“We both love tools,” muses Caro Jesse de Waal, a designer who creates sensory experiences using food, art, scent and sound. She and her life partner, blacksmith Conrad Hicks, share a long-held interest in the everyday implements of human industry. “Artists’ tools, cooks’ tools, building tools – all tools are the same really. It just depends on the scale.” For Caro and Conrad, it goes deeper than an appreciation of the functional beauty of tools; it’s the way they shed light on human development – going all the way back to the Stone Age.
“Man has been making tools for two-and-a-half-million years,” explains Conrad. “Spoken language only arose about 9 000 years ago, so tools and physical gestures were our means of expression.” It’s a subject he is uniquely qualified to talk about. Unlike other craftsmen, blacksmiths have to make their own tools. They are the original toolmakers: traditionally, blacksmiths made not only the swords, armour, hinges and horseshoes, but also the implements necessary to perform those tasks. The same is true today – particularly for Conrad, who keeps to traditional blacksmithing principles, forging everything by hand.
His triple-volume workshop and forge – in The Bijou, an old Art Deco cinema in the suburb of Observatory, Cape Town – is an informal museum of sorts, dedicated to his collection of antique, salvaged and self-made tools. Hundreds of metal tongs and other implements hang from rails mounted along the walls, a jumble of vintage farming equipment lies on the floor,â€‹ and heavy-duty power hammers stand waiting to whir into action. Many of the industrial machines in his workshop are so old, they can’t be operated, but they hold historic value, which is often overlooked on their way to the junk pile.
In the cavernous space of this old movie theatre, he fires up his forge, stoking the coals until the flames crackle and dance upwards. “The process begins by taking a lump of copper or steel and beating it. It’s a bit like clay in this regard. The cutting, pressing, heating and stretching, as well as the shapes that emerge out of the metal,eventually start to communicate what I want to say. But the actual process is very simple – it’s just cutting, hammering and stretching.”
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