Whitesmithing, or tinsmithing, is a much newer form of metalworking that developed in the late 1600s and gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although found worldwide, whitesmithing was popular in mainland Europe and especially Britain. Whitesmiths work with thin sheets of iron or steel that were dipped in molten tin to protect the metal from rust and provide a lightweight, aesthetically pleasing finish.
Whitesmithing got its name from the types of metals worked. Whitesmithing focuses on manipulating lighter metals such as tin and adding finishing touches to products produced by the blacksmith through cutting filing and polishing. Because the pieces of metal worked were both small and thin, tinsmiths had no need for large equipment like forges to heat the metal. They instead could shape the tin using various forms, hammers and mallets and cut it using punches and snips. Besides working the metal into various shapes, whitesmiths also sealed the seams of their products with lead solder to make them watertight. Soldering the seams required a tool called a loggerhead or soldering rod. This tool had a bronze tip that was heated and then pressed on the seam of tin projects to close it and make it water-tight.
Whitesmiths generally make smaller domestic goods. These products included: lanterns, kettles, candlesticks, spice shakers, and pans. Some whitesmiths focused their work on items similar to those of a blacksmith, but added more details to create a refined finished product. These included: locks, keys, small tools, stirrups, and buckles. Depending on the time period, location, and industry trends, whitesmiths created a variety of products ranging from strictly tin goods to smaller iron items.
How is Whitesmithing Done?
Tin, which is contained in an ore called cassiterite, was mined in various places, including perhaps most famously in the British county of Cornwall. Cornish mines provided tin to the ancient Romans when they occupied what they called ‘Britannia’; later, Cornish tin was exported to Bohemia and other centers of tinplate production as a raw material. But the secret of how tin was made to coat very thin iron plates was kept a secret for many decades, until a bit of early industrial espionage made the secret available to the English in the third quarter of the 17th century. The impetus for covertly acquiring this knowledge was declining tinplate availability in England. The English had been importing finished tinplate from the Bohemians and other producers for many decades. A shortage of tinplate, however, made them want to discover the secret of making it for themselves. An Englishman named Andrew Yarranton traveled to Germany in 1665-1667 with the express purpose of touring facilities and learning the process of making tinplate. Having learned the manufacturing process, Yarranton brought that knowledge back to England. Combining Cornish tin with thin iron sheets milled in Wales, British tinplate manufacturing took off rapidly.
Pure tin is an expensive and soft metal and it is not practical to use it alone but its non-rusting qualities make it an invaluable coating. Tin can also be alloyed with lead and copper to make pewter or alloyed with copper alone to produce bronze.
Although working tinplate was physically easier than blacksmithing, an adequate knowledge of whitesmithing required math, precision, and aesthetic know how in order to shape flat sheets of tin into three dimensional, functional, and beautiful items. For these reasons, whitesmithing was a trade traditionally taught through apprenticeships which usually lasted around four to six years. After completing an apprenticeship, tinsmiths sought employment at established whitesmith shops or opened their own. The average shop possessed at least one tinsmith but could have three or more during busy times.
In most whitesmith shops, each smith was assigned a specific task depending on their experience and specific expertise. One tinsmith would be in charge of tracing patterns on to tinplate and cutting out the shapes. Tin was frequently punched with ornate patterns to eliminate the need for glass panes in lanterns, cabinets, and other applications where it was important to fully enclose something but allow light and air to pass through. Punched tin was also aesthetically pleasing. Finally, another, perhaps more experienced smith took charge of shaping and basic assembly. Finally, a highly skilled craftsman would complete final assembly and soldering. Soldering was a finicky process in the 18th Century. Soldering was done with heavy loggerheads or soldering rods with copper heads placed in charcoal braziers. A smith added a tin alloy solder onto a seam and had to work quickly to close the seam with the hot soldering rod before it cooled down.
Importance of Whitesmithing to the Army
Tin plating was invented in the 13th or 14th century in Bohemia. Central Europe held a monopoly on the production of tinplate, with all tin goods available to greater Europe being manufactured and shipped from Germany. This status quo remained until end of the 30 Years’ War, which disrupted production in many industries and forced countries to start crafting their own tin goods or do without. Britain began manufacturing its own tinplate, albeit slowly and inefficiently. It wouldn’t be until the invention of the rolling mill in 1728 that tinplate could be made easily.
In the early 1700s, Britain banned production of tinplate and tinware in its Colonies to encourage dependence on imports. Tinplate consists of sheet iron coated with tin and then run through rollers. The British Iron Act of 1750 prohibited the erection of rolling mills in America. The export of tinplated steel and tin products was so important to the British economy that Parliament did what they could to keep tin and smithing supplies out of the hands of the Colonies (especially in America). Tin’s light weight and durability also made it the ideal material for an army on the move or any population where goods had to be shipped on rough roads over long distances. Furthermore, because of its bright appearance, mimicking silver, middle class demanded affordable yet beautiful goods to imitate those of the upper class, these were typically made from tin.
Despite the restrictions of Parliament, whitesmithing shops still managed to crop up in the Colonies. By the onset of the American Revolution, tinsmith shops existed in every major city and moderately sized town in the Colonies. Their wares were vital to the survival of the Continental Army and colonial militias. A whitesmith living in the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War commonly crafted canteens, small boxes, cups and plates for soldiers needing sturdy, lightweight personal items.