Blending old techniques and new ideas to create elegant pieces
On one wall of Greg Pietersma’s cosy workshop hang a black swedge, a beading machine and other 19th-century hand tools. Nearby sit two large computer monitors, also black. Although “computer monitor” would have meant as little to someone two centuries ago as the names of those antique tools mean to most of us today, all are essential to Pietersma’s livelihood as a tinsmith.
The owner of The Pietersma Tinworks near Chesterville, south of Ottawa, uses the best of each era to create elegant pierced lanterns, kerosene lamps, sun catchers and his bestseller: swirling silver Victorian and coloured Edwardian Christmas tree tinsel that’s both timeless and reusable. Prices range from $13.95 for a package of 50 Victorian tinsel strands to $199.95 for a large pierced lantern (“pierced” refers to the small holes punched in the tin to create lit patterns).
He sells these and many other products online, at selected craft shows and through retailers like Lee Valley Tools and others in Canada and the United States. He also has a small store that shares an entranceway with his workshop and is a stone’s throw from his home.
Pietersma uses the old tools for tasks such as creating decor- ative ridges (the swedge, a hammer-like device with a wedge for its head, does that) and beading that also add rigidity to the tin. The computer monitors, along with AUTOCAD software, are used in designing products. In another area of the small building sit three small pneumatic machines bristling with computer control boards and wires; Pietersma designed and built the machines himself — “thank God for Google,” says the selfdeprecating 44-year-old — to handle repetitive tasks like piercing tin and cutting tinsel.
Partial mechanization is the only way for a craftsman like himself to make a living, he says. However, while machines handle part of the production process, the more demanding elements — beading, fitting of lantern doors, some of the specialized piercing — is still done by hand. “I would never mechanize to the detriment of the product, but this lets me keep costs competitive. Part of the value when you buy these pieces is the design, the pattern, and that’s not mechanized.
“Craftsmen have a tradition of using tools to help them work. Today’s tools are different than 200 years ago, but 200 years ago they were different from 200 years before that.”
He adds that tinsmiths, who had their North American heyday from about 1860 to 1890, were always on the leading edge of technology, integrating ways to make their work easier and faster, whereas craftsmen like blacksmiths tended to stick with traditional processes.
(One senses some lighthearted one-upmanship here. When I suggest that one of his stakes — heavy, T-shaped tools used for joining seams and other processes — is a variation on the black- smith’s anvil, Peitersma says with feigned hauteur, “I like to think of the anvil as a variation on the stake.”)
The Brockville-born Pietersma stresses that his business fits the classic artisan model. Small and “approachable,” it’s self-sufficient with everything from design and production to packing and shipping done on-site.
His wife and business coowner, Amanda, is involved in the retailing and administrative end of the business and some production. “We already share an awful lot because we’re married,” she says, “so we share this, too.” The couple’s sons also help out.
The eldest, 16-year-old Sam, produces the popular jar candle holder ($3.95), a ladle-shaped item that holds a tea light inside a Mason jar, transforming the jar into a windproof lantern. Some customers use citronella tea lights to ward off mosquitoes.
William, three years Sam’s junior, is an avid salesman, happily manning the booth with his father at shows like the Central Canada Expedition in Toronto.
The twins, four-year-old James and David, enjoy hanging out in the shop, producing their own as yet unsalable versions of tinsel.
One or two temporary staff are also hired for the busy fall production period, but the shop is always offlimits to Queenie, the family goat.
The Pietersma children unknowingly helped scotch a contract with the popular retailer Banana Republic a few years back. While chatting with a company representative, Pietersma mentioned that his children helped out in the business. The company, which has a strict policy against child labour, deep-sixed the budding agreement with the tinsmith.
“Kids have always helped on family farms and this is no different,” says Amanda. “It’s not like we chain them up in here.”
Tradition and modernity might meld inside the Pietersma home, but clearly not always in the bigger, rule-bound world outside.
Other people’s rules can be a problem, agrees Pietersma. “I make a lousy employee, so I have to work for myself.”
In fact, he did work at Upper Canada Village for several years starting in the 1980s, progressing from assistant to master tinsmith. He’d started out there thinking he wanted to become a wood worker but soon discovered that his love of tin’s patina, along with his own impatience — “You can spend days on a wood project, but you can do a lantern in just a few hours” — made tin a better fit.
Pietersma opened his business, originally called The Tin Shop, in 1991 while still at Upper Canada Village. By 1995, he was off on his own and hasn’t looked back.
“Our goal has always been to sell enough that we can do this again the next year. We don’t have a big house or a lot of fancy things. It’s a lifestyle choice.”
It also gives him time for his volunteer work as chair and school trustee with the Upper Canada District School Board.
As we get ready to say goodbye, I notice books on the American Civil War and quilting in a corner of the workshop.
“I use them for ideas,” says Pietersma. “I’ve taken ideas for patterns like stars from the quilting books. We try to recycle old ideas here and give them a fresh flair.