Among other things I do in the SCA, I am a pewterer. Pewtercasting in the Middle Ages was done in molds of stone or plaster, although less durable wooden and cuttlebone molds were used as well. Like many pewterers, I use soft, smooth-grained stone, like soapstone, for my molds, and carve them by hand. Like medieval pewterers, I use simple hand tools: a saw, hand-drill, and carving tools.
My dominant wrist has a ganglion cyst pressing on nerves and blood vessels, so ease of work is more than usually important to me. Holding narrow items, like needles and pencils, causes numbness and pain rapidly (within seconds), and soon after, loss of grip strength and control. A work injury to the shoulder on that side and the early stages of arthritis have taken a further toll on my ability to use hand tools. Many pewterers use dental tools as a convenient, relatively easy to get set of stoneworking tools; so did I, but these have become almost completely useless to me except as class tools when I teach. My ability to carve fine details in my molds was rapidly disappearing, and with it, my desire to make things.
I had to find a way to adapt my tools for use with my increasingly recalcitrant hand. I’d noticed that I could hold large tools (like ‘chunky’ screwdrivers) for much longer than small ones. If I could make big handles, I would be able to use fine tools. And of course, if I was going to make the handles, I might as well make the tools as well.
I visited my friend Roger Wells and made large birch-wood handles (turned on his lathe) which are easy for me to hold and work with. They also have a slight taper and flare at the base, allowing me to grip and control them with great precision. I also cut grip grooves in each handle (I made three), grouped so that each has its own numerical and nerdy pattern (integers, odd numbers, and the first four digits of pi, in case you were wondering). I put each handle in my bench vise and drilled the holes by hand, using an old-fashioned drill. I finished them by rubbing with bayberry wax… I know it’s not European, but I grew up in New England and love the stuff, and at least it isn’t polyurethane 🙂
For the next step, I needed to set up my micro-blacksmithing rig. I am not a Real Blacksmith ™, no matter what the t-shirt ads on Facebook say, but I do have a tiny, tiny forge that sits on top of a propane torch. I used this, a hammer, large pliers, and a small anvil, made from a length of rail. I didn’t end up needing the jeweler’s anvil, but added the end-nippers and a file, as well as fine sandpaper and a piece of granite counter. I’ll explain in a minute. There’s also a can of water, for cooling and hardening the tools.
Two of the tool ends are based on the shapes of the tools I used most often, each combining several tools in one. These two points have replaced a dozen or more tools, and I only rarely think I might need a different shape for most applications… and then, I turn one of them, and there’s the shape I needed, after all! I heated and hammered each of these into the rough shape I wanted, bending one to get an angle seen in many of the dental tools I frequently used. I then used the fine sandpaper on the granite as a flat sanding surface to sharpen the cutting edges. Finally, I reheated the tips to glowing, and dropped them into the water to cool and harden them.
The third (center in this shot) is a specific, purpose-built tool, in use in the header photo to do the one thing it does best: making dots with circles around them. To do that, it needed to have two points, one of which was close to the center of the tool as a whole, and the other, off-center slightly. I heated and hammered down the nail’s point, then flattened out the tip and cut just the very end of it slightly off-center, let it cool, and filed the gap a bit. The points were too far apart, though, for the size of dots-and-circles that I wanted, so I heated it again, and hammered the two points closer, very, very carefully. I should be clearer: I did not actually hammer the points at all. I hammered on the wide point below the points, making it fold together. I had to repeat the process about three times before it was the size I wanted. Then I heated and hardened this point, too.
Before setting the tips into the handles, I sawed grooves into the bases of the tips to give the epoxy something to hold onto. I put epoxy on the bases of the tips and pushed them into place, then let them set for 24 hours.
I really can’t say enough how much making these tools has changed for me. I thought I might never make another pewter thing I could feel good about. My depression was all too enthusiastic about jumping on that bandwagon. Instead, my very next project was one about which I am actually quite happy, and whose making will be the subject of another entry.
PS: The micro-forge is awesome, but I can’t find them for sale anymore. For people interested, here is an excellent site with a couple of DIY designs, safely made, and links to the materials you’ll need.
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[…] carved detail in one side of my mold, using poplar wood for the back. I used simple hand tools (most of which I made myself) and carved in […]