A tinsmith, sometimes known as a whitesmith, tinner, tinker, or tinplate worker, is a person who makes and repairs things made of light-coloured metal, particularly tinware. By extension it can also refer to the person who deals in tinware.
A whitesmith may work with tin, pewter, or other materials. A whitesmith who specializes in pewter work is known as a pewtersmith. Unlike blacksmiths (who work mostly with hot metal), whitesmiths do the majority of their work on cold metal (although they might use a hearth to heat and help shape their raw materials). The term is also applied to metalworkers who do only finishing work – such as filing or polishing – on iron and other "black" metals. Whitesmiths fabricate items such as tin or pewter cups, water pitchers, forks, spoons, and candle holders and it was a common occupation in pre-industrial times.
Training of tinsmiths
The tinsmith, or white smith, learned his trade, like many other artisans, by serving an apprenticeship of 4 to 6 years with a master tinsmith. He learned first to make cake stamps (cookie cutters), pill boxes and other simple items. Next, he formed objects such as milk pails, basins, cake and pie pans. Later he tackled more complicated pieces such as chandeliers and crooked-spout coffee pots.
After his apprenticeship was completed, he then became a journeyman, not yet being a master smith employing others. Many young tinsmiths took to the road as peddlers or tinkers in an effort to save enough money to open a shop in town.
Tinplate consists of sheet iron coated with tin and then run through rollers. This process was first discovered in the 16th century, but was hardly introduced to England until about the 1720s. Previously Great Britain had imported most tinplate from Hamburg.
The British Iron Act of 1750 prohibited (amongst other things) the erection of new rolling mills, which prevented the erection of new tinplate works in America until after the American Revolution. Certificates submitted by colonial governors to the British Board of Trade following the Act indicate that no tinplate works then existed though there were several slitting mills, some described as slitting and rolling mills.
Pure tin is an expensive and soft metal and it is not practical to use it alone. However it could be alloyed with lead and copper to make pewter or alloyed with copper alone to produce bronze. Today's tinplate is mild steel electroplated with tin. Its non-rusting qualities make it an invaluable coating. However, its quality depends on the iron or steel being free from rust and the surface tin an unbroken coating. When you see rust on a piece of tinware it is because the tin coating has worn away or been cut in the metal. The respective properties of the metals mean that corrosion once started is likely to be rapid.
The simple shapes made by the tinsmith required only a few basic tools. In addition to the big shears anchored in a hole in his bench he used hand snips and nippers for cutting. The tin was flattened on an anvil made of a block of steel. Straight and curved anvils (stakes) were used to turn and roll the edges of the tin. Solder was then used to join the pieces together; a soldering iron and fire pot were needed to do this.
History of tinsmithing
Tinwares were being produced in London by the 1630s, being known as Crooked Lane Wares (from the street where they were made). The Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers were incorporated as a separate London Livery Company in 1670. However, tinplate workers were widespread.
The tinsmith has been plying his trade in America since 1720. Colonial tinsmiths used tinplate, wire, solder, and a few simple tools to produce their wares. When tinplate was finally produced in America in the early 19th century the products of the tinsmith became more widely available. They in turn saw an increase in demand and a need to speed up production. This brought about the development of many ingenious hand powered machines which sped up production and helped the tinsmith meet the demands for his products. The goods were "brought to market" by peddlers.
- Minchinton, Walter E. (1957), The British tinplate industry: a history, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, p. 3