A tinsmith, or tinner or tinker, is a person who makes and repairs tinware. Early tinsmiths used tinplate, wire, solder, and a few simple tools to produce utilitarian wares that ranged from downspouts to kettles, bath tubs to weather vanes. Interestingly the term ‘tinker’ refers to an itinerant traveler or peddler and indeed early tinsmiths did hawk their wares, on foot to rural farms and villages. In Australia tinsmiths numbered amongst the trades of the first convicts and free settlers and they quickly adapted their skills to meet the needs of the farmers, miners and builders of the new colony. As the prospectors and pioneers pushed further into remote areas in the hope of gaining a living, we can picture the tinsmith following behind to make the items they would have surely soon needed.
pic above: Tin mining at Stanthorpe. As with gold, prospecting for tin became one of the incentives for exploration and development In Queensland, tin mines were established in Stanthorpe and Herberton but without a milling industry here to turn the resource into product the raw material was shipped back to England to be processed into tin plate. Even as late as 1889 the process of tinplating sheet steel, indeed the tinplate itself had changed little since its beginnings in fourteenth-century Bohemia.
A description of the manufacturing process reveals many stages and much labour as the metal is repeatedly passed through rolling mills, furnace, acid baths then further rinsed and scoured and dipped in palm oil before at last, the tinman places the sheets in a large iron pot of molten tin. Then follows more palm oil and rolling, degreasing in a tub of bran and then rubbing with a skin ‘duster’. Inspected then sorted into ‘perfects’ and ‘wasters’ the plates are counted and boxed up into elm wood boxes, marked by branding irons and finally placed into the freight car, ready to be forwarded to their various destinations. The labour intense process which includes young girls and boys as well as adults, keenly evokes the harsh, noisy and soot blackened conditions of late nineteenth century industrial life. Even so, tinplate can be understood as a crafted product not without its own mystique, produced by many hands, its method of creation reveals a layered history of empirical knowledge.
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