Sheet and Wire

The Goldsmith Museum Branch is one of its kind nationwide. A great rarity is the reconstruction of the interior of the former goldsmith's workshop, unique in Europe, showing the authentic, antique equipment of theformer goldsmith's workplace.

By Vistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Aniela Ryndziewicz

Goldsmith’s melting furnace (2018) by according to figure ryciny Etienne Delaune, craftsmen of KazimierzVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

In the past, a goldsmith — in order to craft a vessel, candelabrum or any other object — required starting material, such as sheet metal or wire. Back then, there were no stores which sold such materials, so one had to make them oneself. 

It was a long and time-consuming process. Since pure silver and gold are too soft for crafting utility items, goldsmiths use their alloys with other metals — typically copper, because even a small amount of this admixture ensures proper hardness. 

Hence, a very important piece of equipment in an old goldsmith’s workshop was a charcoal furnace, in which metals were melted in special heat-resistant crucibles.

Sheet metal ingot (19th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Next, the molten metal was poured out of the crucible into special moulds, so-called ingots, whose shapes varied depending on whether the “semi-finished product” was intended for making sheet metal or wire. 

A sheet metal ingot consisted of two parts — a pair of tightly fitting plates with flat empty space inside, pressed together using a screwed-on clamp. 

Wire ingots (2nd half of the 19th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

On the other hand, a wire ingot was typically a one-part mould with a long groove, allowing for casting of rods which were subsequently turned into wire.

A set of hammers (19th - early 20th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

After the cast metal — so-called billet — in the form of a flat bar was taken out of the mould onto the plate, the goldsmith would cold-forge it on a special anvil, using appropriate hammers, shaping it into an increasingly thinner and larger metal sheet metal or wire.

Wooden stump for anvil forging (19th century.) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

A sheet metal ingot consisted of two parts — a pair of tightly fitting plates with flat empty space inside, pressed together using a screwed-on clamp. 

On the other hand, a wire ingot was typically a one-part mould with a long groove, allowing for casting of rods which were subsequently turned into wire.

Pitch bowl 1 (Early 20th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

In order to make a vessel or its part, e.g. a foot of a liturgical chalice, the goldsmith marked the shape of that element on the metal sheet and then cut it out using special shears or a saw. 

Next, the object would be forged into the desired shape. During that process, it had to be annealed in fire to soften up since repeated hammer strikes tempered the sheet metal, making further work difficult. After achieving the planned shape, the goldsmith would embellish its surface.

Pitch bowl 2 (Early 20th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

The metal sheet, with the ornament drawn onto it, was placed on a soft base, such as chasers pitch filling a special bowl, and the ornamental “relief” was obtained by pressing the sheet in appropriate spots, using different types of chasing hammers and punches.

An illustration of the effects of works on a pitch bowl — a chalice foot. (1900) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

One of the most difficult goldsmithing techniques — but also one which produced some of the most beautiful results — was repoussage, which involved shaping the sculpted ornament through cold-working. 

Drawing die (19th, 20th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Similarly to the sheet metal, billets from the wire mould, in the form of a rod, typically with a square cross-section, were cold-forged by the goldsmith, who endeavoured to make them increasingly thinner and more elongated. 

Drawing die mounted in a vice (1900) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

A rod prepared in this manner was then put through drawing dies, which were metal plates with several rows of funnel-shaped holes that got smaller and smaller in size. 

A showcase of work using drawing die II (1900) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Crafting short wire sections required fixing the plate in a vice, grabbing the protruding end of the wire with special, solid pincers and applying a considerable amount of force to draw it manually through subsequent holes with decreasing diameters.

Wire sharpening on a “fajnagel” (1900) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Each time, the wire had to be adequately prepared for placement in a smaller hole by sharpening its end. The goldsmith accomplished this task by propping the wire against a “fajnagel”, i.e. a wedge made of hard wood, which served an extremely important role as a part of the goldsmith’s workbench. 

Goldsmith’s workbench (2nd half of 19th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Such a workbench was one of the basic elements of equipment in an old goldsmith’s workshop. Its massive wooden top, resting on solid legs or narrow chests of drawers, had one or more semicircular cut-outs with a “fajnagel” mounted in the middle, serving the goldsmith as support during many different works. 

Hanging underneath the cut-out in the workbench was a leather bench apron, which would rest in the goldsmith’s lap during work. This way, precious metal shavings would not fall to the floor and could be remelted and reused after being taken out of the bench apron.

Light sphere (20th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

To ensure better lighting, goldsmiths’ workshops of old would use glass spheres that dispersed  light. They were placed by the window during the day and next to candles in the evening.

“Cybank” (drawbench) (2 half of 19th century) by unknownVistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

To obtain a longer wire, a so-called “cybank” (drawbench) was used for its drawing. It was typically a long wooden bench, consisting of a beam set on massive legs, with a socket for mounting a drawing die on one end and a spinning wheel-powered roller with a crank on the opposite end.

The end of the wire, threaded through the drawing die, was grabbed with so-called “cycęgi” (drawtongs) — special pliers with flat jaws and a hook at the end of the handle.

The hook was attached to a chain or belt wound by a spinning wheel placed on the opposite end of the beam. It made the goldsmith’s work much easier and allowed for crafting even very thin, long wires with different cross-sections, depending on the shape of the drawing die holes. 

With time, rolling mills also started to be used for wire manufacturing. Their rolls had special, typically triangular grooves that got smaller and smaller. The cast and initially reforged metal rod was placed in the grooves and then pulled through the drawing die.

Basket (2nd quarter of 19th century) by Monogramist A.S.Vistula River Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

Using wire prepared in this manner, the goldsmith was able to craft different components of vessels, liturgical objects or jewellery, and sometimes — using the filigree technique — whole items, such as baskets, spice boxes or brooches. 

This incredibly difficult technique involved creating the shape of the item and its components out of very thin silver or gold wires, twisted together and arranged into floral, geometric or linear ornaments. 

Soldered together at contact points, they created a sophisticated, delicate openwork metal lace, which still inspires admiration for the artistry of master goldsmiths from the past.

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