Hand-hammered Aluminum Adds Charm to Kitchenware
Words and photos By John Nichols
There is a positive energy vortex centered around the kitchen of most homes. All that food coming in to be prepared for tasty meals. All the love that flows during the preparation of meals to nourish the body and spirit. All that energy just naturally attracts a certain kind of collectable.
When we want to create a culinary experience that flows like a poem or piece of music, we bring out favorite dishes, bowls and platters. The collection is often as mismatched and stimulating as the guests at the table.
Everything in our kitchen is not part of a collection. It’s just good stuff we use. I don’t carve turkey with Leslie’s grandmother’s carving knife and fork just because it is old and sentimental; I use it because it’s the best knife I have ever used for carving. There’s just something about it that works. I use a contemporary chef ’s knife because it is best for certain jobs. The tools of my life have been carefully selected over decades. They can be old or they can be new but they have to work and it helps if they have soul.
A proper home really only needs one or two serving trays. If you don’t want to start a collection of anything, like hammered aluminum serving trays, then stop at two. There is something we in the collectables field call the Rule of Threes: When you have three of anything, you have a collection. Once you have a collection it just seems to grow.
I saw my first piece of hammered aluminum at an exhibit at the CarnegieArt Museum in Oxnard about 20 years ago. I started combing the antique stores and buying every piece that came along. I bought books and studied. I refined my tastes. Then I began to cull out the mistakes I had made due to lack of experience and lack of taste.
After years of study and daily use of portions of our aluminum collection here’s what I found: The first aluminum object created was a baby rattle in 1850. Napoleon III had a set of aluminum forks and spoons for honored guests. Less-important guests used gold or silver. Pre-1910 aluminum articles made for use around food are rare because aluminum was thought to be poisonous. A 2001 Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology concluded that “no reports of dietary aluminum toxicity to healthy individuals exist in the literature.”
Most aluminum pieces that are collected today are from the period between the 1920s and the 1950s. That’s my favorite period for design as it includes Art Deco, Moderne and Mid-century. Much of what can be found is mass-produced, stamped out and often ordinary. What I like to collect are handmade pieces with interesting designs.
Hammered aluminum pieces are really pounded on by a hammer. The designer carves the design into a hard metal slab with chisels. Dough is pressed into the carved out portion to check the progress of the making of the mold. After the metal slab is carved, a sheet of aluminum is placed over the mold and hammered upon from the reverse side. Bang, bang, bang. The relatively softer aluminum flows into the depression with each hammer blow. When the sheet of aluminum is flipped over there is a raised design. That process is called repoussé.
Further shaping and working was done on a wooden form. Handles could be added using rivets as aluminum does not weld easily. Finally the mark of the manufacturer was stamped into the reverse or bottom.
The tray with the tropical fish was handmade by Wendell August Forge in the 1930s. It is one of the few companies still in operation. Other marks to look for are Arthur Armour and Palmer Smith. The diversity of makers and designs makes the whole area of hammered aluminum fun and fascinating.
When not in use, our collection of hand-hammered aluminum trays nest in an antique copper washtub. It’s nice to collect flat objects as you can fit more of them in a smaller place.
Hammered aluminum can also be a folk art. In the 1950s many hobbyists created amazing pieces. Two examples are small bowls we use daily in our kitchen. The bowl on the left often holds garlic. It has a Zen simplicity that never ceases to touch my heart. The bowl on the right has four dimples pounded out to create feet for the bowl to stand on. I like to eat snacks from this bowl at cocktail time.
Not all aluminum has to be hammered to be collectable. Our aluminum cake cover looks mid-century. The latch on the bottom slides to move the clamps that hold the top on. The cake can be carried to the table or to a potluck and, once in place, the lid can be dramatically removed to reveal a homemade layer cake with frosting that looks like handhammered aluminum or the stormy ocean only it’s dark brown or white. A layer cake from my youth calls for a vintage aluminum cake cover.
Two things not to do with your aluminum: Don’t serve cheese on it with a knife; that hard knife will cut into the softer aluminum. Don’t use abrasive cleaners; that will scratch the surface. To clean use Mother’s Mag Wheel cleaner. Aside from that, just wash and dry promptly.
John Nichols opened the John Nichols Gallery in 1984 in downtown Santa Paula. The gallery specializes in vintage, vernacular and contemporary photography. It is open by appointment on the second floor of the Santa Paula Art Museum. John is one of the founders of the Ag Art Alliance, a member of the Ag Futures Alliance and the Art Acquisitions Committee of the Santa Paula Art Museum. He is a cookie judge at the Ventura County Fair and a stage manager at the Monterey Jazz Festival. His book on the St. Francis Dam disaster was published in 2002. In addition to gallery exhibits he has also designed and curated numerous exhibits for museums around VenturaCounty. Visit his website at JohnNicholsGallery.com.