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Base metals have been the foot soldiers of the decorative arts for centuries. These metals—pewter, copper, brass, bronze and iron—have been cast, stamped, forged and plated into countless utilitarian and decorative objects for the home. While not as glamorous as their sisters, the precious metals of silver and gold, these base metals must nevertheless be appreciated for their form, patina and workmanship. All but copper are alloys (two or more metals in combination having the advantage of both metals).

Pewter was the material of choice in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and the Colonies for utilitarian dinnerware. An alloy of tin and copper, the traditional combination in the seventeenth century was 90% tin and 2-6% copper (and some lead). Most pewter was cast in molds, and while the raw cost of the metal was inexpensive, the molds were made from costly bronze or brass. Simple objects were cast in two pieces but more complex forms like tankards had to be cast in multiple parts. The pieces were then soldered together, trimmed and polished. The traditional shapes of pewter mimicked those of silver, and were plain with little decoration. Pewter could be polished like silver and in time tarnished and developed a patina. While most pewter was stamped with a maker’s mark, there was pewter of good quality that was not stamped. The guilds tried to regulate content and marks, but were not vigilant in policing. Today antique English pewter is more available than American for two reasons: First, much of the pewter in America was melted for ammunition in the Revolutionary War. Second, it was not mined in the colonies, so pewter was imported from Britain at great expense.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and takes many forms through casting or hammering. During the 17th and 18th centuries, brass was used for candlesticks, light fixtures and fireplace implements such as andirons and fenders. Brass was traditionally sand-cast which involved very fine sand packed around a form. The form was removed and then subjected to a lengthy finishing process of filing, chasing, stamping, soldering, screwing, pickling, burnishing and lacquering. Since brass was sold by weight there was incentive to make items hollow to keep the price down. When looking at antique brass today, remember that the heavier the piece, the wealthier the person it was made for. Most antique brass is not signed and a signature is no guarantee of superior quality. Peter Hornsby writes in the Confident Collector, “Some late 17th century and early 18th century brass and copper objects of high quality were originally silvered. It is wise to check all the crannies of a piece for evidence of this as it confirms an early manufacture, even if it means that is object is now not as it was originally made”.

Iron comes in two “flavors”; cast and wrought. In the days of the town blacksmith, wrought iron was heated in a forge and hammered into shape. It was used for such basic domestic goods as lamps, tools, gates and fences. Joints were either riveted or fused under heat. As an alloy, it was combined with carbon, silicon, sulfur and phosphorus. Cast iron contains more carbon and until the 18th century tended to be very brittle. It is cast in sand molds much the same as brass. The American fire back is one of the earliest types of cast iron. It was used at the rear of a fireplace to protect the firebrick from excessive heat and reflect some of the heat back into the room. We also see great quantities of garden furniture, urns and fountains produced from cast iron. When in doubt a magnet will help determine if an object is iron as opposed to aluminum or other metals

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, resulting in a warm golden metal, much the same color as brass. The dark, rich brown tones associated with bronze are usually achieved by dipping a finished piece into various acid baths. This forms only a thin surface veneer and can be worn off with vigorous polishing.

Bronze is most often cast in a mold and can require, depending on the quality, extensive hand work, thus increasing the time and cost of the item. One of the most popular uses of bronze was developed during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1700). When a special guild of cabinetmakers was housed in the Louve to make furniture for the king, Andre-Charles Boulle was appointed head cabinetmaker and created techniques that became synonymous with French furniture. One of these utilizes ormolu (also called bronze dore, gilt bronze and mosaic gold) which is cast bronze that has been hand chiseled and undercut for added detail and then surfaced with gold. When ormolu “mounts” are attached to furniture in the form of feet, moldings, escutcheons, handles and other applied ornaments the bright gold against the dark wood is stunning. As testament to the workmanship of the French craftsmen, the Chinese sent much of their porcelain to France for the application of ormolu handles and feet. By the mid 1800’s the definition of ormolu was broadened to include any gold colored metal.

Spelter is an inexpensive metal alloy of zinc, lead and tin with a surface color applied to imitate bronze. It is seen predominately in small-scaled statues and can be detected by making a small scrape (in an out of the way place) on the item. If the underneath color is warm yellow, it is bronze: if the color is cool gray it is spelter. Spelter figures are hollow and weight is added by filling the void with plaster and covering the evidence with felt over the entire bottom. Another trick is to add a marble base and/or engraved brass plaque to make it more important. Also, unlike bronze, spelter is never cold to the touch. Spelter figures make interesting lamps or accessories but should not be sold as bronze or at bronze prices.

Copper is used as an alloy in brass and bronze because of its strength and ease of workmanship. It also stands on its own merit albeit primarily for cooking pots, pans and kettles because of its superior conduction of heat. The most interesting and collectable form of copper is Sheffield Plate, a process invented in England in 1742 by Thomas Bolsover. In striving to invent a substitute for costly sterling silver, he created the process fusing silver and copper. After limited success he stopped production, but in the meantime Joseph Hancock had started making domestic articles and he is known as the father of Sheffield Plate. The Sheffield process begins with a bar of copper and a bar of sterling silver bound together with a brass wire. The blocks are then heated in a furnace until fused and when cooled are rolled into thin sheets. This single plating was used until 1770 when the practice of double plating improved the process by having the copper “sandwiched” between two blocks of sterling. Thus in the production of hollowware such as sauceboats and bowls, sterling was seen on the inside as well as exterior. The items made of Sheffield Plate followed the forms and designs of their counterparts made in sterling silver. However, the invention of electroplating, patented in 1840 resulted in the decline of the Sheffield production. Electroplating involved using pure silver plated onto a nickel called Argentine silver.

Each of the base metals has its unique place in the decorative arts. From the simple utilitarian pewter tankard to the intricately gilt bronze mounts on fine French furniture the craftsman/artisan knew the properties and production methods of each to create a work of art.

*Published in NFocus magazine in October and November 2000.


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