Friday, June 10, 2016

Why Pushing Copper?

I call this blog pushing copper because that's mostly what I do in my work. I push metal around with hammers, punches, stakes, pliers, my fingers, anything that will do the work of shaping the piece from its original form into the form I want. Metal is plastic, like clay. Really stiff clay, but still plastic. Hit it and it deforms. It bends, squishes, thins or thickens, all depending on the direction of the force applied. The tools just make it possible to apply that force in the desired direction and location.

Iron and steel are cheap and readily available. But they have to be heated to make them soft enough to work by hand. That adds a level of difficulty to the task; you have to be able to hold the work as well as the tools and you can't get too close or you risk getting burned. Silver and gold can be worked by hand at room temperature. That's an advantage. You can hold onto your work and get very close to it. Or you can fix it into something like wax or pitch. That leaves both hands free to hold the tools for shaping the metal. But precious metals are expensive. That makes mistakes expensive.

Copper and its alloys are a wonderful compromise. They are relatively inexpensive and they can be worked at room temperature. Copper, brass, and bronze have beautiful warm colors and can take a wide range of patinas. Copper is particularly malleable. It works easily under the hammer and the experience of shaping it is relaxing, almost meditative.

Copper is also the first functional metal that humans learned to work, around 11,000 years ago. It can be found in native form, as metal not ore, so early humans learned the uses of metal before they learned how to smelt it. Silver and gold can also be found this way, but they are rare and are too soft to make functional use of. Around the same time that humans began cultivating crops, some 9,500 years ago, they learned how to smelt copper from its ore. Humanity was on its way to civilization.

The work I do in copper and copper alloys is based on the tools and techniques learned in this deep history. It gives me a sense of connection to the artisans of the past; knowing that they would recognize much of what I do as their craft.

Copper is one of the seven ancient metals: gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and mercury. The ancients associated each of them with a deity and a bright feature in the sky. The names and sometimes the genders change depending on the culture. Of the seven, only one was always female: Copper, the Queen of metals.

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