ASL Pewter pours and spins Louisiana niche
Tom Hooper spins a beaker drinking vessel on his lathe at ASL Pewter Foundry in downtown Louisiana.
When Tom and Patricia Hooper met at a Renaissance Faire in California almost 25 years ago, they didn’t envision being pewter makers on the banks of the Mississippi River.
They were married at the same fair and began a circuitous journey with crafts that has culminated in what is now ASL Pewter Foundry at 123 S. Third Street in downtown Louisiana.
“I’ve always done things with my hands,” Tom said. “I was raised in an agricultural area (in California’s San Joaquin Valley) and raised cattle, sheep, pigs and rabbits.”
He also learned how to tan hides and began selling them at arts and crafts fairs.
Tom branched out and started making incense, bath salts and perfume oils to sell and Astral Sea Limited was born. He and Patricia would retain the first three letters of the firm when they opened ASL Pewter.
In 1995, they moved the incense business from Sacramento to Salem in the Ozarks. At that point, they began making small pewter objects to hold their wares after customers asked for them.
“We liked the hands-on of making pewter,” Tom said.
“Two things set us off from there,” Patricia said. “Tom learned metal spinning (on a lathe) in 1998, so we started doing more than little incense holders. In 2000, we bought a pewter foundry and that got us all the old molds.”
“That meant we could start casting plates, platters, spoons and candlesticks,” Tom said. “We had to learn a lot.”
A house in Clarksville that Patricia fell in love with caused them to move there in 2001. There was no place in Clarksville large enough for the foundry, so they moved to the current Louisiana location.
During the formative years of the foundry, the Hoopers learned their craft.
“Some of the molds are 200 years old and there is little written about them,” Tom said. “We had a lot of trial and error.
“Now I have a pretty good idea on how they work. It’s a learning curve that’s still ongoing.”
“I don’t metal spin or solder,” Pat said. “I cast in molds and then I do customer service (in their store) and shipping and receiving.
“I do everything, but I spend most of my time spinning,” Tom said.
Journeyman Brice Chandler casts pieces and does a lot of the polishing and finishing of products in the back rooms of the foundry.
“Pouring molds is an art form,” Tom said. “You have to know when to cast warm or cold and some things want to be poured slow or fast. Humidity also affects it.”
In their casting room, the largest mold takes 14 pounds of metal and produces a 14 1/2 inch serving platter, “for a hog’s head or the Christmas turkey,” Tom said.
“Most of our historic molds are bronze or brass,” while others are made of rubber.
What is pewter?
Pewter is an alloy, or metal mix of at least 92 percent tin, copper and antimony.
“The antimony lets it stretch without breaking it,” Tom said. “When we weld or solder, we use wire of the same materials.”
There is no lead in ASL’s pewter, so it can be used for food and beverages.
That includes drinking vessels called beakers. A wholesaler the Hoopers work with called the several years ago and asked if they could create beakers for the members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tom made a prototype and they ended up with the job.
Another interesting assignment came from HBO television, which needed pewter pieces for the John Adams miniseries. ASL Pewter produced 500 pieces for the historic production.
The firm has also done pewter pieces for Walt Disney that were used in a stage performance of “The Beauty and the Beast.”
“I shipped them to the Los Angeles props department,” Tom said. “They needed tankards and platters that were bigger than life.”
ASL Pewter also does historic pieces for museum stores, wholesale trade shows and juried arts and crafts fairs.
“We’ve gone to shows in every state east of the Mississippi,” Tom said. “Some are special shows like the 18th Century Craft Show in Mt. Vernon, Va. that is held on George Washington’s lawn. We have to have an historic tent for that one and wear period dress.”
Bending to customer needs is the philosophy that drives ASL Pewter, Tom said.
“You have to accommodate them. If you take care of that customer one time, they’ll come back. They won’t forget you.”
The other driving force is the Hoopers’ passion for history and the products.
“I love what I do, it’s way too much work not to,” Patricia said. “I love the creativity and the fact we’re keeping a craft alive.”
To learn more about ASL Pewter see the firm’s website, at http://www.aslpewter.com/