Forging a New Life

We talk to Joel Tarr - a blacksmith and metal artist from Kent.

I love my job, but the route I came into it wasn’t ideal. In 2005 while studying Media Production at university, my life turned upside-down when I got food poisoning. It led to chronic fatigue syndrome and perpetual nausea. All my life plans went out of the window. I felt useless to the conventional working world and had no qualifications for anything I felt capable of doing.

I trod water for years in a retail job waiting to get better, as I went from doctor to doctor looking for a cure. With only slight improvements, I realised I had to create opportunities for myself… so in 2012, with a little help from YouTube, I taught myself how to forge iron.

My natural talent was spotted in 2013 when I was scouted to take part in Monty Don’s Real Craft TV series. The sink-or-swim experience proved to me that I can tackle jobs of all shapes and sizes and gave me confidence in my abilities. For me, my work isn’t just my job, it’s the thing that gives my life direction, as Monty Don noted ‘to Joel it (blacksmithing) is everything, it’s absolutely everything’.

After around 10 years I feel like I’ve started to find my own style, though needless to say I’ve had to be versatile as no two clients want the same thing. One day you’re making traditionally forged gate for a Queen Anne period listed house, the next you’re making mid-century minimalist handrails.

The hardest bit of the job is when a client knows they need a piece of ironwork, but have little idea of what they want it to look like. You have to use your judgement to design what you think would suit their property best and hope they like your proposal. I have always thought that metal bending is the easiest part of the job; it’s the designing and quoting that are the hard parts. I get a lot of repeat custom, so I must be doing something right.

The Arts and Crafts movement has provided a lot of inspiration to me, but I never like to simply copy existing ideas, and instead prefer to subtly blend architectural styles to create my own fingerprint. For example, I love the visual strength of industrial rivets next to gentle curves. Originality is important to me, but I always remain respectful of a client’s property and never design ironwork for the look of the ironwork alone: to my mind it’s always about complementing the client’s property with a piece of ironwork that’s unique, but stylistically appropriate.

Knowing a few basic principles of how the material moves allows me to create, with confidence, pieces I’ve never tried before. Unlike wood, there’s no grain or knots determining the direction you’ve got to work in, so I can scale my knowledge up or down to create designs of all shapes and sizes to reliably get the result I want. I have, for example, made a 5-feet tall bear sculpture, but I’ve also made acorn key rings the size of a pound coin.

Gates, handrails and house signs have always been my main work, though I have made several animal sculptures too. Making two-dimensional work like gates is highly satisfying, but I definitely feel like another part of my brain is engaged when I make three-dimensional sculptures.

The variety of the craft keeps me entertained and on my game, as even the simplest of jobs have nuances to catch you out – water pipes where a handrail post would naturally go, sloping driveways that mean a gate has to open in a certain way, crumbly old brickwork that’s not strong enough to support a gate hinge.

It’s not easy building a business from scratch when you’re learning on the job and have a health condition to hinder you, but I’ve worked hard to build a solid portfolio of work that clearly demonstrates my skills to new clients. Nowadays I’m lucky that most of my work comes from recommendations and word of mouth, so it’s always personally and professionally satisfying when someone rings saying they’ve seen my work and want me to make them something, because there’s no boundary between me and my work.

To finnd out more, contact Joel on 07714 631202 or visit

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