Joe Buckingham - The Gentleman Blacksmith, Talks Making
‘I love it: I got in and couldn't get out’
“Sometimes, if I’m driving round the countryside or walking round town I can say ‘made that’, ‘made that’. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve contributed to the world around you.” Joe Buckingham is The Gentleman Blacksmith. Or vice versa.
Skilled in metalwork, design, and woodwork, Joe has 15 years' experience, a mighty portfolio, and a heavyweight contacts book of clients past and present.
From venue refits to fixtures at the Chelsea Flower Show, a ferris wheel for Le Creuset and bespoke furniture for Cath Kidston, Joe Buckingham designs always come with a creative flourish; the kind that shows when a maker truly loves their work.
Today, Joe is free to think, design and collaborate. He has worked long and hard to earn his creative freedom, shunning the routine of office work and carving a maker career.
A school leaver at 16, Joe's first apprenticeship was in mechanical engineering, doing what he describes as “all sorts of random short modules” and “using big engineering machines”.
After a year of college – where Joe did placements across various departments of a firm that made magnets for MRI scanners – he began to lust for more creativity in his day-to-day.
“It was interesting seeing all the different processes, but I didn’t love the corporate environment,” he says. “I started thinking about how I could carry my skills over to something I actually enjoyed: something artistic with more free-reign.
“I basically stumbled across the blacksmithing thing.”
After researching what was out there, Joe landed an apprenticeship with an Oxford blacksmith. Combining on-the-job training with another college course, he spent four years in Oxford, learning a new trade from both sides.
The Oxford company’s work was, according to Joe, “very much traditional hand and hammer stuff”. It provided him with a deep understanding of metalwork - and its applications for the market.
“You start with a lump of material and you can shape it or weld a bit on,” he says, “blacksmithing is a lot like plasticine for metals. If you get the basics down and understand the material then anything is possible.”
Joe plied his new trade for 10 years, working on an array of projects – from building extensions to bespoke designs. A sympathetic boss let him use the workshop in down time so Joe was able to perfect new techniques – and even work on private commissions for a little extra income.
A big break came along when Cath Kidston began the hunt for a skilled part-time maker to repurpose old furniture and create bespoke display items as part of a complete visual rebrand. Thanks to a timely connection into Cath Kidston, the job was Joe's.
“Press shows and events; making things out of spoons: it was great fun and a great brand to work with,” says Joe.
Once the Cath Kidston rebrand wound down, Joe felt inspired to step out of paid employment and go it alone. With a couple of shop-fit jobs on the slate, he gathered his kit and self-employment became a reality.
“A few Google ads, a decent website, a couple of introductions to makers closely involved with London Fashion Week and the work started to flow,” he says.
“Work came mostly through contacts and referrals: I got in with a few designers and kept feelers out there. You need to be a bit savvy - and if the work isn't coming to you you have to go and get it.”
Thanks to a fortuitous meeting, Joe found an ideal workspace in London, subletting from a lighting hire company. Unfortunately, however, that company folded and Joe faced a space dilemma familiar to many makers in the capital.
Despite having a wife and life in London, Joe found himself commuting back to Oxford to work out of his dad’s shed. It wasn’t ideal. And that’s where Building BloQs came in.
“I was having to stay away from home weeks at a time so I started renting BloQs a little at first and it progressed,” says Joe. “Now I’m here pretty much all the time and as work keeps coming in, it works out for everyone.
“It’s an ecosystem, I’ve made a lot of contacts through BloQs. If I’ve got 20 regular clients and someone else has the same number in another discipline then suddenly we’re sharing 40 contacts. It’s handy, things just grow.”
From his professional home in Building BloQs, Joe is carving out a successful living, servicing commissions, developing a portfolio of unique designs and working alongside fellow BloQs makers. He rarely has what he calls “dead days”, and recommends self-employment to any maker who has the passion.
“I do it because I love it - I got in and couldn't get out,” he says. “I built my business slowly so I avoided some of the pitfalls - but it’s still a hard graft over a number of years.
“Until you find some amazing contacts you might need bread and butter work or some loss leaders until you get a really good portfolio together.
“There’s pride in being able to say you’re making a living and you’re on your own two feet without having to answer to anyone.”