The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Tinsmithing

 

The making and repairing of tin items.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Metals
Historic area of significance  UK
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK  18th century
Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Current no. of trainees
Current no. of skilled craftspeople
Current total no. of craftspeople  See ‘Other information’ for further details

 

History

TinsmithingThe 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.

 

Techniques

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.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

 

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.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Ian Pritchard and Georgina Grant, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Ironbridge. The tinsmiths workshop at Blists Hill is housed in one of two brick drying sheds, which have been converted to take the present collection. 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.

 

Other information

Status/Total number of craftspeople: According to Ian Pritchard, tinsmithing is a craft that could be endangered in the future but is easily practised 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 (eg 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. The only ‘professional’ tinsmiths are Ian Pritchard and Georgina Grant are at Blist’s Hill.

 

References