No matter where you are in the world, it’s likely the craft of metalworking impacts your daily life, and for a good reason. Metalworking affects the shape or subtle details of a car or building, as well as the most delicate and intricate pieces of jewelry. Creating everything from tools to beautiful ornaments encompasses the fields of art, science, and sociology. In fact, shaping steel, chrome, pewter, copper, and aluminum into trinkets and family heirlooms is one of the oldest forms of metalworking.
For Beauty, Money and War
This craft spans over cultures and continents. Most impressively, it spans millennia as a technology that appears as early as 5,000 BCE. The oldest evidence of metalwork was in the form of a copper jewelry pendant found in northern Iraq dating back to at least 8,000 BCE. In the Americas, the earliest dating copper was found in modern Wisconsin, where it is evidenced that the metal was heated and worked.
In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of precious metals first being attached with societal and monetary value in the time of the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Mayan Empire in the Americas. This was the catalyst that spurred the rich tradition of metalworking to the forefront of human society. It was at this point when rules of trade, ownership, and distribution were widely agreed upon in several different cultures, many with no conceivable connection between them.
It stands to reason then, that the human attraction to the art of metalworking was no mere isolated incident. At this point in history, metalworkers from all around the world were already skilled in making tools, such as agricultural and military equipment, as well as handmade giftware to celebrate holidays and life events and personal adornment. The techniques used by early crafters from several different and separate cultures (even before history shows that these cultures would have been able to share knowledge with one another) are often those still in use by artists today.
A Labor of Love
Whether metalworkers are creating a bracelet, plate, or some other invaluable piece that will be loved by generations, the metalwork is broken into stages: casting, forming, cutting, and grinding. Really, the first step in the process is to measure a chunk or sheet of metal, keeping in mind the vague size and shape of the desired finished product. To do this, craftspeople transfer or “mark out” a design on the metal, and this is where the vision starts to become a reality.
Casting: If you’re a layman in this particular field, the casting and forming stage will probably seem most familiar to you. If you’ve ever seen someone heating metal in a forge until it is red hot or even molten, you know what this stage has looked like since ancient times. The molten metal is poured into a cast made to look like the desired product. This is typically how the daintiest of rings or necklaces get their start. Alternatively, the tradesperson actually molds the metal that has been turned soft by incredible heat. This begins the forming process.
Forming: Here is where the real work begins and the item begins to take shape. There are many different ways to do this, most involving pressure and even more heat. Traditionally, forging was done by the same blacksmith who heated the metal. This individual would give the piece repeated and precise strikes with a hammer, heat it again once it started to cool too much to be flexible, and hammer it again.
These days, however, technology has gifted us with such innovations as hydraulic presses and automated temperature control, though many of the more artistic metalworkers still enjoy doing it the old-fashioned way. Forming can leave gentle ripples in the item, which you will probably recognize as the ever popular hammered texture of jewelry and some other metal keepsakes.
Cutting: This stage involves getting rid of the excess bits of metal. These are shaved, cut, and broken away using a variety of tools to create the final shape of the dinnerware, clock case, wall decoration, or other heirloom treasure. At this point in the process, metalworkers no doubt feel a sense of artistic relief. Finally, they are at a point where the fine processes of perfecting the metal come into play.
Grinding and Milling: Milling is a more complex act of removal, which is usually done with drill-like apparatus and even rotating tables. During this stage, polished items, like some jewelry or pieces that will eventually be etched with lovely designs, are given a more smooth and shiny surface. When the piece is nearly complete, particularly if it is larger, grinding wheels allow crafters to add the finishing touches by carefully removing very fine bits of the metal.
Metal in Your Life
This ancient art affects many aspects of your modern life. There are points on an ordinary day when you can be simultaneously using, wearing, and standing inside pieces of extraordinarily designed metalwork. These artists and tradespeople have worked tirelessly to perfect their craft over the course of centuries, and the family heirlooms they create can be adored by your family for just as long.
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