As webcam watchers are well aware, construction of the tinsmith shop is off to a healthy start. The foundation has been laid by our Historic Trades brick masons, and by late August or early September (after the next brick firing) construction will begin on the chimney and fireplace. Historic Trades carpenters are planning a summer at Great Hopes plantation, pit sawing the building’s framing members and preparing clapboards and shingles. If all goes as planned, the tinsmith shop frame will be raised in December of 2012.
But not all of the tin shop preparation involves construction. We are currently hard at work planning the furnishings necessary to operate the shop. With opening just under a year away, we need to begin fabrication of the tooling necessary to work tin.
Research for furnishing and set-up of the tinsmith shop began last summer when curator Erik Goldstein and I attended a course taught by master tinsmith Bill McMillen. Bill’s class covered history of the trade, the tooling, and the process of forming tin. It also included several days of hands-on work, assembling progressively more challenging tin objects. When we weren’t engaged in hands-on learning, Erik and I documented tools, noting datable forms (datable through a maker’s mark), particularly those exhibiting pre-industrial methods of manufacture. The workshop also included an opportunity to examine the tool collection of Don Carpentier at Eastfield Village. It was an intense week of study, focused on the material, history, technology, tooling, and form of historic tinware.
I found the working characteristics of tin to offer an interesting contrast to my experience working iron. Blacksmiths learn to think of iron as a clay-like, malleable material. Forming iron has many parallels with working clay, as both materials react similarly to pressure. It is not unusual to find blacksmiths “thinking through” the creation of a new and complex shape by manipulating clay. This allows us to experiment with different approaches, developing the proper sequence from raw bar to finished shape without loss of material and fuel. Working iron and clay involve reshaping a mass of material with pressure rather than cutting and piecing together to create a form.
In order to understand the contrasting approach to shaping tin, it is important to remember that “tin” is actually “tinplate”, thin sheets of iron coated with tin as a surface preservative. Tinned iron is worked cold, meaning that manipulation of the form is limited to cutting, bending and piecing together shapes. There really is no “stretching” or “squeezing” tinned iron. In fact, extensive hammering on tinplate damages the tin coating, exposing the iron to oxygen and leading to quick deterioration of the material. Tinwork has more in common with the work of a tailor than that of a blacksmith. Beginning with standard size sheets of tinplate, a pattern is drawn on the sheet, cut out with shears, and is bent and soldered to create the three-dimensional form.
The tooling necessary to accomplish this includes a variety of sizes and shapes of anvils, or stakes, which assist in making smooth, even bends and tight joinery. The greater the variety of objects to be made, the greater the number of stakes required. The Armoury daybook (1778-1780) provides extensive information about products made in the tinshop, and from this, we have been able to develop a list of the tools necessary to make those objects.
Next, we have to develop prototypes that accurately reflect those of a Revolutionary War period workshop. Research on tinsmith tools from this period is somewhat scarce. Manufacture of tinware changed drastically just after 1800, and the majority of scholarship on tinsmith shop tooling focuses on the post-1800 period. Most operating historic tinsmith shops employ this newer technology, and most collections of tin working tools consist of datable forms made by a handful of specialized manufacturers in the nineteenth century. Our study of the McMillen and Carpentier collections allowed us to identify several stakes manufactured with pre-industrial techniques, suggesting earlier manufacture. We also examined several tools marked with dates in this transitional period of 1800-1820. These sort of non-standard tools were either made in local blacksmith shops to meet the needs of local tin workers, or they reflect the developing commercial manufacture of tools for the tinsmith trade drawing on forms found in other sheet metal working shops- silversmiths, coppersmiths, and makers of armor. Although methods used to form these sheet metal working stakes are pretty consistent, the degree of finish and refinement often give us insight into relative dating of a particular object. For instance, a coarse-hammered or file finished piece is more likely to reflect earlier manufacture than a thoroughly ground and completely polished piece.
Following our week of work at Eastfield Village and extensive discussions about our plans for the new shop, Bill and Judy McMillen expressed their enthusiasm for our reconstruction plans and presented Colonial Williamsburg with a gift of 23 early tinsmith tools from their private collection. These early tools will form the core of a study collection of early tinsmithing equipment and will provide prototypes for furnishing the Armoury tinshop. We are grateful to Bill and Judy McMillen for their long-time interest in Colonial Williamsburg, and for their encouragement and support of the Armoury tinsmith shop reconstruction. You can see and learn more about the McMillen collection of tinsmithing tools through Colonial Williamsburg’s emuseum by following this link http://emuseum.history.org/code/emuseum.asp , and doing a Quick Search (box, lower left) of an individual tool’s accession number (2012-27 through 2012-49).
-Contributed by Kenneth Schwarz, Master Blacksmith