The alchemy of copper

Andy Harris is taking part in the West Cork Creates exhibition in Skibbereen this month. Andy spoke to West Cork People about his craft and his meandering journey, sometimes by horse and cart, to becoming a master coppersmith.

Andy was born and spent his early years in 1960s Birmingham, where school played only a minor role in his life as his sole interests were in art, games and metalwork. “I had no plan when I left home,” he says, “and eventually drifted into living in a covered wagon pulled by horses. That lifestyle contained all of the things I was interested in.”

In the late 1980s, Andy crossed the Irish Sea to continue his travels in “the place my ancestors left many years ago”.  

Soon after arriving in Ireland, Andy was fortunate to meet one of the last remaining nomad tinsmiths who showed him the basic skills, with minimal tools, needed to make objects to sell on the road. “I used a chair leg for a baton, a nail as a scriber and punch, snips, pliers and a piece of metal with a hole in it to make rivets,” Andy recalls. “Life had many challenges back then which helped me to hone my trade.”  

Andy’s subsequent love of copper came when he started to make coal buckets from old copper water tanks. “My work started to sell because copper is so attractive.”  

Eventually Andy met a retired master coppersmith, who passed on his tools and knowledge “to expand my horizons”.  In exchange, Andy helped this man to go on the road for a season with a horse and wagon.  

Over the years Andy has completed many jobs: making props for film and theatre, distilleries for gin, valleys and ridges on buildings, and mending broken pots and pans. He is a strong proponent of the health benefits of storing water in copper. “The anti-bacterial properties are common knowledge but research suggests storing water in copper not only purifies but restores the water’s crystalline structure. Many people also wear copper bracelets to relieve arthritis.” 

He describes his technique as freestyle and focusses on making things that are not easily replicated by machines. “I only use hand tools and you develop ways of moving the metal without assistance from advanced technology. I like my trade, something made entirely by hand feels more honest.  And I’ve had really nice interactions with my customers, sharing a genuine sense of goodwill and thanks on both parts.”

After thirty-odd years of working with copper, Andy believes he has a good sense of the material being worked; “the line of light I follow whilst turning an edge, the sound of a rivet when closing a joint, the combined smell of my work station with warmth and shine from a finished piece.”

After a long journey, West Cork is his home now. “There’s an ancestral memory which is a similar mind to walking the roads with horses. I like it here. It feels like it likes me back.” 

View Andy’s work at the West Cork Creates exhibition in Skibbereen, August 6-27.

WCP Staff

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