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Before rolling mills

How was sheet metal created before hard steel and rolling mills?



Hammers and apprentices to swing them. Ingots and buttons were
poured and hammered out on an anvil. I have made many emergency small
sheets that way before I had a rolling mill. Remember that drop
hammers were driven by water for who knows how long and into the
industrial revolution. Some of the wonderful old medieval and
Renaissance woodcuts show the hammering process in the metal shops.
There is a very good image of the whole process on the inside covers
of The Colonial Silversmith, His Techniques & His Products, by Henry
J. Kauffman. Offhand, I do not know the actual origin of that image.

Bill Churlik

Hammers, and before that Rocks some where in between the hammer and
the rock some smart-alecky Mesopotamian or Turkish guy developed a
thing for swinging a mold filled with molten metal around his head,
This was the first time in the history of the Hominid specie, that a
tool which was first created for killing and war was turned into a
device for making art. Then immediately after that the Mesopotamian
war department confiscated his tool and began casting mace heads (for
more war tools) see nothing has changed in 6 or 8 thousand years,
Kenneth Ferrell

Hammer and anvil. Check out the "Silversmith of Williamsburg Video"
available from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It shows the making
of sheet from ingot by hammer and anvil. I can tell you from
personal experience it is a very slow, arduous way to make sheet.

Jim Binnion

James Binnion Metal Arts
Phone (360) 756-6550
Toll Free (877) 408 7287
Fax (360) 756-2160

Member of the Better Business Bureau

Large hammers ,5/6 pounds two people hammering on an anvil (either
bronze or stone surface) ,a larger cast billet, one person holding
onto the billet with a pair of long tongs, turning the billet around
and moving it about in a specific direction or another depending on
the item to be made,while the hammer blows are going on at the exact
same spot on the anvil. an earlier version of a power hammer. a very
old way when labor and time were of no object, I didn’t own a sheet
metal rolling mill until last year, and I made a lot of my sheet in
this way. a pair of large narrow nose vise grips ,1kilo hammer, a
80lbs Swedes anvil, the amount of control that you have on shaping
and thinning out the sheet is unparalleled ,with out cracks ,or
boundaries on how thick you can start at, a definite skill to master
but not that hard to undertake. but on the other hand, after so many
years of intense labor body starts crying…

forging and hammering. Lots of tedious forging and hammering.
Prior to drawplates and rolling mills, our raw materials of sheet and
wire which we take for granted, represented already a lot of hand
labor to fabricate just the sheet and wire. But it did present some
opportunintes that we’d find difficult, or at least not so obvious.
Some medieval armor, for example, is made of steel sheet that varies
a great deal in thickness. It’s thickest where the protection is
most needed, thinning out where the needs are less, to cut the
weight. When the sheet metal being used is forged from an ingot in
the first place, and the skills to do that are second nature, then
either making sheet metal with variable thickness as desired, or
simply forging the metal as it’s being made into an object to
control the sheet metal’s thickness “on the fly”, becomes also
second nature. We, without those built in forging skills, tend to
leave our sheet metal “as is”, even if the piece would improve with
changes in thickness.

And with wire, in particular, getting highly uniform shape and
thickness obviously requires a tremendous amount of work. One of the
more common hallmarks of forgeries of work that would have been made
prior to the introduction of drawplates, is that few forgers will
take the time to manually make the wire, and drawplates leave marks,
even if only that the thickness and cross sectional shape of the
wire is so very uniform that it might be unlikely to have been
manually made “the old way”. more common is simply finding drawing
striations on the wire from the drawplate. Wire made before
drawplates was often done by taking sheet metal, and, often with a
chisel, cutting an even spiral shape, which would then be
straightened out to form a long narrow strip. Gentle hammering,
burnishing, and the like would then even out the shape. if it needed
to be reduced in size, annealing and stretching will also do it
(in addition to actual forging or the like), if you’re very very
careful not to break it at thin spots…

I’ve occasionally thought to myself that the skills required just to
produce what we now consider our raw materials, in ancient work,
might even have represented much or even most of the required work to
produce some of the pieces. Occasionally it’s just mind blowing. I
recall seeing some precolumbian (peruvian) work up very close, and
marvelling at the precision of the wire and sheet used to fabricate
some of those intricate pieces, especially knowing not just that the
wire and sheet were hand formed, but that they were probably formed
not even with iron or metal tools, but rather with stone hammers
and natural abrasives…

Gives one reason to pause, now and then… But remember that some
of these tools may go back farther than we realize. I seem to
recall reading (probably in one of Jack Ogden’s books. Did I
remember this right Mr. Ogden, of you’re reading this?) that
drawplates were known in roman times…


I have made many rings using forging techniques… as I was building
my equipment I didn’t have drawplates or a rolling mill yet was able
to beat hammer anneal and will the metal into the shapes I needed…
where there is a will there is a way!


Strong arms and persistent hammer work. That’s why I look at some
of the ancient sheet work with pure awe. When you see a silver work
urn with basically no visible hammer marks, you have to be impressed
when you take the tools into account.

Ron Charlotte – Gainesville, FL
@Ron_Charlotte1 OR

Hello Orchidians,

Can’t you imagine how precious that metal sheet was, once it was
forged?? I’ll bet they used every bit and were very careful to get
the most out of it before collecting the scraps to melt again.

Reminds me of how valuable fabric was when one had to gather the
fibers and process them to produce thread, then weave or knit the
threads into cloth. Helps you comprehend how much time and effort it
took to produce a simple piece of clothing. No wonder common people
owned few clothes and wore them out.

Now think about making a car from scratch!!

Judy in Kansas where my strawberries are putting on, but not
ripening yet. Time to plant tomatoes.

Judy M. Willingham, R.S.
B.A.E. 237 Seaton Hall
Kansas State University
Manhatttan KS 66506
(785) 532-2936
FAX (785) 532-6944

Well it’s been said enough that I don’t have to repeat it. Right now
the hammer and anvil technique is what I use when I need something a
certain size and all I have is too big. It’s boring but effective.
In a lot of ways it seems to add some character to the pieces as
well. I tend to make work that is aimed at the early, post-modern,
pre-apocalyptic hippie unwashed “Tribal” masses anyway so hammer
marks fit in nicely. Mike

    No wonder common people owned few clothes and wore them out. 

And then they cut them into pieces. Good pieces went into quilts.
Strips of cloth were plaited into rag rugs.


some where in between the hammer and the rock some smart-alecky
Mesopotamian or Turkish guy developed a thing for swinging a mold
filled with molten metal around his head,... 

Why do you call them “smart-alecky”? In any case, to my knowledge,
there’s no evidence for the use of sling-casting in the Ancient Near
East. Stone molds were in use, and artifacts show that lost-wax
casting was known by the 4th millennium BC.

a tool which was first created for killing and war was turned into
a device for making art. 

I never tire of repeating that metal (including iron) was first used for
purposes of jewelry and art for thousands of years in the Ancient Near
East before it was ever used for weaponry. It was too valuable to
waste on weaponry, until later in the first millennium BC.

casting mace heads (for more war tools) 

Cast metal maceheads never show any signs of use and were actually
weapons for display only.

Jack Ogden’s book, Jewellery of the Ancient World (1982), pp. 34-35,
describes the making of ancient sheet metal (especially gold); on
p. 48ff., he discusses the forming of wire by cutting strips of
sheet metal and forming round wire from twisted and rolled strips
(there are nice close-up photos of artifacts which show the use of
these and many other techniques). For more detail and references,
see the chapter on Metalworking, in P.R.S. Moorey’s Ancient
Mesopotamian Materials and Industries (1994), a book which everyone
interested in the history of ancient metalworking (not to mention
ancient stone, bone, clay, glass, ceramic, etc.) should have in
their library.

I learned to make sheet without a rolling mill from Gary Noffke. He
makes his sheet metal for gold and silver alloy vessels, spoons and
Cappuccino Steamers without a rolling mill

Unfortunately the study of history like the study of philosophy,
largely based on the interpreters preconceived thesis. So until we
invent a reliable and accurate time machine or at least an accurate
history time observing viewer, we will never know the order of
chicken and egg controversy, such like cases. If we do not have
reliable observers watch all angles of the first case, so all
arguments are not making any new jewelry nor anything else for that
matter. Now when it come to philosophy we are really up the creek
san paddle.

Now shall we make art or unprovable circles?

Your humble (humbug) servant,