Spare time: Burning ambition

You quickly come to blows with the object of your desire when you learn the art of silversmithing, as Sally Staples finds out

The cacophany of clattering hammers sounds like the Seven Dwarfs setting off to work, or perhaps Father Christmas in his workshop tapping out toys by the million. But once inside the studio, reality replaces the fantasy. This is silversmithing in full clamour. A quick glance at the intense facial expressions is enough to understand that the relationship between a hammerer and his piece of silver is deep and meaningful.

As Ian Collinson, pausing from perfecting a silver tray, explains: "It's like making love to metal. To achieve the hand-beaten look, that burnished finish, you have to make thousands of little regular blows - almost like kissing the metal. Once you lose concentration, then it's time to go and do something else for a while."

Ian's tray is the most ambitious item being made on this particular five- day silversmithing course at West Dean College in Sussex, which provides a state-of-the-art workshop and skilled instruction from Derrick Grady, a professional silversmith.

The tray began life as a flat disc and a long strip of silver, called a "wire", which Ian has patterned and soldered to the disc that will form the 10-inch base. The silver cost him pounds 319, and the tray is so heavy that he is worried that once he loads it with a bottle of wine and a few glasses he will find it hard to lift.

Ian, a retired chartered surveyor from Hertfordshire, is comparatively experienced at working with silver, and has his own workshop at home. His problem is how to achieve a flat, smooth surface for the base of the tray, because silver can buckle when heated.

The solution to this is patience, patience and more patience - plus a delicate combination of knowing how much to heat the metal base and how hard to hammer the tray's rim. Certainly it is an act of love.

Next to Ian sits Michael Soley, intent on hammering a piece of silver that looks like an ashtray. He began with a flat disc of silver about 4 millimetres thick and 60 millimetres across. lt was curved on a raising anvil, and the beating process has begun that will ultimately convert the object into a tumbler cup.

"The idea is to spread the metal. You need to keep it thick in the middle and thick at the edge, and gradually it spreads and the cup shape grows up," says Michael. "The only thing that happens quickly in silverwork is mistakes. I work on the principle of brute force and ignorance.

"I've spent 30 years working with silver as a hobby, and I've come to this course at West Dean all the way from Cornwall because the tutor here is so marvellous. Derrick Grady has had the full apprenticeship, and can offer much more than an art school man."

If all this sounds daunting to a potential beginner, it should be made clear that Derrick also welcomes complete novices. Christine Bodger, an antiques dealer from Kent (she gets in a joke about her name before anyone else can) is just such a beginner, and says she was alarmed at the introductory meeting in the workshop on the first evening.

"We were shown these huge gas-and-air torches for heating the silver and this terrifying polisher. It was all very new to me and I thought I might set the place on fire, but I soon got used to it," she says, brandishing a torch with an 18-in flame to demonstrate the annealing process that occurs when silver is heated to make it more malleable.

Christine has been advised to start her silversmithing by making a tastevin or wine-tasting cup. All she has brought to the course is a small, square sheet of silver (costing about pounds 2 per square inch). Tweezers, cutters and pliers have been lent by Derrick.

"First of all I drew a circle with a compass, and then cut the shape out of the silver square. Then I put the circle on to a small sandbag and hammered it with a blocking hammer. Then the metal was put on the raising anvil. Next comes the annealing process, when you put the silver into the flame until it is chalk white. If it goes red, it buckles. Then you cool it in water and put it into some pickling acid to clean." She rattles off the newly-learned process with the pleasure of a child learning tables.

Christine has also brought some damaged silverware along, and Derrick has shown her how to knock out dents and erase engraving - although he emphasises that the course is not strictly designed for repair work.

Slightly more experienced silversmiths are making paper knives, small boxes, bowls and shoehorns - and one woman is delighted with a simple but pleasing design of candelabra. Some of the students have built up their own collections of tools - a packet of a dozen needle files costs around pounds 50 - but the workshop at West Dean boasts a vast array of tools in all shapes and sizes.

Small amounts of silver can be bought at the college, but Derrick recommends bullion suppliers for people who need more than 20 square inches. Although the course is not aimed at jewellery-making, more experienced silversmiths can experiment with their own designs. One student, who had made a chainmail- style silver bracelet at home, was working with Derrick on developing a technique for soldering the clasp.

The five-day silversmithing course at West Dean College costs from pounds 373 for a full residential stay or pounds 244 for non-residents (01243 811301). Derrick Grady also teaches at the Guild of Hull Silversmiths in Hull (01482-648044), where there is currently a waiting list.

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