Published: December 18, 2018
A longtime reader of Antiques and The Arts Weekly some weeks back called in to say that Steve Smithers would make a good Q&A subject, in the sense that his craft – silversmithing – seems to be a dying art. That piqued our interest, so we reached out to Steve to see how he is attempting to keep it alive.
Take us back to the mid-1970s or thereabouts. What got you interested in researching and practicing the classic art of silversmithing?
My experience with metal work goes back three or four years before that when I was in college at Northeastern and doing internships in plating and fabrication shops throughout Massachusetts. I kept moving on until the last place I worked for someone else was a small shop in Northampton where they refurbished metal objects – anything from tea sets to cups and bowls, chandeliers and lighting. After several years there, I lit out on my own, by then it was the late 1970s, and opened up a little shop in Shelburne Falls. Antiques dealers and individuals started bringing in things right away to be restored, repaired, plated and polished. It afforded me the opportunity to learn as I worked on the pieces – most of which have interesting stories.
How did you find those stories? What were your resources?
Mostly it was a variety of reference books that early on and throughout my career, actually, I’ve been the fortunate recipient of through gifts and barter, and there was the Deerfield library, among others. I accumulated quite an array of reference books on all the metals and tools.
What does your tools inventory consist of?
In the case of hammers, which is first and foremost, I’ve got about 80. When you look at the inventories of the early smiths, some had as many as that. Every single one, whether steel, rawhide, wood or brass, is different. I have several dozen anvils and stakes on which to shape metal and a variety of small hand tools, files, saws, abrasives and polishers.
When did you branch out from repairing and restoring to working on original commissions?
It’s always been driven by what people ask me to do. Whether it was repair of any number of metal items or someone asking “can you make a silver porringer?” I think that may have been one of the first commissions. My stock answer tended to be “Oh, yeah, I can make that.” You learn by doing and you get a few hints from reference books. And even if you have a great master to learn from, there’s only so much they can impart – it’s here’s the approach I’d take, here’s the hammer and have at it.
Who stands out in your pantheon of master silversmiths?
I look farther back than the modern masters, such as Jensen or some of the Arts and Crafts guys, more towards the classic forms. I hate to sound like a “me too” guy, but Paul Revere is one that you can’t ever get enough of. And there are many other silversmiths that I admire – Boston, Philadelphia and New York makers – but I’m a Massachusetts guy, so Paul Revere and his incredible, eclectic experience stands out for me. He just kept innovating and trying out new things, whether it was silver technology or moving into establishing a copper mill, casting cannons and bells, even dentistry. He was a risk-taker, including riding his horse off into no-man’s land with messages and such.
But you’re doing more than just making things, right? You’re passing along some of the knowledge with lectures and demonstrations.
I have for many years, even going back to when I was just getting started in my late 20s. People have asked me to do something with the kids at the local historical society. I’ve been doing things at Historic Deerfield the longest, and to this day I still do a lot of demonstrations and talks – Paul Revere House, the Clark Art Institute, the Met, the MFA and Winterthur. Teaching, too, at the North Bennett Street School, summer in Nantucket. The older I get, the more important it becomes to pass on the knowledge in any way I can.
Can you tell us about your most memorable commission?
The replica of a silver peace pipe that was presented by US President William Henry Harrison to three different Native tribes in 1814 at the signing of the Greenville Treaty in Ohio with leaders of the Wyandot, Delaware and Shawnee tribes solidifying US loyalties during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. The wonderful pipes were really high style with a flowing J-curve into an urn-shaped bowl with a beaded edge, hinged lid with a finial on top. I made a replica, which was engraved to the Wyandots – because that original pipe is missing. Seven years later I got a call from the people in Greenville preparing for the 200th observance, and they asked if I would bring my pipe out. I attended an incredibly moving reenactment.
Is your adult son Chris taking up the hammer?
For years he worked here and produced wonderful work – even taking over making chandeliers, for the most part. He has a fabulous aesthetic and eye, but he’s been pursuing a different career in CNC [computer numerical control] machining, which is where the work lies here in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England. He’s learning that and going to school as well as working in that field.
Something new afoot?
I’m making a silver teapot for James Robinson in New York City, which I’m hoping to get done for the Winter Show in January. So I’ve got to get on the stick.
For further information, 413-625-2994 or www.stevesmithers.com.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm