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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe