metalwork, useful and decorative objects fashioned of various metals, including copper, iron, silver, bronze, lead, gold, and brass. The earliest man-made objects were of stone, wood, bone, and earth. It was only later that humans learned to extract metals from the earth and to hammer them into objects. Metalwork includes vessels, utensils, ceremonial and ritualistic objects, decorative objects, architectural ornamentation, personal ornament, sculpture, and weapons.
General processes and techniques
Many of the technical processes in use today are essentially the same as those employed in ancient times. The early metalworker was familiar, for example, with hammering, embossing, chasing, inlaying, gilding, wiredrawing, and the application of niello, enamel, and gems.
Hammering and casting
All decorative metalwork was originally executed with the hammer. The several parts of each article were hammered out separately and then were put together by means of rivets, or they were pinned on a solid core (for soldering had not yet been invented). In addition, plates of hammered copper could be shaped into statues, the separate pieces being joined together with copper rivets. A life-size Egyptian statue of the pharaoh Pepi I in the Egyptian museum, Cairo, is an outstanding example of such work.
After about 2500 BCE, the two standard methods of fabricating metal—hammering and casting—were developed side by side. The lost-wax, or cire perdue (casting with a wax mold), process was being employed in Egypt by about 2500 BCE, the Egyptians probably having learned the technique from Sumerian craftsmen (see sculpture). Long after the method of casting statues in molds with cores had superseded the primitive and tedious rivetting process, the hammer continued as the main instrument for producing art works in precious metals. Everything attributable to Assyrian, Etruscan, and Greek goldsmiths was wrought by the hammer and the punch.
Embossing, or repoussé
Embossing (or repoussé) is the art of raising ornament in relief from the reverse side. The design is first drawn on the surface of the metal and the motifs outlined with a tracer, which transfers the essential parts of the drawing to the back of the plate. The plate is then embedded face down in an asphalt block and the portions to be raised are hammered down into the yielding asphalt. Next the plate is removed and re-embedded with the face uppermost. The hammering is continued, this time forcing the background of the design into the asphalt. By a series of these processes of hammering and re-embedding, followed finally by chasing, the metal attains its finished appearance. There are three essential types of tools—for tracing, for bossing, and for chasing—as well as a specialized tool, a snarling iron or spring bar, which is used to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Ornament in relief is also produced by mechanical means. A thin, pliable sheet of metal may be pressed into molds, between dies, or over stamps. All of these methods have been known from antiquity.
Chasing is accomplished with hammer and punches on the face of the metal. These punches are so shaped that they are capable of producing any effect—either in intaglio (incising beneath the surface of the metal) or in relief—that the metalworker may require. The design is traced on the surface, and the relief may be obtained by beating down the adjacent areas to form the background. Such chased relief work sometimes simulates embossed work, but in the latter process the design is bossed up from the back. The detailed finish of embossed work is accomplished by chasing; the term is applied also to the touching up and finishing of cast work with hand-held punches.
To engrave is to cut or incise a line. Engraving is always done with a cutting tool, generally by pressure from the hand. It detaches material in cutting. When pressure is applied with a hammer, the process is called carving.
The system of ornamentation known as damascening is Oriental in origin and was much practiced by the early goldsmiths of Damascus; hence the name. It is the art of encrusting gold wire (sometimes silver or copper) on the surface of iron, steel, or bronze. The surface upon which the pattern is to be traced is finely undercut with a sharp instrument. The gold thread is forced into the minute furrows of the cut surface by hammering and is securely held.
Niello is the process of inlaying engraved ornamental designs with niello, a silver sulfide or mixture of sulfides. The first authors to write on the preparation of niello and its application to silver were Eraclius and Theophilus, in or about the 12th century, and Benvenuto Cellini, during the 16th. According to each of these authors, niello is made by fusing together silver, copper, and lead and then mixing the molten alloy with sulfur. The black product (a mixture of the sulfides of silver, copper, and lead) is powdered; and after the engraved metal, usually silver, has been moistened with a flux (a substance used to promote fusion), some of the powder is spread on it and the metal strongly heated; the niello melts and runs into the engraved channels. The excess niello is removed by scraping until the filled channels are visible, and finally the surface is polished.
There are two methods of applying enamel to metal: champlevé, in which hollows made in the metal are filled with enamel; and cloisonné, in which strips of metal are applied to the metal surface, forming cells, which are then filled with enamel. (For a detailed discussion, see enamelwork.)
Gilding is the art of decorating wood, metal, plaster, glass, or other objects with a covering or design of gold in leaf or powder form. The term also embraces the similar application of silver, palladium, aluminum, and copper alloys.
The earliest of historical peoples had masterly gilders, as evidenced by overlays of thin gold leaf on royal mummy cases and furniture of ancient Egypt. From early times, the Chinese ornamented wood, pottery, and textiles with beautiful designs in gold. The Greeks not only gilded wood, masonry, and marble sculpture but also fire-gilded metal by applying a gold amalgam to it and driving off the mercury with heat, leaving a coating of gold on the metal surface. From the Greeks, the Romans acquired the art that made their temples and palaces resplendent with brilliant gilding. Extant examples of ancient gilding reveal that the gold was applied to a ground prepared with chalk or marble dust and an animal size or glue.