As a successful wedding planner, Sara Dahmen found writing novels in her spare time a diversion from her busy day job. But her hobby also took her career on an unexpected turn, to her current role as a coppersmith, building and restoring authentic cookware. More than just a job, her business House Copper & Cookware has also inadvertently turned into a life’s work to save a heritage trade from disappearing.
Dahmen grew up in a small village in the middle of Wisconsin and went to college at Marquette University in Milwaukee. After graduating, she worked in advertising for a few years while developing a side hustle, a wedding and event planning company that she started from scratch. When it became too busy she had to quit her ‘day job’.
For 10 years, while she planned weddings and raised three children, Dahmen spent her spare time writing historical fiction books that required detailed research into the way of life during America’s pioneer era. As she researched, she discovered a chasm of lost knowledge in terms of what a pioneer woman’s kitchen looked like during the mid-to-late 1800s; who made their cookware, where it was made, what it was made from.
She says: “When the research developed into something more serious in terms of my passion for it, I sold the wedding planning business and picked up the hammers myself.”
The problem was that no one was making authentic copper cookware anymore in the U.S. So, in the absence of any professional coppersmith training courses, Dahmen taught herself the craft as she went along, with help from several mentors who she met along the way, including a retired metallurgist, cookware makers, metalsmiths, blacksmiths. She says: “I managed to find a retired mechanic nearby who’d taught himself tinsmithing, and in turn, taught me the most about the whole trade.”
She went on to launch a cookware line, stocked with everything that a traditional pioneer kitchen would have had, including flour sack towels, wooden spoons, thick pottery bowls, cast iron, and copper, based on historical designs and references.
Coppersmithing is not a job for the fainthearted. Dahmen hand-drills, rivets, hand-tins and polishes the pieces using tools from the 1700s and 1800s to recreate vintage reproductions of tin and copper.
The vintage tools are mostly sourced online, from eBay, and also from estate sales. She says: “Sometimes you can inherit or buy a whole shop’s worth of tools, jigs, and fixtures when, sadly, one of the tinsmiths passes away.”
The work is physically demanding and involves standing over a 600 degrees Farenheit fire with acid and flux billowing around, wearing heavy safety gear for hours, and handling dangerous molten metal. In Dahmen’s own words, the job demands artistry, patience, and a tolerance for frequent failure.
Most of her business marketing has been via word of mouth, or occasionally when someone is specifically looking for a coppersmith for their custom project or a tinsmith to re-tin their copper cookware. However, the pandemic has played a role in accelerating a resurgence in home cooking and sending new customers Dahmen’s way.
She says: “People were going through their stuff during lockdown, finding heirlooms to restore, or just wanting to get serious about using real cooking tools. The effect almost tripled my re-tinning orders and weekly cookware orders.”
The last 12 months have also led more people to focus more on provenance; the products they are surrounding themselves with, knowing where it was made, and even where the raw materials have come from.
Her customers, based mainly in the U.S. and Canada, have developed a passion for the history of copper cookware, especially their own pieces, and are thrilled to discover that their favorite pot dates back to pre-1840. Dahmen says: “Restoring them means that those pots and pans get another generation or more of use – and anyway, how cool is it to cook in a pot that was likely made in the 1700s?”
As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic business owners are starting to plan for growth, and Dahmen is no exception. Working from the confines of her home garage has made it virtually impossible, from an insurance point of view, for her to think about hiring and training people to join her in the business.
However, her plans for next year include relocating to commercial premises and eventually having the facilities to provide training for a new generation of coppersmiths with a passion for learning and preserving vintage trade.
She says: “I make pieces of copper cookware and bakeware that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, but I can only produce so many of these pieces by myself. It would be wonderful to make more and fill the world with beautiful cookware that doesn’t end up going into landfill.”