Coppersmithing at The Copper Works Newlyn, Cornwall
In March 2022 Edward Crumpton and Jess Pearson travelled to The Copper Works Newlyn in Cornwall to visit Michael Johnson in his workshop for Edward’s learning experience. Here are Edward’s notes from his experience of visiting the copper works.
I spent the week learning Coppersmithing from owner Michael and his associates Adam and Harry. With my limited experience of working with copper, Michael wanted me to get to grips with the material, learning how it moved, formed and shaped by hitting it with different hammers and onto a variety of surfaces. I soon realised his main aim was to teach me to play. This came as quite a shock as I had initially thought that Coppersmithing was a methodical process and there were certain techniques and skills to learn before you could start hammering into copper.
I was given an introduction to gas safety so that I could anneal the copper. Annealing allowed the copper to soften and become more malleable to work with. When the metal was heating up, stunning colours shimmered and moved over the metal. This annealing process was something I readily practised throughout the week.
Michael was always telling me to push things – to see how far I could take the metal – which saw me heating it to over melting point, hitting it so hard that it split, bending it in opposite directions and hammering it on many surfaces. I found over the succession of hammering and annealing, with every hammer blow another part of the metal would move; for example, the edges would wrinkle if you hammered the centre. Being aware of this was quite important when it came to the form-making process.
The other important part of learning to coppersmith was the hammering action. This hand to eye coordination and repetitive action could only be practised through doing. The surface I was hammering on to for the majority of the time was a block of lead, which was often practised in Newlyn.
There are a number of ways to join copper and on one of the days, I learnt how to do this with rivets. Hand riveting is a simple technique that can be completed quite quickly with the right tools. Most of the morning was spent positioning and hammering rivets to join a piece of copper and brass together. Michael then showed me the chasing technique. This is the process of taking a blunt chisel and hammering it into the copper to indent a shape or pattern. Afterwards, you can flip the copper over and hammer the inside to make the shape protrude from the copper. I was told this was very popular with the fisherman who learned Coppersmithing in Newlyn.
It is quite usual for such a trade to exist in a quiet village in Cornwall and I was interested to hear about the how and why. From what I gathered, it was used as a pastime for fishermen in the winter months. This makes me think about how it connects to my work with rope and how knot tying was used by sailors as a pastime. Having this link has made me think more about how these two crafts can be linked in my practice – copper and rope.
Whilst I spent time in the workshop, Michael and his partners were working on a massive water fountain. The copper sheet was over 1m2 and it was amazing to observe how the piece took shape.
The last day was unfortunately cut short due to Michael coming down with a cold and I was unable to finish the week. He was very generous and let me take some scrap metal home to experiment with. We are planning on journeying back to Newlyn to finish the workshop sessions at the end of the summer.
On reflection, I came away with quite a different view of the way copper can be shaped and I was excited to experiment in the studio. One aspect I hadn’t realised was the fact I needed quite a few metal working tools and safety equipment to get started. Jess and I ended our week by visiting Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens which was a fantastic way to finish our trip.
Over the summer I plan to set up a coppersmith workshop in my studio and begin my own journey of Coppersmithing in North Devon.
Photos taken by Jessica Pearson