Traditional Pewter Craftmenship
Pewter was known in the old days as "poor man's silver," even though it graced the tables of rich and poor alike. Scarcity of tin, the main ingredient in pewter, caused early Colonial pewter smiths to make their wares from the re-fired scraps of worn and damaged pewter articles that they advertised for in newspapers. Like many antiques, a fine old piece of pewter appeals viscerally as well as visually. Sometimes, a platter or piece of "hollowware" feels as if it has absorbed part of all that which has taken place around it. Imagine walking back in time, down a shady maple-lined street with clapboard sided churches and homes, passing carved-stone Ben Franklin mile markers, the clinking sound of blacksmith shop, apple pie smells from the old inn, and arriving at a place where they fashioned handsome vendibles from pewter.
"This place is busy as a beehive. What do you make here, pewter smith?"
"Twenty five of us work here. We make platters, candlesticks, tankards, oil lamps, coffeepots, lots of things. Pewter is a workable, soft-metal, alloy. Ours is principally tin with a little copper and antimony. Some smelts use a lot of lead and bismuth. We don't. That's not real pewter. The pewter comes to us in thin sheets or bricks, then we work it. There's three ways to make an article out of pewter: cast it in molds, spin it, or press it."
I looked at numerous molds stored carefully on shelves. Most were made of bronze. Many molds were required for complicated forms. I counted seven dedicated to the making a pewter tankard. A workman poured 500 degree silvery metal from a heavy iron ladle into a two-piece handle mold, then with clamps, turned the mold upside down so that hot pewter fell back into the pot again. His boss noticed the question in my eyes.
"It's called slush casting," he said. The worker opened the mold and I saw that pewter still clung to the bronze where it first congealed, creating a hollow handle. "It's lighter weight, and we don't waste pewter that way." A gleam of proud Yankee prudence shined in the man's eyes as he spoke.
At the spinning station a worker clamped a round thin sheet of pewter to the base of a beaker mold and started the lath. As it rotated, the man contoured the sheet to the shape of the mold by pressing it with a large metal tool.
"For complex shapes, we carve our chucks(spinning molds) out of wood," the pewter smith said, "aged wood with perfect grain, so we can split it like a diamond to form a multi-piece chuck. Now we have a pattern we can pull out of it's pewter wrap like a grapefruit, section by section." The man showed me one of the ingeniously-made split section wood chucks he had personally carved. "Finally, we buff, braise, clean, and dry. We do our drying in a vat of ground corn cob meal. I stole the idea from the Amish," the man said.
"Have you ever made anything for Ben Franklin?" I asked.
If I fooled you, good for me. The trip back in time to the pewter shop took place just a few weeks ago. I visited with Brooks Titcomb, third generation family owner of Woodbury Pewterers. Woodbury Pewterers, is perhaps the only American firm with its "touchmark" impressed into the quality guild pewter plaque at the Worshipful House of Pewters in London, England. Brooks explained that, basically, they make pewter now, just as is was made long ago. I believe they stick to the old ways, not out of some romantic notion, but because old time pewter was well made. Craft is as important as the object to true antique lovers.