Craftsmanship that never changes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the world hurtles forward on computer drive, Michael Bonne is remastering the art of the hammer stroke and the machine crank. One of a handful of historical coppersmiths in the United States, he turns out the everyday goods his great-grandparents would have known. His place could almost be a museum.

Old metal shapes, antique patterns, hang from the ceiling of this period metalworking shop just outside Carthage, Ind. A shelf of old books occupies one corner. ``It's not as old as I'd like,'' says Mr. Bonne, as steps on the pedal of one of his old machines, 1890s vintage, bringing down a long blade that chops off a piece of copper.

As he talks, Bonne (pronounced ``Bonnie'') hammers and snips away at pieces of copper. In his hands, they become copper drinking cups, coffee pots, and heart-shaped baking pans reminiscent of the 19th century.

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``I don't think I make anything that couldn't be made faster and cheaper with a big machine in some factory,'' he says. ``You could go down to K mart or Sears, Roebuck and buy some nice copperware to use in the kitchen. And it'll make your spaghetti just fine, and probably better than mine. But I think it's a little removed from the human experience. And I think that's why we're selling things.''

It's been only two years since Bonne and his wife, Teresa, have been able to earn a comfortable living from the small shop beside their home. They now sell their items to some 600 stores in the country or through the mail. Business has been so brisk recently that even with a couple of helpers, Bonne is 30 weeks behind in his orders. ``Sometimes, about 11 at night, I wish I would have a machine that I could just push a button and have 20 of these done,'' he says. ``But we chose this path because when I walk out here every day, this is where I want to be.''

Making a $16 wash boiler, for example, can be a laborious process. Bonne begins by cutting up shiny 3-foot-by-10-foot copper sheets. One piece is bent into a rough oval, its ends pressed together by an old seamer to make the sides of the wash boiler. An oval bottom is hand-cut with tin snips. Another vintage machine makes the bottom rim.

A few 20th-century conveniences have crept into the process. Bonne uses a propane-fired torch for soldering and an electric pen to sign his work. Electric lights illuminate the shop, which was built from a 19-century log cabin and house.

``I feel it's a pretty small compromise,'' he says of his modern-day conveniences. ``I do have to make a living.''

The rest is authentic, from an 1840 double-seaming machine that sat for 10 years in a cornfield right down to the method of cleaning the copper.

In an 1820s how-to book, Bonne happened upon this copper-cleaning recipe: `` `Take some tomatoes and stew it up and add some salt, add some vinegar, and lather that over your copperware.' Well, what that is a recipe for ketchup.''

So Bonne dispensed with his chemical cleaners and now uses ketchup, up to five or six gallons of it in a busy week, to clean his copper. ``Everybody that asks, we just tell 'em about this old ketchup trick.''

Bonne was never trained as an historical metalworker. There are no courses or guidebooks. Much of what he knows is self-taught. In fact, he probably would never have entered the business if it had not been forced on him.

After working with copper sculpting in high school and attending a Tennessee Bible college for a year, Bonne came back to work in his father's construction business. Bored with that, he formed his own construction company and began doing more and more renovations of historic log cabins and other structures until a head injury in an on-the-job accident forced him to close the business.

``That changed my life quite a bit,'' he says. ``I'd always had my own business and never really lacked for anything. Then all of a sudden, you're worried about having shelter. We got down to eating a lot of pork sausage -- her [Teresa's] dad is a farmer. That's about all we had in the house, you know.

``But as I look back now, that created the only opportunity I might have had for 30 or 40 years to get back into art and do what I guess I was meant to do all along.''

One of the first breaks came when the Bonnes bought their first collection of antique metal-working machinery.

``We drove to Ohio to buy it late one night. We bought that machinery for an undisclosed sum, but I can assure you that undisclosed sum was the last money that we had on earth. And as I recall, it was probably our house payment. . . . We came here and I paid for the machinery in the first three weeks that we owned it by making and selling things.''

Now the lean times are something the burly, soft-spoken Bonne can laugh about.

To keep buyers from reselling his works as antiques, he signs each of his pieces with his mark, the date, and a little saying of his own or from the Bible. A small copper cup gets part of Psalms 23: ``My cup runneth over.'' Large wash boilers are inscribed: ``Grandma Hazel kept her socks in one.''

That's a personal reminder, Bonne says, of the time he gave a large wash boiler to Grandma Hazel and her husband, Howard. ``I was pretty puffed up and I thought it was the neatest thing,'' he recalls. But, she said, `` `You know, I'd been keeping Howard's socks in a shoe box and that wash boiler fit just right.'

``That was a good lesson,'' he says. ``Not every one of my pieces is going to be in a museum. I don't know how many will end up in the closet with socks.''

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