A Squid Born of Fire

By Victoria Bullard-Smith

When someone who is almost completely new to metalworking merrily suggests to their tutor that, in response to the mandate "make a padlock", they want to make a domed, tentacled, squid-shaped padlock, the appropriate response might be a quick snort of laughter and the suggestion of something far simpler. That did not happen though. While I was quickly, and rightly, encouraged to abandon the extra complication of doming two pieces of sheet steel, the rest of it, tentacles and all, to my great astonishment, I was allowed-no, encouraged-to do.

I should also mention that we had only five weeks to complete it, which for a beginner is a dauntingly short amount of time.

Our very first object assignment as fledgling metalwork conservators had been a cupboard lock which needed a key making for it, so we had been made aware of how locks and bolts worked and moved, but it still required getting to grips with some technical terms, which led to this diagram being drawn:

Squid's life began, somewhat unusually for a marine animal, in the blacksmith's forge, having the curved hasp beaten and hammered into shape over the horn of the anvil. With limited experience of heating metal up and encouraging, begging, and beating it to become what I had in my mind, I took a couple of days to get what I wanted, but I left our week in the forge with a hasp for my padlock, and the wonderful smell of coal dust in my hair.

Work on Squid's body began when we returned to our usual domain, the workshop. Two shield-shaped pieces of sheet steel were cut roughly on the big bandsaw, and the shape was refined with a hacksaw, files, and patience.

With the body's shape defined, I was able to form and fit the sides. There was much tinkering, tapping and torch-use as I juggled hot steel and hammers to encourage the thin strips of steel to bend elegantly, like a farrier shaping a horse's shoes to its hooves. Eventually, I had something I was happy with. Squid then needed tentacles, which I forged using the techniques I'd learned in the blacksmith's forge, and because they curved in two planes, they were almost as slippery and difficult to hold as the real thing!

At that stage, Squid had a body but no eyes. In order to rectify her lack of sight, and to provide a hinge for the hasp, I gave her what I ended up calling her eyes and glasses. Aside from the aesthetic value of a nice chunky hinge, the solid mechanism meant there would hopefully-if I got it right on the lathe-be very little movement and side-to-side play where the hasp met the bolt, which is important for a snug lock. The lathe and I had become acquainted during the making of the key for our first project, and I was wary about my skills with it after several earlier buckled, bent or broken key shafts. However, after guidance from various people far more skilled than I am, I had whittled Squid a pair of eyes, and gained confidence in using the lathe. In order to get a neat fit between the hinge and the lock, I cut curves out of the sides of the padlock body, and again, after much measuring, marking and muttering, I was able to fit the eyes snugly into the sides, thus giving her glasses. I attached my hasp to the central knuckle by brazing-a beautiful, magical process where you heat your steel up to the point that a brass wire will melt on the surface and spread like butter.

The purpose of building these locks was for our tutor to take them from us, dunk them in acid, electrolytically pit the surfaces, and leave them in-a more appropriate environment for a squid, you might think-salt water. Then, when they have been suitably abused, they are brought in, and we apply treatments to them which we have been learning and practising in the meantime. A greater degree and variety of corrosion and degradation will occur if there are multiple metals within an object, so I chose to include copper and brass (a copper alloy) to mine, to see how they affect the steel. I discovered in a science class that because iron is more reactive than copper, it will actually protect the copper by degrading more. When iron reacts with water and corrodes, it loses electrons, and if the iron is in contact with copper, the electrons will feed into the copper and keep it supplied with electrons, and like antibodies to fight a cold, the electrons will stop the copper from degrading, while the iron gentle fizzles away into that familiar orange colour you see creeping round the wheel arches of your car...

So, with a brass rod keeping the three 'knuckles' of the hinge in place, I turned my attention to welding. As with almost everything in the workshop, I had never used a MIG welder, and again as with most of the machines, it took me a decent while to get used to it. Feeling like an astronaut with a massive visor on, and every inch of skin covered to protect me from the burning light the machine gives off when you pull the trigger near the metal, I blobbed and spattered some tack-welds on, and the whole thing began to take shape.

At the same time as working on the body of the lock, I had been designing and making the mechanism and the key. A heavy brass bolt would be pushed back to open the lock by the 'bit' of the key (the part like a flag on a flagpole), and a spring would nudge it back into place when the key was removed, and keep it locked. I also had to cut, fit, harden and temper my own spring, which turned out not to be as complicated as I thought it would, and the process would have gone perfectly smoothly had I not dropped it into the large vat of oil right at the end. After gallantly donning a rubber glove and fishing around in sludge that was a few degrees warmer than toasty, a friendly colleague retrieved it and I was able to add the world's best oiled spring to my list of quality components!

In keeping with the marine theme, I made the 'bow' of the key (the part where you hold it) out of copper, and cut it out to look like red coral. The 'bit' took on a life of its own as I began to cut it, going first from a simple wave shape, and ending up as two small waves with a single little wave recessed in the centre. Talk about getting carried away!

And so, eventually, at seven thirty in the evening, on the last day before the five week deadline, I was in the workshop, riveting in Squid's tentacles with bright copper rivets. With my previous experience of metalworking comprising of two small copper alloy boxes, this was certainly a huge challenge, and I certainly had a few setbacks and changes of direction, but Squid taught me an unbelievable amount about metals, how they can shift and move like clay under heat, and how, with more than a little help from your friends, you can make a very silly idea turn into something that is, in true Arts and Crafts spirit, both useful and, hopefully, rather beautiful.

Editor's note: For another 1st year lock, check out Dorothy's posts from last year, on making a lock, and then on treating it.