Teaching Craft: a Silversmith’s Story

There are many aspects that one takes for granted when you’re a craftsperson. Drawing myself back to my first days holding a saw or understanding how pliers work, to the more complicated matter of how silver reacts under hammer and fire, I appreciate something that now comes naturally to me, but may not necessarily for others. I take care not to do the work for my students, using words to convey what to do. Sometimes it’s not easy with a craft that’s so tacit and engrained. 

Guiding someone through the making process requires a different cognitive approach to making your own work. Things which you would do instinctively, holding a tool or reacting to the movement of the silver, must come from your mind and into the land of speech and demonstrations, requiring many hand gestures and the inventing of words. 

The day typically begins with me in my workshop, laying out tools and inspirational sheets for the class, and prepping the materials. I make myself a coffee and wait for my student to arrive.  Teaching is something that comes naturally to me, becoming part of my business from an early stage, and supporting me along my journey. That’s not to say that the preparation, planning, and trepidation, wondering how the day is going to turn out, dissipates. Every workshop is different, every student unique. My confidence grows with each workshop and course I run. However, there is still that element of anxiety and tension about the delivery. What will students want to make? and can I help them make it? I may even have to say no. They will be necessarily limited by the materials they have to work with and the time frame in which they have to make their piece.  

One student, initially interested in enamelling, soon found herself captivated by moving metal through raising and the heritage craft of coppersmithing. She decided to take part in a silversmithing course, and her search led her to me, The Silver Duck. We discussed what she wanted to achieve over her 8-weeks. Focusing on raising a bowl and making spoons, this 8-week course would teach her about how metal moves under hammer and fire. 

As with any first day of teaching: introductions are made, skill level discussed, and objectives laid out. The student had brought vessels she had made to show and talk about two copper vases, tall and slender with flat bases but a few imperfections. We started talking about the how’s, the why’s and the what-went-wrongs. Being self-taught, she was unaware of the mistakes she had made. We started by discussing the thin edges, the thickness of the metal she had started with, the position of the metal on the stake and the sound the hammer made as it struck: was it a low thud or a high ping, each sound communicates the relationship between hammer and silver. Are you moving and compressing the metal or are you stretching it? When teaching, you must go back to the beginning, to recap the basic rules which are rooted in your learning, and which have become instinctive for you. 

          Starting to raise the copper bowl

When raising, you start from a flat sheet of metal, in this case copper. You would preferably start in the round, and sometimes you need to cut your own from a sheet. This is where we started together, talking about different suppliers of materials and price differences. We started by cutting the copper using a piercing saw, filing the edges, and drawing on concentric circles as a guide; the material was ready. There are three main stages in the raising process: blocking, raising and planishing. Each requires a different tactic and distinct state of mind. Blocking is quick, using a wooden hammer in a wooden former. It is playful, swift, and straightforward. She had not been aware of this stage before, and in fact had skipped it entirely. I explained to her that through blocking she would create a low hemisphere that enabled the metal to sit nicely on the stake whilst raising.  We focused on the angle at which to hold the disc of copper, how heavy to hit with the hammer and how close the hammer marks should be. 

       Using a mallet before continuing to use the metal raising hammer.

Raising requires strenuous effort, using a steel hammer on a steel stake. She would need to go several rounds before reaching the shape of a bowl. It requires precision with the hammer, considerable force, and an understanding of how the metal will move. She needed to develop a strong grip and try to make her hammer blows even. It is very much a workout. 

    Planishing the base before raising in the top edge

Planishing also involves using a steel hammer and a steel stake, but the state she enters should be more meditative, focused on rhythm and detail. It takes more time, noticing each hammer mark, blending, and smoothing between the stakes she uses to create her bowl, annealing between each round, as she follows her concentric circles to the outer edge until her round is complete. Annealing involves re-softening the particle structure of the metal.  This is done by heating the metal with a blow torch and then quenching it in water.  The metal must also be ‘pickled’, bathed in a diluted acid to clear any oxides before beginning the next round. 

     Annealing the copper bowl

Understanding raising and how the metal moves is an experiential practice. The student needed space to experiment, to make mistakes, hopefully learn from them, and continue pushing herself into unknown territory. There is only so much that can be learnt through the terminology and unusual phrases applied to the craft, contrasted with the haptic learning that comes through experience, feeling and the perceptivity of working with your hands. She would have to build an understanding of metallurgy and the plasticity of metal, an awareness of how to react, and learn to be attentive in her approach. 

She needed to overcome her fear of hurting the metal or causing damage in some way. Striking the metal with a hammer can feel brutal and damaging. Learning to sink her blows, the impact on the metal causes it to crinkle, distort and warp, and discovering that this is something she needn’t be afraid of, takes time. Each session she must re-learn how to control the metal and strike with the hammer, to remember her positioning, and the force that is necessary to bring the metal up into its bowl shape. 

Through practical learning techniques, I modelled the capability to be powerful and robust with the metal whilst being precise and methodical. When demonstrating, I talk through the actions, repeating movements, and meanings: how to hold the metal, how to use the hammer, why the metal reacts the way it does, the angle the metal needs to be on the stake to allow air beneath for it to sink into. You must use your hands as guides and at the same time as clamps keeping the metal where you need it to be. We solved problems as she encountered them and talked about how to avoid them in the first place. Why isn’t the metal moving? Why do my rounds make the metal come in quicker than hers? She will learn how to make the metal less difficult to hold, and how to employ techniques to deal with it, disobeying her. I encouraged her to listen to the sounds, to take note of how much the metal has moved; both indicators of how her technique is developing. Eventually she will be able to notice the sounds and signs herself without my instruction and tuition. 

The closer the shape draws to that of the bowl she intends it to be, the more delighted she becomes. As the bowl is established, the more precise and focused her technique must be. She must learn to understand when to change from one stake to the next, or when to start planishing certain areas before they become too tricky to reach, must learn to anneal only the part you wish to work on. A keen eye for detail is essential, noticing peaks and lines in the hammered surface of the metal. Accuracy is important, to avoid creating more work for yourself. As the bowl pulls into its finished form, slight refinements are made, and the final polish is applied. She had pushed herself and created a beautiful form. 

Finished copper bowl

I have always felt naturally drawn towards teaching. Feeling enjoyment from sharing my knowledge of the craft, whether through talking about the making process, the tools that are used, or what inspires me. When I teach, my students and I go on a journey of discovery together, facing the design process, exploring different ways of making and finding creative solutions, and in the process, we learn about each other. I teach not only to pass on the knowledge of the craft but to further reinforce it for myself. The work my students produce introduces problems and challenges that I may not face when making my own work and allows me to venture into designs and ideas that I may have not tackled before, sharing the pathway of knowledge, and allowing freedom for the students to explore the craft. I am still a student, eager to learn and expand my knowledge. 

Words: Charlotte Duckworth

About the author:
The Silver Duck
was founded in 2012 by Bristol based award-winning silversmith Charlotte Anne Duckworth.  Designing and making beautiful pieces of flatware and tableware from sterling silver and locally sourced English holly, Charlotte creates exquisite yet functional pieces of art for the kitchen. Charlotte’s ethos revolves around simple, elegant designs that are ergonomic and tactile. With the intention of provoking people to appreciate their food and take time over their daily routines and rituals in the kitchen. Immersing herself in the creative process from beginning to end, the journey of each piece often begins with Charlotte jumping through hedgerows and stomping around woods, gathering and foraging for branches that may inspire her designs. Using traditional techniques of forging and raising, Charlotte has an inherent understanding of the materials that she works with, creating magical utensils that preserve and capture their natural qualities.