History

How it was made: English stockpot

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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.

Says Fuller,

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.

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11 Comments

  1. I have the little sister to that, 10″x10″ , mine is unsigned but the shape of the handle attachments is exactly the same. I don’t think mine has ever been retinned or much used. The lid fits closely enough to limit oxidation though I shall freshen it before cooking – in the to do pile!!!!
    The seams on these are really well fitting with minimal brass filler which is not always the case so fits with the account that stockpots were made by the most experienced craftsmen and were an opportunity to show what they could do.

  2. If you enlarge the photo of the side seam on the pot, take a look at the shape of the tabs. They’re not just straight cuts as shown in Fullers illustration, they’re carefully arced and rounded. That subtle bit of detail shows the care and skill that went into this pots construction.

  3. They were right to resist change. Look at copper today, few use it and it is “lined” with stainless steel, not progress, such much as the ruin of an art.

    Quality has been replaced with cheap stamped, low cost materials, heavily marketed to create consumer value for goods that just do not work.

    This is so common everywhere, even in the ideas of men today. Maybe we are now living in the “garbage age”.

    Enjoy your articles nonetheless. You are a copper craft historian.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, Bob. There is so much to learn and appreciate about these beautiful things and the people who made them.

  4. Really nice article. You can find videos of Japanese “raising copper vases” by hand on YouTube.

    I watched a few. You can see just how they form the bevels at the angle of the side to the base. They start with a round and end up with a vase.

    They still do this today. These are recent videos of the actual craft. Interesting in that the Japanese artisans make copper look like porcelain. When done, it’s a vase and it looks like glass, but it is copper.

    I have a few 1850 sautés. And I can feel the hammer work in what appears to be a perfectly edged, symmetrical and flat pan. But, looking closely I can see the same level of work patterning my pan that they do to make these vases today.

    The pans are hammered with a very distinct pattern to create a hammer design in the pan surface of beauty. Amazing. It is an actual design that repeats in the surface; it goes in columns around the pan, narrow, wide, narrow.

    1. I will go watch the videos. Copper is a beautiful metal and I think part of its appeal is that it bends and shapes itself so willingly under our hands.

  5. Great stuff & did a good bit of learning as always. Thank you.

    Was particularly interested in the tinning of the rim.
    Have done a few in the past & the method above is far easier than the method I use for sure.

    Might give it a go one day, but that would be a hell of a lot of tin for a 16″ stockpot!
    I reckon I can set something up so I can rotate the rim through a much smaller bath?

    Just found new hardback copies of “Art of Coppersmithing” on AbeBooks. £15.87 including free shipping from India so I had to have one for my collection.
    Maybe one day I’ll get round to reading them rather than just looking at the pictures & captions 🙂

    Should you ever find the old method for tinning in spigots on stockpots/consomme pots, I’d love to know.
    Not an easy task with more often than not a misfitting hole that allows the tin to pour out! I’m positive the old method will be far more efficient than the method I currently use?

    All the best & happy cooking, Steve

  6. Traditional craft methods are still very much valued and cultivated in Japan. Lovers are ready to pay top prices for the time-consuming production of exquisite pieces. I am thinking, for example, of handmade knives and samurai swords, handmade paper or certain lacquer work and much more. But you have to be able to afford the necessarily high prices! However, the technique that I saw in Japanese videos about the manual production of copper vases is not fundamentally different from the technique that coppersmiths use around the world. What is striking, however, is the high precision and attention to detail shown by Japanese craftsmen. A wide variety of everyday objects, but also furniture, sculptures and works of art can be made from copper. Here are 3 examples from Japan, Poland and the UK.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuuPeFV9W8M
    https://www.villagreta.pl/en/museum-of-copper-legnica/
    http://thecopperworksnewlyn.com/projects/

    Bob: As much as I appreciate handcrafted copper pans and cook with some “oldtimers” almost every day, I have to take note that today’s professional chefs and especially the star chefs use modern materials (mostly stainless steel with sandwich bases and “Teflon” pans). There is also no doubt that stainless steel-laminated copper has its merits and works great, as I’ve learned over decades. The global culinary culture proves that excellent dishes can be prepared with a wide variety of materials. The skill of the cook is crucial.

  7. Hello fellow readers, I recently purchased a stockpot similar to the above, but with the added tap. Its missing the inside grating (figure 181) but does have the “rails” for a grate. Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas on where I could have a replacement fabricated? Thank you.

  8. Does anyone actually know why on the old English pans have the tin around the outside rim? I can’t fine anything, both online and talking to coppersmiths, on if it served an actual purpose or if it was just decorative. Thanks.

  9. I purchased an old one that was missing the grate too. The coppersmith I took all of my cookware too is currently in the process of fabricating me a new one. I’d speak to one that you deal with and see if they can do the same.

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