Reviving the tinsmith business with Ian Morgan

Reviving the tinsmith business with Ian Morgan

Ian Morgan is a tinsmith who has been hand-making products from light sheet material, such as galvabond, copper, brass and zinc, for over 30 years. Three years ago Ian set up his own tinsmithing business called Tinkers World where he sells his products and shares his tinsmithing skills through workshops. While Ian’s passion for the handmade fuels his business, the pathway to becoming a tinsmith in Australia presents many challenges.

Traditionally, a tinsmithing apprenticeship took six years to complete, and while the tinsmith trade still exists in Britain and North America, in Australia it has been spilt into two main trades: plumbing and sheet metal work. Additionally, an alteration in the tinsmithing trade has occurred due to the introduction of new technologies and materials, particularly plastic, which are now used to create the common household items that tinsmiths traditionally tinkered.

In order to sustain his practice in the current economy, Ian focuses on creating objects for consumers seeking goods that emphasise the uniqueness and character of handmade objects. The Apprenticeship curators Richard Stride and Aaron Barton recently caught up with Ian in his workshop to discuss the nature of tinsmithing in Australia and how he maintains his practice in today’s economic climate.

See Ian’s work in The Apprenticeship until 25 June 2016.

How long have you been working as a tinsmith, and what drew you to it initially?

I have been working with these sheet metals for over 30 years. Initially I was drawn to tinsmithing as a high school teacher. Then I decided to establish my small business, Tinkers World, about two-and-a-half years ago.



Ian in his workshop. Image courtesy of the artist.


What has been your favourite project or product and why?

I really like creating copper bowls from flat copper sheet. It takes a long time but at the end of the process it literally is a work of art. No two bowls are the same; they all have their own character.



Image courtesy of the artist.


What does a normal work day look like for you?

I start late (8:30am) each day, either I am manufacturing to clients specifications or producing stock for my shop.


How was tinsmithing traditionally learnt in the past, and does this path still exist?

This traditional trade [tinsmithing] used to be gained via a 6 year apprenticeship. This trade technically does not exist in Australia; it is split into two main areas: plumbing and sheet metal work.  However, the tinsmith trade still does exist in Britain and USA.


Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.


What pressures do you think have led to the traditional pathway of learning becoming problematic today?

The demise of extensive use of tinware in homes has been influenced by technology and the rise of plastic plastic and polymers such as ABS, nylon and fibre glass as substitutes.


What has been some of the main challenges in acquiring this knowledge and skills?

To thrive in the future, the tinsmithing industry needs to have trained skilled workers to pass on their knowledge. Unfortunately, there are not many people with these skills, and therefore assisted by Google and old text books, much of the skills are now self-taught.


You recently opened your own tinsmithing business. How challenging do you think it is for others to achieve this today?

I have established my business, which is still embryonic, but I am not yet making a viable living. It’s early days. A two-year old business will rarely be functioning at the required monitory level.


Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.


Have you had any mentors? Or have the skills of your trade dissipated and needed to be relearnt?

I originally learnt these skills at college studying to teach metal work in high schools. Since I started the small business, I have had the occasional visit from old plumbing and sheet metal tradesmen.


Are there any speciality tools required for your tinsmithing, and if so has it been challenging to find and learn to use them?

I require many specific tools such as the small anvil tools (bic iron, hatchet stake, funnel stake, creasing iron) are not made in Australia. If one cannot obtain second hand tools, they need to be imported from the USA or England. The old soldering irons cannot be purchased readily from hardware stores. A tinsmith must find second hand irons or manufacture their own.


How can a future apprenticeship model for tinsmithing give makers the skills they need to establish themselves today?

The equivalent trade course would be a TAFE course straddling two or three set existing trades, namely plumbing, sheet metal working, and panel beating. Tinsmithing could draw from different TAFE modules to nearly complete an apprenticeship.


Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.


Are the products you make also produced on a large scale by mass-production, and if so what has that meant for the design and quality of the products?

Yes, the products I make can be found in large hardware chains (Bunnings, IKEA, Masters) imported from China, Taiwan, India. The beauty of handcrafted items is lost in the mass produced articles. Many old tinsmiths had a style quite unique that set them a part of other tinsmiths.


How has today’s marketplace, with abundant mass-production, affected what you make and how you make it?

Mass production can make the same products we make, but with such sterile uniformity; this is great in one sense but sad in another.  With handmade items, no two items will be exactly identical, which gives the items a real individuality and character of their own.


Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.


Image courtesy of the artist.


Is there a revival of the traditional means of production in tinsmithing today, and if so why do you think that is? Are makers creating new value in traditional production methods or are consumers now simply perceiving value in it?

I’m not sure if there is much change in the manufacture of most items. Yes, one can buy mass produced articles at very low prices, but the individuality of handmade tinware is quite unique. Each tinsmith has their own special style that is reflected in their work; be it the number of beading rings or the way they make handles. Consumers are looking back to handcrafted items but are also looking at the modern twist to enhance old tinware items.


What skills have been important in contributing to a revival in tinsmithing in today’s economy that were not historically a part of this work?

There are not many new skills in the making of tinware, but some newer equipment like the LP gas cylinders to run the soldering ovens, spot welder to join metal together, and some air tools like a pop riveter and shears have contributed to a revival in tinsmithing


As a contemporary craftsperson, how are you making this craft relevant and shaping it for the future?

I make a lot of traditional items but often try and create interesting variations that make the old wares suitable to today’s trends.


Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.