About two years ago, we visited the training center of Sheet Metal Workers Union Local #17 in Dorchester. It was there that I met with retired sheet metal workers who were constructing a tin man for our exhibition, Keepers of Tradition. Though we had only asked for one figure, we were surprised to learn that they chose to make three, eager to demonstrate their ability in working with three different types of metal: 16-ounce copper, glavanized steel, and stainless steel.
William Walsch, Dan Hardy, Richard “Dick” Clarke, and Glenn Walker – all retired sheet metal workers – would spend more than 50 hours each fabricating the tin men. The making of tin men was once taught in apprenticeship classes. The skills required in making a tin man include all those necessary to become a journeyman: layout, scribing, cutting, folding, rolling, bending, riveting, soldering, and filing metal.
Figurative sculptures known as tin men were made by metalsmiths long before the tin woodman in the Wizard of Oz appeared onscreen. Metalsmithing is an ancient trade. For centuries, tin men have been used as trade signs advertising a metalsmith’s shop or wares.
These life size sculptures, emblematic of trade skill, were on display in the opening section of our exhibition. Once the show closed in June of this year, the tin men found a permanent home in the training center of Local Union #17.
I missed them. And, truth be told, I wanted one.
Having gotten to know some of the retired sheet metal workers, I learned that making decorative objects serves as an outlet for creativity and affirmation of membership in a highly skilled trade. In fact, when we visited the training center, in addition to the tin men, the men had brought in half a dozen creations for our consideration: baskets, lighthouses, boxes, and a clipper ship.
So, with the blessing of the training center coordinator, I contacted Richard “Dick” Clarke to see if I could commission a tin man of my very own. Two months later, I drove to his home in Stoneham where I was delighted to see the finished product.