Story and photos by Mark Thomson.
John Yard is a tinsmith, a trade for which there is now only an occasional call these days. Or as he says of the occupation he has followed since his early teens: “I’m a fairy tapper.” He’s referring to the fact that tinsmiths rarely ever hit the sheet metal that is their raw material with any heavy blows; rather, it’s constant small tapping — “fairy taps” — that obtains the desired result.
As a maker of forms and shapes in sheet metal, he transforms things from two into three dimensions. Lines, parabolas, and French curves are calculated and traced out onto metal. He then cuts, hammers bends, rolls, and planishes (doming or dishing the metal) using an astonishingly wide range of techniques to eventually bring about shapes of domestic or industrial use. Before the days of injection-molded plastic, nearly every bucket, dish, lamp, tank, or complex shape was made this way.
John plays down his interesting problem-solving abilities or the geometric skill he has in conceiving three-dimensional shapes in his mind and then devising a long string of processes to bring that object to reality. He had never previously made one of the Edison cylinder phonograph sound trumpets he is shown making here. John just looked up an example of one and deduced the best way to make it. He keeps copious notes and diagrams of the many and varied objects he has made over a long and busy life.
John learned a great deal of his trade from his father, also a tinsmith. John still uses his father’s old hammer, in part as a way of remembering the tradition.
As a very occasional shy and modest demonstrator of his trade, John attracts fascinated crowds, many of whom had never given a moment’s thought as to how such things were made. He’s looking forward to doing some tinsmithing demonstrations at the Adelaide Mini Maker Faire in South Australia on April 6.
“I love doing it because it’s all hands-on … It starts from sheet metal and ends up with a built-to-last, honestly made thing. It’s so simple and it fires people up. They feel good because they can see that they could do it too.”