ARCHBOLD, Ohio - Any sheet metal workers who think the public has little interest in or respect for what they do should meet people like Robert Stone, Don Neuenschwander or Doug Prairie.
None of the men work in the HVAC industry, yet they were among those who traveled - in some cases, thousands of miles - to attend a four-day celebration of metalworking at a historical tourist attraction outside Toledo, Ohio.
The loose-knit group, whose members include teachers, museum curators, farmers, dental laboratory technicians and sheet metal workers, met through www.TinTinkers.org, a Web site dedicated to “promoting tin and coppersmithing, and having fun.”
They came to Sauder Village, a collection of century-old stores, houses and farm buildings started by the founder of a ready-to-assemble furniture company, to hold the group’s June 21-24 “convergence.” It was a chance to trade tools, tips and books among others who are passionate fans of what some consider a dying craft.
They were also learning how to create hot-dipped tin and viewing the metalcraft contained in the pipes of a decades-old church organ and on ornate chandeliers.
A highlight of the four-day event was the demonstrating of how to hot-dip tin. Doug Prairie of Kankakee, Ill., was among those in attendance who knew how to perform the task. It involves putting a tin coating over a steel plate. Common in the mid-19th century, today the skill is rare.
Performing sheet metal work more than 40 hours a week doesn’t dampen the interest of Don Rasmusson in metalworking tools and machines. A 50-year-old employee at industrial HVAC company VM Systems Inc. in Toledo, Rasmusson says he is “fascinated” by old equipment.
“The work that I do today is rooted in the past,” he says.
Rasmusson has been collecting old tools and equipment for two decades. He finds them at auctions and flea markets.
“There’s an incredible underground economy that deals in, basically, carpentry tools - tinsmith tools are harder to find,” he says.
But you wouldn’t have known that from the numerous rusty old hand tools and machines on display in the village pavilion where the group met. The obsolete implements sat near metal-roofing manuals from the 1800s and handmade tin cups with lids to keep out flies and other pests. Sauder Village officials brought over metal bathtubs and other examples of tinwork from the park’s collection, including some not normally on display, says Kris Jemmott, director of historic operations at Sauder Village.
Many of the collectors at the convergence say they purchase their antique machines from high schools discontinuing vocational programs.
While that’s a boon for collectors like Rasmusson, who says he has a “passion to keep alive the methods of the past,” it’s evidence of the waning support many school districts give traditional shop classes.
Rasmusson says he thinks that’s a mistake.
“There’s a fascination in doing something with your hands that we don’t do anymore,” he says. “(But) you can’t find an interest in something unless you’re exposed to it.”
For far-flung hobbyists like Robert Stone, who traveled almost 800 miles to attend the convergence, the Internet has provided much of that exposure. Like many of the convergence’s 45 other registered attendees, Stone has long visited the TinTinkers Web site and other sheet metal sites to swap suggestions, equipment and patterns with other hobbyists.
“It’s neat to see what one guy can come up with versus another fellow,” he says.
Stone has a deep appreciation for metalwork and those who perform it, even though he says he was only in the sheet metal trade for a little while. His father was an HVAC worker. Stone and his wife drove from Pea Ridge, Ark., for the gathering.
Currently an employee at a tool factory, he collects antique metalworking tools and machinery. He also teaches a sheet metal class at a historical attraction similar to Sauder Village in Arkansas. He says he came to Ohio hoping to pick up some tools and learn new techniques to use in his classes.
“It’s neat to go and pass along the knowledge you acquire,” Stone says.
This was the second convergence for the group. Last year’s event was held in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Discussions on where to hold the 2008 meeting are under way.
Jemmott says the group’s meeting was a hit with village tourists, who seemed to enjoy discussing metalworking with members. She hopes they’ll consider using Sauder Village again soon.
“We had a lot of good comments,” Jemmott says. “I know people really enjoyed seeing them dip the tin.”
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