Outfitting an Operational Tinsmith Shop.

Tinsmith tools – recently received of Bill and Judy McMillen.

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



  1. Steve says

    The stakes appear almost like Hardy tools. Might they have been simply used in an anvil at one time?

    Did tin smiths of this period use rollers to form sheet into cylinders?

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      That could be a possibility, Steve, but I think that tinner’s stakes were most often set into bench tops. As I mentined to Albin in the previous question, a tinner’s bench normally has a series of mortises along the edge of the bench to receive stakes. Later, cast iron bench plates are common. I will see if I can find a photo of a tinner’s bench to post.

      Rollers, like bench plates come in to common use in the nineteenth century. I believe that most cylinders were simply bent on the horn of a stake, or on a wood stake, and then worked round by hand.

  2. ALBIN D-ski says

    I am guessing that it was in the post 1820 time period that stake plates became common. How will the various stakes be mounted for use in the future tinshop??? Also, in the historical examples above, are the angles of the tapered section (the part that would go into the plate or stump) consistent, or do they vary??

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      Albin- I am looking for more information on when bench plates come into common use. The tinner’s benches in the early nineteenth century shop at Eastfield Village simply have tapered mortises cut into the benchtop. A few of the mortises were lined with sheet lead to reduce the size of the hole and make the stakes fit tight. I presume that that the lead lining was added as the mortises became larger with use.

      The tapers of the shanks on the stakes vary somewhat. That may also explain the number of holes in the benchtops. Each of the holes can be slithgtly different. The lead lining also ads some variability to the fit. I presume that the holes in the bench were fit to the stakes which were used the most, and the stakes used infrequently were “wedged” or “shimmed” to fit accurately as needed.

      I will let you know what I find on bench plates.

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      Albin- I asked Bill McMillen about the use of bench plates and he responded

      “As for bench plates, the earliest I can visually document it is a catalog that that I have seen dated 1850’s.
      I do not doubt that they were around by the 1830’s but have not found any mention of them that I can recall.”

      At this point, I have not actively searched for early bench plates, but will be looking more carefully in the coming months as we develop the tinshop. Sometimes, we find that an item that we know as a “bench plate” had a different name in the eighteenth century, and therefore, the reference is missed by a researcher.

      The best example of such a case that I can cite from my experience is a common cooking spatula. We had not seen references to cooking spatulas in household inventories and were challenged to explain why such a logical cooking tool would not show up with some frequency. One day a fellow researcher here at Colonial Williamsburg was puzzled over a term that he was running across in his work and asked me “What is an egg slice?” According to the OED a “slice” is “One or other of several flattish utensils (sometimes perforated) used for various purposes in cookery, etc.” Suddenly the term made complete sense. Spatual is a more modern term for slice. In fact I see the term in inventories of blacksmith shops as well- with fire tools listed as “poker, slice and ladle”. The OED also says that a slice is “A form of fire-shovel; also, an instrument for clearing the bars of a furnace when choked with clinkers.”

      The answer was right in front of us all along, but we first had to understand the correct period terminology. I will keep an open mind as I look for period listings of tinsmith tools. Perhaps we will find a pre-1850 bench plate, but find it listed by another name.

      • ALBIN D-ski says

        Nomenclature can certainly add an addition degree of difficulty to researching questions such as this. Your “egg slice” is a perfect example of this.
        One point I am interested in is who and when did “they” decide on the angle of taper for the stakes. Not such a big deal when chopping mortises in a wooden work bench and using shims, but once they started to cast the plates then there seems to be a need (or at least a desire) for a comman standard for the taper on the stakes. Or is this still too early in the Industrial Revolution to have tradesmen agreeing on a standard, especially given the challanges of communication when separated by an ocean, and goodly distances between major colonial cities??

      • Kenneth Schwarz says

        Albin- While I have not made a great study of these bench plates as yet, I can throw a couple of assumptions into the discussion.

        It seems to me that the tinsmith tool industry here in the US had just a handful of major players competing for the market. My guess is that when cast iron bench plates come into common use, the major makers standardized the taper for their own tools, whether or not they matched their competitors. It is certainly a common practice among tool making companies throughout history. If I can sell you my bench plate, and my tooling is made to fit the bench plate perfectly, then you are likely to purchase your tooling from me as well. Once a major manufacturer begins to dominate the market, other makers will mimic the design, or adapt their tooling to match the accepted standard.

        I imagine that there was a long transition period following the development of cast iron bench plates, with many established tinsmiths continuing to use mortised wood bench tops and lead lining, and newer generations of tinsmiths buying into the newer technology. That is another common historical phenomenon. As a specialist in retro-technology, I was slow to adopt to new digital technologies. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new world by a newer (younger) generation. While I have adapted to the desktop and laptop technologies, I am still resistant to smartphones at this point. Since I have two children, I know that it is only a matter of time before I will need to accept that tecnology as well. In the mean time, the kicking and screaming goes on….

  3. Christine Hansley says

    Hi Ken,
    Your response to Jim H was great. I never thought to compare CW to a symphony before.
    Is there any chance you could tell us what the different tools are and how they were used? I recognize the tin snips. My Dad had a pair. They have not changed in over 200 years. I would assume that some of the straight edged tools may have been used to form straight line folds? Every other item is a puzzle to me. I’m ready to learn.
    Thanks and keep bringing great learning to the blog. Huzzah!

  4. Kenneth Schwarz says

    Jim- Thanks for your comment, and for your continued interest in the shop development.

    Detail does indeed make the project. Getting as many details as correct as possible will give us the best representation of the time period- right down to the finish on the tinsmiths stake anvil. In my mind, all of these minute details add up to a complete picture. Details that are ignored or overlooked will detract in small ways from the reconstruction. It is like the conductor of a symphony saying “I want to do this without violins and flutes!” Well, without violins and flutes, the whole symphony is diminished. As conductors of our “historical symphony”, we want all of the instruments- or at least as many as we can identify and reproduce- to be represented in this project. Therefore, understanding the tools, the process, the style of product, the material, the workshop- every detail that we can capture and understand- produces the richest reconstruction. Seeking out these details is the fun part of historical research. Bringing these details back to life is the exciting part of our work.

  5. Jim H. says

    Great discussion, Ken. As always, the devil is in the details. Can’t wait to see the tinsmith at work in the new shop.

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