Metal Work

In discussing the artistic aspect of metal work, we have to take into

account the physical properties and appropriate treatment of the

following metals: the precious metals, gold and silver; copper, both

pure and alloyed with other metals, especially tin and zinc in various

proportions to form the many kinds of brass and bronze; lead, with a

group of alloys of which pewter is typical; and iron, in the three forms

of ca
t iron, wrought iron, and steel. All these have been made to serve

the purpose of the artist, and the manipulation of them, while

presenting many differences in detail, presents certain broad

characteristics in common which distinguish them from the raw material

of other crafts. Whether they are found native in the metallic state as

is usual in the case of gold, or combined with many other minerals in

the form of ore as is more common with other metals, fire is the primal

agency by which they are made available for our needs. The first stage

in their manipulation is to melt and cast them into ingots of a size

convenient to the purpose intended. Secondly, all these metals when

pure, and many alloys, are in varying degree malleable and ductile, are,

in fact, if sufficient force be applied, plastic. Hence arises the first

broad division in the treatment of metals. The fluid metal may, by the

use of suitable moulds, be cast at once to the shape required, or the

casting may be treated merely as the starting-point for a whole series

of operations--forging, rolling, chipping, chasing, wire-drawing, and

many more. Another property of the metals which must be noticed is, that

not only can separate masses of metals be melted down and fused into

one, but it is possible, under various conditions, of which the one

invariably necessary is perfectly clean surfaces of contact, to unite

separate portions of the same or different metals without fusion of the

mass. For our present purpose the most important instance of this is the

process of soldering, by which two surfaces are united by the

application of sufficient heat to melt more fusible metal which is

introduced between them, and which combines with both so as firmly to

unite them on solidifying. Closely allied to this are the processes by

which one metal is, for purposes of adornment or preservation from

corrosion, coated with a thin film or deposit of another, usually more

costly, metal.

Though hereafter electro-metallurgy may assert its claim to artistic

originality as a third division, for the present all metal work, so far

as its artistic aspect depends upon process, falls naturally into one of

the two broad divisions of cast metal and wrought metal. Both have been

employed from a time long anterior to written history; ornaments of

beaten gold, and tools of cast bronze, are alike found among the relics

of very early stages of civilisation, and in early stages both alike are

artistic. The choice between the two processes is determined by such

considerations as convenience of manufacture and the physical properties

of the metals, and the different purposes in view. When a thick and

comparatively massive shape is required, it is often easier to cast it

at once. For thinner and lighter forms it is usually more convenient to

treat the ingot or crude product of the furnace as mere raw material for

a long series of workings under the hammer, or its patent mechanical

equivalents, the rolling and pressing mills of modern mechanics. The

choice is further influenced by the toughness generally characteristic

of wrought metal, whereas the alloys which yield the cleanest castings

are by no means universally the best in other respects. Iron is the

extreme instance of this: ordinary cast iron being an impure form of the

metal, which is too brittle to be worked under the hammer, but is

readily cast into moulds, being fluid at a temperature which, though

high, is easily obtained in a blast furnace. Wrought iron, however,

which is usually obtained from cast iron by a process called puddling,

whereby the impurities are burnt out, does not become fluid enough to

pour into moulds; but on the other hand, pieces at a white heat can be

united into a solid mass by skilful hammering, a process which is called

welding, and, together with the fact that from its great hardness it is

usually worked hot, is specially distinctive of the blacksmith's craft.

In no other metal is the separation between the two branches so wide as

in iron. The misdirected skill of some modern iron-founders has caused

the name of cast iron to be regarded as the very negative of art, and

has even thrown suspicion on the process of casting itself as one of

questionable honesty. Nevertheless, as a craft capable of giving final

shape to metal, it has manifestly an artistic aspect, and, in fact,

bronze statuary, a fine art pure and simple, is reproduced from the

clay model merely by moulding and casting. We must therefore look for

the artistic conditions in the preparation of the model or pattern, the

impress of which in sand or loam forms the mould; the pattern may be

carved in wood or modelled in clay, but the handling of the wood or clay

is modified by the conditions under which the form is reproduced. And

lastly, the finished object may either retain the surface formed as the

metal solidifies, as in the case of the bronzes cast by the wax process,

or the skin may be removed by the use of cutting tools, chisels and

files and gravers, so that, as in the case of many of the better French

bronzes, the finished work is strictly carved work. On the contrary,

much silversmith's work, as well as such simple objects as Chinese gongs

and Indian "lotahs," after being cast approximately to shape are

finished by hammer work, that is, treated as plastic material with tools

that force the material into shape instead of cutting the shape out of

the mass by removing exterior portions of material. Attempts to imitate

both processes by casting only, thus dispensing with the cost of

finishing, are common, but as they dispense likewise with all beauty in

the product, even if they do not substitute varnished and tinted zinc

for better metal, their success is commercial only.

We have thus three characteristic kinds of surface resulting from the

conditions of treatment, marking out three natural divisions of the art:

and be it noted that questions of surface or texture are all-important

in the arts; beauty is skin deep. First, the natural skin of the metal

solidified in contact with the mould, and more or less closely

imitative of the surface of the original model, usually for our purposes

a plastic surface; secondly, there is carved, technically called chased,

work; and thirdly, beaten or wrought work, which in ornament is termed


Superimposed on these we have the cross divisions of the crafts

according to the special metal operated on, and in the existing

industrial organisation the groups thus obtained have to be further

divided into many sub-heads, according to the articles produced; and

finally, another commercial distinction has to be drawn which greatly

affects the present condition of handicraft, that is, the division of

the several trades into craftsmen and salesmen. There can be no doubt

that the extent of the existing dissociation of the producing craftsman

from the consumer is an evil for the arts, and that the growing

preponderance of great stores is inimical to excellence of workmanship.

It is, perhaps, an advantage for the workman to be relieved from the

office of salesman; the position of the village smith plying his calling

in face of his customers might not suit every craft, but the services of

the middleman are dearly bought at the price of artistic freedom. It is

too often in the power of the middleman to dictate the quality of

workmanship, too often his seeming interest to ordain that it shall be


The choice of a metal for any particular purpose is determined by

physical properties combined with considerations of cost. Iron, if only

for its cheapness, is the material for the largest works of metal; while

in the form of steel it is the best available material for many very

small works, watch-springs for instance: it has the defect of liability

to rust; the surfaces of other metals may tarnish, but iron rusts

through. For the present only one application of cast iron concerns

us--its use for grates and stoves. The point to remember is, that as the

material has but little beauty, its employment should be restricted to

the quantity prescribed by the demands of utility. Wrought iron, on the

contrary, gives very great scope to the artist, and it offers this

peculiar advantage, that the necessity of striking while the iron is hot

enforces such free dexterity of handling in the ordinary smith, that he

has comparatively little to learn if set to produce ornamental work, and

thus renewed interest in the art has found craftsmen enough who could

readily respond to the demand made upon them.

Copper, distinguished among metals by its glowing red tint, has as a

material for artistic work been overshadowed by its alloys, brass and

bronze; partly because they make sounder castings, partly it is to be

feared from the approach of their colour to gold. Holding an

intermediate position between iron and the precious metals, they are the

material of innumerable household utensils and smaller architectural


Lead, tin, and zinc scarcely concern the artist to-day, though neither

plumber nor pewterer has always been restricted to plain utilitarianism.

Gold and silver have been distinguished in all ages as the precious

metals, both for their comparative rarity and their freedom from

corrosion, and their extreme beauty. They are both extremely malleable

and very readily worked. Unhappily there is little original English work

being done in these metals. The more ordinary wares have all life and

feeling taken out of them by mechanical finish, an abrasive process

being employed to remove every sign of tool-marks. The all-important

surface is thus obliterated. As to design, fashion oscillates between

copies of one past period and another. A comparison of one of these

copies with an original will make the distinction between the work of a

man paid to do his quickest and one paid to do his best clearer than

volumes of description. Indeed, when all is said, a writer can but

indicate the logic that underlies the craft, or hint at the relation

which subsists between the process, the material, and the finished ware:

the distinction between good and bad in art eludes definition; it is not

an affair of reason, but of perception.