The Silversmith: Teaching the Historic Trades

Clink! Clink! It’s all in the wrist. When forming a bowl, the silversmith does not exert a terrible amount of might, but an intense level of skill. The hammers are small—three distinct types, each serving a specific purpose. Their user relies on a pivot point between the thumb and index finger; the other three fingers keeping the hammer from becoming unwieldy. With each tap, the wrist finds a rhythm. Among a shop filled with classmates all hammering away, I realized that a group of two or more silversmiths working together synchronized their beats.

1 Hammering-copper

Jesse uses a hammer to raise a small copper disk into a bowl at a silversmith’s stake.

The non-hammering hand controls the material—whether copper, silver, or gold—keeping it precisely balanced on the stake below; the contoured stake of hardened steel is similar to an anvil. It is ideal for shaping sheets of metal into complex forms. In order to achieve the desired effect, a smith needed to know where the contact point of the hammer and angle of the metal to the stake’s contoured surface was. He or she also also had to learn how hard to strike, and at what angle. Each strike has a desired effect. Every hit counts. One slip of the hammer could set you back fifty swings. One wrong hit, and your work is inferior to the silversmith’s down the street, or the silversmiths in Boston, or to those working in the London guilds.

2 draw bench

Master silversmith George Cloyed prepares the copper wire that Amy, using the windlass in front of her, will pull through the die at the draw bench.

Turn! Turn! Drawing wire makes muscles burn. Unlike the hypnotic rhythm of the hammer, pulling wire through a draw bench requires a bit of strength. Often the job of an apprentice or two, the objective is to draw metal wire through a die, thinning it out. One person turns a windlass attached to a roughly six-inch wide, eight-foot long strip of thick leather. The other end of the leather is attached to a set of tongs, which pinches one end of the wire. As the apprentice turns the windlass, the leather winds up, contracting the tongs and pulling the wire through a set of dies, shaping and gauging the metal. The worker cannot go too fast, but cannot stop either. A second person works the end where the die is held, hammering or filing the initial bit of wire smaller than the die, lubricating the wire, feeding the wire through, holding the entire bench still with one knee from the force of the crank, and audibly telling the windlass-man how much wire is remaining. Too much force during the last turn, and the worker faces injury. The thinner the desired wire, the more passes through thinner and thinner dies.

Although drawing wire was seemingly lesser-skilled than forming sheet metal into bowls, spoons, and other wares, wire was vital to the silversmith industry and to the community as a whole—from jewelry-making to pins for sewing.

3 Master-inspection

George Cloyed examines Emily’s copper bowl.

A special thank-you to Master Silversmith George Cloyed, and Apprentices Christina Strum, Lane Chappell, and Parker Brown for providing the students of Early American Craftsmanship with hands-on instruction in forming metal and drawing wire.

By Jesse Kraft, Ph.D. Program in the History of American Civilization, University of Delaware

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