By Laura Hill
You never know when – and where – you might find your calling in life.
Kathleen Armour Walker’s came to light, unexpectedly, in 2007, in a small Tennessee town. Today, her passion has made her a leader in an unusual business rarely undertaken by women.
Walker is the owner, design whiz and driving force behind the Tennessee Pewter Co., one of the only manufacturers of handcrafted pewter in the Southeast.
She and a small staff spin, pour, engrave and buff dozens of household articles, tableware, personal accessories and art objects from pewter, sending their coveted wares to clients around the country. But, if you’re envisioning those dull, gray metal plates and cups tucked in your grandma’s breakfront, think again. While pewter has been around for centuries, Tennessee Pewter Co. has a whole new take on this ancient art form.
“It is definitely not the Colonial look,” Walker says of the pitchers, bowls, spoons, vases and jewelry from her shop. “It’s modern – a totally different look. I want people, when they take our things home, to really use them.”
History of the Tennessee Pewter Co.
Walker came by her interest in pewter before her marriage to Dan Hamilton a few years back. Hamilton had long been a fan of TPC’s products, so when it came time to shop for wedding party gifts, pewter bowls from the company, at that time in Grand Junction, Tenn., seemed ideal. Shortly after that, Hamilton gave Walker a pair of pewter candlesticks for an anniversary gift. She was hooked.
In 2008, the couple learned that TPC was for sale, and after some thought decided to buy it, even though neither one knew the first thing about how to make or market pewter.
“I wanted a career where I could live in a rural area and still be successful at what I did,” says Walker, who earned an undergraduate degree from Delta State University and a master’s in agricultural technology from Mississippi State University. “When we found out the pewter company was for sale, it was one of those ‘aha’ moments. I knew I could live in a small town and make a successful living.”
An eager and determined learner who believes “you can learn to do anything you set your mind to,” she studied pewter production with several other artisans, including former owner Byron Black, who stayed with the company through 2008.
The couple lives with their two “furry children,” Golden Pyrenees dogs, in a vintage Craftsman home that they painstakingly restored themselves. Having tackled one huge task, they decided to tackle another, moving the business from the Grand Junction building where it had been for 35 years, to Somerville, closer to their College Hill home.
Revamped pewter business goes green
Tennessee Pewter’s new home opened in November 2009, bringing a clean, green business to town, Walker says.
“I’m a very green business,” she says. “We use scraps from the spun pewter to cast pewter – there’s no waste in the manufacturing process at all. It’s non-polluting, nothing goes into the air or anything like that. We only generate about one bag of trash a week, mostly paper, and we don’t even have a dumpster.”
An alloy of tin (92 percent), antimony (6 percent) and copper (2 percent), pewter has been in use since at least the days of the Roman Empire and grew increasingly popular over time as a replacement for more fragile and clumsy dishes, utensils and cups made of pottery or wood. England, in particular, developed expert pewter craftsmen, many of whom made the voyage to America.
Historically, pewter alloys often contained lead, a potential health hazard, and was a softer metal that dented and wore easily. The more modern alloy made for a more durable, attractive metal, but the invention of electroplating in the late 19th century meant silver-plated items surpassed pewter in commercial sales.
Today, pewter is enjoying a rebirth in popularity, says Walker, part of a larger interest in handmade, non-disposable goods in a society growing tired of throw-away gifts and possessions.
“My personal thought is that so much today is imported,” Walker says. “People are tired of imported gifts they might use for a year or two. Pewter will pass down through generations – and there are not many things available that you will keep forever.”
Walker uses spinning and casting techniques
Walker’s shop produces pewter items two ways: spinning and casting. In spinning, which is how most of their products are made, raw pewter in the form of a disc or tube is mounted on a lathe and rotated at high speeds while it is shaped with special metal tools to produce a desired design, such as a julep cup or candlestick. Cast pewter is melted metal poured into specially designed rubber molds, yielding a nearly endless variety of shapes, sizes and designs, ranging from custom-designed key chain fobs to Christmas ornaments and jewelry.
Walker herself designs Tennessee Pewter’s rubber molds and is an accomplished caster. Her husband also works in the business when he’s not commuting to his job as a CPA in Memphis. And Walker’s father, Jim Armour, a computer programmer, is the company’s expert spinner – a physically taxing job.
Walker jokes that the faltering economy has been something of a blessing for the new business, giving them time to get a running start in anticipation of growing orders. She’s proud that, despite the learning curve and moving the business, Tennessee Pewter has not missed a single order. She’s proud, too, of the feminine perspective she has brought to a business traditionally run by men.
“I wanted to make it a warm and fuzzy company, a pleasant shopping experience,” Walker says. “When you buy a high-end product, you want to buy it in some place nice. I immediately instituted a bridal registry and a baby registry, and I also immediately started gift wrapping. The biggest change, though, is that customers are telling me what they want and I am listening. When you help people and design something they will have for generations, that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Where to find Tennessee pewter
Tennessee Pewter Co. is located at 16030 Highway 64 in Somerville, about 50 miles east of Memphis, but call 901.465.2609 or e-mail Kathleen Walker for hours of operation before driving long distances.
A Vessel for Art
The Tennessee Pewter Co. isn’t the only place you can find handcrafted pewter in Tennessee. Janet Miller of Antioch creates beautiful Pewter Vessels in the form of vases, bowls, pots, candleholders, and salt and peppers. A full-time artist since 1996, Miller sells her works at fine art shows all over the country and has received a number of awards for her work.
Learn more about Janet Miller’s Pewter Vessels by visiting www.pewtervessels.com or calling 615-832-4581.