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Accidental fusion that signalled metallic harmony.

THE art of plating a precious metal onto base metal had been used since the 14th Century to silver iron or steel spurs, but this method - thought to be close plating - was extremely labour intensive and expensive.

This allowed almost any base metal to be covered with a thin skin of silver, but was reserved for small objects and those also with a sharp edge or pointed ends.

It was mainly used for cutlery but other articles requiring a degree of strength while looking impressive included harness fittings, spurs and stirrup irons, candle wick trimmers, and carriage door handles.

From the start, every surface had to be meticulously clean and smooth before being immersed in a flux of sal ammoniac prior to a coat of molten tin. This was then set aside to cool and harden before a shaped piece of beaten silver foil was placed on the tinned surface and pressed.

A hot soldering iron was then applied, especially around the edges, to smooth out any irregularities and melt the tin below the silver, which fused the top surface - the silver - to the base object. This was where the expert hand was required as excessive heat would only melt the thin silver foil instead of melding it to the base. It was then polished to a high shine.

Unfortunately, this process had many disadvantages; the silver covering was so thin it was very vulnerable to damp and heat, so wick trimmers were all too often damaged when held over the flame instead of beside it and as silver is soft, this slim coating was easily ruptured. The British weather was not at all conducive to this process.

This process also failed to allow any decoration and yet in spite of all these disadvantages, close plated objects were made in the great centres of silver-making, like London, Birmingham and Sheffield.

A development on this technique was fused plate, or Old Sheffield Plate, which applies silver to copper and actually melds them together, so that the result is a combined surface which reacts as one. This was made from 1740s to the mid 19th century and this process was also used abroad, notably in Russia and France.

It was discovered in 1742-43 by a Sheffield man, the cutler Thomas Boulsover, and, according to legend, it was while he was working on a repair to a silver-cased copper knife handle that he accidentally overheated it using a blow pipe. To his surprise both metals fused.

There is another story that he had a sheet of metal in a vice, but he couldn't get a good purchase on the sheet and so placed some coins in the vice as well. These were a copper penny and silver sixpence, when coins were really made of silver. Imagine his surprise to find, after heating, the coins had fused firmly together.

Boulsover continued his experiments with copper and silver and found that, after fusion, both metals worked in perfect harmony, having become a single unit and he quickly grew to appreciate the value of this discovery.

Old Sheffield Plate could act and be treated like solid silver, which drastically reduced the cost of manufacture. He produced innumerable small boxes for snuff, patch, pills or coins as well as buttons.

Despite his discovery, Boulsover never fully exploited it and soon another Sheffield man, Joseph Hancock, began making large plated ware from 1750s.

For all antiques and works of art advice, Jeffery Muse is always available on 029 2072 7980.
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 25, 2003
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