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Robin Felder
Photo Courtesy of Robin Felder
Robin Felder spins a pewter piece in his home. When he's not running U.Va.'s Medical Automation Research Center, Felder is Charlottesville's only known pewtersmith.

Doctor fashions robots by day, pewter pieces by night

By Dan Heuchert

In Colonial Virginia, pewtersmithing was a trade often handed down from father to son. In the Felder family, it still is. Robin Felder, head of the U.Va. Health System's Medical Automation Research Center, works pewter in his "spare time" -- often between midnight and 2 a.m. It's a craft he learned from his father, taught to his wife, Mary, and is passing along to his children, daughter Cameron, 18, who is headed to U.Va. as a first-year student this fall, and son Carter, 14.

"It's a good opportunity to teach the children the A to Z of running a home business," he noted, although the passion he exudes for his hobby goes well beyond that of a secondary source of income.

His father, Pelham Felder, is a self-taught pewtersmith. "It was a trade we learned together," Robin said. Pelham eventually opened his own shop in Fredericksburg, which he ran for 20 years before transplanting it to Charleston, S.C. (where it is still known as "Fredericksburg Pewtersmith"). Robin's identical twin brother, Chris, also learned the craft and combines a scientific career with a pewtersmithing hobby in Indiana.

Robin seems to have the Charlottesville market all to himself. The closest pewtersmiths that he is aware of are in Fredericksburg and Williamsburg, he said.

In the old days, pewter was typically an alloy of tin and lead, a less-expensive alternative to silver. Of course, we now know that it isn't particularly healthful to eat off of lead plates or drink from lead cups, so tin today is mixed with antimony, copper or silver.

"It is much softer than silver," Felder said. "You have to keep heating [silver] up. Pewter, you can keep hammering and hammering all day long.

It also melts at a much lower temperature, around 700 degrees and thus can be heated to malleability on a stovetop.

There are three ways to work pewter, said Felder, who does all three. The "long and hard way" is hammering away at it with a mallet, a sheet and a bag of sand. "It's great for getting out your frustrations," he said.

Alternately, it can be spun, as on a lathe. You create a wooden form for the intended shape of the inside of the piece and then wrap the pewter around it as it spins, he said.

Finally, pewter can be cast, a process in which molten pewter is poured into a mold.

Many of the pieces Felder creates in his home near Rugby Road are given away as gifts to family, friends and business associates. "I'm constantly challenged to think of what people might want to have," he said. "It's something I do myself, so it's more personal."

He sells some pieces at craft shows, and has cast a family of boars to be sold by the Boars Head Inn's gift shop. He's working on a Web site to market a line of miniature animals that "look just like silver, buffed to a high shine."

He's also working on a new, double-jointed candlestick design called the "Rotunda," made to resemble candlesticks once used on ships. He hopes the University will use them as unique gifts to donors, he said.

The most elaborate pieces he regularly makes are baby cups, which must be spun, a difficult process with smaller pieces. They also have curled lips, and the handles must be soldered on, he said.

Of course, living in Charlottesville, he also makes Jefferson cups, which he said are done "the way Jefferson intended they be made," with a buffed finish inside and outside. Most Jefferson cups sold in stores, he said, are stamped out by machine in Baltimore.

Felder was trained as a biochemist, but has gravitated toward making things. His medical automation lab creates robots to carry out various medicine-related chores.

"I always thought it would be nice to get robots to do my pewtersmithing," he said, "but I'd need the robots to introduce errors" -- to make the pieces appear more authentic.

Nevertheless, he anticipates that doing pewtersmithing the old-fashioned way will be a lifetime hobby for him, and hopefully generations of Felders to come.

"Everybody should have an artsy-craftsy thing they do in their spare time. It's good to get ready for your retirement," said Felder, who, in his mid-40s, has a few years to go before he gets there.

"After Hours" chronicles the interesting and varied off-Grounds lives of University faculty and staff. If you have ideas for future stories, please share them with us via e-mail at insideuva@virginia.edu.


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