Middlebury artisans sustain the craft of pewtersmithing
In a Middlebury grain-warehouse-turned-workshop, pewtersmith Fred Danforth sets a loud, heavy, spinning lathe into action. The tool would be as much at home in a machine shop as it is here, in Danforth’s private workshop at Middlebury-based Danforth Pewter . When Danforth takes a steel tool to the pewter disk on the lathe, industry meets craft.
Danforth, gray haired and boyishly cheerful, chooses a long steel rod with a wooden base from his wall of mostly handmade tools. “It’s one of my favorites,” he says. “I made this 35 years ago, and I still use it.”
With the lathe spinning at nearly 2000 revolutions per minute, Danforth braces the steel tool against a fulcrum and begins to pass it over the pewter disk. The metal bends like smooth clay under the pressure of the tool, thinning and transforming over the small “chuck,” or steel mold, anchored on the turning lathe.
“It’s just amazing what this metal can do,” Danforth says.
Thirty-five years is a blink in the long history of pewtersmithing in the United States. Pewter was a colonial mainstay, the stuff of everyday housewares, but it faded from prominence after the Civil War as ceramics and glass became more affordable. By the 20th century, the industry was all but nonexistent, and “pewter” conjured up images of fusty antique teapots and tankards.
Today, the eponymous company founded by husband-and-wife team Fred and Judi Danforth is slowly and quietly revitalizing the craft and consolidating what remains of the United States’ pewter industry. Since 1975, Middlebury-based Danforth Pewter has grown from a two-person operation into a bustling workshop with five brick-and-mortar retail locations — four of them in Vermont — and an online sales site. Sales grew 50 percent over the last 10 years, and the company is on track to grow another 5 percent this year.
Those sales have been bolstered by two major acquisitions in the past three years: the first in 2009 of Shirley Pewter, a company in Williamsburg, Va., that specializes in colonial designs; and the second, this year, of WT Wilson, formerly based in Rhode Island. Danforth brought production of those lines under its own roof and now operates Shirley’s historic shop in Williamsburg, Va.
The Middlebury workshop is so busy these days that Fred Danforth has been forced across the parking lot of its Seymour Street headquarters into a makeshift “R&D” workshop where he can design and experiment.
There, at the spinning lathe, Danforth works quickly. Within moments, the pewter disk has been transformed into a small cup with a beaded edge. He polishes the gray metal — an alloy of tin, copper and antimony — with a tiny scrap of sandpaper, and then moves to his workbench. He tips the cup upside down and stamps the Danforth mark — a lion rampart — on its base.
The lion is a nod to the family history that Danforth Pewter has resurrected. Fred Danforth grew up with a vague understanding that his ancestors were colonial pewtersmiths, but he didn’t pay much attention to the lineage beyond noting a few pewter antiques on his parents’ mantel.
To those in the know, however, the name Danforth is synonymous with classic American pewter. Thomas Danforth, one of Connecticut’s favorite sons and Fred’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, worked in pewter in the 1700s. He left his tools to his son, Thomas, whom Fred Danforth now describes as a “prolific” type — in work and family. (Another branch of the family also worked in pewter but was slightly less productive: “They enjoyed using their tankards at the end of the day,” Danforth says with a chuckle.)
Thomas Danforth II fathered six sons and a daughter, who also married a pewtersmith, and the family empire took off in earnest. The family’s molds were “precious cargo,” Fred Danforth says, and traveled between shops and generations.
By the 1870s, however, the last of the Danforth pewterers had closed shop. When Fred Danforth graduated from Middlebury College in 1972 with a degree in religion, he had no ambitions of reviving the trade; he yearned to be a fine woodworker. Then he met Judi Whipple, an aspiring pewtersmith. He fell in love first with the artist and then with her craft, and in 1975, after apprenticing together in New Brunswick, Canada, the newlyweds set up shop in Woodstock, Vt.
“We were babes in the wood. We didn’t know what we were doing,” Fred Danforth says.
They learned fast. Today, Danforth Pewter produces a staggering number of items — from picture frames to earrings to dinnerware to Christmas ornaments. Part of the workshop is devoted to casting, the oldest and most traditional technique for working with pewter. Judi Danforth creates intricate models using a set of Italian carving tools. Those are then translated into rubber molds where molten pewter — which melts at just 500 degrees Fahrenheit — can be intricately shaped.
A second type of pewter — “hollowware” — is shaped on the lathe, a process requiring mechanical know-how. The method, which Danforth has just demonstrated, is part potter’s wheel, part machine shop.
But even pewter casting, which permits mass production of a design, calls for an extraordinary amount of hands-on work. In the workshop adjacent to Danforth’s flagship store in Middlebury, about a dozen employees work on the manufacturing line. Every piece of cast pewter is sanded by hand before being polished in large tanks. Fred Danforth says the company’s pewtersmiths come from all sorts of backgrounds — “anywhere from a liberal arts education in religion to art school to people who have worked on cars.”
Over the 38 years since they launched their business, the Danforths have redefined the pewter industry in the United States. One innovation: They’ve added enamel color to some of their designs, which was “sort of like going from Kansas to Oz,” suggests CEO Bram Kleppner.
The company also updated the craft’s antiquated reputation by focusing on original designs with a modern look. The couple knew from the beginning that they didn’t want to replicate “Uncle Samuel’s tankard and Uncle John’s plate,” says Fred Danforth.
“A long history of charlatans” has tried to pass off modern pewter as antique designs, he adds, and the Danforths didn’t seek to join them. While tankards and heavy pewter cups are still part of their line, the company also produces sleek housewares and abstract, nature-inspired jewelry.
Judi Danforth, who designs all of the cast items, has trouble pinning down her aesthetic influences. “I try to keep true to knowing what I like,” she offers.
Meanwhile, the Danforths remain enthusiastic about pewter. The metal has its limits — the low melting point means pewter items can’t be used on the stove top or in the oven — but it’s also easy to work. Pewter is soft enough to shape at room temperature, for instance. It’s also easy to reclaim, which means that the workshop generates virtually no waste; any trimmings left over from casting or spinning pewter are melted down and reused.
But the Danforths realize that their generation of pewtersmiths is slowly exiting the business. The American Pewter Guild, which had about 25 members when the Danforths were starting out, is now defunct. The mini-resurgence that pewter experienced among craftspeople in the 1960s and ’70s is now seeing its biggest proponents retire. And the Danforths, nearly 40 years into their own careers, don’t have too many bucket-list items they still want to make.
“We’re close to making everything in the workshop that anyone could ever want,” says Fred Danforth — except, he adds with a laugh, catering to the “wizards and dragons” market.
“That’s because I’m so stubborn,” says Judi, who turns up her nose at the popular fantasy figurines that customers sometimes request.
Even so, the two have no intentions of putting away their tools any time soon. “It’s hard to imagine not making things,” says Fred Danforth.
Plus, they’re bent on ensuring that pewter sticks around. Neither of the two Danforth daughters, Bay and Sadie, is currently involved in the company. But, even as they rekindled the power of the Danforth name in the pewter industry, Fred and Judi Danforth elevated their business beyond a simple family affair. They knew early on that their efforts were best directed at design and brought in managers to run the business, handle retail and grow the company.
“We don’t want this business to go away,” Fred Danforth says.
Kleppner, for one, isn’t worried. He looks at the growing demand for made-in-America merchandise, coupled with the millennial generation’s enthusiasm for authentic, durable and handmade wares, and says that combination spells success for pewtersmiths.
“The conditions are right,” Kleppner says.