.

Look, but don't... ah, go on then. It's pretty.

Charlie made the shovel head from an old metal disc he had knocking about.

Welding is dangerous so this is where Health and Safety got serious.
"When I say 'eyes'," said Charlie. "I want you to turn away and cover your eyes. Don't even look in to the window because the reflection from the glass could still blind you."

So I took a photo.


  1. Awesome!! So jealous you got to do this!

  2. 'Ittin stuff wif an 'ammer should be easy enough for you two pro dry stone wallers!! ;o) Looks like you had an ace day. Oh, and you should have stopped in for a cup of tea... Charlie only lives 10-15 mins from our house. =o)

  3. Excellent stuff.
    We're somewhere in Gloucestershire too.


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