Age-old pasttime can be a modern hobby.

Boston’s Faneuil Hall is topped with a grasshopper made by 18th century tinsmith Shem Drowne. Photo by Frank DeLange.
For hundreds of years, weather vanes have graced the top of houses, barns and businesses across America. They serve as ornaments, decorations and functional tools. Created by the craftsmen of yesterday, many of these vanes are still in the same locations as they were originally erected.

Their longevity can be attributed to the craftsmanship of those who dedicated their lives to their trade. While some devoted whole businesses to the weather vanes, many directed their efforts to other products, such as ornamental iron, general tin or copper work.

Most of the vanes were made by now-anonymous craftsmen; however, we do know the history of some. Shem Drowne (1683-1774) was engaged in the making of vanes. A tinsmith by trade, he created many vanes, four of which are known to exist to this day. The most prominent piece is the grasshopper atop Faneuil Hall in Boston. This piece has been shaken from its perch by two earthquakes, damaged by fire and once stolen. Through all of that, it has survived since it was made in 1742. Drowne had a son, Thomas (1715-1796), who followed him into the trade. He also worked on the Faneuil grasshopper, repairing it in 1768.

After George Washington returned from the Revolutionary War to his Virginia home, Mount Vernon, he commissioned a vane for a cupola. The dove with an olive branch in its beak still turns in the wind there today.

Refrigeration tubing and hammered copper sheets make up this fish skeleton weather vane. Photo courtesy of Derk Akerson.

History

There are a few books on the history of weather vanes and reproductions of weather vane catalogs are available. Most weather vane history, however, is buried in folk art books and on the Internet.

Those looking for noteworthy examples of weather vanes can usually find some on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There's also a museum in Shelburne, Vt., dedicated to the items.

Today, while most vanes are cast or stamped, there seems to be resurging interest in the creation of custom-made vanes. One of the best vane makers was the late Travis Tuck. Working in his shop in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., he created many beautiful pieces of work. Tuck died in 2002. His company, Tuck & Holand, still sells his designs today.

The product of most sheet metal workers is likely hidden in basements, attics and the cores of large buildings. Weather vanes provide an opportunity to show off metalworking skills. What better hobby for a sheet metal worker? Once your first vane is done and mounted, you will likely want to make more.

Many people find making vanes almost addicting. They watch them "live and breathe" with the winds. They keep the neighbors interested. They also make good gifts. You can be assured that your vanes will endure long after you are gone.

Vanes are of three main types: silhouette or two-dimensional, swell-bodied and full-bodied. Beyond the basic shape of a vane, you can put as much detail into it as you wish. A lot of detail is probably not necessary, as the vane sits on roofs and won't be seen up close.

Fish make excellent shapes for vanes, as do marine mammals. By nature, their very shape is designed to "flow" through the wind as if they were swimming in the sea.

You can find inspiration almost anywhere, starting with your own interests. The Internet is an excellent place to research ideas.

Weather vanes can be easily made in your garage or home shop. There is no need for a lot of expensive equipment. Simple tools, such as body hammers, can easily be modified for use. A good sand bag will help. Of course, if you have access to forming machinery such as slip rolls, they too can be employed. The hand-hammered and formed look is popular with many people. It creates a texture that reflects light well.

If you're not sure what to make, sketch ideas from books and magazines. Even if you begin by copying another's design, the actual execution will most certainly become your own design. You do not have to be great at this. Most sheet metal workers have enough drawing and sketching skills for this purpose. Some people use poster boards for their initial patterns, then transfer them to light-gauge sheet metal.

(San Diego resident Derk Akerson has been working with sheet metal as a hobby and vocation for more than 30 years. He can be reached at www.akersonstudios.com.)