Making Copper Kettles

American Artisans, Featured Article, Made in America, People, Traditions
on February 29, 2012
Todd Yarrington Kettles, buckets, bowls and utensils are among the shiny items produced by the company.

Keith Moore, 50, runs a sharp blade along a sheet of shiny copper, tracing around a kettle pattern designed in 1874. His knife slices through the copper sheeting and into the grooved wooden workbench underneath.

“I like to work with my hands,” says Moore, who began working 33 years ago as an apprentice for D. Picking & Co. in Bucyrus, Ohio (pop. 12,362). He started by sweeping floors and gradually learned how to craft copper kettles. “We work to get quality, not quantity,” he says.

For nearly 140 years, coppersmiths in D. Picking & Co.’s narrow brick and wood-framed factory have produced kettles used to make apple butter, candy, cheese, popcorn and even timpani drums. The family-owned company is the only manufacturer of hand-hammered copper kettles in the nation.

Helen Picking Neff carries on the tradition started by her great-grandfather, Daniel Picking. He and business partner Jacob Geiger owned a hardware store in Bucyrus and discovered a demand for apple butter kettles. The closest kettle supplier was in Lancaster, Pa., however, so they set up a shop, recruiting coppersmiths from Pennsylvania and selling handmade kettles in their hardware store. When the partnership dissolved in 1879, the business became known as D. Picking & Co., and it’s been in the Picking family ever since.

Neff, 97, who owns and manages the company, remembers her father lifting her when she was a little girl into the large copper kettles, where she liked to play with her dolls and talk to the men in the shop.

“I had tea parties there,” says Neff, who assumed ownership of the family business in 1983 after her father, Robert, died. “I was brought up in the place.”

The process of making kettles starts with a flat copper sheet, which coppersmiths cut into pieces. After the pieces are rounded on an iron bar, a mixture of brass shavings, borax and water is spooned onto the kettle’s dovetailed edges, and the metal is heated over a low flame, which melts the brass but not the copper. The process fuses the edges, creating a seam.

Workers then cool the copper in a water bath, place the kettle on a steel mold, and hammer it to create a smooth surface and to harden the copper. Next, the kettle is put in a sulfuric acid and water bath to clean the metal. Each kettle goes through several stages of heating, hammering and cleaning before the finished product is ready to ship to a candy company, hardware store or symphony orchestra.

Paul Yancich, principal timpanist for the Cleveland (Ohio) Orchestra, appreciates the craftsmanship and unique qualities of D. Picking & Co.’s hand-hammered kettledrums. “In that handworking, they’re all slightly different,” he says. “That’s where you get the different sounds and colors.”

The company’s four full-time craftsmen take pride in their work and the hundreds of handmade products—from $55 copper ladles to large kettles that sell for up to $1,260—that they manufacture each year.

“I always wanted to work here, and when the apprenticeship job was in the paper, I jumped on it,” says John Butt, 43, an auto mechanic-turned-coppersmith, as he stamps the D. Picking & Co. logo into a copper kettle. “I love working here. I’m doing something nobody else is doing.”