Colonial Whitesmith's Tools

By Dan Harkins
Tin has been crafted for centuries into various consumer products.

In colonial times, tinners or whitesmiths -- called tinkers or tinsmiths after the Civil War -- used thin sheets of iron coated with tin to craft various durable products for early Americans, from spoons and forks to plates and cups. Early on, the tools of this trade were fairly straightforward. The intricacy of the final products, conversely, were as simple or ornate as the skill of each whitesmith.

Tinplate

The main material of the colonial tinsmith was tinplate, thin iron sheeting that's treated with a special metallic coating that inhibits rusting. Whitesmithing saw a decline in the colonies when England stopped shipping the base material to the colonies during the Revolutionary War. A resurgence came shortly after the war ended, when the colonies started making their own tinplate.

Fire Working

Similar to a blacksmith's shop, a fire hearth was a staple of the colonial tinsmith. Tinplate was quickly heated to malleable form, then moved by tongs to a large anvil for manipulation by hammers made of material such as rawhide to resist damaging the tin surface. Anvils were made with curves and small dips to hammer bends into tinplate, such as the dip of a spoon or the walls of a bucket.

All Shapes and Sizes

A heavy-duty version of scissors, called shears, was used to trim and cut heated tinplate into various shapes. Nippers, snips and punches also were used to further ready the raw pieces of tinplate for final assembly. Raw tinplate was often hammered around mandrels of various sizes, depending on the final product being made. For instance, tin for a cup would be moved to an anvil, then be hammered around a spherical mandrel made of iron to shape it into cylindrical form.

Soldering

Both a noun and a verb, this material is used to join, or solder, two pieces of pre-cut tinplate together, such as an long rectangular piece to a squat, cratered oval to make a spoon. Colonial whitesmiths heated solder in crude "guns" to distribute soldering wire along joints of two pieces. The joint was then cooled to form a watertight seal. Various clamps were employed to hold materials in place while being joined and cooled.

Decline of a Trade

As the Industrial Revolution progressed across the new country, the role of the whitesmith and blacksmith slowly became obsolete as mechanical advancements made it possible to mass-produce many of the consumer products once made and marketed by the tinker shop downtown.

About the Author

Dan Harkins has been a full-time journalist since 1997. Prior to working in the alternative press, he served as a staff writer and editor for daily publications such as the "St. Petersburg Times" and "Elyria Chronicle-Telegram." Harkins holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of South Florida.