Carving Pewter

Q: Can you carve pewter like wood? Is that a good way of working it?

A: Pewter is a term used for a variety of alloys, but for the purpose of this discussion we’re talking about Brittania metal, which is 96% tin, and 4% antimony, although you can carve pure tin as well—the addition of antimony helps its casting properties. Some pewters contain lead, but there’s no reason to start carving that and spreading lead around your place. Pewter is easy to work with in most respects. It works just like you’d expect, as a metal. It doesn’t have grain like wood, and unlike plastic, it won’t melt from the heat of burr-carving. It’s a soft metal, and a dull burr will “drag” it around some. But almost any decently sharp steel or carbide cutter will be fine. Coarser teeth will load less, and cut faster, but leave a coarser surface, as you’d expect. As with any metal cutting process, a lubricant of some sort will help. Beeswax, Burrlife or similar commercial burr lubricant, or even just plain light oil should help, mostly by slowing down the loading of the burr, and the heating-up of the burr and the pewter.

Unlike with wood or plastic, you have a few other intriguing options with pewter besides carving. You can make models in clay or wood, or whatever, and make a simple plaster of Paris mold, just as one might do for pouring ceramic slip. Make sure it is dried, maybe with a kitchen oven, to remove moisture; but it doesn’t have to be fired in a kiln. We’re talking kitchen technology here, nothing special is needed. Melt the pewter over a stove burner (with ventilation, of course, to outside air.) The advantage of this is that you can save a lot of carving if your basic lump of pewter is pretty close to what you’ll want to end up with. Don’t expect this method to give you great surfaces, but it does work. You can even pour pewter into constructed molds made of, say, plywood. The molds won’t last long, but you could get a couple casts out of one. Pewtersmiths routinely did that sort of thing to make, say, handles for a pot. The castings were then filed and chased and carved and additionally worked, of course, after that.

Remember that pewter not only does not work harden, it actually softens some as you work it. This means you can use hammers and punches and the like to model a surface to your heart’s content, without worrying about annealing. The metal is soft enough so that general forming, such as is done with sheet metal, can be done using punches made of hard wood or plastic. Metal tools aren’t always needed…To actually chase designs into a more rigid surface, you’ll need steel tools. But you can make them of old nails if you like. High quality steel isn’t needed here. What I’m getting at with this is that simply carving into a large lump of pewter is going to be wasting a lot of time and metal. If you start with a casting, then use a combination of punches with your carving techniques, you can develop lots of details without having to actually remove all that much metal.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.