Let’s look at how a 19th century stockpot was assembled by hand.
In 1842, at age 8, John Fuller was apprenticed to a coppersmith in Dorking, England, to learn “the brazier’s art, or the working of light sheet-copper into vessels for cooking and articles for ornamental purposes.” He was an apprentice until age 15 when he went to London and continued to a career in marine and railway metalworking. In 1893, after his retirement, he wrote “Art of Coppersmithing: A Practical Treatise on Working Sheet Metal Copper into All Forms.” The book blends memoirs of his days at the bench with instructions on how pieces were sized and fit together completely by hand. For me, it is the clearest record I can find for the state of the art of coppersmithing in the mid-19th century, just before the adoption of the machinery that changed the craft.
As it happens, I have a 31cm stockpot made by Benham & Froud, a prolific English coppersmith active in London from 1855 to 1906. I thought it might be interesting to look at the process that Fuller narrates and follow along with elements of the pot that I have.
Stock pots were made in several sizes, from 9 to 20 inches in diameter. The smaller sizes were from 9 to 12 inches in diameter and the larger from 13 to 20 inches. They were fitted with pipe and inside grating when required, as shown in Figs. 180 and 181.
My stockpot is 31cm (about 12.2 inches) in diameter, at the upper limit of “smaller” as Fuller describes it. It’s a beautiful piece, very close in appearance to the example in Fuller’s Fig. 180 above, but without a projecting tap.
According to Fuller, my stockpot would have been made by a senior coppersmith:
Stock pots are a good job when made well, and are usually given to old and experienced hands, a young man seldom getting a chance at them. I was never called on to make one, but have noticed that the tools and appliances used in their manufacture were not adapted to the job, and it is a little surprising that such good work was produced by their use.
What does he mean, “tools and appliances… not adapted to the job”? Fuller explains:
When a boy I saw my father working on these pots occasionally and dragging them about on the forge with a pair of tongs, and have often wondered since how it was that the old braziers never adopted the plan or seemed to think of putting their heavy work in a sling; for after working some years among railway and marine work I returned to some of the old shops to work again and found that there had been but little progress made. The same old methods were still in use, and to introduce any new ones was almost certain to bring one into contempt, particularly if there was any large number of men employed.
This resistance to new ideas seems to have been part of the coppersmithing culture in the 19th and early 20th century. It perhaps explains the slow and uneven adoption of mechanization that I see in French and Belgian work as well. I know from academic writing about the industrial revolution that powered machinery to cut and press sheet metal was in wide use in Paris by the 1850s, and yet I continue to see evidence of hand-cutting and -shaping in pieces that, by their stamps, are 1890s to 1900s. Similarly, dovetailing persisted into the 1920s long after welding had completely supplanted it as a metal joining technique.
Fuller disliked it, and states explicitly that his book was written in defiance of this code of silence that, in seeking to protect the livelihood of the smiths, also repressed progress. Here Fuller discusses how his father, a coppersmith before him, tried to pass this attitude on to him:
One of the most imperative injunctions received by the writer from his father was to faithfully guard his patrimony from the scrutiny of prying eyes, it having descended to him through a long line of ancestors for many generations, who had plied their craft with various degrees of proficiency, thus maintaining their respectability and independence to an honorable old age, in evidence of which in Canterbury, England, four years ago one of his kinsfolk could yet be seen working at the brazier’s bench at the advanced age of 87 years. But having been imbued with more liberal ideas by coming in contact with and feeling my indebtedness to many other men from whom we are compelled to borrow more or less, I have concluded to waive the injunction received in childhood for the benefit of those who are most interested.
And to our benefit as well, as Fuller’s descriptions of how this craft was performed gives us insight in to the pieces that remain today.
So! Back on topic: stockpots!
The work of making stock pots is the same as that of large deep stew pans, excepting that the cover is made to fit on over the outside, and deep enough to be used as a cutlet pan, the pot and cover being mounted with cast copper handles as shown.
Couple of interesting things here. One of the key differences between English and French stockpots is in their lid: the English pots tend to have a two-handled cap-style lid “made to fit on over the outside,” while French pots tend to have a drop-in lid with a top-mounted handle. I don’t know why this was the case. As Fuller observes, the English two-handle lid was made to serve as a “cutlet pan,” a shallow plat à sauter.
The second interesting thing is that what Fuller calls a “stew pan” is what we would have called a saucepan (or a French casserole). In his time, an English “saucepan” had a rounded shape. You can see the distinction in the two drawings below.
Interestingly, Fuller tells us that this “stew pan” was a French innovation of the mid-19th century.
It is probable that among the culinary utensils made by braziers 40 years ago [circa 1850] there were more saucepans than almost any other article; but later on the French stew-pan seemed to supersede the saucepan altogether, excepting in a few instances, such as the smaller sizes, which were made with lips and used for the preparation of little delicacies.
In order to show how my stockpot was made, I’ll look at Fuller’s instructions for how to make a cylindrical “stew pan.” The first step is to cut the sheet metal to the correct length and width according to the desired dimensions of the finished piece, plus an extra half-inch of height for attaching to the base. (Fuller provides extensive patterns and geometrical formulas for a wide variety of shapes and objects; his chapter on coal scuttles is a masterpiece.) The sheet is formed into a cylinder and joined with a cramp seam.
The next step is to attach the bottom. This requires the creation of the “lag” — the extra half-inch of the sidewall bent inward to join with the base piece. An anvil head of the correct size and shape was fitted into an upright or lateral shank and the pot was laid over it. The bottom half-inch of copper was bent inward to create the lag.
Then the bottom was joined to the lag with a cramp seam. I am a little disappointed to find that Fuller does not describe how do this in detail, but perhaps it was considered so basic that it needed no explanation. But the book provides multiple drawings of various pots cut and prepared for this step. The drawings reveal something I hadn’t known: only the base piece is clipped for the interleaving. For some reason I thought that both pieces were cut. Is this an English convention, or are all dovetailed pots done the same way?
The next step was to tin the pot. The English style was first to add a band of tin to the outside rim of the pot. The desired width of the band was marked on the exterior of the pot, and the area below it covered up with “whiting” to protect it. Then the pot was inverted and set into a shallow bath of liquid tin. Once marked, the pot was removed with tongs for tinning, and says Fuller, “while the operation of tinning was being proceeded with inside, the outside tinning was wiped off smooth and completed at the same time.”
The next step was to make the cover and attach handles. Says Fuller,
This cover is raised from a disk… Raise up the cover to fit the pot, tin them both, planish and smooth; then put on the handles, those on the cover first, then on the pot, placing them in such a position that they will pass each other when being turned around on the pot.
Whoever made and matched the cover to my pot did a marvelous job. The cover is quite close fitting and the handle clearances are perfect: there can’t be more than a millimeter or two of space between the handles. It’s lovely work.
The last step was the final planishing. This final step was crucial to even out the surface of the piece and give it an even shine. Fuller describes multiple steps employing tripoli polish and different shapes of planishing hammer, culminating in a final pass with a hammer wrapped in fabric. Not every piece got this treatment: says Fuller, “The planishing described in the foregoing is for the best kind of bright work.” This even smooth finish took time, effort, and attention to detail, and was reserved for the highest quality work that was meant to be seen and appreciated.
So here is my lovely finished pot! It is of course Benham & Froud, and not from the Dorking shop at which Fuller worked. But they were contemporaries: Fuller was 8 years old when he became an apprentice in 1842, and Benham & Froud was opened not too long after in 1855. I don’t know exactly when my pot was made, but I suspect it was shaped and finished with the same craftsmanship that Fuller describes. It’s my first Benham piece and I love it.
My thanks also to Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning who did a beautiful job with the restoration of this large piece.
John Fuller’s “Art of Coppersmithing” was first published in 1893 and ran to four editions, the last of which was published in 1911. The book is now in the public domain, so do not make the mistake I did and buy it from an online bookseller! You can download a high-quality PDF of the third edition (1904) from the US Library of Congress, or get it from me (Art of Coppersmithing (Fuller, 1904)). The fourth edition (1911) has a foreword but no substantive updates and so I believe this PDF of the third edition is the best version available.