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Tinsmithing, currach making and letterpress on first register of Irish intangible heritage

Tinsmithing, currach making and letterpress on first register of Irish intangible heritage

The Irish Government have registered their first list of 30 cultural practices as part of their commitment to the 2003 UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, including traditional crafts such as tinsmithing, currach making, lacemaking, embroidery and basketmaking. Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan called these practices: “threads in the cultural tapestry of our lives that make us richer as individuals and as a country”.

Irish crafts registered include:

  • Limerick lace
  • Irish crochet lace
  • Mountmellick embroidery
  • Traveller tinsmithing
  • Sea currach making
  • Basketmaking
  • Letterpress printing
  • Carrickmacross lace
  • Dry stone construction
  • Boyne currach making
  • Loy digging

In December 2017, Ireland ratified the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. In stark contrast, the UK is one of only 17 of the 193 UNESCO member states not to have ratified the Convention, and is thus unable to register its traditional practices alongside those being celebrated and safeguarded across the world.

Tinsmithing is on the UK Red List of Endangered Crafts as critically endangered, meaning that it is at serious risk of no longer being practiced in the UK, with the current expectation that it will enter the next edition of the list as extinct in the UK. Coracle making and letterpress are currently also on the UK endangered list, with certain forms of lacemaking, basketry and dry stone walling also facing uncertain futures.

The Heritage Crafts Association helped set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Craft last year and will be continuing to advocate for better recognition for intangible cultural heritage to UK Ministers and Government officials.

Image: Tinsmith James Collins photographed by Alan Betson

Tinsmithing

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Tinsmithing

 

The making and repairing of tin items.

 

Status Critically endangered
Craft category Metals
Historic area of significance UK
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK 18th century
Current no. of professionals (main craft) 0
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main craft)
4-5
Current no. of trainees 2 trainees at the Norfolk Tinman
Current total no. serious amateur makers
0
Current total no. of leisure makers
not known
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

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.

 

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

n/a

Sub-crafts

n/a

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Loss of skills – there are now very few people with tinsmithing skills in the UK
  • Training and education – due to a lack of skills, there is very little training or skills transmission happening at present
  • Tools and materials – it is increasingly difficult and expensive to source tools for tinsmithing
  • Raw material supply – sourcing good quality tinplate is difficult in the UK, particularly for smaller business who may have to buy in bulk

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

 

GRTSB (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, Showmen and Boater) note on Tinsmithing

Tinsmithing by members of the GRTSB communities is currently under-represented on The Red List. Just one Traveller tinsmith contributed to the community-facing GRTSB Craft Makers Survey (round one, 2023); they expressed a desire to train an apprentice in the future, and note they had been practicing for over 25 years. More community- facing primary research, conversations and feedback is required to get a better picture
of the craft of tinsmithing within contemporary Traveller communities. Traditional Irish Traveller tinsmiths James Collins & Tom McDonnell are featured on the Homo Faber site, and they can be contacted via Pavee Point, the Traveller hub in Dublin.

The late Scottish Traveller tinsmith Willie MacPhee is the subject of the book The Last of The Tinsmiths by Sheila Douglas.

 

Other information

Status/Total number of craftspeople: 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.

Tinsmithing Course at the Museum of Making, September 2022

Supported by The Worshipful Company of Tinplate Workers Alias Wireworkers and the Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Fund.

14 people participated in a 5 day masterclass with US tinsmith Karl Schmidt. Four of these trainees received bursaries to attend the course and develop their skills.

Using tools and techniques of 19th century tinsmiths students learned how to lay out projects using patterns, cut and shape tinplate, and assemble shaped tinplate pieces into items such as a tin cup or tankard, a tin sconce, tin ornaments and icicles, cake/biscuit cutters, or a lantern.  Students made multiple items, each one enabling them to build skills and techniques, leading to the next project and level of complexity over the course of the five-day workshop.

 

References

  • Hasluck, Paul N, Practical Metal Plate Work.
  • Practical Marshall, How to Work Sheet Metal.
  • Douglas, Sheila, The Last of the Tinsmiths: The Life of Willie MacPhee, Birling General, 2006