Sheffield Heritage Open Days 2017: Keeping centuries-old metalworking traditions alive

Nigel Tyas bends a curtain rod into shape. Picture by Andrew Roe
Nigel Tyas bends a curtain rod into shape. Picture by Andrew Roe
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Nigel Tyas has a pet theory about the secret of becoming a skilled blacksmith. "You've got to have a good plan," recommends the metalworker, as he pulls a thin steel rod heated to 1,200C out of a small forge, tapers it with a mechanical hammer, lifts it quickly onto a nearby anvil and deftly bends one end into the shape of a shepherd's crook.

"This will be a finial for a curtain pole," he says.

Nigel Tyas hammering a length of steel. Picture by Andrew Roe

Nigel Tyas hammering a length of steel. Picture by Andrew Roe

To Nigel, whose firm is based in the countryside at Bullhouse Mill in Millhouse Green, near Penistone, there's 'always something exciting about a piece of red-hot metal'.

"The creative side of it is having the hot metal and the concept in your mind of something you're going to produce. Of course, there's always a time constraint. That metal is only workable for a short period of time."

And, he's keen to point out, the methods and tools he uses have barely changed for centuries.

"Even the coating we put on the metal at the end is basically the same as they were using in the Iron Age. When they made swords and tools, to preserve the metal surface and stop it going rusty, they rubbed beeswax onto it. We do the same."

Nigel Tyas in his showroom with a selection of finished pieces. Picture by Andrew Roe

Nigel Tyas in his showroom with a selection of finished pieces. Picture by Andrew Roe

Next week his company, Nigel Tyas Ironwork, is taking part in the annual Heritage Open Days for the first time. Visitors will be able to tour the workshop and showroom, watch demonstrations and hear short talks about Nigel's passion for making wrought iron lighting, fireplace pokers and other homewares.

It's a 'niche market', he accepts, but one that attracts customers from around the world - one of his biggest recent commissions was a chandelier dispatched to a buyer in Japan.

Owners of manor houses, cottages and churches are the type who usually seek out Nigel's heritage-inspired wares, but city-dwellers are partial too, by all accounts.

Television and film crews have also spied Nigel's pieces online and used them in their productions. His curtain poles appeared in a castle on Game Of Thrones, some lamps adorned an office in the last James Bond movie, Spectre, and even the wall lights at the Emmerdale pub, The Woolpack, were crafted at Bullhouse Mill.

"There are probably only four or five people in the country doing what we're doing," says Nigel, who's pledged his commitment to keeping traditional ironworking skills alive in the UK.

The workshop is filled with the clamour of noisy equipment - including a grinder, drills and the machine hammer, capable of delivering a 40kg blow 120 times a minute.

Supplies, such as lengths of raw steel, are gathered from as many local firms as possible.

"Generally speaking everything is procured within a 50-mile radius - which is hard, but that's what we set out to do. Had we had stuff made abroad we'd have made a lot more money, I suppose. But this is what I want to do. It's not all about making loads of money, it's about enjoying what you do and taking pride in it."

Nigel, aged 63, who lives minutes away from his forge in Thurlstone, started his career as a 16-year-old apprentice blacksmith with the National Coal Board in the 1970s. Back then, steam trains and pit ponies were still in use, and his early work involved 'pretty heavy stuff' - hundredweight chains, bending railway lines and the like.

He set up his own business with wife and partner Elizabeth Stocker 17 years ago. The company - a member of the coveted 'Made In Sheffield' trademark - employs 10 staff, among them two further blacksmiths.

"Blacksmiths aren't easy to come by, you have to train them yourself," says Nigel.

"There has been a resurgence in craft skills over the last 10-15 years, but 99 per cent are people operating out of their own tiny little forges. Which is fine, but we've tried to make a more commercial business.

"I'm constantly looking for new ideas within the constraints of the craft."

Open day visitors will be able to get as close as they can to the action, it is promised, 'without putting them in any danger'.

Nigel hopes people can learn there are different avenues to earning a living.

"It's not all about sitting at a desk and working at a computer; this is about using your hands and your mind, and being smart."

The open day takes place on Friday, September 8 from 2.30pm to 5.30pm. No booking required. Visit for details or see to find out about this year's Heritage Open Days.