The making and repairing of tin items.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK||18th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main craft)||See ‘Other information’ for further details|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main craft)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
The trades of tinsmithing (‘tinplate’ refers to iron which has been coated in tin) and copper working were commonly combined, the equipment that was used to carry out both trades being almost identical.
The processes involved in working tinplate by hand can be traced to the early-eighteenth century in England, and the forming of the same material by machine to the early-nineteenth century. The same tools and equipment can also be used for forming copper and zinc sheet. Products made by tinsmiths ranged from needle cases and candle moulds to stovepipes and guttering. Much of the output was of domestic items such as pans of all types, tankards, candlesticks, candle safes and tea and coffee pots. Similar items were produced from sheet zinc, the exception being vessels for holding food or drink, for which zinc was not used.
Tinsmiths seem to have had three distinct outlets for their work. Firstly, they sold the goods they produced direct to the public on a retail basis from their workshops. Secondly, they supplied local ironmongers or general stores with their wares and thirdly, they sought contracts with local firms.
Though small tinsmithing businesses existed in every reasonable sized community, the trade was also to be found on a much larger scale. For example, in the second half the nineteenth century Tinplate and Japan Works in Wolverhampton employed between 250 and 300 people, about 55 of whom were classed as children.
There are basically three methods of producing goods from tinplate, copper sheet or zinc: by hand, by machine, or by a combination of the two.
The tools required to produce items by hand are:
dividers, compasses and a scratch awl – used to mark the patterns
various shears – used to cut out the marked work
bench stakes – used to form the prepared work on, generally by hand pressure, though on occasions mallets or hammers may be used to tap it into shape
solder and copper – bit irons are required to make the joints or seams permanent
The tools required to form items by machine are:
folding machines – used to make creases and to fold the metal over wire in order to strengthen it
rolling machines – used to form cylinders or cones
grooving machines – used to close seams ready for soldering
circle cutters and burring machines – used to cut out circular bases, or tops, and then fold the edges together
press brake machine – built by Rhodes or Wakefield in about 1907, can be used to form tinplate as well as make zinc guttering.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Tinsmithing will only become endangered if the costs of raw materials used rise above the price at which it is viable to sell the finished products.
None known. The Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers alias Wire Workers has no current connection with tinsmithing.
Craftspeople currently known
- One volunteer who is a retired tinsmith and two trainee demonstrators at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Ironbridge. The tinsmiths workshop at Blists Hill is housed in purpose built Canal Side exhibit. The Topp family were tinsmiths for three generations in Bedworth, near Coventry, and it was from the widow of the late Horace Topp that the tinsmith’s equipment was obtained.
Status/Total number of craftspeople: According to Ian Pritchard, curator at Blists Hill Victorian Town, tinsmithing is a craft that could be endangered in the future but is easily practiced by people at home, with equipment easily obtained. The Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers is aware of some copper and pewter workers who occasionally make one-off items using tin plate. The Company also sponsors competitions for students using tin plate and/or wire for jewellery at Central St Martins, and in ceramics (e.g. use of tin glaze) at the Royal College of Art, and have in the recent past sponsored other competitions for craft work using tin plate or wire.
Hasluck, Paul N, Practical Metal Plate Work.
Practical Marshall, How to Work Sheet Metal.