It’s a fact. Hardware doesn’t have to come from a catalog. You can make your own. The raw materials are inexpensive. You won’t have to buy lots of special metalsmithing tools, because most of the things you’ll need are already in your shop. Learning the techniques for working copper can be rewarding and fun. Annealing and work hardening were new to me, and may be to you, but cutting, hammering, and drilling are familiar to woodworkers.
Working copper is a BLAST!
I was pleased with the very first copper piece I made, and my results kept getting better the more I practiced. Once you’re familiar with the techniques, you’ll be able to make all the hardware for the Stickley-style sideboard or just about any Mission or Arts and Crafts style piece of furniture in a couple of weekends. If you decide to try making your own, I guarantee that you will enjoy the process and be thrilled by the results.
Materials and sources
For the sideboard you’ll need 2 sq. ft. of 48-oz. copper sheet stock (.064 gauge) for hinge straps and backplates, 3 ft. of 5⁄16-in. copper rod stock (AISI grade #110) for bails, 10 in. of 1⁄2-in. by 1⁄2-in. copper bar stock for posts, and 10 in. of 4-gauge copper grounding rod for post pins (Photo 19). Sheet metal and architectural metal fabricators are often willing to sell the small amounts of sheet stock you’ll need. Rod and bar stock is harder to find. Try salvage yards or order through the mail (see Sources, below). Grounding rod is available anywhere electrical wiring supplies are sold. You’ll also need pickling flux and silver solder, and perhaps a patinizing solution (see “The Look of Aged Copper,” below). All of these things are also available through the mail (see Sources).
The only specialized tools you’ll need to work the copper are hammers and a punch, something to pound on, a heat source, and places to heat and cool the metal.
You can buy real metalsmithing hammers (see Sources,), or use some elbow grease and make your own from inexpensive 16-oz. ball peen hammers. Be sure to wear eye protection when you try this.
Reshape one flat hammer face into a shallow dome (Fig. A, Planishing Hammer) using a disc or belt sander. The shape of the dome determines the size of the mark. I found a 5⁄16-in.-dia. mark the most attractive. Some areas that need texture are too small for the planishing hammer, so I domed the tip of a length of steel rod (Fig. A, Mini-planisher). Shape the face of the second hammer into a shallow-domed rectangle that slopes toward the handle (Fig. A, Forming Hammer). To quickly get the rectangular shape on this one, I cut away the unnecessary steel with a 41⁄2-in. cut-off wheel in my grinder/sander before moving to the disc sander for final shaping. You can do this whole job on the disc sander, but it will take longer. A third hammer face remains flat. Smooth and polish all of these faces with an orbital sander, working through sandpaper grits up to 600. Any blemishes left on the hammer faces will be transferred to the copper.
To achieve a crisp texture on the copper you must hammer it on a hard surface. Wood is not hard enough. I used a piece of 1⁄2-in.-steel plate for the hinge straps and backplates (Photo 2) and a massive steel block for the bails (Photo 13). I bought both at a salvage yard for next to nothing. Raising the crowned shape of the hinge straps and bolt heads can be done using a piece of maple13⁄4 in. by 4 in. by 12 in. (Photo 5) as a forming block.
You’ll need a high-output, self-starting torch and a tank of MAPP gas to get the copper hot enough to anneal it—propane won’t do. I made my own annealing tray by filling an aluminum cake pan with pumice stones ($5.50, see Sources) and used a plastic container for the quenching bath.
The annealing process
Copper is a malleable metal, soft enough to be worked easily. It can be hammered around forms or into molds, bent, stretched, or textured. However, as it is worked, it loses its malleability and becomes “work hardened.” Fortunately, some 6,500 years ago, at the beginning of the Copper Age, our ancestors discovered that heating work-hardened copper to a high temperature restores its malleability. This process is called annealing.
It may be necessary to anneal the same piece of hardware several times when forming the strap hinges and when working the rod stock to make the bails. It’s important to anneal whenever you feel the copper becoming work hardened—you’ll notice spring-back in the metal and see that it doesn’t respond as well to your hammering.
Annealing leaves a residue called firescale. Heating the backside of each piece will minimize the amount of firescale that gets on its face.
After annealing, all surfaces must be thoroughly cleaned with 400-grit wet/dry paper before they can be textured.
The look of aged copper
Although it’s strikingly beautiful when highly polished, the hardware will look even better if it has a mellowed patina. There are two approaches to achieve this:
You can patinize the surface chemically with a commercially available patinizing solution (see Sources). Pour the solution into a glass or plastic container and immerse the piece of hardware in it. The longer you leave the piece immersed, the darker it will become. When the effect you want is reached, put on a pair of rubber gloves and remove the piece from the bath. (Don’t touch the wet surface with your bare fingers—you’ll leave a mark).
Bury the piece in sawdust, press gently to wick away excess solution and set it aside to dry. Use steel wool to highlight the texture or areas that would be polished by use. A coat of paste wax will add luster. If something goes wrong, you can remove the patina entirely with steel wool and start over. It may take several tries to get the look you want. The hardware on our Stickley-style sideboard has a chemically patinized finish.
The other approach is much easier, and it always works—just let it age naturally. Within a few months, the polished shine will be replaced by a mellow tone that will continue to improve over time. This is the method recommended by Gustav Stickley himself. If you make the hardware before you build the piece it’s meant for, the hardware will have mellowed to the perfect patina by the time the piece is built.
Click any image to view a larger version.
Texturing sheet copper
The backplates for the pulls and the long hinge straps are cut from sheet copper, then hammered with modified ball peen hammers and other simple tools to create a textured pattern on the metal.
1. Saw the hardware pieces following paper patterns fixed to the copper sheet with spray adhesive. Copper is soft enough to cut on a bandsaw using a general-purpose, fine-tooth blade. Centerpunch all drill hole marks on the patterns, smooth all burrs and refine the edges with abrasives or files. Remove paper and adhesive residue, then polish the copper faces with 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper.
2. Create a hammered texture by striking the copper with a planishing hammer on a flat steel surface. Be sure to hammer the face—the side with the centerpunched holes. Practice hammering on scraps so you can get a feel for the metal and develop a hammering rhythm. Slightly overlapping each stroke creates a nicely balanced look.
3. Texture the edges of the backplates with a forming hammer to create a distinct border texture. After texturing, drill holes for screws and bail posts. Chamfer the bail post holes (Fig. D, below) and flatten the screw holes on the backside of each plate (Fig. F, below). Cut out the escutcheon hole in the door backplates last.
4. Anneal the copper as you work by heating it with a MAPP-gas torch until it glows a medium red. Once it loses its color, quench it in water. An aluminum cake pan filled with pumice stones works great as an annealing tray. The pumice stones don’t absorb heat, so it gets concentrated on the copper.
Shaping the hinge straps
These straps create the look of a real strap hinge, but they are strictly decorative: The doors are hung on standard butt hinges and the long copper straps are fastened to the door fronts with screws and tacks. They have a raised shape which is created by hammering them into a wooden form.
5. Make a forming block by carving a cavity in a thick piece of maple with a ball mill chucked in a drill (Fig. C). The convex shape of the hinge strap is achieved by hammering it into this cavity.
6. Pound an annealed strap into the forming block to create the raised center. Use the forming hammer. The strap will benddramatically as it is worked, but you can flatten it by gently tapping its top side with a non-marring mallet. Anneal thecopper when it becomes workhardened (see “The Annealing Process, above”.
7. Flatten the perimeter of the spoon tip with a polished, flat-faced hammer to create the border around the raised center.