David Skinner AWCB

Traditional Blacksmith on The Kent and Sussex Border

A student lands in my forge!

Since last September I have House signhad one of Plumpton College’s students working with me every Friday. After one or two simple tasks he started on a house name sign.

Itis now finished, but only after a last minute rush, and has been delivered to the young craftsman of the year competition at Ardingly. It is all traditionally made with fire welding and healed tenons.

Not bad for a first year. Well done Shaun.

Very sadly in 2017 Shaun and his girlfriend were killed in a road accident. They were so young and still had so much of life left to enjoy.


 The Bell Inn Uckfield lives again?

Latest update 16/10/12

A new and interesting job has arrived in my workshop. It is the refurbishment of Blackboys village hall sign. This sign has done good service to Blackboys Village Hall signthree enterprises to my knowledge and would probably tell a tale or two if it could. I first remember seeing it in the early nineteen sixties when my parents and I travelled through Uckfield Bell Inn Uckfield 1904 on our way to Eastbourne. It stood on the East side of the High Street at the bottom of the town just north of the railway crossing. It was the traffic jam caused by the railway crossing that gave me time to look around and notice it, for at that time it publicised the Bell Inn. From its appearance I suspected that the sign predated me by a long time and with a lot of help from Mick Harker The Bell Uckfield c 1930of the Uckfield and District Preservation Society I now know a lot more about it.

 From Mick
 I have a postcard postmarked 1904 which shows the sign and another of the 1930s where the sign looks very much the same. The Bell was a new pub built onto the High Street in front of an older building – also called the Bell. David Wood wrote an article around the early 1900s entitled ‘Uckfield 50 years ago’ that appeared in the Sussex Express in 1916. His recollection of the Bell in the 1850s was “…Now we reach the old Bell , standing back several feet from the road. An old-fashioned, low pitched inn, kept at that time by Mr. Wheeler, then passing to Mr. J. Jenner, father and son…”

Now this isn’t the image I have for the Bell in the 1904 card so perhaps the card was taken to celebrate the opening of the new premises? Was it a new sign for the new pub; all I can say was that it was there at the turn of the century.

At that time there was a blacksmith where The Forge petrol station now is (used to be Shell but now cheapest fuel around or some such name). The blacksmith in Mr. Woods’s time was John Hills, a relation of the blacksmith in Framfield. I think the Hills were blacksmiths in the area for some time well into the 1900s so it is possible that the sign was made there.

 Thanks Mick.

That all fits.

Pig and Butcher signSo far I have found no maker’s name on the sign that I have but there is a sign with almost identical ironwork outside the J HillsPig and Butcher pub in Five Ash Down. On that one is stamped “J HILLS” so there is little doubt in my mind that John Hills made the two, and probably both at the same time.

When the Bell pub was demolished to make way for a Somerfields/ Waitrows supermarket the builders Nicholls and Shoesmith took the sign down, repainted it and used it as their sign at their yard in Blackboys. I am trying to find a picture of it there but no luck so far.

For restoration

When Nicholls and Shoesmith closed down the place stood empty and neglected for some time. One day I saw somebody in the office so I went in and asked if the sign were to be scrapped could I buy it? I thought it was a fine thing and worth preserving. I was told that it was promised to someone and would not be scrapped.The next thing I know is that after some time the sign had been repainted and moved to the Blackboys Village Hall.

A few years later it is starting to look a bit scruffy. The paint is peeling off and there is a danger of bits of the metalwork falling off. I have removed it for a bit of restoration and TLC.

The Bell Inn signThe sign boards are now buckled and beyond economic repair so will be replaced but interestingly much of the old Bell sign was gold leaf. Subsequent layers of paint have not adhered well to this and with a little help from me a large part of the old Bell sign is now visible. You can just make out “CHARRINGTON” in gold lettering with a black drop shadow on a dark green background along the bottom.

Latest news is that I have found a name on the old Bell ironwork. It says “A FORD MARESFIELD” now that is not what I expected! This is obviously stamped into the metal when it was cold.

A Ford Maresfield blacksmith


Just found another mark on the Bell Inn sign, this one stamped in while the metal was hot. ?HN or is it NH?, If the latter was there a N HILLS.


02/10/12       Just found one!

Thanks to Chris Greenwood for a picture from March 1992 of the sign in its Nicholls and Shoosmith days. Also the correct spelling!

Nicholls and Shoosmith


Blackboys Hall sign wrought iron frame
Work is now under way on sorting out the wrought iron frame of the Blackboys village hall sign. First task is to straighten the bent scroll. This has been damaged since the sign was erected at the hall. It must have been hit by something pretty heavy to bend this scroll which is made from 1.5” x 0.5” solid wrought iron, that is 38mm x 12mm in modern language. Not only did the blow bend the scroll but it also sheared off the bolt that held it to the frame.

Repairs are now all done. The bent scroll has been straightened and new bolts made and fitted. The delaminated metal has been removed and repaired. A new internal frame has been made and new hinges for it made and fitted.

Rusted scroll before

The entire thing has been shot blasted clean, sprayed with hot zinc and painted satin black. The new mounting post is being made and the new sign boards sign-written. Rusted scroll after

We are hoping to have the totally refurbished sign set up outside the Blackboys village hall by the end of January if the weather is kind to us.

Restored Ironwork

Early February and it is all finished. Thanks to Nick for loan of his scaffolding tower.

Restoration of ironwork by Dave Skinner
New woodwork by Alex Gingell

Sign writing by Keith Pettit.


A Brass Bell Suspended in a Wrought Iron Frame.

Some years go a Steam traction engine enthusiast visited the Great Dorset Steam Fair where there were many stalls selling all kinds of things. While there he bought a brass bell mounted on an old wrought iron pivot bar. Why did he buy it? I don’t know, probably just because he liked it. It’s a man thing.

Eventually he brought the bell to me and asked me to come up with some ideas on ways to use it as a door bell. It was about ten inches tall and was complete with its clapper which had no ring at its base for a rope. The lack of a ring on the clapper meant that the best way to make the bell ring would be to pivot it on a bar as originally intended.

To copy from another man’s design is theft. To copy from many other men's designs is research.

I am particularly lucky to have a photo-copy of some old catalogues from Hyders Forge that was once in Plaxtol Kent but is now sadly closed down. There were two designs of brass door bells mounted in forged iron frames in there but only one, seen here to the right, where the bell pivoted.

I am a great fan of Hyders wrought iron work but the style of this design seemed too early for what I thought my customer would like, I was looking for something more elegant. My other reference books yielded nothing that pleased me nor did the internet, so it was ‘out with the blank sheet of paper!’

The art of the traditional blacksmith is in combining traditional elements to make an item that not only works well but is also pleasing to the eye.

Among the variety of scrolls available to the traditional blacksmith two have limited use because they have a front and a back side. These are the blow-over leaf scroll and the bevelled edge scroll. While the back of these scrolls must not be ugly, the front is definitely more pleasing so it is preferable to reserve them for items that will be viewed from one side only.

The bevelled edge scroll attracted me as it can be made quite flat and used to good effect in covering up the necessarily rather industrial looking parts of the mechanism. If I turned the entire design ninety degrees to that of the more common designs then only the front of my scrolls would be seen as the backs would be against the wall on which the bell was to be mounted.

Thus began my design. I did a number of drawings to distil my thoughts and settled on something like the one to the left but still with some undecided elements in it. I went to my customer. He liked it so far but preferred the left hand half to the right. We also agreed to omit the berries under the bell.

That part of the design was now agreed; next I had to design a way of holding the thing far enough away from the wall that the bell could swing. The design so far was curved and elegant as I had wanted but when made it would be quite heavy. A strong mounting arrangement would be necessary to attach it to the wall but this too would have to look decorative. Curves and split fishtail scrolls could be the answer. A bit more drawing and another visit to my customer and the design was complete.

The craft of the traditional blacksmith is in the techniques used to make what has been designed. Complex shapes should be made by forging, that is to say that metal should be ‘moved’ from where it is not wanted to a place where it is wanted.

The original pivot bar that was on the bell was too short to be used in the new design so it had to be removed and a new longer one made. This was a case in point.

The new bar started as a piece of square bar shorter than the required finished length but bigger in both other dimensions. First a tapered slot was punched through the centre to fit the bell’s mounting lug. Next the metal either side of the slot was forged down and drawn out in a slight taper to the required length for the finished bar. Finally the ends if the bar were forged into a round section to form the bearings on which the bell would swing. No metal was removed or added.

Where two or more pieces of metal must be joined together traditional methods include rivets, fire welding and screws if no other method is appropriate. The picture to the right shows stages in fire welding the scrolls and berries together. These can be seen to the left and right of the bell in the finished item.

Neither electric nor gas welding are considered acceptable in a traditionally made piece of wrought iron work.

Click here to go to my portfolio and see the finished bell.