An Evolutionary History of the Art of Repoussé                                                                               By Joseph Fiebiger                                                                                                                             Published by National Association of Corrosion Engineers 

     There are two acknowledged types of repoussé work in the history of decorative element. The first is that which is primarily worked in a resilient material such as “pitch” or lead. The second is that which is worked on stakes, forks, spoons and primary doming blocks. These two types allow the execution of an element which has been created without a previously modeled or sculptured form. Throughout the history of decorative art the artistic blacksmith has mastered these functions as an adjunct to his art, the synthesis of eye, hand and hammer. These processes mandate the hand forging of the hammers, punches, chisels, drifts, stakes, forks, spoons and doming blocks.

Various recipes for repoussé pitch are:

I Pitch 10 lbs
Brickdust 20 lbs
Resin 4 lbs
Tallow 2 lbs

II Pitch 6 parts
Brickdust 8 parts
Resin 1 part
Linseed Oil 1 part

III Pitch 14 lbs
Brickdust 14 lbs
Plaster of Paris
or Brickdust 7 lbs
Tallow 8 oz

When brass, bronze, copper, aluminum or silver are to be worked in the repoussé fashion the artisan is given a sketch of the element to be composed. Usually this element is to be non-repetitive or repetitive in small quantities. This process allows for the material to be humored and drawn sufficiently so that it may be made in its entirety, including the undercuts, from a single piece. The material is first coaxed into its general form, via hammering from the back into a “doming block.” This block is hemispherical and is either made of cast iron or wood. The latter is preferable in this stage for there is little marring. Once given its rough shape the element is set into the pitch block or pitch board and played upon with a soft flame which is intended to fill the voids between the material and the pitch. With this resilient background the artisan is at liberty to begin.

Details are drawn on the element and are chased into the piece with the chisels which he has fashioned. The sculptural phase is now implemented with hammers, punches and drifts. The material work-hardens throughout this procedure; annealing must be performed to provide relief for these stresses, though a nuisance to the artisan the annealing is mandatory. Patience and concentration are paramount and must be entwined through the fibre of work. This phase of repoussé work renders the artist as the artisan and the artisan as the artist. The artisan/artist if executing two of the same elements can not render the second as an exact replication of the first. Truly paramount in understanding the differences between these different methods is to fully comprehend that the pitch provides resiliency; it does not provide form. The form and bas relief are the harvest of talents of the artisan/artist.

Foliated forms, vessels and chalices are fashioned via hammering without the use of punches, drifts, chisels, etc. Multitudes of hammers with heads of various shapes are required for creation. The material is hammered on iron doming blocks, forks, spoons and raising stakes. Yet the primary rules apply—the form and bas relief are the harvest of artisan’s talents.

A variety of techniques prevail for the creation of artistic or decorative elements wherein the artist is purely the artist and artisan is a technical craftsman. Misrepresentation when referred to as repoussé, these processes are more definitively doming, stamping or drawing. Their origin is traced to late 17th Century France when the repoussérs of the era sought an alternate method of coaxing bronze, brass and copper to a sculptured form. The method, often called “Rope Stamping,” allowed for large as well as repetitive elements to be fashioned.

There is some speculation that this procedure, as an alternative means to “lost wax” casting opened new avenues for the sculpture. Pleasingly paradoxic, foundry related skills for modeling and production of negative/positive forms were amplified. These forms offer no resiliency, they are cavities of form into or onto which the material is driven, the final work a shell of the artists’ oblique form.

The forms were either carved in wood or cast with iron, kirksite, zinc and lead. Stamping or drawing dies which mate as negative/positive or male/female require precise fitting and alignment. The “holiday” between the two mating areas must allow for the thickness of the material and not cause undue wear. Zinc and kirksite were the most frequently used, attributable primarily to their fully recyclable features.

As there is a multiplicity of materials used for these forms there is also a multiplicity of the techniques for coaxing, humoring and hammering the material into or onto them.

Materials can be hammered into or onto these non-resilient forms. Hammers of various materials, weights and shapes are used to drive the material to its conceived form.

Materials can be stamped using dies which mate. The perimeter of the material is held fast to the border of the female die via assorted types of weights in order to thwart the wrinkling of the materials. Nonetheless, these wrinkles present themselves and often times must be accepted.

Materials can be drawn by subtly coaxing in a manner which demands migration of the molecules into the form. The material is held about the perimeter while the male die mates to the female. The perimeter material is a reservoir which allows the migration into the cavities. This reservoir is controlled by a curious combination of 20th Century technology combined with timeless repoussé skills.

The drawing process offers a consistent thickness while all other versions, including the finest repoussé, move the material in fashions which manifest thick and thin areas.

One must believe that despite the progressive accomplishments of doming, stamping and drawing, fine definition in highly sensitive areas were chased by hand in the traditional repoussé manner.

The Statue of Liberty is a public art object which has been drawn and formed. This writer believes that there is one exception; the acanthus leaf beneath the shaft of the torcheré which supports the flame, has the finite detail achieved only when hammering into pitch.

Frederick August Bartholdi was at all time the artist. The employees of Gaget and Gauthier were artisans. Bartholdi’s machettes were exploded pantographically, the positive form being fashioned in plaster be Gaget’s talented sculpture teams. The negative forms were fashioned via implementation of Gaget’s artisans’ adroit woodworking skills. This wooden member were scribed with the positive shape of plaster, one next to the other, a seeming 20th century “cat scan.” When the assembled members formed the desired oblique cavity they were laminated. This is similar to what today we envision as laminated “butcher block.” We assume that iron bands were forged for the perimeter or that holes were drilled and large tie rods held the form in compression.

The copper was hammered into these definitive shapes. The artisan was the artisan. Bartholdi was the artist! A necessary evil during this doming process was the thinning of the copper. When called upon to migrate deeply, the copper would fracture. As means of minimizing the thinning on the fabric, an ingenious bending apparatus was devised. The device is relatively similar to a hand brake, two wood rails pivoted via forged, offset pivots. The rails could be set out of parallel, hence tapered folds could be formed. The deepest folds were fashioned and the work piece was set into the cavity; the hammering was begun with no premature thinning.

Once the copper shapes were developed, teams of blacksmiths forged the genuine puddled wrought iron armature bars (3/4” x 2”) to those shapes. Copper saddles which surmounted and loosely encapsulated the armature bar were prepared for fastening to the skin. The saddles allowed for a secure connection while permitting oscillation. Designed be Gustav Eifel, before his famous Tower, his genius would only be known and questioned upon failure. There was none and the bars and technique withstood 100 years of constant motion.

Eifel had interfaced the relative meeting surfaces of the copper and puddled wrought iron with a layer of asbestos and shellac. Deleterious today, it did in fact obviate any cathodic/anodic electromotive forces. The bars required replacement due to mild corrosion and work hardening.

Author's Note:     Pitch is manufacturered in a completed recipe in the early 21st century. One supplier is Northwest Pitchworks, Bellangham, Washington. (


Geerlings, Gerald K., Metal Crafts in Architecture, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929
P.A. Fiebiger Library

Geerlings, Gerald K., Wrought Iron in Architecture, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929, renewal copyright Crown Publishers, Inc. 1979
P.A. Fiebiger Library

Maryon, Herbert, Metalwork and Enameling, Dover Publications, Inc., 1971
P.A. Fiebiger Libra