Trapp Forge - behind the scenes at a Ribble Valley blacksmith
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 May 2018
The Ribble Valley’s Bill Carter is following the family tradition of being a blacksmith using ancient skills to make unique pieces.
The clanking of a hammer hitting metal emerges from an open warehouse, tucked away in the woods above Sabden in the Ribble Valley. A sign by the roadside showing a curvy-horned ram points towards it: Trapp Forge.
The resident blacksmith, Bill Carter, creates one-of-a-kind ironmongery in one of Lancashire’s last working forges. He learned the trade from his father, Ron Carter, who opened the Trapp Forge in 1964. Today, his son keeps forging goods made by hand and made to order. Bill caters to a clientele that’s moving away from mass-produced items.
‘People are willing to wait for a quality product, instead of purchasing something cobbled together from Asian-produced components,’ he says.
Every piece available through the Little Iron House, the shop-front of Trapp Forge, is as unique as the man who makes them. Bill stokes the fire in his workshop to let the coal coke and get the heat going. An array of tools lie on a table next to a compressor, all covered by a sooty layer of coal-dust.
‘It isn’t always easy, but I love the freedom my kind of work offers.’
Claire Tindall, Bill Carter’s partner and manager of the Little Iron House, shows a collection of items made at the Trapp Forge, such as a set of fire-prongs ready to be shipped to Guernsey. ‘We get orders from throughout the UK and from abroad. It’s great to keep traditional skills alive, and great to see artisans are still appreciated,’ says Claire. A set of Trapp Forge door-screens now grace a house in Japan.
Bill, who forged his first fire-poker when he was ten, travelled the world learning and furthering his skills. He’s lived and worked in Australia and France. The latter country’s love for detail in design has greatly influenced him to the point where only the finest will do.
Part of his bread-and-butter work involves making structural pieces for industry and new-builds, which he enjoys, but he prefers to create for the old, like when churches or listed buildings need new iron-work.
First, he needs to understand what the original blacksmith did to then reproduce that initial work so the final repairs match and fit. ‘I love the challenge to understand what a blacksmith thought and did a few hundred years ago and to get it done just as well.’
Bill, who has two men working for him to produce the structural pieces, has had to adapt, however, as funding for heritage projects is low so he focuses more on creating the Trapp Forge’s signature household and decorative pieces, as his father did before him.
One of the ram’s head fire-poker sets the Trapp Forge is famous for has made it into the Queen’s Household in Sandringham. It was presented as a gift from the people of Lancashire for the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and people still order them. These days Bill makes sets of fire-pokers for the children of his father’s clients.
‘No piece will ever be the same,’ says Bill, ‘but it has to be made in one go.’ He judges if the iron is ready to be worked by its colour. If it sparkles, it has reached melting point but when the iron is the right kind of orange, it indicates a perfect heat of roughly 1000C. ‘The metal ought to feel plasticised,’ he explains, moving the iron to the anvil, one of a collection of nine, where he starts hammering away to make the flat base shape from which to tease a ram’s face and horns. ‘The trick is to get the temperature as high as possible just before melting point so you have more time during that crucial phase before it cools down. As the saying goes, strike while the iron is hot.’
The tricky bit is for the horns to curve but to not break off. He keeps a constant watch on the glowing end of the iron rod he’s wielding.
Using a chisel, he adjusts its angles by millimetres to get the ram’s mouth just right, then produces a self-created tool for the nose cavities, hammering here and there and making the creative process look easy thanks to years of practice.
After half an hour of re-heating, poking and teasing, he cools the finished creation in a bucket of water. The whole process of making a fire-set is the work of several days. Despite having cut and burnt himself countless times over the years, Bill doesn’t like wearing gloves as they prevent him from feeling the metal. His hands have accordingly blackened to the tinge of iron residue, a blacksmith’s trademark. ‘After a week on holiday it might get paler again, but it never lasts long.’
Some people claim they can tell the blacksmith’s mood from the facial expression of the ram he was forging. Judging by Bill’s laugh, his latest ram will be a happy one.