Colonial Silversmithing Techniques

Written by robert alley
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Colonial Silversmithing Techniques
The art of silversmithing can be observed at Williamsburg. (Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Silversmithing in colonial America continued an English tradition brought to the colonies, primarily in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Silver had an inherent value of its own, so products made from silver were considered to be of great value. Colonial silversmiths relied upon certain techniques that allowed them to employ their talents to produce a handmade product.


Silversmithing begins with heat. Silver must be melted in order to transform it into a state where it can turned into a coffepot, bowl, spoon or other object. Silver melts at approximately 962 degrees Celsius. The colonial silversmith began by melting silver in a crucible, or container, which is subjected to heat of 1093 degrees Celsius. The higher temperature not only melts the silver, but turns it into a molten liquid. He then poured that molten substance into a mould to produce a solid silver bar, or ingot.


Producing a silver object from a silver bar requires a determination of the shape of the object. To make a spoon, the colonial silversmith used a template, or pattern, to mark the design and then hammered the bar into the spoon shape. For a coffeepot or bowl, he used a hammer to forge the bar into a sheet, which is cut into a circle. The silversmith then employed a technique known as raising, forming the silver into a hollow form. As the shape formed, the silver became thinner and could be stretched or raised upward by hammer blows from the outside.


Silver is a malleable metal. During the process of creating a spoon or bowl the silver at some point becomes too brittle and begins to harden. The colonial silversmith reheated the silver to continue the process. This technique involved heating without disturbing the shape. The object was heated to a glowing red hot and placed in cold water. This produced tarnished silver, which must be polished as a final technique.


A technique to produce the final shape and smooth features involved the use of small hammers. The silversmith used the hammers to carefully smooth out any defects and produce the final product. One last step involved the silversmith placing his mark on the item for identification. For an item with other parts, like a coffeepot, the spout and other items were forged separately and then joined with solder. Silversmithing techniques such as this one used by Colonial silversmiths like Paul Revere remain in use today at locations like the Golden Ball silversmith shop at Colonial Williamsburg and individual silversmiths carrying on the traditions.


The final technique involves polishing the silver to remove the tarnish. The polishing is done by hand using different abrasive compounds depending upon the item. For example, rouge is employed to produce the brightest finish. Other compounds include pumice or rottenstone, a limestone in powdered form.

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