Thought Leadership

Working with fire and steel

By Colin Walls

Over the years, I have had to explain to my manager [and there have been rather a lot of them!] that telling me what to do is not productive or logical. The primary resource that I bring to my job is my brain. Although it may be argued that communication skills are key, they are largely a function of using my brain. My current boss understands this well and, hence, he gets reasonable value from me. [I hope that he agrees!]

The downside of my career choice is that I do not get much stimulation to my artistic side – my work is very left-brained. Also, if you do not count the rigors of international travel, my job does not stretch me physically. So, from time to time, I like to do something about this …

My main hobby is photography. That gives me some kind of outlet for my artistic aspirations. It can also give me an opportunity to get out and about and take exercise. But I also keep a lookout for other activities that challenge me. A while back I did a couple of day classes in glass making, which I wrote about here. I enjoyed that very much and will most likely have another go at some point. Knowing my predilection for such things, my Other Half gave me an interesting birthday present: a voucher for a day course in blacksmithing.

It was some months before I managed to take up the course, which I did a couple of weekends ago at a location just a short drive from my home. It was a one-to-one class – just me and the blacksmith. He explained that he could not have more than two pupils at the same time and, when I saw the size of the forge, I understood why – it was rather “bijou”.

The class was project-based. The idea was that I would make a fire poker. I was happy with this, as we plan to have a new wood-burning stove installed in a few months. After talking me through all the necessary health and safety issues, the blacksmith explained that his approach was for us both to make the item. He would demonstrate a stage of the work and then it would be my turn. This would repeat until the job was done. The result would be a finished article, which was 100% my work.

He cut two lengths of 3/8″ square section steel, each about 18″ long. These were the starting points for our pokers. Broadly the work involved heating, working and [sometimes] cooling. The trick was to have it hot enough, but not too hot, in the right place for the work in hand. It was also necessary to be quick [before it cooled] and confident. He told me that most newcomers to blacksmithing are rather afraid of the fire and do not get their metal hot enough. I think that my glass making experience had taught me to be careful with the heat, but not afraid. I tended to over-heat the metal. The working involved hammering to draw out and taper the metal and to make a point. Then there was more subtle manipulation to make a ring on the end. A “barley sugar stick” shape was made in the metal using selective heating and twisting. This looks impressive, but was actually quite straightforward.

At the end of the day, I was pleased to take home the fruit of my labor. I had a recognizable fire poker and had not just destroyed an innocent piece of metal. I am very glad that I did the course. It was fun and a worthwhile experience, but I am not so drawn to return for more as I was with the glass making.

Anyone in the UK who would like details of the course, please email.

BTW, the if you were wondering about the title of this posting: it is the title of a track by China Crisis about 30 years ago.


0 thoughts about “Working with fire and steel
  • Colin, strange coincidence… the last month or so I’ve been enjoying Spotify (now that we “yanks” can also get the service) and I’ve been playing a lot of my favorite albums from years past. Many of my favorite artists, from my teenage years up until now, are from the UK. Comsat Angels, Chameleons UK, etc. But the reason I mention any of this – just as I brought up this blog post, “Papua” from “Working With Fire & Steel” was playing. Crazy.

    Somewhat related – not long after I finished university, I took an auto shop class at the local vocational college, and I really enjoyed it. Of course that was back in the day when you still had a fighting chance of fixing your car without a 2.5GHz diagnostic laptop plugged into it…

    • Hi Dan. That is an interesting coincidence. I am a big Spotify fan and pleased with its seamless integration into my new Sonos system. I am always intrigued by coincidences. This week, my partner was trying to meet up with a friend, who was visiting the UK. She sent her a text suggesting that she go by train to a particular small, obscure village. At the moment the text arrived, she was on a train going to see another chum and was passing through that exact village.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at