Keeping the old ways alive

A 76-year-old blacksmith is keeping the forge alive for the rural community. He talks to Tim Cronshaw about forging ahead with centuries-old art.

In the dim light, blacksmith Leo Schenkel shapes a knife handle.

Cluttered around him are farming relics vying for space with metal cast-offs, parts from old gigs and other wall-hangings casting shadows on the clay floor.

A blazing pot-belly stove takes the chill off, with his aged companion, Australian kelpie Anzac, contentedly watching in the corner.

Normally, the metal work is carried out on a coal-fired forge with its double-acting leather bellows.

Three times a week the smithy fires up the old hand forge in the workshop at Teddington, a small community on Banks Peninsula at the head of Lyttelton Harbour. Wrought iron or steel is heated until it’s glowing hot.

Over to the anvil it goes to be crafted by hammer and tong, and then back into the fire again. The steps are repeated before it is turned into the desired shape in one of the oldest forms of metal working.

Or it might be he’s called to make running repairs to machinery at the request of local farmers and contractors.

It’s harder than it looks, with the blacksmith knowing when to strike next or reheat.

Metals get harder when a smith hammers or bends them, and if it is already hardened it will crack and break, so must be annealed. This takes a fine eye.

Today the forge won’t be fired up.

Blades from a drum mower gifted to him have already been shaped into blanks. All they need are handles, and kanuka, with its hardwood grain, is a good match.

There’s no fancy brass rivets for this knife, with stainless screws securing the handle to the blade in utilitarian fashion.

An old pot belly stove is a new addition to keep Teddington blacksmith Leo Schenkel warm in sub...
An old pot belly stove is a new addition to keep Teddington blacksmith Leo Schenkel warm in sub-zero degrees winter mornings when the coal forge is not running.
Mr Schenkel was close to retiring after a lifetime of engineering when he was asked to set up the blacksmith shop again. Governors Bay Heritage Trust members had made repairs and tidied it up until it sat idle again after the Christchurch earthquakes.

"I was approached when I was walking my dog around past my place in Lyttelton by David Bundy, who pulled up beside me and asked if I would be interested in running our blacksmith shop and repairing it.

"I was on the verge of retiring, so I said I would come around and take a look. I was quite impressed, but there was a lot of work. There was one light at the back there and the rest of it was just a derelict little place with a heap of shingle in the middle of the floor and nothing else."

Rewiring the shed was not without its hazards.

"They had pulled all the fittings off the lights, and unbeknown to me they were all live. I never found out until about four weeks later and had restored the forge. I was up a ladder putting the flue in and bumped a wire hanging down and it hit the shed and went off like a bloody .303 bullet, and I’m on an aluminium ladder."

Emerging unscathed, he made it safe, and ensured the rewiring was done right. The old flue was so rusty a stainless tube had to be sleeved inside above the forge body, and a stonemason repaired the base.

That was nine years ago, and in that time the forge has become a magnet for curious passersby or those with project in hand.

The traditional blacksmith got busy — almost too busy — until Covid-19 struck. Now the workload is at a more manageable pace.

Much of the work from passing traffic is small repair jobs. Today’s steel is often "thinner than a newspaper", he gripes.

"Thank goodness for the Chinese making rubbish as I don’t mind repairing them for a few dollars, it makes the place function. I was doing workshops with people coming in and I had 43 people in here, but that dropped off as well. As I say, people still come in for a yarn or whatever they want done."

A skilled welder, more lately he’s helped a local contractor get a 10-tonne truck back on the road.

"The farmers still come from everywhere. They bring in everything and anything. Sir David Carter’s next door and owns the farm and actually the shed. He brought in a spray unit the other day and it had a fault in the back and started to collapse all the framing.

"That was a pretty big job as he went down a paddock and over some lump carrying a couple, three tonne of water, and we rebuilt that with a lot of welding, bracing and fabricating. They make the metal today that you could whistle through."

Other agricultural machinery in need of repair often comes through the door.

The Teddington blacksmith shop is run in much the same way as when it was started in 1889.
The Teddington blacksmith shop is run in much the same way as when it was started in 1889.
Mr Schenkel said virtually every village in the old days used to have a blacksmith servicing farmers and rural businesses. This part of the peninsula was no different.

"This place here you had Orton Bradley, he used to do his own in a wee shed and I got that up and running too.

"It’s really historic, run by water hydraulics, and quite amazing how it works ... There was one in Purau too with the same system and a guy in Lyttelton designed it, and there was one just over the hill here at Black Tulip and a big one in Tai Tapu.

"All the ploughs and stuff they used to use were cast iron, and the tips used to break off and wear down and a good blacksmith used to weld new tips back on.

"They were clever men. Imagine trying to lift a plough up into a fire to get it hot enough to forge weld it. People wouldn’t know what forge welding is today."

He prides himself on being a good forge welder, as that is what he did serving his apprenticeship every day, but shies away from the heavy work now.

On a wall cluttered with many items of the past is a short history of the forge.

The Teddington Blacksmith’s Forge was founded in the 1880s next to Wheatsheaf Hotel, a stop-off for travellers making their way from nearby Port Teddington to Banks Peninsula.

Horses were stabled at the blacksmith’s cottage.

Old records show several early blacksmiths may have worked at the forge, with the general consensus that James Bryden was likely the first.

Blacksmiths earned their living shaping mild steel and iron into implements, tools and many goods.

They also acted as farriers and wheelwrights as the area was developed into farmland, and their work extended to agricultural machinery in time.

The Teddington smithy carried on until about the early 1940s, standing derelict until it was converted into an engineering workshop by local contractor Ra Blatchford from the mid-1950s.

He is acknowledged as its longest occupant, and for 40 years made a living fixing and building crushing plants, construction machinery and trucks.

Mr Schenkel shapes a handle for a knife he made out of scrap.
Mr Schenkel shapes a handle for a knife he made out of scrap.
Still hanging up on the wall is a truck door with the hand-painted livery of his company name.

Today the old pub has become a Tibetan eatery, but the blacksmith shops still stands, with Mr Schenkel the latest in a long line to carry on the legacy.

His family has been living on the peninsula since before the blacksmith shop was built, harking back to when Captain Mello Schenkel arrived in Lyttelton in the late 1850s in a ketch he owned.

He started working in the school holidays at Lyttelton Engineering "on the main drag" for pocket money. Before that, he would be among local lads in flat-bottomed punts scraping barnacles off the hulls of ships when they went into the dry dock.

For the engineering firm, he started off assisting as a boilermaker’s or fitter’s mate, and inquired about an apprenticeship.

Despite the boss wanting him to finish three years of school, he managed to convince him otherwise and was signed up, just going on 16, in 1964.

His drainlayer father wasn’t too happy as it was heavy work, but there was no stopping him from putting in 10,000 hours over his apprenticeship.

Much of the work was done by hand.

"That 28 pound hammer I’ve got over there — we used to use that every three days and when you were seven stone, eight pounds, the hammer [weighed a lot].

"It was heavy, hard, hard work with a lot of chain work for the Islington freezing works, and that’s where the forge welding came in and a lot of maritime work for ships like anchor chains."

Starting work at 8am, he would walk up towards the top of the Bridle Path to the family home, have lunch and be back to work until 5pm. Often he was so tired that after a bath he would fall to sleep and have his uneaten tea for lunch the next day.

On one occasion the forge had six barrowloads of coke to stoke it up for large rings made from two-to-three-inch plate. By the end his scorched woolen jersey fell to pieces, and a pen on a board about two metres away had drooped because it was so hot.

Moving on, he went to work at the local harbour board to replace the blacksmith who had died. During the government reforms of the waterfront in the late 1980s, it felt like he was at more union meetings than blacksmithing, he said.

Under a new structure, he did more fitting and boilermaking work than blacksmithing. Core gangs made up of tradesmen and a couple of rouseabouts were set up, and this evolved into more lay-offs with fewer gangs employed in eight-hour shifts over 24 hours, seven days a week.

Tools of the trade.
Tools of the trade.
Container cranes and coal shipping repairs kept them busy, and there were wharf repairs to be made.

Mr Schenkel was on shift work for 38 years and while he enjoyed the variety of work, he’s glad this phase is over. The 11pm to 6am night shift was testing.

When a wheel was being removed from a big coal digger in 2013, it tipped over and fired a plank into his leg.

Muscle pulled off the bone couldn’t be reattached, and locks up to this day.

A young worker he was fond of died on the job in a cherry picker accident and that "knocked the stuffing out of him".

That’s when the Teddington blacksmithing offer came up, and he was ready to move on.

"I’m not a man to retire. I used to do a lot of deerstalking and thought ‘I can’t do that any more my leg’s buggered and I will just go down the gurgler’ so I come around and took it over and it’s been a godsend.

"This is history and you’ve got to keep history going. People come in here and they are amazed. I try and keep the place like it’s back in the 1880s and I try and do the stuff that was done back then for people to know and see how it was done on a clay floor, and still burning coal."

Some of the blacksmithing tools are those he took with him when the harbour board workshop was closed. They include a large anvil and metre-long metal shears with a square end that fits into a hardy hole for cutting tin. A hand-made gas forge based on a farrier’s forge design is used for smaller work, and a large slab for flattening plate was made by him.

Many of the tongs he crafted himself.

Swage blocks, with their different shapes and holes, are on hand for shaping metal and a mandrel cone is used for precise bends.

With the latter he makes trivets — metal rings that diffuse heat — for kettles. For a Christchurch shop he crafts hooks, pot racks and fire pokers.

Mr Schenkel said he would like to see the work in the restored corrugated shed continue after his time.

"I will keep going as long as I can. I’ve got a mate at the top of the valley and he’s been into farming and the motor side. There’s not a vehicle he doesn’t know about and has done a lot of machinery and we make a good combination. He does all the rouseabout outside, and repairs old mowers out the back and I do the blacksmithing, so it’s happy days."


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