Family business

Jonathan Gibson's craft goes back centuries

Union Leader Correspondent
February 24. 2014 3:13PM
Jonathan Gibson shows a visitor the lathe dating from 1885 that he uses to create unique and reproduction pewter ware in his Hillsborough shop. Gibson's father started the shop, and when he was ready to retire, “I jumped out of the real estate business and into this and I've been here ever since,” he said. 

HILLSBOROUGH -- In an old barn in a quintessential New England village, Jonathan Gibson forges timeless pieces out of molten pewter, using the same tools and methods used by pewterers for centuries.

Gibson, 54, became a pewterer under the tutelage of his father, Raymond Gibson, a Congregational minister who took up pewter as a hobby and gradually turned the hobby into a business. In 1966, Gibson Pewter was founded in the family's barn in Hillsborough Center, a historic village that's been quietly preserved since Colonial times. Though Gibson Pewter began as a seasonal cottage industry, for Jon Gibson, it's become a way of life.

"It all started right here," said Gibson, standing in his shop that overlooks the mountains of the Monadnock range. "When my father was ready to retire, I jumped out of the real estate business and into this and I've been here ever since."

Pewter, according to Gibson, is an alloy made mostly of tin but flavored with copper, antimony and bismuth, which all work together to give the metal its luster and hardness and make it more convenient to work with. Gibson buys his pewter in sheets or in bars from smelters in Rhode Island, folks who know the secrets of mixing just the right blend of metals to create a good alloy, he said.

Following the traditions of craftsmen who came before him, and in many cases, using their molds and tools, Gibson takes the raw pewter and forms it into everything from spoons to tea services to tankards.

"All of my tools are old," said Gibson, who scours the world in person and through the Internet looking for traditional implements to use in his work. There are barrels full of scrapers, chisels, and burnishers used to shape and decorate the pewter as it spins on Gibson's 1885 lathe, a holdover from the industrial revolution.

Gibson also has a vast collection of molds used in forming molten pewter into a variety of shapes. The oldest mold in his collection is from 1695, he said, and was used to make spoons for the court of King William III.

Through his retail shop and on the Internet, Gibson sells an array of more than 100 products, including porridgers - small bowls with ornate handles that were traditionally used for serving porridge - along with reproduction oil lamps, traditional tableware, and even jewelry. Gibson also likes to put his own spin on some of the pieces he makes, including bowls that are pressed against wooden forms while still warm and take on the grain of the wood.

Pewter has been around for thousands of years, said Gibson, and before silver, glass and porcelain became readily available in the 18th and 19th centuries, pewter was a symbol of status.

"If you had the means, you had pewter," said Gibson. "You aspired to have pewter then the way you aspire to have silver now." Though it's not great for cooking in - "pewter has a low melting point so it starts to wiggle at about 450 degrees," Gibson said - it's fine for everyday serving use. Pewter pieces will last forever if used properly, and shouldn't be relegated to a corner of a cupboard or a hutch. "You're supposed to use them," he said.

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