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Destination downtown: Making money from metal - Tinsmiths struggling to survive but continuing to bang out a living

Published:Tuesday | April 12, 2016 | 12:00 AMAndrew Harris
A tinsmith proudly showing off his work in downtown Kingston.
One of the more complex products made by the tinsmith in downtown Kingston is this metal safe.
Richard Sang showing off his finished products.
For those who don't know, these are the traditional tin funnels.
Mark Lesley at his shop in downtown Kingston.
wA ready for your gate mailbox that is being sold at a low, low price in downtown Kingston.
The traditional patty warmer.
For those who remember the traditional scoop used to share out the flour and sugar at corner shops.
A tinsmith making a letter box in downtown Kingston.
Oil, syrup, peas and other items are still measured in these traditional measuring tins in several places across the island.
Baking tins and traditional measuring equipment aplenty at the tinsmith.
Dinner utensils on sale at a tinsmith in downtown Kingston.
Shoppers finding bargains from a tinsmith in downtown Kingston.
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They operate mainly under the radar in downtown Kingston, but those in the know say their work is top quality, reasonably priced and readily available.

They are the tinsmiths who can be found in places such as Princess Street, West Queen Street and North Street.

These tinsmiths have been operating in downtown Kingston for decades and even though their numbers have dwindled over the years, those remaining are still using their skill to earn a living.

From learning to make saving pans to measuring instruments, scoops, scales and graters, Mark 'Black Boy' Lesley is still excited about crafting raw metal into functional tools after learning the trade more than 20 years ago.

"From me a 18 years old, me learn the trade and a it a feed the family even now," Lesley told The Gleaner.

"This is where I started couple of years ago. Me just did a pass every day and rolling with friends daily, me decided say me really want learn it because it amazed me. And so, one day I showed up early to learn and the previous owner realised that I was serious, and from then I've been on the job," added Lesley.

 

QUICK MASTERY

He said that within one week he moved from marking out the work to mastering the zinc share. From there, Lesley moved from cutting an oval shape to getting the perfect circumference around the circular top of saving pans.

As time progressed, he has learnt how to build patty pans, pork pans, baking pans, and many other items.

"Business is not so good now. It is basically 'watered down' because it's very difficult making two ends meet. But this is what I know and this is what I believe in, so I just have to make it work for me," added Lesley.

While our news team spoke with Lesley, a number of persons turned up to purchase the saving pans that he was selling for a low of $100 to a high of $500, depending on the size.

According to Lesley, he and other tinsmiths produce items, which they sell to vendors who sometimes order up to 60 saving pans and other items.

Lesley said the saving pan he sells for $150 can hold up to $42,000 in $20 coins.

"People should definitely

come and buy because you can't lose off the quality because my products are made with 45 per cent alloy and 55 per cent aluminium, so the overall work is quality; the workmanship is flawless," said Lesley.

 

SKILL SHORTAGE

Like Lesley, Richard Sang has been working as a tinsmith since 1992. Sang said he started in the profession after losing his job and hanging out by a veteran tinsmith's workshop daily where he realised the demand for the products, particularly the saving pans.

According to Sang, he noticed that there was a shortage of skilled workers to prepare the items and his need for a job was immediately met.

"Well, over the years, I have learnt to make saving pans, scoops, funnels, feeding tins, baking tins and almost any other item you can think about," said Sang.

"We are basically struggling now as things were much better, but because the economy keeps going down ... . When inflation goes up, the sales decrease," added Sang as he indicated that he is thinking about introducing some new items to those he already offers to the public.

In the meantime, the team of Courtney Granston and Courtney Shield has been doing some more advanced work in the tinsmith trade at their shop located near the intersection of Princess and North streets, metres from the busy Kingston Public Hospital.

 

APPRENTICE TO OWNER

According to Granston, he has been in the trade for more than 30 years and just loves it.

"I started out as an apprentice, where I used to work for someone on Lyndhurst Road and then I branched off into working on my own," said Granston, who has since teamed up with Shield.

The two offer patty warmers, kitchen exhaust systems, air-conditioning ducts, mailboxes and several other items. But in recent years, they have seen a decline in the demand for their products.

"Right now the market is very difficult because a lot of the metal is being substituted with plastic products and, as you can see, they are trying to cut out the metal," said Granston

"The metal, however, is the better thing because it is more durable," argued Granston.

He said business has been very interesting over the years and his team has always tried to be innovative while offering different products.

But now they are being cautious because the raw material is pretty expensive, and if they are producing items that are not being sold or making a profit, it could be detrimental to them.

The two Courtneys are not daunted, however, as they continue to try to make their living doing what they are good at, knowing they both have families to feed.