When you start making work to sell there is a natural desire to make everything the same. Consistency is key, and we are always told that being able to reproduce something accurately is the true measure of a craftsman.
Coming through college I could very quickly identify which students had worked this out and which students worked to a different idea - that your hand will always find a way, and that whatever you are left with is what you intended to make in the first place.
I firmly believe that the true skill in any craft is practice and that learning to control the marks your hand makes is vital in being able to fully talk the language of your craft.
This skill is never more apparent than when it comes to working to a drawing. I believe that any professional craftsman should be able to work to a scaled, working drawing and produce, to within a tight tolerance, what it is that they and the customer have agreed upon.
Once you get to this stage and this level of skill is reached then there is a great opportunity for allowing the randomness and fluidity to return, albeit with a level of control. The individual nature of hand-making and the personality that is added whenever I shape hot metal with a hammer adds an inherent uniqueness to the work. I believe it’s this that makes the craft what it is.
Society teaches us to be perfect in every way we can be, from mass manufacturing that creates perfect yet often soulless identical products, to a more general sense of conformity that means individual personality is often overlooked. But I believe that once we learn that we can be or produce the same things, we can choose not to - and this is where the interesting work is done.
With blacksmithing, there will always be a critical feature, or particular functionality that absolutely has to remain consistent and be made to a particularly high tolerance. But it is the balance between the two factors - accurate where you have to be, individual where you can be - that makes craft great.
Take my drawer and cupboard door handles pictured below. They are made with 100mm between hole centres and are sold all over the world. People buy them expecting this, and in some cases will be fixing them to kitchens cabinets that already have predrilled holes in them. The gap needs to be 100mm. Not 101, or 99mm, but 100mm. What’s more, for aesthetic reasons, these holes need to be in the centre of the round splat at each end of the handle.
Once you accept that these features need to be identical, you can allow room for more play and personality in the rest of the piece, like the individual hammer marks on the main bridge part of the handles that give the piece it’s soul.
It is only by learning the basics and developing an experienced hand that you are able to fully express your own personality through your work. Controlled inconsistency follows only once consistency is mastered.