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Metal Guru

Published on 2nd October 2015
Photo: Chris Yacoubian

Like the R2D2 of robots, Dan Harding's highly characteristic Hotpod stoves stand out in a marketplace of uniform rectangular designs. Visiting his earthen-floored workshop – steaming steak pasty in hand – I discover that it is the inventiveness and enthusiasm of Hotpod's creator that is behind this very singular wood-burning stove. 

Dan munches gratefully on his pasty, reminiscing about his childhood in this place: “When I was a kid, horses would come to the forge to be shod. Early every morning, Dad would be out in the forge making the shoes for the day. I used to light his fire for him a lot. It was great for him, having me do the fire, and for me, as a kid, lighting a fire was quite an exciting thing.”

Photo: Julius Brighton

Dan’s father is a blacksmith and a farrier, but to say that he has followed in his footsteps is only partly true. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Dan saw the number of horses that needed shoeing dwindle. As fewer farmers and horse-owners came to the forge, his father went mobile, travelling around to shoe horses at stables around the West Penwith region of Cornwall. At the same time, the hand-forged iron gates and outdoor ironmongery that his dad made began to be replaced by machine-cut, mass-produced ironwork. And so Dan Senior turned to working on more restoration projects, in old houses, old ships and churches.

While his father was out on the road, Dan was often left to his own devices in the forge. He spent hours after school, tinkering with metalwork and learning his father's trade. "I'm not officially a blacksmith, though," he humbly explains. "I'm more a fabricator. Although I can forge." 

A blacksmith, I discover, is someone who furnace-heats metal in order to create the forms. It requires a six-year apprenticeship and a college qualification. A fabricator will use a mechanical saw and shape the metal with a grinder. “But metal that is hammered hot is so much more beautiful,” says Dan, reverently. “High-end forging is timeless – it’s really lasting.”

Fast-forward from early childhood to teenage years spent surfing, BMXing, playing in the woods around West Cornwall, tinkering with motor vehicles and an obsession with vans (VW Combis, to be precise). It was during GCSE study leave that Dan began to help his dad make gates and railings, and by the time he was 17, Dan was living in a van, wondering how to improve on the heating that he and many of his friends used in their camper vans. Cutting a gas bottle in half and joining the two halves together to make a wood-burning stove led to the birth of the Hotpod. Dan tried a few techniques and, by the third iteration, the style was born.

Photo: Bob Berry

The Hotpod has a genuine personality. Its shiny steel legs were made from parts of a machine from a disused dairy, the round porthole ‘face’ was originally made out of a glass saucepan lid, and the door catches from VW engines. It has the sturdy presence of a pot- bellied stove, and yet has a sophisticated, industrial chic. It is one of the most highly efficient wood- burning stoves on the market, a feature that was almost created by accident. Dan was trying to work out how to avoid the soot build-up on the inside of the glass, which afflicts so many wood-burners with windows. He worked out a way to divert the draft that is drawn in by the fire, sending it across the back of the window. “Just like a heater keeping your car windows from misting up, the air draft keeps the soot off,” he tells me. This technique also happens to help the wood burn more intensely inside the stove, rather than whooshing up into the flue and losing a lot of the heat that way.

The Hotpods quickly became very popular, with word of mouth bringing people from far and near to buy them. With an increase in orders, Dan decided to make the stoves out of cast iron rather than recycled materials, which didn’t initially sit too well with his deeply felt environmental ethics. That was until he went to visit the foundry in the Midlands. His eyes light up as he describes the scene: “In the warehouse, where all the melting pots are, they’ve got a big magnet on a crane and a most beautiful mountain of scrap cast iron. So there were train wheels and park benches – everything conceivable you could think of...”

It is a very easy leap to imagine Dan being part of a winning team on Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, in which teams had to build a functioning machine from a pile of scrap metal. That was 15 years ago. Several years later, Dan’s down-to-earth demeanour appeared again on another TV show, BBC2’s Pay off Your Mortgage in Two Years, in which business expert René Carayol followed people’s efforts to succeed at various entrepreneurial ideas, and save enough money to pay off their mortgages. Dan, his partner Lucy and their two sons became regulars on the show – and Hotpod became a very successful enterprise.

Photo: Brian Shipman

Hotpods are still going strong – and Dan’s recently turned his hand to making smaller wood-burning stoves called Nautipods. Originally designed for a client’s boat, the cast iron shell is thinner, rectangular and designed to fit into small spaces. It’s another example of Dan’s characteristic attention to detail and inventiveness – he created a ‘heat shield’ to shroud the back of the stove, so that it can be tucked into a corner without overheating the walls behind. “It also helps it to act as a radiator,” he says, showing me the sheets of bent, sand-textured metal propped up against an ancient wooden workbench. The heat shield absorbs the heat and helps to diffuse it into the room.

As I watch him enthuse about his new creation, I wonder what the future holds. His boys are grown up now, and he and his yoga-teacher partner Lucy are freer than ever before to explore new pathways. He is part of a local team that is trained in mine rescues, and plays bass guitar in one of the most dance-inducing cover bands in Cornwall. He says that he dreams of living off-grid – hoping to exist without dependency on electricity or piped fuel. It’s not such an unrealistic option in rural Cornwall, especially as he’s developed a new-found passion
for fishing and cooking outdoors on a fire. He also dreams of travelling – he has visions of working with blacksmiths in India, while Lucy furthers her learning of Iyengar yoga. One thing’s for sure: his great passion for fixing things – whether it’s filing off a rusty screw-head on a kid’s scooter, welding the handle back on a sieve, or re-building a wrought-iron gate – means that, like the blacksmiths of old, he will always be a vital member of the community.