Meet the Tinsmith

For the first time in decades, a new historic trade joins the tradition of craft in the Historic Area. This week, meet Steve Delisle, the first tinsmith in the Revolutionary City.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area has long been home to scores of historic tradespeople, everything from apothecaries to tailors, wig makers, shoemakers, coopers, carpenters. The list goes on. There are more than 24 historic trades in all, but today it is a real privilege for me to introduce a new tradesman, the tinsmith. Steve Delisle is our guest today. Thank you for being here today, Steve.

Steve Delisle: My pleasure.

Harmony: This really is exciting. I feel like I’m lucky to be here at Colonial Williamsburg at a time like this because these trades are so revered and they’re so such long-standing institutions that to be able to welcome a new trade’s person is exciting. You’re at the cusp of a new tradition.

Steve: Well, you can imagine how lucky I feel to be the first tinsmith here.

Harmony: So tell me a little bit as we’re meeting you, let’s see, you’re joining us at the Armory complex. We’re just about to reopen our interpretation of Anderson’s Armory. This used to be interpreted as just Anderson’s Blacksmith Shop, but Colonial Williamsburg now is interpreting this area, we’re presenting it to our viewers as it would have been during the time of the Revolution. Tell me how your trade comes into that story and on to that site, on to that complex?

Steve: Well, we represent the tin shop that was in operation there between 1778 and 1780 and tin wares in the period were mostly related to vessels used for either food preparation or simply vessels for food. And this kind of tin ware was found in all the kitchens, used by everyone. Everybody would have been very familiar with tin ware.

Harmony: So help me picture this. Would this be a coffeepot, plates and spoons, what types of things?

Steve: Well, mostly what we made in that shop were kettles for soldiers to cook their food in, but we also see things like coffee pots, cups and saucers, but it’s not only limited to vessels for food preparation. We also see on the list things like lanterns or speaking trumpets that are mostly used by the Navy.

It might be surprising to find a shop that mostly is making vessels for food preparation as part of an armory, but you have to remember that an army marches on its stomach. So these vessels are for food preparation, very important logistically, as important as the work that’s being done next door in the blacksmith shop refurbishing weapons.

Harmony: So that’s what the tinsmith is doing here. Tell us about your background. How did you come to join us here?

Steve: Well I was always in metal fabrication all my life as a tool and die maker mostly, but I always had a strong interest in history. Eventually these interests collided, so I’m now instead of making objects that will be sent in space or used on battlefields or used for making objects out of plastic which was what I was making as a tool and die maker machinist. I decided to go back in time and continue that interest in metal fabrication, but 18th century.

Harmony: How did you come to wrap your head around this trade and how it was carried out in the 18th century? Did you have to unlearn things that you knew from your modern practice?

Steve: Yes and no. I was always very good at benchwork so even though I was working in these modern environments I was always the one in the shop that could do the things by hand quicker and faster sometimes, so I would end up with a lot of benchwork so I always had a knack for making objects out of metal by hand. I also volunteered in the blacksmith shop several years ago specifically to understand how objects were made during that time.

Harmony: From what I understand, molding iron as the blacksmith does and molding tin are two very different processes. The mediums behave quite differently.

Steve: Yes. I like to compare tin smithing as being somewhat halfway between what a silversmith does and a tailor, in that the tin is kind of a material that’s flat; it’s like two-dimensional. And we work with patterns so we trace the parts that we need to cut out and then we form them and seam them and assemble various parts to form usually containers, vessels for food preparation or food service.

But we don’t forge our metal, we don’t push the metal to its limits. It comes to us in sheets that are specific sizes and thicknesses and we don’t forge. We simply form. We might push our material a little bit to give it more like le presse works sometimes, but it’s very, very rare. Usually what our product resembles geometric forms; cylinders, truncated cones, objects like that.

Harmony: How are you learning about the craft in the 18th century and the individuals who are practicing it?

Steve: Traditionally, most crafts are learned through apprenticeship, so typically seven years or in the case of a man who had learned on his 21st birthday.

Harmony: But this is a luxury that you yourself didn’t have at Colonial Williamsburg in our Revolutionary City.

Steve: …No.

Harmony: Most people learning the trade have the luxury of studying under a master, but you’re coming in without having had that opportunity to learn from somebody else. So how did you teach yourself?

Steve: Well, part of it is practicing by myself, buying the tools and practicing, but I did get my basic notions from other tinsmiths. There are still many tinsmiths, just like there are many blacksmiths, who are practicing that trade or that craft using traditional methods. I was fortunate to be well-guided from the start by good tinsmiths and once I got my basic notions I just practiced on my own, very seriously, buying the tools.

There’s so many tools that are available. Usually they’re more like 19th century tools that are still available, but some of the forms are persistent and a lot of the stakes, those specialized anvils that we use, they’ve not changed very much from the 18th century to the 19th century.

Harmony: Now many of our tradesmen and tradeswomen in the Revolutionary City are patterning their interpretation or patterning their shop after some individual from the historic record. Are you able to pattern your interpretation or take or enlighten your interpretation from a tinsmith of the period that you’re able to study?

Steve: We know the name of only one of the tinsmiths who was working in the tin shop, the Armoury. His name is Nathaniel Nuthall. So he shows in the records, but we still have to research that fellow to learn more if we want to be able to do that kind of interpretation. So right now is pretty much a generic interpretation.

Harmony: What do you know about, Nuthall, is it?

Steve: Only not very much. He shows in the records. We know that he’s being hired, paid for the work in the tin shop, but not more than that.

Harmony: As we’re welcoming you here to the Revolutionary City and welcoming you to the historic trades program, I can’t help but think about how many trades people I have interviewed who have talked with such reverence about the masters that came before them. What are your feelings as you begin you’re…you’re the inaugural tinsmith, you’re starting a tradition? Do you feel like you have big shoes to fill? Do you feel that you’re at the head of something great?

Steve: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of responsibilities. Williamsburg is a class act. We have to do things at a standard and I think we’ll meet that challenge because we’re so enamored with our trade. When you’re in love everything is easy and we certainly have a lot of people here who love what they’re doing so it’s a lesser effort. It’s not an effort at all.

Harmony: Well we really are excited to have you here and I hope that all of our guests get a chance to come see you working in concert with your fellow trades who are at Anderson’s Armoury Complex. When and where can they see you interpreting the tinsmith trade?

Steve: We are right next to the blacksmith shop within the Armoury compound so as you walk into the blacksmith’s, the forge, that is we’re right on the right hand side of that building. The blacksmith’s shop is painted white and we’re the red building right next to it.

Harmony: So head to the red building and meet

Steve Delisle. Learn about the tinsmith shop.

Steve: And my apprentice Joel Anderson.

Harmony: Oh, and the apprentice, of course. We have to start the tradition. We should also mention that we are grateful to donors Bill and Judy McMillan for their help with the reconstruction and securing some early tinsmith tools. A lot of our programs would not be possible without our donors so we want to express our gratitude.

Steve: No, no. There help is invaluable. They gave us our basic collections of tinsmith tools that the blacksmiths have reproduced so that I have correct period tools to work with. Also, they have been the consultant on the project, the tin shop project. It would not have been possible with the quality that we have now without their help.

Harmony: It’s a great site and a great interpretation. We’re so glad to have you here, Steve. Thank you for being our guest today.

Steve: My pleasure.