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Copper the Element

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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).

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Copper Cookware Interior Linings

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There’s the ongoing debate (which I suspect will never die) about what interior is better for copper cookware: stainless vs tin vs nickel vs silver. American brand copper cookware is generally made either overseas (ironically) or by small boutique artisans these days, and anyone who cooks in copper has opinions about what they prefer their copper to be lined with. This is my take on it and why, but as always, it’s just my two cents!

First of all, I am completely in the camp that lining a non-ferrous metal (copper) with a ferrous metal (iron) goes against the point of using copper. Copper (and the tin bonded with it) has a thermal conductive speed of over 380W/m K, whereas stainless is around 25W/m K. Plus, if you want something made to last, and won’t slowly rust away, having metals that don’t contain iron is where to place your bets. Copper and bronze ewers used by the Egyptians thousands of years ago and stuck in Nile mud are still found in relatively the same shape and in good condition. Meanwhile, iron cooking pots in Viking digs that date back a mere 900 years are crumbled up and nearly gone to oxidation. Granted, stainless might not oxidize quite that fast (there’s no way to know yet, considering stainless steel has only been around for about 100 years) but you get the picture. I’m all about making something that should last for millennia. (why not?)

 

Anyway, regardless of my opinion, there are four generally used and/or viable metals for lining copper cookware.

The first is silver. This stuff is amazing. It’s the fastest (that means its thermal conductivity is superb, better than copper’s (406 W/m K), and is highly efficient in heating and safe for cooking food. It bonds molecularly with the copper, and lasts a long time if you use wooden or silicon utensils. There’s mainly one problem with silver, and that’s price. Since I know my cookware is already pretty pricey for some people, could you imagine if I coated it with silver? They’d be crazy awesome and super beautiful, but probably not practical. Bloomberg’s luxury list recently popped a silver saucepan, and it’s only you know…few thousand bucks.

The second interior option is nickel. In fact, many old and vintage pieces are wiped with or plated with nickel. Many times they can be refurbished with some good cleaning and a new coat of tin, and this is probably best due to the amount of nickel allergies out there. The nickel doesn’t leach into food the way, say, lead would, but it still would be touching the food and having a slight chemical reaction with it, so if you (or your dinner guests) had any type of nickel aversion, you probably don’t want to be cooking with it. And who wants to be on the line for that type of issue? No maker I know…

Then there’s stainless, which many people like because they say it’s easier to work with. I have yet to receive an answer on why exactly that is. If you’ve got a copper sauce pan that’s 2.5mm but lined with stainless, my guess is you’re still probably hand washing (correct me if I’m wrong and you have a magical dish soap for your washer that doesn’t result in pitting your copper?!) There is some ease in that stainless doesn’t scratch like tin, so you can scrape away at the stainless lining with wire and metal. Bear in mind that stainless is sticky (so clean up is harder) instead of non-stick like tin, and eventually it may pop apart due to the huge range in thermal coefficients between stainless and copper. Or your cookware isn’t pure copper, so it may stick to the stainless without much issue.

Clearly, I’m in love with tin lining. For me, molecularly, thermally, and purely – tin-lined copper takes the cake. Because of the electron exchange that happens when tin and copper are heated together (we’re talking over 500F), the molecular bond allows the thermal conductivity properties (ie: fast!) of the copper to transfer seamlessly through the crystal structure of the tin, allowing the copper to actually work the way it is supposed to when used as copper cookware. Plus, it’s non-stick and you need far lower temperatures to achieve the same thing, so it’s green/energy efficient plus always can be re-tinned over the decades, meaning it’s renewable and sustainable and won’t end up in a landfill. Tin has its downsides, of course. With daily use and proper care, it can slowly wear down. After about 12 -15 years your copper cookware may need re-tinning, which has to be done by hand.

 

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What is American Cookware?

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When first starting out to create House Copper & Cookware (formerly branded as Housekeeper Crockery), I only knew I wanted to have wares that were 100% made in America, as locally as possible, and as purely as possible. Just like the “good old days.”

But with that desire comes the irresistible pull of research, as well as the need for it.

What did traditional American smiths create?

What did their wares look like? What kinds of materials were available?

It’s these types of questions that can lead to way too many interesting paths, such as my apprenticeship at Backwoods Tin & Copper, among other things. Visits to makers. Chats with blacksmiths (like my uncle, Doug Merkel). Questions to fabricators. Time begged for of mentors (of which I’m insanely fortunate to have many!).

So much of what we think of as vintage wares usually harkens back to a specific heritage. Designs painted in trays or saved under a potter’s glaze is particular not only to a time period, but another nationality. The beauty of America’s early melting pot was the great variety brought to the shores, but it also is cause for consternation when trying to identify what was actually made in our country and what was imported.

Thankfully, there are a lot of resources (happily re-printed these days by several printers, Amazon included) if one is willing to dig, as well as not be afraid to join a few groups and ask questions.

For those who are interested in learning about everything and anything to do with cast iron cookware here in the States, I highly recommend joining the Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association (dues are a simple $25/year and the benefits for identifying myriad unique finds are immeasurable, among a great many other networking and collecting opportunities).

If you’re up for tackling tin and copperware of days goneby, there’s everything from the annual tinsmith (and coppersmith) convergence in June of each year to the Early American Industries Association, where you can rub shoulders with metalsmiths of all walks, histories and talent.

And here in Wisconsin, there’s the Midwest Fire Fest, where tons of potters are around hawking their wares (and their information and craft) in Cambridge, should you wish to talk about the earliest kitchenware art beyond wood bowls and basket weaving.

So what exactly did American makers create that was unique to this country and was not simply a repair or an obvious echo of past European examples?

Here’s a list of my favorites…and what typically is the catalyst for creating the wares in the HCC line.

COPPER

American coppersmiths first came over from Europe with a repertoire of works they’d learned as apprentices in their homeland. However, limited copper sheet (the British only allowed the colonies to ship raw materials back, then pay to ship the smelted sheets back to America, which meant it was cut to fit inside ships, and expensive) meant adjustments had to be made, which relatively quickly led to American designs and preferences.

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I’m a fan of the taller pots, brought about because one had to use several sheets of copper to curl into a pot. Most handles were usually copper as well (you can imagine how hot they’d get and how bendy once the pot was hot AND full of food) or sometimes wrought iron from a local blacksmith and either detachable, or attached with copper rivets. Later, when brass became more widely available in America, handles were poured at brass foundries, but I’m partial to the original iron handles.

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There were many coppersmith items made here – or repaired here – and one of the items that quickly became part of the American landscape were the many different types of copper lanterns, something that could be easily adjusted to preferences, design and need, as well as decoration. (this isn’t kitchenware, but it’s very American).

A handful of copper skillet examples can be attested to American coppersmiths, and so can copper boilers, which also give me the lines for the copperware we make at HC. All were made in the flat, until the later 1800’s, when machines started to make pressed cookware and accessories.

TIN

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Examples of tinware from the 1800’s. Could be made from copper as well. Photo courtesy of The Art of the Tinsmith by Shirley DeVoe

Because copper was so expensive (and cast iron so heavy), tinware was hugely popular and common in America. And while I don’t make any tin pieces for the HC/HC lines, they are undoubtedly part of the landscape of American cookware design. I am a huge fan of the plain, silvery tin, but some pieces were covered in black asphaltum and then painted with beautiful brushed designs (these were servingware only – if you cook in it, you bake off the decorations).

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Vintage Chippendale painted tin tray for serving. ca 1765, photo courtesy of Early American Decorating Patterns by Peg Hall

Some great examples of American tinwork can be found in a plethora of books, but if you want to get serious about tinware, start with The Complete Tinsmith & Tinman’s Trade, so you don’t have to go digging around old bookstores yourself.

CAST IRON

We had such an amazing array of American foundries and forges that I feel cast iron is intensely American, for all that it originated overseas as a pourable metal.  Even though Darby got the patent in England for creating sand casting molds, it was right after the American Revolution and we were busting to get industrious and self-sufficient here, perhaps latching on this new technology, especially in Massachusetts, with a zeal that came with victory… Regardless, thanks to Griswold, Wagner, Eerie, and many smaller foundries (Main Foundry, Martin Stove & Range, Sidney Hollow Ware, Marion Stove, and Wapak, to name a tiny few), we have an amazing array of cast iron pieces that are uniquely American.

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Spider cast iron skillet, made in America ca 1840 – 1860. Photo from Early American Cast Iron Holloware by John Tyler

Oddly enough, as much as the simple round pan is considered traditional, we had a dizzying array of specialty items that now are rare, but at times were considered very useful, practical and common place. We aren’t, as a whole, making corn pone, mini bundts, cupcakes, and Danish cakes in cast iron pieces anymore, but we did at one time. I hope the cool and funky styles come back!

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Wrought Iron American spider skillet, forged by a blacksmith, not in a foundry. ca 1810 – 1830, photo courtesy of Early American Holloware by John Tyler

But in working to create something that makes sense for today’s kitchens, I went with a tried and true skillet. American skillets in the early 1800s actually often had legs. They could be poured or wrought. As no one really needs skillets with legs anymore, though, I thought it best to stick with more modern examples.

american cast iron skillet, cast iron, skillet, vintage cast ironAmerican-made cast iron fry pan / skillet ca 1860 – 1880, roughly 12″ diameter.

 

CLAY

Spongeware. Meh. Not my favorite style of decorating stoneware. Sometimes (but incorrectly) called spatterware, the pottery is white/cream with a bright and true blue “spongy” looking decoration in stripes or all over the piece, sometimes broken up by a blue band or two. It was intensely an American design starting in the early 1700’s, with high production in New York and Philadelphia. (source)

There was also Rockinghamware, a very common, brown glazed earthenware pottery that quickly became “Americanized” in the early 1800’s. A great book on this particular and little-studied type of pottery was written by Jane Perkins Claney, and can be bought for $28.

I like the blue glaze used in spongeware, and the beautiful, hand-crafted vibe of making each piece by hand on a wheel instead of by machine and slip casting (there’s something to be said for supporting individual potters vs purchasing bulk pieces from companies who just pour clay into molds), so our pieces are created with the blue lines…because it’s still pretty darn true to history.

Yes – there’s a lot of legwork and time in putting together a true American-style kitchen and cookware ensemble…but you know me and my research.

(Which, by the way, apparently researching never ends. It’s like a sickness. Catching a research bug is outrageously fun…and annoying, likely, for the spouse who gets dragged to things and learns all kinds of extra knowledge he was not expecting to have to absorb…but I have an inkling he’s catching it too. He wants to take a class on cooper work…)

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Making a Copper Jambonnière Part 3

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If you’ve been following the saga of pattern creation and remaking a vintage piece of copper cookware from scratch…here’s the final conclusion.  Likely you might be as happy as I am that this is done and I can start posting things like cheese recipes again…

So it was time to create the lid and handles to this crazy jambonnière project – finally! As always, it meant a large amount of guesswork, and fiddling with wood jigs.

Tracing the base, we added some fractions to allow for crimp seams, and went ahead to create a cover jig, which was similar, but not exactly the same, as the base jig. I’m learning, in a very tactile way, that should I ever own my own metal shop, I will inadvertently become an ad-hoc woodworker by necessity. We also went ahead and cut out a pattern to make the big top cover.

(Good thing my husband has lately been into buying every kind of saw invented…now I just need to convince him that a drill press is also necessary…)

Next we folded (twice) the band base and linked the two pieces before connecting them with a lap seam and some extra reinforcement pieces before bending the whole long band over the jig. With a little help from a lot of clamps, we finished forming the cover band inside the body to make sure it allowed for any tweaks and idiosyncrasies creating during the bending of the base.

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Creating the jambonniere lid band

Then it was a simple (for once!) practice of burring edges, clamping the cover piece to the band and hammering the seams together before soldering.

We only had maybe…five? ten?…hang-ups along the way… It likely didn’t help that all three of my children are off school and like to create while they’re at the shop with us and are constantly adding some sort of project to get soldered…

But we had a cover that fit, for the most part, so then it was time to form the handles. This is when Bob’s mini forge comes in handy. We fired up the propane (and Bob, bless him, made a sweet little jig for bending), heated up some super fat solid copper wire, and made handles that look very similar to the old photographs.

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Jig for creating copper handles

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Forming copper handles over a jig after blasting with heat.

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Buffing the copper handles

I should mention, as well, that Jan, from the Netherlands, found this blog and was amazing enough to send photos of the jambonnière pan he has in his vintage collection. The cover looks constructed almost exactly to how we did it in our reproduction, though I do covet the base, which looks either rolled to a bead or somehow wired.

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A vintage jambonniere pan – photo sent to us by Jan in the Netherlands!

After getting the handles connected, and folding and creating a simple, thick cover handle, we riveted and checked all the seams, worked together to double bottom the base for strength, and then settled on the final polishing.

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Top handle for copper jambonniere lid.

And suddenly, amazingly, it’s done!

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Finished copper jambonniere ham pan

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Making A Copper Jambonnière Part 2

My ongoing apprenticeship at Backwoods Tin & Copper has been mostly obsessed with finishing up the copper jambonnière pan – not least because we wanted to have it done to show at the tinsmith convergence in Indiana this month.

So the craziness continued.

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Tinning the copper jambonnière in the flat.

After finally creating the bottom pattern that seemed to work, we set about organizing the sides of the jambonnière. Besides knowing they should be about 8” high, we had to figure out a length and a process. This, apparently, was another part where we had to make a few examples and mess up a few  more times.  (I’m starting to realize that creating a new pattern from scratch is about 65% of making copper and tin wares…)

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Preparing the sides for wiring.

Bob finally was able to figure out that putting the wire in when the two sides were joined as a huge circle was the best way to handle it, but that was only after we’d tried to form the sides on the hollow mandrel first, and then wire it. We ended up poking the steel out of the soft tinned copper.

Whoops.

And then there was the math. I’m not very good at math, which is why my husband handles the company accounting for House Copper, etc (thank heaven!) but this tinsmithing math also deals with fractions. Which, to me, is even worse, because they’re never normal fractions – a gripe I often voice when at the tinshop. I believe after Bob tinkered for hours after I left (read: defeated and needing to get my children from school), he ended up with sides that measured 26 5/16”.

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Forming the sides of the jambonnière by hand on the hollow mandrel.

But we still had to free-hand form the sides to match the base, and then create a jig to fit inside the jambonnière base that we then sawed apart and screwed back together in order to create a tight enough structure to allow for seam setting.

We spent more time measuring and creating jigs than we actually did making the base!  But the bottom seam is set, and then we soldered it with a lot of heat.

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Setting down the base seam of the jambonnière

Next will be some time to organize a cover that fits our insane bottom pan shape.

If something ends up measuring something along the lines of 26 15/16” I think I might cry.

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Making A Copper Jambonniere : Part 1

It all started with a book. Oh wait. That seems to be my M.O. But this time it wasn’t one of the Flats Junction novels, nor was it even in English.

Instead, it was an out-of-print tome: Les Cuivres de Cuisine by Jean-Claude Renard, brought to my attention by a fellow copper cookware collector and connoisseur. I’ll call him by his online name, kaleokahu, and I consider him to be far more versed than I am in particularities about vintage wares.

Still, when he showed me the page of the coveted but elusive jambonnière pan, I was excited to realize I could make him the missing piece in his batterie de cuisine. Looking at the photograph, I saw the seams and realized that part of why this particular copperware was so rare is not only the odd shape but the fact that most of them were always made by hand.

Photograph of a vintage copper jambonnière pan from Renard’s book

There’s not a lot of us coppersmiths out there making cookware anymore.

Since then, the hunt for information on the jambonnière has revealed little else. I’ve found one other that looks pressed (instead of hand-formed) with a recessed lid, but as there’s little text on the pan itself out there, I thought I’d explain – in parts as we go – the way we have been making this one for kaleokahu. We know the pan requires a lot of copper, a huge footprint, and likely some tricky double-bottoming and raising of an odd-shaped lid. But it’s also a huge amount of fun to try and re-create something that has nearly disappeared from kitchens today.

What is a jambonnière?  In the words of Renard:

Marmite épousant la belle forme du jambon entier, à fond plat, avec couvercle et deux poignées latérales fixes. Autrefois, lorsqu’on cuisait dans la cheminée, la jambonnière était montée su des pieds en fer.

Roughly translated (and mind you, I have no aid but Google Translate, but I’ll save you that step here) it means that the pan was created to mirror and marry the beautiful shape of the whole ham during cooking.  The pan would have a flat bottom, a lid, and two fixed lateral handles.  In the past, when cooking directly over fire, the ham pan was mounted on iron feet.

First it was a matter of finalizing the dimensions. One other book, French Kitchenware: The Art of Collectibles by Monique Cabré gave a photograph of a less hand-crafted version, but still didn’t give definitive measurements. Kaleokahu has his preferences, but we also want it to look proportionate, plus actually fit an entire ham shank as it was supposed to do. Madame Cabré states in her book that the jambonnière was a pan created specifically for the ham (with leg attached) and that it was “of an imposing size”. She also mentioned the same sturdy handles on two sides of the pan, a heavy lid and that some jambonnière pans would have small legs for placement directly in the hearth. We’re not making legs.

We spent some time with graph paper figuring what made sense and what looked and felt “right” in terms of length. All we knew was we wanted it to be 8” high.

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Final copper jambonnière pattern – let’s hope it works!

As my master smith, Bob, of Backwoods Tin & Copper,  has explained to me, tin and coppersmiths of old do not simply make it easy on themselves. Using a compass, nearly all notches, measurements and arcs were created using that particular tool, which is why the traditional, hand-made jambonnière does not appear to be made of joining two circles of different sizes. When I made such a connection Bob looked at me with a strange sort of grin.

Bob: “Well, it can’t be that easy.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Bob: “It can’t be that easy. Otherwise everyone would do it. There’s got to be more to it.”

And then he proceeded to add additional arcs to the top of the pattern using an extended compass (this being our third or fourth try on paper) that eventually gave way to the slightly “flattened” look of the widest part of the jambonnière pan.

Me: “Why would they make it harder on themselves?”

Bob: “I don’t know. But it would not be as easy as two circles.”

Me: “Well that’s just crazy.”

We both stared at our paper copy and realized it matched the photograph in both size and squashed-ness.

It was time to make a pattern. We pasted the final graph paper on a piece of tin, glued it down and cut it out. Bob measured the exterior of the shape to get a feel for the amount of copper for the outside and added in for two seams – one at the top and one at the bottom – while I traced and cut out the base itself. Soon we had a lot of copper on the bench which now needs to get tinned.

Unrolling copper sheet

So this week, I’ll be standing over a lot of heat with some melted tin and preparing the copper in the flat before we figure out how to hand-shape the sides over a hollow mandrel. Let’s hope it works. Let’s hope it’s relatively “easy.”

Stay tuned…