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!
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.