From Forces to forge – How Tim became a blacksmith

After Tim Mackereth completed 22 years of service, he turned to The Royal British Legion for assistance with starting up his own blacksmithing business. Fourteen years later, his award-winning company has gone from strength to strength.

I joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1980 and trained as a mechanic straight from A-Levels.

Artificer training followed from 1989 to 1991, after which I specialised in armoured infantry and armour, before rising to the rank of Artificer Sergeant Major of the Royal Green Jackets Light Aid Detachment REME by the time I was 35.

“My idea of hell was commuting day in, day out, wearing a suit.”

My job in the Army saw me travel the world, mostly in Germany because of the Cold War, but I also finished on Loan Service with the Sultan of Brunei for the last three years of my career in the Forces.

Leaving the Forces

I do count myself very lucky because I hugely enjoyed Service life and I think that the quality of attention to training was second to none. But when I got to 40 I thought it was time to do something else, which my wife Fran and I saw as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

Most of my contemporaries were going into engineering project management in defence procurement, but my idea of hell was commuting day in, day out, wearing a suit. So I thought of other things and remembered I’d always been interested in blacksmithing.

“So I went on a weekend course and made a poker and thought, ‘Ah, this is it.’”

When I left school I had the perception that there was very little going on in the industry, but by 2001 when I was looking at what I was going to do, the internet had arrived and there was an explosion of information about what was going on in blacksmithing: it was fabulous.

I already had the skills of basic engineering, an awful lot of which were transferable, and I was already competent with all of the equipment that is additional, but also fundamental, to blacksmithing. Hitting the piece of hot metal with a hammer is a comparatively small part of the overall finished product.

So I went on a weekend course and made a poker and thought, “Ah, this is it.” On the strength of that, we bought and restored the forge, which had been let out and fallen into disrepair, before I enrolled on a year-long blacksmithing course at Warwickshire College near Leamington Spa.

Setting up as a professional blacksmith

There was a business module on the blacksmithing course, and because we had already bought the forge by then, I used that module to formulate the business plan, so I had a live example as the project.

“The Legion scrutinised your business plan to a very high level and as a result they had an extraordinary success rate of businesses that survived to pay back their start-up loan.”

At the time, in 2002, the banks were handing money out to all and sundry. But as a charity, the Legion scrutinised your business plan to a very high level and as a result they had an extraordinary success rate of businesses that survived to pay back their start-up loan. With that information I thought that if I was going to write a business plan, I wanted to have it scrutinised by someone who knew what they were doing. We decided right from the outset that we were going to do this and do it properly.

I needed some funding to buy tools and equipment, so I could start accepting projects on day one that would let me make a living straight away. In the cash-flow forecast it was also identified that we would have needed an overdraft in the early months. The Legion were so happy with the business plan that they offered us double what we’d asked for to cover the identified overdraft.

A flying start

 As it happened, we got off to a much better start than we’d anticipated and didn’t use the overdraft anyway, so we spent the money on tooling to increase capability, so that we could take on bigger jobs.

I think because it is a charity, people tend to think that the Legion is something that you go to when you’re in need and you’re at rock bottom, rather than it being a support resource in a much more positive sense for all veterans. The truth is that you can use it in a much more forward-looking way than just getting you out of a hole.

“We have also now produced three pieces at the National Memorial Arboretum.”

As well as private clients and large restoration projects, since the business got going we have also now produced three pieces at the National Memorial Arboretum. The first of these was the Commando Veterans’ Association’s memorial, which we made within the first three years of the company starting. The client for the Commando project was reasonably local, had seen our publicity and knew I was ex-military and now a blacksmith.

He came to us and we produced the four-foot-tall Commando dagger forged in stainless steel with a wreath of copper leaves around it like a Commando cap badge. It was very well received by the National Memorial Arboretum and as a consequence we were invited to tender for other memorials, which include the RAF Association’s Garden of Remembrance and the Fire Service Memorial.

International blacksmiths

I’ve been a member of the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (BABA) since we started the business (I’m now the Chairman, in fact). About six or seven years ago, a Belgian blacksmith, Luc Vandecasteele, approached BABA for assistance with producing a major memorial as part of Flanders’ centenary commemorations for World War One. He lives near Ypres and goes every Friday to the Menin Gate for the Last Post ceremony – it is just deeply engrained in the psyche of all who live in Flanders.

Tim Mackereth holds the finished poppies.

Tim Mackereth holds the finished poppies.

The then Chairman of BABA, Terrence Clark, offered assistance and over the course of six years, a team of 15 BABA members helped to organise the six-day international event. It took place at the Grote Markt in front of the In Flanders Field Museum and featured blacksmiths from around the world.

“We didn’t have a common language apart from forging.”

The centrepiece of the event was a poppy cenotaph, which was surrounded by 25 railing panels that were forged in a large outdoor workshop that was set up at the event. Teams of blacksmiths were formed on the day under one of 13 invited masters and 12 international design competition winners, and each team had two days to produce their panel. I worked with Achim Kühn, an eminent German blacksmith and the son of the late Fritz Kühn, whose work is exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The team I was in had a New Zealander, an Australian, an Italian, a German master and a couple of English blacksmiths. We didn’t have a common language apart from forging and the occasional word we were looking up on Google Translate. It was an extremely moving experience, and I was very proud to be involved in such a spectacular international act of Remembrance.”

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