Sebastian Denize of Hand Cast Pewter has been making medieval-style accessories out of pewter for more than fifteen years. These little historical treasures complete a medieval costume wonderfully, but also looks fantastic on modern coats, hats, bags and other clothing and accessories.
What do you make?
I make pewter buttons, buckles, brooches, and belt mounts based on medieval methods and designs. These were the “junk jewellery” of the time, pieces everyday folk could afford. Brooches made of pewter were common as badges signifying the wearer’s completion of a pilgrimage – a kind of equivalent to modern day souvenirs.
How did you get into your craft?
I’m involved with a medieval reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. We seek to recreate some of the more fun parts of the Middle Ages and many of us are interested in learning and reviving traditional skills and crafts. I’ve done silver and other metal work for many years but started working with pewter about fifteen years ago.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Nope. I just decided I wanted to learn how to do this, did some research and started experimenting. I started making things pre-internet, when tracking down information on more obscure topics involved a lot of leg work, and could be very hit and miss. Now the range and quality of information available online, and the huge number of maker movies on sites such as YouTube and Vimeo allows you to learn so much, it’s fantastic.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
It’s funny how often the old way of doing something is actually the best. Historically this sort of casting was mainly done in hand-carved stone moulds, usually soapstone. When I began experimenting with all this I thought that some of our more modern materials, such as RTV (room temperature vulcanising) rubbers would be superior, but they don’t cast nearly as well as soapstone does when hand pouring.
Both the soapstone I carve for the moulds and the pewter itself hold their own appeal. I enjoy working with pewter because it’s quick and relatively simple to cast, and I like the patina it develops in a relatively short time.
My setup for pewter work is quite simple. I have my soapstone moulds, safety gear and an electric crucible for melting the pewter. That and using lead-free pewter are my concessions to modernity. Lead poisoning might be historically accurate but there’s only so far I’m willing to go for accuracy!
When I started out doing this I just used a gas torch to melt the pewter in an old steel ladle over a tray of pumice. The electric crucible makes life easier but my old setup shows that you don’t really need to spend a lot on tools to do this. The beauty of pewter is that it melts at a very low temperature, so it’s a great way to get into casting at a relatively low cost.
I carve my soapstone moulds myself. Soapstone is so soft you can carve it with the point of an old compass – something I actually use quite frequently! It’s a very pleasant thing to work on, and the casting is a satisfyingly quick process once you understand how the molten metal flows and interacts with the stone.
Describe your workspace:
A bit of a mess most of the time! I have a small garage (which my car has never seen the inside of) and it is bulging with the tools and materials of far too many projects, from wood and metal work to electronics and wearable arts.
What inspires you?
The desire to figure something out, to understand how it works. I enjoy the process of dissecting a skill and working out how it is, or was, done. Sometimes I need a thing, so I learn what I need to learn in order to make the thing. Sometimes I just want to know how something is done, and experiment with the process, without ever producing any tangible product.
What are you reading now?
Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler. It’s a really interesting look at how certain basic design principles apply across disciplines.
Do you have any pets?
Three chickens, two rabbits and one very large fluffy cat. Given that the animals outnumber the humans in our household maybe it’s more accurate to say that they have humans, rather than us having pets!
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
I don’t know about a name, but I have a superpower already. It’s the power to lose the tool I was just using, somewhere in my immediate vicinity… not a very useful superpower really, but it’s the one I seem to be stuck with.
Who is your hero/heroine?
Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame). The guy is a strong advocate of – and speaker for – the maker movement and has some really interesting things to say about his own experiences as a maker. His Ten Commandments of Making is well worth a listen. I also think that every maker or craftsperson should listen to this talk he did about the importance of failing.
A favourite quote:
I love the conclusion of this address Australian comedian Tim Minchin gave at a graduation ceremony of his old university (hell, I love the whole address):
“You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad. And then you’ll be old. And then you’ll be dead. There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is: fill it. Not fillet. Fill. It. And in my opinion (until I change it), life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas… It’s an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours. Good luck.”
Sebastian has kindly offered a prize to one lucky Felt blog reader of their choice of a dozen medieval pewter buttons. You can see his range of button designs and other creations here. If you’d like to be in the prize draw, just leave a comment below telling us what inspires you about Sebastian’s story and his work. The draw will be made on Friday 4 July and is open to New Zealand residents only.