Posted on

A Modern Apprentice Learning a Vintage Trade

I am beyond lucky, fortunate, and blessed to have the opportunity to be an apprentice metalsmith. It’s also sincerely amazing that this happened by complete serendipity.

Starting HCC required taking on multiple crash courses of research projects, developing metal cookware, and networking among myriad places to build the network of artisans. I not only was learning by fire, but also was crazy lucky to meet these great guys around the country willing to share their knowledge and mentor me. It’s this big awesome culture of creating, giving, and support that was completely foreign to me, and it kept getting more fantastic the further down the rabbit hole I went. Not only does it lend me  authenticity as an American cookware designer, but there is some earthy genuine delight from touching the metal myself. To do this right, though, to really be “authentic,” I needed to get my hands dirty.

Finding Bob, the master tinsmith, who happened to live up the road from my house was cooler than cool. After popping up to see him in action, he invited me to come and see him do more projects and try my hand at them. From there, it progressed quickly and naturally to being his apprentice. Now I get to go up and learn and watch and bang on metal twice a week, which is of course not nearly the same as full immersion as the apprentices of old, but it is just right for me, mom of 3 little children and a business owner. Together, we’ve taken on huge orders, custom work, and learned new parts of the trade. And every single day, I’m challenged, I learn, and I get to really touch what I sell.

So…metal apprenticeships are:

A lot of watching

A lot of asking questions

Lots of information being told verbally, and I’m not very good at remembering unless I write it down. So it’s a new way to learn!

Some burns

Getting hands on very vintage American copper cookware

Trying to help, but mainly creating more work

Oodles of mistakes

Cut fingers from sharp metal

Using a lot of tools and drills

 

A few banged up thumbs

Seriously killer awesome experiences making metalcrafts from scratch

Gaining old knowledge from masters who are ridiculously smart

 

 

Being an apprentice starts out by watching the master make a few projects. For me, that meant watching the master make tinware and then copper cookware the old, vintage way. There’s the way to make things using tools from the 1700’s and then there’s the way to do so with the tools from the 1800’s. The 1700’s copper and tinsmiths used a lot of snips of various sizes, pliers, stakes, anvils, and hammers, for instance. Smiths who adhere to those methods strictly are considered to be more “purists” than the smiths who bring in the “modern” tools, which were made in the 1800’s and essentially revolutionized the metal trade. The tools are still completely managed by hand, but they sped up the process of making the cookware. What usually took a lot of time to painstakingly cut out a circle of metal with tin snips could now be accomplished in a matter of seconds with the circle cutter tool. For example, burring, which normally took lots of time over a curved stake and some hammering, now could be done around a machine (though the machine has its own idiosyncrasies…any smith who has ever used a burring machine knows how finicky it can be!) quickly and evenly.

As an apprentice, I get to learn both of these methods, though I admit some fondness for the tools and machines from the 1800’s if only because I’m not very good at using snips to cut circles. It’s also because it’s faster and with little children underfoot, right now I’m all into a bit of speed or it will take a month to make a mug.

Regardless, I love that I get to learn an old art form, that the items we make are useful, and that with the knowledge getting passed along, another generation can carry the torch and keep the trade alive. That is hugely important to me, and those who do this feel the same. Keeping a trade a live, in snippets of oral history and hands-on learning at a time, is worth every minute.

Posted on

Copper the Element

american copper, copper cookware, copper element, element, periodic table, copper, pure copper, science of copper, copper science, pure metal cookware, pure metal copper

I must have known copper was something amazing when I used it as one of the colors to my wedding décor back in 2006. That was before using metallic at weddings was considered fashionable, so I felt far ahead of the trend, using copper, as it were.

But what makes copper so fantastic on a pure, elemental level? What makes it such a perfect conductor of heat, or metal that bonds beautifully?

First, let’s start with the copper on the periodic table and it’s material science.

Copper’s atomic number on the table is 29, and it’s symbol is Cu (which I never understand, as there’s no “u” in the word copper…it’s like having a US state abbreviation that doesn’t completely match). The atomic mass of copper is 63.546 u + 0.003 u. The melting point of copper is 1,984 F (or 1,085 C), and the thermal conductivity rate is 386 W/m K. Copper’s coefficient of thermal expansion is 17 per degree C x10^-6. Pure copper rates dead soft on the Rockwell C hardness scale, and is under the “non-ferrous” metal heading, meaning it does not contain any molecules of iron.

Whew. So, if that information helped you out, you’re welcome. I feel smarter just writing it all out in one place!

Copper, compared to other metals, is not highly reactive. That means it doesn’t react to other natural elements the same way iron does, for example. Attacks of oxygen and hydrogen (or water, for that matter) are usually futile – copper needs to be heated to at least 300 C to change it’s molecular make-up and become copper oxide. Iron, on the other hand, just needs to be exposed to air to make iron oxide (aka rust).

Copper can change/bond to other metals with the exchange of electrons. Elements are constantly forming covalent bonds between other elemental atoms (when an element may share electrons with other atom) or losing electrons to become positively charged. When that happens, the lost electrons move to another element, which is then negatively charged (that middle school science class coming back to you yet?), creating an electric (like a magnet) attraction between the two atoms, which is called an ionic bond.

Most metal elements/atoms lose electrons when they form the ionic bonds with other elements. However, copper is unique as it can form two ionic bonds. That is to say, once electrons are exchanged and the atom becomes less stable, it can combine with other elements (such as oxygen, for example) in two ways instead of one. This means deep molecular change can occur at a faster and higher rate when copper comes into contact with other elements. Take, for example, an item sitting outside in the rain. It’s a brass item (containing copper) and as it rains, the oxygen and carbon dioxide create a copper carbonate as the copper reacts with the rain in multiple ways. The brass item is covered with the greenish copper carbonate, thereby protecting the brass item from further corrosion.

For all the numbers above, copper certainly doesn’t come out of Mother Earth so pure and beautiful. We have to mine it out, and it comes out as copper ore, which usually contains only 1% of metal, so the ore needs to be floated. The refineries will pulverize the ore, mix it with water, and then pass it through water-filled tanks.The chemicals used in the water produces foam, which traps the copper minerals on the surface so they can be skimmed off, leaving the remaining ore. This is the part where the type of chemicals (or lack thereof) can determine how a copper is deoxidized, or whether it might turn into an alloy of copper instead of remaining pure. The finished “product” of this process is now about 25 – 35% copper, which is sent to be smelted.

Smelting uses high temperatures to finish purifying the copper. The first stage removes more copper from the ore by heating it with oxygen gas. From there, the “blister” copper goes through a fire refining and electrorefining stage, which results in a 99.99% pure copper.

When you have pure copper, the bonding abilities of those electrons are at a very high peak. Copper is conducting heat at nearly the perfect level of 386, and it is able to bond with silver or tin easily (depending on the chemicals/elements used to extract the copper from the ore – certain ones actually hinder the copper’s bonding ability), creating a molecular bond that lasts, at least in cookware, for a good chunk of time.

And that, all that science put into one place, is probably (now that I know way more about copper than I did at my wedding) what makes copper cookware, to me, so incredibly cool (and, of course, beautiful).