Working with pewter: The basics

Pewter is a soft, pliable and extremely versatile metal. Use it to make beautiful gifts and décor items for your home.

What is pewter?
Pewter is a soft metal with a faint sheen. It is an alloy of lead and tin, but lead-free pewter so that the item can be used for eating

How do you do pewter work?
Pewter has been around for many centuries. It was recently made fashionable again by designers like Carrol Boyes, who makes sought-after cutlery and other décor items from pewter. There are two ways to work with pewter: the relief modelling method and the cast pewter method. Relief modelling traces the design onto the pewter and it is then modelled from the back using special tools. This creates a raised or relief design on the front, from which this method takes its name. The cast pewter method is completely different. It requires special skills and tools, and involves melting down the pewter and pouring it into moulds. We will focus only on the relief modelling method.

What does pewter look like?
Pewter is sold by the metre in thin sheets of varying widths. Some sheets are shinier than others, which means they have a higher tin content. Most manufacturers place a thin layer of tin over the sheet to make it shinier. If you polish the pewter, this layer of tin can be rubbed away to expose the layer underneath. Pewter sheets are easy to work with, relatively inexpensive and you can use them to make anything from photo frames to candleholders.

What tools do you need?
Apart from modelling tools, you don't need any special materials and tools to do pewter work. This is a general list:

  • Pewter sheets
  • Item to be decorated: Anything with a hard surface, such as a box, frame or bottle.
  • Work surface: It must be smooth and hard, something like a smooth wooden board or large, thick piece of glass.
  • Modelling tools: Find them at art or craft shops. A tracer is used to trace the design onto the pewter; a paper pencil (also known as a torchon) is used to flatten and neaten the areas around the modelled design; a hockey stick is used to model the pewter for high-relief work; and a ball tool has a ball at the tip and is used for doing low-relief work to make a wider line than a tracer.
  • Filler: This is used to fill the back of a high-relief design to prevent it from being pushed back or flattened. Beeswax works best because it hardens quickly and doesn’t contract when it cools. Exterior crack filler mixed with a little cold glue can also be used. Do not use candle wax as it shrinks when it cools, and cracks easily.
  • Lubricant: Use petroleum jelly, baby oil, sunflower oil or liquid paraffin to help the modelling tools glide over the pewter.
  • Patina: A liquid chemical to corrode the metal and give it an aged appearance.
  • Degreaser: The front of the pewter has to be degreased using a degreaser such as baby powder, so that the patina takes.
  • Metal polish: Use a household metal polish such as Brasso to polish the pewter.
  • Glue: Use an adhesive that is suitable for metal and the surface you are glueing it to.
  • Turpentine: For removing excess beeswax and glue.
  • Soft cloth: Work on felt, a duster or a chamois when you 'push out' the pewter.
  • Glass droppers: To fill the back of the relief design with beeswax. If it clogs up, place the dropper in boiling water, but do not let the rubber come into contact with the water otherwise it will perish.
  • Rubber roller: To flatten the pewter sheets.
  • Cotton wool: To apply the patina, to polish and for cleaning.
  • Tracing paper: To transfer the design onto the pewter.
  • Scissors: A small pair of curved nail scissors works best for cutting out designs.
  • Craft knife and cutting mat
  • Pencil and ruler
  • Masking tape
  • Rubber gloves: To protect your hands

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