You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of local women who have become blacksmiths in their 60s. Judy Waterston of Livingstone, inland North Otago, is one of them. Judy is part of a group of volunteers who ensure that an original smithie flourishes as a rare snapshot in time
As a child, Judy spent hours in her engineer-father’s workshop sorting nuts and bolts, tidying away tools, sweeping up, and watching him make things. She says her love of tools and machinery came from her dad.
The blacksmithing seed was sown in 1972 when Judy first saw Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop in Duntroon.
“I looked through the broken windows, and when I saw the anvil and bellows they took my breath away,” she remembers. “I’ve loved this building ever since.”
Nah, that’s bloke’s stuff
In 1984, when the forge had been opened to the public as a static display, Judy ran a small arts and crafts shop in front of the building. People would wander in and she’d tell them a bit about the history of the place and sell a few items. When friends suggested she should work the forge she waved the idea away. That was bloke’s stuff, she’d said.
“But one day I had a go and it was fantastic! As soon as I started hitting hot metal with a hammer I was sold on the idea.”
She approached Noel Gregg, a master blacksmith who was at the Arts Centre in Christchurch at the time and spent a few months under Noel’s tutelage but forsook blacksmithing for office work because she needed to earn a living, and it took her 20 years to escape the city and return to North Otago.
Preserving hammering history
Some time after her return, the smithy was fully restored. The idea was to create a heritage attraction, providing visitors with the experience of a working forge.
Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop was thrown open to the community. “We had a meeting and got about 12 volunteers, ranging from their 40s to 70s, who were prepared to come and learn forging. I was a bit hesitant at first, not sure I had the physical strength to do it. However, as soon as I started pumping the bellows and the fire was surging I thought, ‘Yeah … the passion is still there.”
No matter what you’re making as a blacksmith, says Judy, the work is strenuous and dirty from the earthen floor, the coal smoke, and the sweat.
“Most smithies use their left arm to pump the bellows, and with the right arm they’re banging metal, so they get really good arm muscles. There’s no need to go to the gym.”
She makes fire tools for her own use. “I’ve got an outdoor fire, so I’ve made a good long poker with a hook at the end because I find it easier to poke wood around and turn logs with a hooked end.”
“Lately I’ve been making trivets for holding pots above the heat source when I’m cooking on a log burner, and even on a gas cooker, because sometimes it’s hard to get a very low heat. I’ve got a low, medium, and high trivet; each one taking the vessel higher above the heat. The high trivet is wonderful on the log burner. You can put your kettle on it after it’s boiled, and it stays hot; and for pickles and sauces where you want that slow, long cook. I love doing spiral trivets. They have a lovely heft to them.”
Blacksmith courses for young and old
While she gets a lot of pleasure from working at the forge, more than anything Judy is eager to introduce blacksmithing to young people.
“We’ve established beginners’ courses for the young ones, and their eyes light up when I kit them out with a leather apron, glasses, and gauntlets and get them going. They work the bellows and have a go at hammering the hot metal. We really need these young people. They’re our future. We need them to be inspired.
“It’s so rewarding to pass on knowledge and skills. That's where my passion lies. Because I can’t forge as much as I’d like to, I just want to get the young people involved.”
If you want to read the full story and learn about other sheddies and their sheds, you can see the entire feature in issue 80 of The Shed. You can find out where to buy a copy here:
The Shed is a bi-monthly magazine that features how-to articles by experts, interviews with people undertaking amazing projects, and peeks into their sheds. A great read for the DIY enthusiast and those with a few tools after a bit of advice and inspiration.