Mention the term ‘blacksmith’ and if you’re anything like me you’ll conjure up an image of some hardy guy in front of an anvil clad in a pair of chaps, with a hammer, a pair of tongs to hand and some horses hoof clamped between his legs. It is a trade that unsurprisingly dates back to the iron age at around 800 BC & has withstood the test of time. What has perhaps become dated is my illusion that limits it to the realms of agricultural maintenance and machinery, because when we fast forward to the present day this bespoke craft is pretty unlimited in its applications- all that’s needed is the raw material, imagination and the gift that has travelled down generations.
Lee Stephens was unaware that the trade he was about to embark on dated back in his family tree to 1587. His initial ambition following a motorcycle accident was to work with wood, it was his liaison officer who was attempting to find him a suitable apprenticeship position that steered him back on the path of what was in fact a family tradition.
Now his company Fine Iron specialises in high end staircases & handrails, Georgian porches and verandas and everything from bespoke wine cellars, aviary’s and chandeliers.
It was a great pleasure capturing some images for him at a recent project he’d completed for Duck and Rice. This has been the latest venture for Wagamama founder Alan Yau and is set in the heart of London’s fashionable Soho; I was curious of the development that had travelled from the more humble and rural setting of the Welsh countryside. When invited down to cover some of the action in the workshops I was interested in catching up with Lee and discussing his journey of taking his business that is set on the side of a mountain in the Brecon Beacons to the heartland of the design and fashion Capital.
The development of his business is perhaps not unlike any other that starts from nothing, but when you familiarise yourself with what was involved to achieve a international business in an area so deprived of successful industry it does generate interest and respect.
During Lee’s apprenticeship he had the good fortune of being involved in the team behind the restoration of Kensington Palace Gates made famous by its memorial to Princess Di which was a major undertaking; Lee’s first ever forging were on the scrolls of the new Kensington Gates & covering the gold leaf flower detail. ‘It’s when you’re involved in projects like this and a later one where I managed the production team that completed the restoration of the Albert Memorial that you get to truly appreciate the work of past craftsmen. It’s here that you get to understand the detail and the build that precedes the present’. Work and design that evolved hundreds of years ago is carefully dismantled section by section and through the process you are able to acknowledge and digest the different crafts and principals that evolved many lifetimes ago and revive them to the present day.
So when work such as this was being carried out Lee gave birth to his own business which was initially ‘no more than a barn without doors, 3000 sq feet of space & 3 feet deep in cow shit!’ This was cleared out, painted and gradually built working with a simple welder, vice and workbench. ‘A lot of the space was shared initially for the Albert job, it was an ideal springboard having such a lot of space; from here we built trolleys and dollies, disassembling benches, labelling- stage by stage reconstruction before finally being painted.’
Becoming a bespoke high end architectural metalworker wasn’t easy though in the early stages. When this contract came to an end Lee set up Fine Iron with a 4K loan and help from his brother Andy. Though the overheads were low the real work was in London many miles from this isolated mountain top. It was tenacity, quite literally weathering the storms and a good dollop of luck that finally broke through for the pair.
A resident in the desirable Prince Albert road in London found Lee in the Yellow Pages. Lee had paid for listings throughout central London. This was a large private residence with plated iron gates. It was followed by Pontypool War Memorial which had been completely levelled in a storm and needed to be ready by Armistice Day. Then, perhaps in keeping with the Welsh tradition of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s Simon Sainsbury’s neighbour on Cheyne Walk commissioned Lee to restore his gates and railings too.
And so it grew and grew. ‘People could see Andy and I putting our heart and soul into it. We shared the sleepless nights, but our pride and commitment, well, it paid off in the end’.
Andy’s commitment and dedication whilst working for Fine Iron has been a big part of the company’s success. He takes with him the same care and approach as Lee; an eye for detail that draws from his background in the construction industry. This is a great benefit as when doing a survey his attitude is ‘how are we going to make this work’. From drawing into development both are aware of the need to be flexible as things can shrink and grow in the blink of an eye.
Now they are bolstered by a greater workforce who all played a part in the recent commission by Alan Yau. Again it was interesting to hear what was involved. A spiral staircase in a commercial environment has to factor in safety requirements, how many might be in the restaurant at any given time. The design went through many changes and the team priced for many different versions. Effective chain communication was vital in linking the progress, Aaya’s Heiko Meyer, Archer Humphryes the architects, the designers Autoban in Turkey and Pat Carter the shop fitters company Misia Carter. Familiarity with collaborating with large teams on an international basis was a pre-requisite, as Lee pointed out ‘not many people are looking to spend 50- 100+K on a spiral staircase , so undoubtedly there are many other features being done that are important to accommodate’. When it comes down to the fitting though, here it has to be dealt with in absolutes, from floor to floor. Cast iron risers can’t be changed, once set it is solid.
Key and instrumental in the process of merging this global talent effectively has been the advancement of technology. Skype, FaceTime meetings and the rapid transmission of opinions, criteria and essential detail have all served towards a rapid progression; and it is here, perhaps, that the true success of Fine Iron has been built on and grown.
Beyond the dollop of luck and being able to design and manufacture what the client wants, being able to adapt, move with the times and seek out fresh markets has been key to survival in an otherwise deprived area. The only thing that doesn’t shift is cast to last, and the company certainly looks set on the same trajectory.