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36cm Pommier tall stewpot with tap

VFC

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This is my first pot with a tap and I have to say, I am absolutely delighted with it.

Type Tin-lined tall stewpot in hammered finish with brass tap and handles fastened with three copper rivets
French description Bassine à ragoût étamée et martelée avec robinet et poignées en laiton munies de trois rivets en cuivre
Dimensions 36cm diameter by 26cm tall (14.2 by 10.2 inches)
Thickness 3mm at rim
Weight 11450g (25.2 lbs) pot only; 13386g (29.5 lbs) with lid
Stampings H POMMIER BRUXELLES 36 on pot; on lid: HBV K BZ with E Lecellier mark
Maker and age estimate Pommier for the pan body, post-1936; Lecellier for the lid, 1920s-1931
Source Private sale

A tap* is a great feature for a stockpot as it saves you some effort. Instead of pouring or ladling the stock out of the pot by hand, you just open the tap to drain the stock from the bottom. But it can also be a liability: installing a tap entails drilling a hole through the pot at the very bottom, inserting a metal of a different composition than the pot, and sealing the gaps.** When the pot is filled, the weight of the liquid column is greatest at the base where the tap is located and will put pressure on the seal; the risk increases when the pot is heated, because the two metals expand at different rates. In addition, the tap itself sticks out from the pot and is at risk of being whacked.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that an old coper pot with a brass tap has a fair chance of leaking.

And frankly what I see around this pot’s tap is not reassuring. Whoever made this just brazed the heck out of it — there are globs of brass like lumps of chewing gum pressed up around the hole. The copper around this area is also thoroughly scored, which I suspect was done on purpose to create a surface texture to which the brass brazing was more likely to adhere. This level of finish does not inspire confidence that the hole is truly sealed.

 

The inside is much neater looking: the tap is locked in place with a large nut that looks well-sealed to the surface. (Look at the reflection on the tin — Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning restored this piece for me and he did a marvelous job with it.) Note that this pot does not have a strainer screen and I don’t think it ever had one. Other pots with strainers have small brackets welded or brazed on either side of the hole to hold the screen in place but I don’t see any evidence that this pot ever had this done.

When I set the pot down on my big kitchen table I saw immediately that the spout of the tap projects below the base. The pot will only settle flat when the tap projects out over the edge.

 

At first I thought this was an unfortunate error in the pot’s assembly but then I saw that the tap is designed for this: there is a tiny diagram on the side to show that it is supposed to hang over the edge of a surface.

 

The handle turned with some resistance and I decided to take the assembly apart to see if it needed cleaning or adjustment. The valve shaft is held in place by a nut screwed on the bottom and it was frozen in place. I applied very gentle torque with a wrench to move it without scratching the brass. Once the nut was loosened I was able to take it off and lift out the valve shaft.

The pieces were a little grimy. I cleaned them off with WD-40 (a US brand of solvent), applied some household oil to the screw and a light dab to the surface of the valve shaft, and reassembled it. I finger-tightened the nut so that the valve handle moves smoothly with a sight natural friction; too tight and the brass pieces will scrape against each other as they turn and I want to avoid that.

Then came the moment of truth: the water test. I filled the pot with a few inches of water and opened the valve. Water flows freely out of it and there are no drips or leaks! The chewing-gum-like brazing may look a little sloppy but by George it’s water-tight. The slot cut into the valve shaft is not very large and so the flow of liquid is not rapid, but it works!

Of course, the real test will be with hot liquid. Metal expands when heated, and filling the pan with hot water or stock could open up tiny gaps and break the good seal we’re seeing around the tap at room temperature. If and when I use this pot with heat I will report back as to whether it remains water-tight.

The tap is not the only thing about this pan that is interesting to me: it is neither stockpot nor stewpot. It is 36cm in diameter and 26cm tall; a stockpot would be 36cm by 36cm, a stewpot more like 36cm by 20cm. This one is too tall for a stewpot but too short for a stockpot.

I don’t have a 36cm stewpot to which to compare it (boo) but I have something close: a 34cm stewpot also by Pommier and with the same stamp that was likely made during the same era. Look at them side by side below: there is only 2cm difference in diameter, but the pot on the right is 8cm taller.

I suspect that this 36cm pot was a custom piece. I do not think it was cut down from a taller stockpot after it was made, as the Pommier stamp is positioned a centimeter or two below the rim just as I see it on other pieces. It is also thicker than a normal stockpot: in my experience, stockpots are usually 2.5mm thick at maximum, while this piece at 3mm thick is more like a stewpot. I’m not sure what the specific use was for this piece but I like its size: it’s more capacious than a stewpot but not quite as towering as a stockpot would be. As above, it has no strainer screen nor evidence of ever having one, and the narrow aperture of the stopcock suggests that it wasn’t used for thick liquids. But taken all together, I’m calling it a “tall stewpot.”

Whatever it is, it is very well made. It has large brass handles fastened with rounded copper rivets; the interior rivet heads are flattened and almost fully flush set. I do not see traces of numbers on the inside rivets.

 

It has been assembled with welding. You can see a faint scalloped-looking line down one side and around the pot base an inch or so above the floor. This is where a high-temperature welding torch flash-melted the surface copper to fuse the two sheets together; the slight dip in the rim shows where the seam is.

The base is beautiful. It has been hammered all over and given a single sharp bevel around the edge. At the center of the base is a well-defined dot, suggesting it was marked with a compass before it was cut.

 

The pot carries two stamps: a maker’s mark for H. Pommier and a nice clear size stamp of 36. I believe this version of the Pommier stamp was used just after Hippolyte Pommier’s death in 1936, which aligns with the use of welding that I see on this pot.

 

It comes to me with a lovely 36cm drop-in lid that I do not believe is original to the pot.

The lid does not have a Pommier maker’s mark. It does, however, have two sets of owner’s marks: HBV K and BZ. You may recall these stamps from my previous post about two saucepans carrying the same marks — I believe they come from hotels in the Belgian resort town of Knokke during the 1920s to the 1960s or so. I believe “HBV” was the Hotel de Belle Vue, built in 1914 and extant until the 1960s; “BZ” remains a mystery.

But what is that third mark, just next to the BZ?

 

Let’s zoom in, shall we?

That is a maker’s stamp with the initials EL reading marque deposée Villedieu les Poëles. I believe this is the registered trademark of Eugène Lecellier (1864-1931) of the extended Lecellier family of coppersmiths in Villedieu. I borrowed the 34cm Pommier stewpot’s lid (with its Pommier stamp) for comparison — you can see the difference in the French Lecellier handle and the Belgian Pommier handle below. The 36cm Lecellier handle on the left is in the French style with the pointed brackets while the 34cm Pommier handle on the right has brackets that are more rounded.

That said, I doubt that either Lecellier or Pommier was casting their own handles at this time — it seems more likely to me that they were buying from suppliers and chose (or designed) different handle styles. Still, I think it is useful to see the styles of handle on two known stamped pieces for future endeavors in identification.

So what do the stamps on this pot and lid suggest to me? I think the lid was acquired from Lecellier in the late 1920s or early 1930s by the Belgian hotel (either HBV or BZ, I am not sure which one), and the Pommier pot came along later — sometime after 1936. The seller acquired them (and other HBV/BZ pieces) from the same place and I believe they stayed together through a few transitions, hanging on in the same kitchen as the restaurant changed names or moving from one address to another. Pot and lid are an old married couple now and I can’t imagine separating them. I feel very fortunate to have them in my collection and I’m grateful to Erik Undiks for his beautiful restoration.

For me, the charm of this pot is that the tap gives it an extra dose of character. The tap directs me to position the pot a certain way, and while I know it’s silly to anthropomorphize copper, I can’t help but think of this pot as having a face. It doesn’t just sit on the shelf — it looks out into the room. I like to think that it’s smiling.


Footnotes

* Incidentally, while researching this, I learned that “tap”, “stopcock”, or “faucet” are correct terms in this context, while “spigot” is not. Tap, stopcock, and faucet are valves that control the flow of liquids through pipes while a spigot is a solid plug stuffed into a hole. (Also, just try saying “stockpot stopcock” five times fast.)

** The second question I had was why this tap wasn’t sealed in a more effective way. The pot itself is welded, so why not also the tap? I poked around the Internet for a bit and what I learned is that welding (usually) doesn’t work to join different metals. Welding fuses metals together by melting them into each other, which means the metals have to be the same or chemically similar. I suspect that while brass is an alloy of copper, they are too dissimilar to fuse and so can’t be directly welded to each other. But there’s another approach: Why didn’t Pommier use a rubber gasket around the seal? I don’t know the answer. If any readers could offer some insights here I’d be grateful to learn more.

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8 Comments

  1. Another lovely acquisition VFC! I had a 36 cm stew pan at one time and it did indeed measure 20 cm in height. I wonder why the tap is projecting below the bottom of the pan. If the pan were stored on a flat surface it seems to me the brazed joint would be subject to additional stress which could eventually lead to a leak.

    1. Stephen, I agree about the awkward placement of the tap. Setting the pot flat does indeed exert force onto the joint. I’m very pleased that it has survived so well.

  2. Another beautiful piece, I think the tap has been added, long ago but not a factory fit. I say this because the hammered finish is uninterrupted where it would have made sense to leave an area smooth to get an easier seal. Natural rubber would quickly become brittle when heated but a cork washer is a possibility. Brazing brass fittings is tricky because the melting point of the tap and filler rod is so close that by the time the filler is molten the tap is on the verge of melting as well. Copper is such a great conductor of heat that getting one area hot enough for brazing when the whole body is acting as a heat sink is near impossible. Brazing of copper is not strictly welding because the brass serves as an adhesive rather than becoming a homogeneous part of the copper. The tin will have entered the joint much as copper pipe joints are often sealed with soft solder which is largely tin.
    As to use I guess this sat on the end of the stove as a supply of hot water before there was hot plumbing. In domestic kitchens kettles were always left bubbling in readiness because boiling water from cold could easily take an hour.

    1. Roger, thank you for your insights! The tap could indeed be a retrofit, especially considering that there is no inner screen such as would be desirable for a stockpot. And I like the idea of it being a stovetop hot water supply, particularly given the small aperture of the tap. And I agree that if so then a rubber gasket would be a liability! Your pragmatic observations are on point as usual. Thank you!

  3. I agree with Roger that the tap was retrofitted and the original stewpot was converted into a hot water dispenser. In Gaillard’s catalog there are variants that have been referred to as “marmite eau chaude”, “marmite à café” and “pot à café”. Other huge variants with a volume of up to 300L were called “sirogène” (container for syrup for making lemonade).

    Unfortunately, the assembly did not go perfectly. Hence the “operating Instructions” added later in the form of the tiny diagram on the tap to avoid overloading the connection point. I consider an intentional slight inclination of the tap to be very unlikely. If a larger overhang had been required, a corresponding tap could have been selected from the outset.

  4. Any modern tea urn has the tap mounted a couple of inches above the bottom to reduce the risk of boiling it empty and causing damage. Antique English copper water boilers often have a tapering spout with the tap on the end to overhang the edge of the kitchen range. I suggest that not only is this tap a retrofit but it may well replace an earlier one of different design. It would have been interesting to undo the internal nut prior to new tin to see how well it fits the hole. If the tap fitted well and the edges were undamaged then the plumbers traditional sealant toe and tallow (hemp and beef fat) would have been sufficient.
    The narrow bore of this tap makes it likely water was only required in small volumes perhaps for making tea and coffee.

  5. As a student I had to supplement my income and among other things worked for a plumber. I was allowed to cut threads on pipes, then wrap the threads with hemp, smear them with grease and join the pipes together. These compounds withstood the usual water pressure without any problems. Another advantage: the connections could easily be released again if necessary.

  6. Hemp is temperature resistant up to 140-160 ° C and soaks up in contact with water. As a result, it adapts very well to the thread and the mounting surface. Today’s sealing tapes or sealing rings made of Teflon do not work any better.
    But no matter, now the tap is already installed and so far waterproof.

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