Candlesticks, buckles, bells, and sword hilts are just a few objects that Colonial Williamsburg founder Doc Hassell is called to manufacture.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is Behind the Scenes, where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I'm asking Doc Hassell, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's master brass founder. I think I know what that means, but when people talk about "founders" around here, there are so many different kinds that you get confused.
Doc Hassell: That's true. I think a lot of people have an image in their minds of what a founder is, but I think in a lot of cases, it's more of an industrial vision that they have of a big iron, steel foundry. But, foundries are sort of like smithing shops, in that there are a lot of different kinds. What a foundry is, really, is just any place that is doing metal work by melting the metal and then pouring it.
Lloyd: Oh, pouring it into a mold.
Doc: Casting, exactly. Smiths, on the other hand, usually were hammering, forging the metal.
Lloyd: They would heat it to make it malleable, and then beat it.
Doc: We heat it beyond that point to where it's liquid, it actually melts. Then we construct molds, and then pour the metal into that.
Lloyd: Let me see if I've got this right. You get used brass, you can melt that again, and repour it?
Doc: You can, you can. Pretty much most metals you can melt down and recast without hurting them. In the colonial period, that was the principal source of metal, because there was so little mining being done in the colonies. You could import raw metal from England, in most cases it wasn't illegal, but it was taxed. The idea was that a colony was supposed to be more of a market for English manufacturers, and we would be supplying raw material going back to England. So they didn't tax the finished goods that left England, but they did tax raw metal. We could get around it by just buying up old, broken, worn-out pieces that had been made earlier, and melt it and re-work it.
Lloyd: That's pretty much any kind of metal that you needed.
Doc: In the shop I work in, we work in a variety of metals, because this shop, in the 18th century, also worked a lot of different metals. The foundry that we work in was originally operated by the Geddy family, for a period of about 50 years, during the 18th century. Although it was normally advertised as a brass foundry, they also did do bronze alloys, which commonly are worked with brass anyway, because they're both copper-based alloys. They also did precious metals casting, mainly silver. I think largely because there was a member of the Geddy family, James Geddy, who was a silversmith. His brothers are actually the ones who ran the foundry, so they would do all the silver casting for him. We still do a lot of silver cast pieces for the silversmiths in cases where they have a part of something – maybe a spout to a coffee pot, or a border to a tray – something that would be awkward or unprofitable to try to hammer out. They might do their own casting, but if a foundry is convenient, a smith often will just farm that out. So we do a lot of work, even today, for the silversmiths in Williamsburg.
Lloyd: What would you cast in a normal week?
Doc: Well, there again, there is a tremendous variety. In general, in the kind of shop we have, and the Geddy brothers ran, was referred to as a small-works foundry. So, they weren't making just one type of thing, they weren't a candlestick maker, or a buckle maker, but a wide variety of pieces. They might do candlesticks, buckles, furniture hardware, coach work and harness work, bells, sword hilts, gun parts, door knockers, sundials – all of those are things actually that we know were done in the shop in the 18th century, and we still do in modern times.
Lloyd: So, if it's metal and small …
Doc: And cast, and it's a shape that was made by casting, by pouring, then we might do it.
Lloyd: You could, if you felt like it.
Doc: And in all likelihood, probably have at some point. We've even done parts for an 18th-century fire engine. Some years ago, a lot of the trade shops worked together, and we built a replica of a 1750 model Newsham fire engine. We did all the casting of the pump cylinders and valves and piping and so on. That was an unusual job, probably something that would have been done in England, rather than the colonies, but it was an interesting aspect.
Lloyd: You don't think of that, but if you have things like 18th-century fire engines, which are basically wood, but they have to have fittings on them, or it won't work.
Doc: Right. The parts that actually for the most part handle the water or something like that would be metal. So, the pressure tanks, and valves, and the actual pumping mechanism.
Lloyd: Gee, I bet that was fun.
Doc: It was, that was just one of many odd jobs you get in the course of the work we do.
Lloyd: How long have you done that?
Doc: I've been doing it for 30, I think it will be 38 years in the fall, all with Williamsburg. I served an apprenticeship in the foundry where I work now under Sven Berg, who was master before me, for many years. As you probably know, all the trade shops in Williamsburg utilize the apprentice system. It's usually a period of some years. In our case, usually a period of five or six years, a lengthy period.
Lloyd: A tailor's apprentice told me recently that his was seven years.
Doc: It varies with the person. In the 18th century, of course, it was an individual contract that had been signed, and there were certain sort of common periods. In many cases, it depended on when you started the apprenticeship, because they often ended at 21. Not always, but frequently. So if you started when you were 15, it was a six-year apprenticeship.
Lloyd: So if you started when you were 16, it was five years. That makes a certain amount of sense. On the theory that by the time you get to be 21, you pretty well ought to know what you're going to do.
Doc: If you started when you were 12, you probably did.
Lloyd: Any other fun thing, like the fire engine? That really fascinates me.
Doc: I don't know. We get a lot of jobs that perhaps are not odd items, but that we might make one time, and might never have to make again. I've made things like ice cream molds for the kitchens, pieces that they just need for a particular place in the Historic Area. So often today, things that are needed in the museum are not available. In the 18th century, you could go to a store and buy what you needed. Now, the tradesmen often have to make the things.
Lloyd: You can still go to a store, but there's nothing there that you need.
Doc: It's not going to look like what we need, exactly.
Lloyd: The little metal things around here probably come out of your foundry.
Doc: Well, not always, because you have a lot of things that are, of course, made by the blacksmiths. They probably do more general hardware than we do, iron being more of a functional metal in many ways. It wasn't as expensive as brass or bronze, it was stronger. So, many of the hardware fixtures around town, architectural hardware and so on, is done by the blacksmith.
But, you will see a lot of our work around. You'll see furniture hardware, you'll see it on the coaches and carriages. We just recently did a set of buckles, ranging from really big main brace buckles to much smaller ones, door handles and so on, for the newest coach that we got, which was the one that represents the royal governor's coach, the Dunmore coach. If you happen to be out and around, and you see that red and brown coach with the beautiful huge brass buckles, those are our buckles.
Lloyd: When you are there working away, and visitors wander through the door, what are they curious about?
Doc: A lot depends on the visitor. Sometimes they come with certain areas of curiosity, but a lot of times, it will just depend on what we're doing at the time. And of course, that, in a sense, is the way that we design our approach to history. We actually have working trade shops, and the visitor is able to walk into a shop, find actual living artisans that are practicing an 18th-century trade – same tools, same process. Whatever is going on is the thing that is likely to attract their attention and elicit questions. Our additional charge is also to use that sort of as a springboard, to talk not just about what we're doing at the moment, but a broader look at the trade, and a broader look at the people that practiced the trade, and the society at large, how they fit into the community.
Lloyd: I must be slow today, but it finally occurred to me: if you cast something, there's also a lot of handwork to file it down, or smooth it off, or whatever.
Doc: An enormous amount. Scraping, sanding, polishing, fitting, assembly – often 90 percent of the work time is in that. There's also a fair amount of time in making molds, the molds that we employ for the hotter metals, the metals like brass, bronze and silver. Those are actually not permanent molds, they're made from a molding sand, as it's called. It's actually sand with about one-fifth part clay, which acts as the binder for it. But they're good only for one pour. Every casting that we make, we have to make a separate mold for it.
Lloyd: So if you molded something in a brass mold, the molds might not be exactly the same?
Doc: Well, they will, for the most part. That's a good point you bring up. You'll see in our work, we often do make duplicates. We make a pair of candlesticks, they're pretty close. When you make a sand mold, you're not carving in the sand. In fact, that's actually impossible. The sand isn't even as moldable as clay. You have to shape it by packing the sand over a model, what we call a pattern. So, when we make a new piece, the first thing we do is make that pattern. Sometimes we'll do it in a soft metal, just working directly, hammering, filing, whatever. Sometimes, we'll carve it in wood or turn it on the lathe in wood, sometimes we might model it in wax or clay, or use a plaster cast. Probably wood and metal are the most common patterns. But, once we have a pattern, we can use that over and over again.
Lloyd: Because that never comes in contact with the hot metal, only the clay and the sand.
Doc: When you make the sand mold, you make it in sections, so you have at least a two-part mold. Envision a book or something you can open up. After you've packed sand on either side, you can open the mold up again, remove the pattern, then you reassemble the mold to actually pour in it.
Lloyd: That's how we get to duplicate items, because you've got a pattern, and you build the mold around it. So it's going to turn out looking pretty much like the pattern.
Doc: And you can also have multiple patterns. This morning, we were making molds for casting little copper rivets that are used by our coopers in making kegs and barrels that are going to be used for storing gunpowder. In that case, they don't use iron, because when they're repairing them at some point, you don't want to strike a spark. So it's all copper. With something like rivets, small little pieces, we put in about 15 or 20 maybe in the mold. We make duplicate patterns, so instead of having just one pattern, we'll make, say 10, 15, 20 of them. That way, each mold will have that many. That's as close as we get to mass production.
Lloyd: Well, I wouldn't call 10 mass.
Doc: Maybe not a mass, anyway.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.