Coppersmith Preserves Metalwork Trade

American Artisans, Americana, People, Traditions
on September 23, 2001

In an old-fashioned workshop in Knightstown, Ind., (pop. 2,148) Michael Bonne bends a copper ribbon around a die, creating a shapely cookie cutter that soon will grace someone’s kitchen table.

Bonne is a self-taught artisan, antiques buff, and seat-of-the-pants businessman who fashioned a coppersmithing career out of adversity and is helping keep a vanishing art alive.

“All the tools we use were phased out of existence before World War II,” says the salt-and-pepper-haired 42-year-old. “The antique machines and the machines I’ve built, they don’t exist anywhere.”

Bonne’s beginnings as a coppersmith trace back to the 1970s, when he studied metal sculpting in high school art class. But instead of pursuing an artistic vocation, Bonne launched a log cabin construction business.

Just a few years into the venture, however, he fractured his skull in a construction accident and was left with permanent double vision.

“It was kind of hard to go back into construction work,” he says. “You didn’t know which rung of the ladder to step on.”

Flat broke and without insurance, Bonne and his wife, Teresa, a schoolteacher, struggled to make ends meet. One day, he pulled out his high school metal sculpting supplies and turned to antiques for inspiration.

The log cabin business had already steeped Bonne in the trades of the pioneer era. Borrowing ideas from early 19th-century household items, he began crafting copper reproductions.

“My tools at that time consisted of a vice, and a ball-peen hammer, and a tree stump … and a couple pair of pliers,” he recalls. Soon, he graduated to a set of antique tinsmith tools purchased with the family’s mortgage money for the month.

The gamble paid off. America was riding a wave of nostalgia brought on by the recent bicentennial, but most metal sculptors still were creating contemporary fountains and wall hangings. Bonne’s kitchen and decorative items caught the eyes of buyers immediately. Just a few months after launching his career, the coppersmith sold nearly everything he’d crafted at a traditional craftsman show in Louisville, Ky. Within six months of his humble beginnings, he hired four employees to help him keep up with demand.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Bonne and his staff of up to 100 create household items to sell in his Knightstown retail store, through mail order and the Internet, and to mom-and-pop shops around the country. Bonne also crafts intricately detailed cookie cutters by the thousands, filling orders for department store chains and catalog companies.

Most of his employees are novices whom he trains to work with copper, Michael Bonne-style. “He’s a very good teacher. He’s very easy to work with,” says Pamela Griffin, who began in the soldering department, moved into the more specialized skill of coppersmithing, and now produces creations on her own.

To keep up with large orders for copper cookie cutters, Bonne has conceded to modernity by automating some of his production. But true to his roots, he’s not compromised the elements central to the creative process, like hand soldering.

Explaining the use of automatic clamps that save time and help reduce injuries, Bonne says, “It doesn’t take away from the look and helps, in fact, preserve the look that we’re after. It’s a modern adaptation, but I like to think that if those guys a hundred years ago had the chance, they’d leap at it.”