A New Spin on Tradition

In the early days, Danforth produced only bowls, vases and Fred's signature oil lamps. In 1983, Judi created cast pewter buttons, the forerunners of an eclectic and varied range of cast items, many of them tiny but elegant examples of the craft.

by Julia Lynam

The Danforths have expanded on the work of their Colonial artisan ancestors

The flat disc of silvery metal quivering on the lathe seems as malleable as clay. Under the pressure skillfully applied by Fred Danforth, it gradually bends around a solid metal form and assumes the shape of a vessel.

This is the process of "spinning" pewter: It can't possibly be as easy as it looks, but the almost magical flexibility goes a long way toward explaining Fred and Judi Danforth's fascination with this tri-metallic alloy.

Over the last 30 years, they've transformed their love affair with pewter into a thriving artisan business employing more than 40 people and selling exquisite spun and cast pewter ware to thousands of outlets, mostly small gift stores, throughout the United States and overseas.

"Working with pewter is totally intoxicating," says Judi, whose name has been pronounced JOO-dye ever since a college friend called her that as a joke.

Judi has been designing, molding and spinning the alloy since soon after she was introduced to it as a student of silversmithing in Rochester, N.Y. "I knew immediately that this was my metal," she says, "It's soft, warm, malleable and unique!"

Fred's affection for pewter stems from two sources. When he met Judi, he was aspiring to be a craftsman, probably a wood-turner, he explains. "She went to Canada for an apprenticeship, I went to join her and became involved with pewter myself, also learning wood-turning at the same time."

He's taken the relationship between the two lathe-based skills a step further with his salt and pepper mills that comprise a wooden core coated with a spun pewter skin.

The other source of Fred's affinity for pewter is a curious coincidence or perhaps karma: "My ancestors were pewter smiths in Middletown, Conn., in Colonial times," he says, "but the craft had died out in the family for five generations before we revived it."

Fred and Judi have an extensive collection of pieces by various members of the historic Danforth family: "Because so many of them were involved, there's a real intrigue in discovering new pieces, deciphering the touch mark of the individual and working out whether they shared their ideas," says Judi. "Our own touch mark, a lion rampant, which appears on our hollowware, is modeled on that of Thomas Danforth II, who had six pewter smith sons."

Once they had discovered one another and pewter, Fred and Judi's path was clear, and they set out to establish a lifestyle that allowed them to enjoy their craft, make a living and raise a family in the Green Mountains.

Thirty years on, Danforth Pewter has become an important part of the Vermont artistic and commercial scene, according to Alexander L. Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council: "When I took up this position eight years ago, the Danforths were people that I heard a lot about, and I admired their exemplary works of art," he says, "so I was delighted when I actually met them.

"They are one of the couples who are working in the creative sector to produce tasteful, affordable products in keeping with the Vermont work ethic. They built their pewter shop from scratch, starting in a milk house attached to a barn in Woodstock in 1975, and they've grown it over the years in one of the wholesome Vermont stories that you have to be proud of and they're also the kind of people you'd like to have as friends and neighbors."

Since those early days, Danforth Pewter has grown into a thriving wholesale and retail business occupying a 10,000-square-foot building on Seymour Street Extension in Middlebury. Production is evenly split between wholesale and retail. Wholesale is often custom-made for specific customers; retail is sold by mail order and in the two Danforth stores: in Middlebury's Marble Works, opened in 1991, and on Burlington's Church Street, opened just this year following several experiments with temporary seasonal stores in the area.

In the early days, Danforth Pewter produced only "hollowware": bowls, vases and, eventually, Fred's signature oil lamps. Then in 1983, Judi created cast pewter buttons, the forerunners of an eclectic and varied range of cast items that includes key rings, jewelry, zipper pulls, wine glass markers, photo frames and Christmas ornaments ranging from stars and angels to maple leaves, sleighs and snowmen.

Claudia Bromley uses a magnifier to work on little airplanes for key rings.

Fred and Judi have based much of their casting process on the techniques used by a fashion jewelry business in Providence, R.I., although they have had to make creative adaptations because pewter flows less easily than the white metal used for jewelry.

Judi translates her initial designs into wax molds that go through several iterations before a final rubber production mold is made. Molten pewter at around 500 degrees Fahrenheit is poured through a central aperture directly into a closed spinning mold to produce a batch of identical items. In a labor-intensive process, each item is individually inspected, buffed, sanded, antiqued and polished before the finishing touches of jewelry findings, key rings, glass for photos frames or ribbons for Christmas ornaments are added.

Although the molds are reused many times, they eventually break down under the heat of the molten pewter, "so we are always working on replacement molds as well as molds for new items," Judi says. "We have two new product introductions every year, and we usually drop a few items, although some remain in our catalog for many, many years."

The pewter they use is an alloy of tin, copper and antimony, completely lead-free and exceeding FDA standards for food safety. It arrives at Danforth's Middlebury workshop in the form of five-pound ingots, or as discs of the size required for spinning hollowware.

With a policy of environmental consciousness, the Danforths waste none of their raw material; all excess or flawed pieces are returned to the furnace for reuse. They also minimize their consumption of the ancillary materials used in production.

Long-term members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, they put social consciousness high on their agenda: "We have a lot of family-friendly policies, including a generous benefits package," says Judi. "We understand the value of a livable wage and we strive to deliver it."

"We realize that our employees are our most valuable asset," adds Fred, "It takes a lot of training for people to become proficient in their jobs here; it's a mutual investment, and they put their hearts and souls into their work. We have very little staff turnover, and several people who have been with us more than 15 years."

One friend and neighbor who has trod a parallel path to the Danforths' is Kevin Harper, who founded Autumn Harp, a natural cosmetics manufacturer, about the same time. Harper, who sold Autumn Harp a few years ago, is working on the Peer to Peer Collaborative, a nonprofit project that helps small, Vermont-owned businesses to develop ways to improve the wages and benefits of their lowest-paid employees.

"Danforth is at the top of the heap in terms of level of integrity, design and craftsmanship," he says. "They are representative of the best of Vermont's heritage. They have a phenomenal brand, and they go about their business in a humble, understated way. Danforth Pewter was an early member of VBSR, which was a great place to get support and feedback from other companies struggling with the same issues, such as paying a living wage."

In a labor-intensive process, each item is individually inspected, buffed, sanded, antiqued and polished before finishing touches are applied. Production workers Jeannette Jennings (left) and Theresa Bougore remove burrs in the prepping department.

The modern-day Danforths have, like Fred's ancestors, created a solid business that draws in the whole family. Their younger daughter, Bay, a recent art college graduate, designs and makes one-of-a-kind beaded jewelry incorporating her mother's pewter charms. "She has a wonderful eye, and helps keep things young!" says Judi with a smile, adding that their older daughter, Sadie, studying piano in Boston, also acts as a consultant.

Looking forward to celebrating the company's 30th anniversary in the fall of 2005, the Danforths are proud of their achievements in business and in the community.

These are achievements recognized by Martha Fitch, director of the Vermont Crafts Council, a body that Judi helped establish in the early 1990s. "Fred and Judi model leadership for the arts business community in many ways, but mainly by consistently stepping up to the plate when asked," Fitch says. "As socially responsible business people, they show us that it is possible to grow a multi-million-dollar arts business while remaining approachable and friendly and humane. As community leaders, they serve on boards and committees, finding the time to give back and to contribute to the creation of programs and solutions to problems. As often as not, the positions that they have accepted have included tough assignments. For instance, Judi has served on the Frog Hollow board during a recent financial and leadership crisis."

Harper says the Danforths have succeeded by paying attention to where they are, how they do business and how they treat the people who help them. "Those small businesses that are particularly successful are able to balance these factors," he says. "They are mindful of their community; they stay true to their product while responding to the marketplace; and they do not forget their roots." •

Originally published in December 2004 Business People-Vermont