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A tin canister by Bill McMillen, Part 1

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Folks who attend EAIA meetings are certainly familiar with the work of master tinsmith Bill McMillen. Bill has given numerous talks and demonstrations at our meetings about his work and about his studies of the tinsmith trade. His summary of the subject, “The Tinsmith in America – The Trade, Materials, Tradesmen, Tools and Products,” was The Chronicle's cover article in June 2013.

Bill grew up on Staten Island NY where his father was the director of the Staten Island Historical Society, an early member of EAIA, and also involved in the establishment of Historic Richmond Town. Bill subsequently worked there for many years prior to retiring to the Albany area a few years ago. In the early days, Bill accompanied his father as he went out on antique collecting trips and consultations regarding renovations/reconstructions of early buildings. While still young, and through these early experiences and his subsequent work at Richmond Town, Bill learned to look closely at objects in order to determine the original techniques that were used in their construction.

Bill's first contact with tin work came in the mid 1970s with Don Carpentier, who had already set up a tin shop at Eastfield Village. If you've attended any of EAIA's Trade Samplers during the summer at Eastfield, you've probably seen this shop. Shortly after this experience with Don, Bill began collecting the necessary original tools and set up a shop within Historic Richmond Town. That shop is still in operation.

Bill McMillen with canisters

There is an excellent DVD still available here that demonstrates Bill's skill at tin work. There are also summer classes (“Tin 1” and “Tin 2”) held at Eastfield Village that are taught by Bill. I was able to participate in both courses several years ago, and I've now assembled my own tin shop with original hand tools and machines. I'm having great experiences making a variety of accurate copies of original tin items, and also occasionally engaging in what might be called “flights of fancy,” if not up to the standards of actual folk art. The latter isn't something that Bill does very often, as he hews pretty closely to reproducing items that are known to exist, using techniques as close to those that were originally used as he can discern. He believes that spontaneity in making objects on a daily basis was fairly unusual for the 18th and 19th century tinsmith. The smith's livelihood depended on making objects that people would actually buy, so what was made was what was expected by the clientele. One exception might be gift items intended for the 10th or “tin” anniversary and that might include tin top hats and ladies bonnets.

In order to supplement the information included on the above DVD, I recently visited Bill and Judy at their home near Albany and interviewed Bill regarding his techniques.

What will follow in subsequent installments is a step by step demonstration of the creation of a tin canister, shown in the photograph above.

Before proceeding, however, let me give you links to some helpful and free online books:

First: The Tin-Plate Industry, A Comparative Study of its Growth in the United States and Wales, by D.E. Dunbar and published in 1915 is an excellent source of historical information about the industry and the processes used to produce tinplate. Here's the link.

Second: The Tinsmith's Helper and Pattern Book by H.K Vosburgh, published in 1912 has a wealth of practical information about sheet tin, pattern production, etc. It can be viewed or downloaded by accessing the following link.

Additional information can be accessed at the tintinker's website here.

The next post will cover the construction of the canister. In the photo above Bill holds the original and the completed copy. Stay tuned...

If you'd like to read other installments in this series you can read them here.


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