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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

November 9, 2011

Tinsmithing at the Armoury.

Reproduction tinned iron tankard.

Nathaniel Nuthall was hired by James Anderson on June 25th, 1779 as a “tinman”.  Just what is a “tinman” and why was he needed in an Armoury?

 First, a look at tin.  What we call tin, or tinplate, is actually thin sheet iron coated with tin.  Pure tin is too soft for use in the manufacture of utensils.  Iron, while much stronger, oxidizes (rusts) readily and in thin sheets will deteriorate rapidly.  Applying tin to the surface of thin sheet iron protects the iron from exposure to oxygen, preventing oxidation while creating a shiny surface.  Tinned iron is strong, light, corrosion resistant, and easy to clean.  Flat sheets of tin can be formed into three-dimensional shapes by cutting, seaming, bending and soldering.

 Tin plate was produced in standard sized sheets, most often 10 inches by 13-3/4 inches, and was normally shipped in wood boxes containing 225 sheets per box.  Acquiring the raw material in standard-sized sheets affects the size, shape, and construction of tin items, as larger products must be pieced together from standard-sized sheets.  Product forms were developed to make most efficient use of material, allowing the workmen to cut out components while minimizing waste.  By the eighteenth century, English plating mills had developed the process of rolling wrought iron into sheets thin enough to be tin coated and worked cold into three dimensional shapes.  The English trade centered in regions such as Monmouthshire which had a well established iron industry, sufficient deposits of tin, and well established transportation networks.

While tinned iron had been known since the fifteenth century, most early production was confined to central Europe.  By the late seventeenth century the English tin trade had grown enough to incorporate a livery company, the Worshipful Company of Tinplate Workers.  The trade was found sparsely scattered in the North American colonies, mostly in larger populated areas, and often combined with related trades, such as copper smithing.  We are unaware of any tinsmiths working in Williamsburg until tinwork was introduced at the Armoury.  Prior to that, most tinware was imported from Britain, like many other consumer goods, with a few local shops supplementing the market.

The properties of tin made it an ideal material for a number of military uses.  It was relatively strong, unlike glass or ceramic, and it was light in weight making it useful to an army traveling on foot.  Tin was also relatively cheap, satisfying the bureaucrats who kept track of expenses.


Advertisement for tinsmiths. Virginia Gazette, September 12, 1777.

In September of 1777, Commissary General William Aylett ran this advertisement  in the Virginia Gazette looking for workmen to establish a tin shop to manufacture military goods:

 It is likely that the respondents worked for Anderson, as some tinwork was being produced in the Armoury prior to Nathaniel Nuthall’s arrival a year and a half later.

Tinwork made in the Armoury most often falls into three categories; items used in the preparation and consumption of food and drink; containers for storage;  or miscellaneous camp equipment.  Anderson’s wartime daybook lists quite a number of tin items delivered for public use between 1778 to 1780,  the majority related to food.  The single most common item delivered were tin camp kettles, 356 listed in all.  Camp kettles are the basic food preparation and water-boiling container.  They come in graduated sizes, usually nesting one within another for ease of packing, and looking to the modern eye much like a paint can.  They are much lighter than a cast iron pot.  Other food related vessels include “saus(e)pans”, measures, (gallon, half gallon, quart, pint, half pint) pots, and pans.  Not surprisingly, plates are the next most common item, with 198 delivered.  Dishes, tumblers, bowls, mugs, coffee cups and saucers, along with coffeepots (59) round out camp cookware.

Camp equipment included lanthorns (lanterns with horn panes),  funnels, tinder boxes, shot canisters, and tin tubes, probably as liners for cartridge boxes. Archaeologists found copper and brass sheet in this summer’s dig, and the records reflect the use of copper in the shop as well.  Newspaper advertisements and later texts related to the tinsmiths trade typically list sheet copper work as part of the tinsmiths trade, referring to the workmen as “tinsmith, coppersmith, and sheet metal workers.”  Anderson’s daybook records delivery of 10 copper ladles for loading cannon during this period.  This simple copper sheet-work employed the same tools and methods as those used by a tinsmith. 

Given the time period and pre-war rhetoric relating to tea consumption, there are a few surprising items listed. Tinsmiths provided 20 tea kettles, 7 tea pots, and 4 canisters for tea, demonstrating that coffee had not completely supplanted tea as a beverage of choice.  Also listed was a salt cellar and sugar dish, suggesting that some military camps incorporated creature comforts that might seem out of place in the stark furnishings of a military camp.

As we develop our tinsmith shop in the next year, we will identify tooling required to manufacture all of the items listed in Anderson’s accounts, and complete a furnishing list for the shop.  Curator Erik Goldstein and I have undertaken this research along with friend and Master Tinsmith Bill McMillen as an advisor.  Erik, Bill and I have been examining early examples of tooling, in both print sources and museum collections.  We will also be looking for early examples of tin wares to guide us on forms for replication in the shop.  Once plans for the tinshop are well along, we will begin to manufacture the stakes, shears, and soldering irons necessary to operate the shop, with the goal of having a running shop in 2013.  We will keep you posted as Colonial Williamsburg develops a “new” trade for the first time in many years.


Contributed by Ken Schwarz, Master Blacksmith


Leave a Reply

  1. Ken, What great information about the history of tinsmiths in the early times.Do you have a source for measurements of camp kettles and canteens made in CW at the Armoury? Can’t wait to see types of stakes, horns and etc.coming up.Finally CW will have working tinsmiths for all the public to see along with the worlds finest blacksmiths. Huzzah!

    • Thanks for the kind feedback, Kerry. Interestingly, while William Aylett asks for workmen who can make canteens, there are none mentioned in the Anderson Daybook. Camp kettles are mentioned in great number, although size is not recorded. I believe that the sizes were pretty standard based on the size of the sheet, with diminishing diameters so that they nest one inside the other for transportation.

      As for stakes- Diderot illustrates some of the most common, and we are examining older examples in museum and private collections to try to identify earlier construction techniques for the tooling. I am sure that as we progress, we will have more to share on tooling for the tinsmith shop.

  2. How exciting to develop a “new” trade! Interesting post, Ken. I’m curious to know what the tooling and forms will be, as the tinsmiths were working with sheeting and how the tin was fused to the iron.

    • Mimi- thank you as well for the positive comment. Developing a new trade is both a challenge and an exciting prospect. Tinwork will be quite a contrast with our other metalworking shops. Each shop has its own unique approach, using the differing properties of each metal. I will try to develop something soon on the manufacture of tinplate and address the application of tin to the plate.

  3. This was a very interesting read. I was left wondering though whether a tin shop has been located. I think last I read archeolgical digs were still trying dot determine it’s locastion.

    • Matt- While we are still examining archaeological material from this summer, there is a very strong case for the Mary Stith shop. Most obviously is the reference in Stith’s will to “…my house in the yard called the tin shop…”, and the fenceline discovered in this summer’s dig which clearly carved the Stith shop out of the Stith property and associated it with the Armoury. Finding fragments of tin and sheet copper add to the strong case. My money is on the Stith property.

      • Matt,
        To add to Ken’s response, there seems to be good evidence that tinwork was done in multiple locations at the Armoury. Tinsmiths needed so little by way of specialized equipment that their trade was reasonably portable. We have identified a fair number of tinned iron fragments from around a building just south of the main Armoury building. But the fact that we have documentary evidence (in the form of a will), physical evidence (in the form of tinned iron and copper scrap), AND contextual evidence (in the form of a fenceline that, for the Armoury’s duration, redrew the property line to include the “Mary Stith shop”) presents a persuasive arguement that this building served as the primarly location for sheet metal work. I put my money where Ken puts his!

  4. To what extent did they work sheet copper into similar vessels? Would copper work and tin work come from the same shop? Would copper have been too expensive? People did know about verdigris poisoning, correct? Thanks very much.

    • Ryan- The copper smithing and tin smithing trades do overlap in the product lines, and in forming techniques. Advertisements from the period do suggest that tin workers worked in copper and copper workers worked tin. The copper work coming out of the Armoury seems to all be in the form of ladles for loading cannon. Outside of military use, there are copper vessels that are similar in form to tin vessels. In the Charleton Coffeehouse down the street you will find copper chocolate pots similar in form to tin coffee pots. There is also a large copper cistern for heating water in the Coffeehouse.

      Copper work would be more expensive than tin, but at the moment I cannot quote the cost differential. I will see what I can find and add more later.

      As for verdigris poisoning- that was understood. In higher status households with costly cookware are found copper saucepans. Copper, of course would conduct heat more quickly, and therefore more evenly, even heat being more desireable in preparing sauces. Copper saucepans were tinned on the interior to prevent copper from coming in contact with the food.

  5. WOW! Shingles and siding from the same cam. Let’s hear it for Rover!

    I notice some of the historic tradesmen have all white shirts and some wear a vest type top. It looks like Garland wears one with a dark blue front, others are off white.

    Is this personal preference, or does it signify the status of the wearer?

    • Dave,
      You KNOW that Garland will tell you that the dark blue vest identifies him as the most important person on the site! Garland, care to elaborate?

      • Judging from our past blog comments, I think Garland plays second fiddle to the worker with the fur coat- Eleanor!

    • Hi Dave – most of the Trades folk are issued four-season work clothing and there is not much effort to dress to show different status in the different shops. Most folks wear what they are comfortable wearing, whether they are master, apprentice or journeymen.

      This could be something we could address at the Armoury site, as we have a fair amount of information about what some of the workmen were wearing. The Public Store records record in great detail what materials were drawn to clothe Anderson’s apprentices, and that might suggest some future costuming for folks at the site.

  6. Thank you Ken for your intense research and dedication in order for us to witness the skills of the past. You and your associates must be anxious to get into the new shop and initiate tinsmithing and working with copper. My wife and I hope to be in Williamsburg and are looking forward to seeing all of you. In the meantime we will observe on the webcam the progress.


    • Good to hear from you, Ron. We are indeed looking forward to the new shop. Garland and I were just out front looking at the north wall with the scaffolding down. You can really see the space taking shape. We hope to have the north door hung by Thursday or Friday. With the one remaining weatherboard in place the north facade will be nearly complete.

      We are also looking forward to setting up a tin program. This has been a goal of mine for a number of years. It will be nice to see the first tin objects coming out of the new shop.

      We look forward to your visit.

  7. Our family visits CW at least twice a year. I followed the building of Charlton’s CoffeeHouse on the web cam and am now following Anderson’s Armory with great interest. My question/comment is, would it be possible to show the details of the flashing around the chimneys? It would be of great interest to me to see exactly how this is done as it is somewhat easy to shingle a straight run of roof, to shingle & flash around the chimney, leak-proof, very difficult. Thanks
    David Arnold

    • David – We will try to put something together about the flashing. It is the most difficult, and probably therefore the most interesting part of installing the roof. We will need to get some pictures together for a blog entry. Watch for a later blog entry…

  8. Hello Meredith,

    A few weeks ago a quesion was posed as to the origin of the name ‘cricket,’ the structure used to divert water around a chimney. An article was found that said “the term probably originated with the games of cricket or croquet, which were first played back in the time of Henry VIII. A roof cricket is shaped like the arch—or peaked-shaped wicket—used in both of these games.”

    Do you have any information as to whether or not that explanation is correct?


  9. Hi Ken,

    According to a recent article in “The Virginia Gazette” the evidence the archaeology department found in the search for the tin shop around the Stith House proved to be conclusive and Mr. Mars has donated an additional half million dollars to develop that site. I know you and your staff are anxious to start the new trade and my wife and I look forward to visiting when it is completed.


    • Ron-

      Between the 1813 documentary evidence identifying this structure as “…the house in the yard called the tin shop…”, archaeological findings of tin and copper around the building and a diagonal fence line which seems to embrace the building as part of the Armoury complex, we have every confidence that this was a primary site for tin smithing during the Revolution. We are grateful for Mr. Mars generous financial support for the entire project, and we are excited to have the opportunity to develop the site more fully. We plan to construct the Armoury Tinsmith Shop in 2012 and have it operational by 2013. Stay tuned for updates!

  10. Hi Meredith,

    The diligent work you and the rest of the archaeology staff completed in the search for the tin shop has produced the fruits of your labor with the half million dollar gift from Mr. Mars to develop the site. My wife and I salute all of you at the department and look forward to the finished project.

    Ron Trabandt

    • Thanks, Ron!
      It is always gratifying when everyone gets to see the results of our research. Thank YOU for all of your contributions to that effort. All of us (Eleanor included)look forward to welcoming you to the tin shop.

  11. […] The tin produced at the site was actually tinplate, a thin sheet of iron coated with tin, according to the Colonial Williamsburg website. […]

  12. We are a bunch of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable information to paintings on. You’ve done a formidable process and our entire group will probably be grateful to you.