Worth Her Metal

Tennessee Pewter Company’s Kathleen Armour Walker crafts a new future for an old business
Story and photos by Allison Morgan 1/26/2011

Two of Kathleen’s most popular products are the iced tea glass, left, which is actually an old company design that she revived, and the straight goblet, a modified version of the classic goblet she created in response to a bridal registry request. In back is one of the higher-end items — the anniversary vase — priced at $325. Pewter is a precious metal and should be cared for like silver, Kathleen says, but unlike silver, it never tarnishes.

As an entrepreneur, Tennessee Pewter Company owner Kathleen Armour Walker can be as pretty and polished as the elegant tableware and trinkets in the showroom of her Somerville business. But as an artisan, she’s just as likely to be gritty and grimy as she works in the casting, spinning, engraving, and buffing rooms in her shop in the back.

She wears both personas with pride as she crafts a new future for the nearly 40-year-old business she bought in 2008.

“You have to wear two hats — the business hat and the artist hat,” says Kathleen, a customer of Mid-South Farmers Cooperative. “It may look glamorous on the outside, but it is truly physically hard work behind-the-scenes.”

Since buying Tennessee Pewter Company, which was established in 1973 in Grand Junction, Kathleen has quickly learned the pewtersmith trade, churning out handmade, heirloom-quality pieces that are collected, given as gifts, and used in everyday life. Her accomplishments are all the more amazing considering she knew nothing about the business before plunging headlong into it two and a half years ago.

“In the summer of 2008, I had really been wanting to own a company and kept thinking the right thing would just come along,” says Kathleen, who was working for the American Cancer Society at the time. “Then one Sunday evening, I looked in the [Memphis] Commercial Appeal [newspaper], and there was Tennessee Pewter Company for sale. We went down the next Wednesday and bought it. We didn’t know anything about it.”

What she and her husband, Dan, did know was that they didn’t want to see the company moved out of state or auctioned off and dismantled. Both West Tennessee natives, the Walkers were very familiar with Tennessee Pewter, and Dan had even given Kathleen a pair of the company’s candlesticks during their dating years. When they married in August 2006, Tennessee Pewter monogrammed bowls were their groomsmen gifts.

“Dan and I already knew the products and how beautiful they were,” says Kathleen. “We were afraid the company would be bought and taken out of Tennessee. By the time I realized how little I knew, this company was already my baby. I quickly learned that I enjoyed the process and the finished product. It was a dying art that I wanted to revive.”

The Walkers purchased the business in August 2008 from owner Byron Black, who had been employed with the company since its beginning but was ready to retire. To learn the trade, Kathleen worked for four months with Byron, who agreed to stay until the end of 2008, and reached out to other pewtersmiths in the industry for help and guidance while doing extensive research on her own.

“Humbling — that’s the only way I know how to describe those first few months,” says Kathleen. “I would apprentice during the day and absorb everything I was told and then go home and study how other industries and artists were working with metal. I’ve been able to incorporate some new methods that have improved the tried-and-true techniques.”

Because of the uncomfortable conditions at the old building in Grand Junction, the Walkers decided to pack up the business — which was mainly equipment with little inventory — and move it closer to their Brownsville home. In August 2009, they bought a building on Highway 64 just west of Somerville and renovated it with a showroom and office in front and a shop in the back.

“It took us a year to get up and running in the new place, but all the customers waited on us, and we were able to fill all their orders,” says Kathleen. “That told me we had a product worth the wait.”

From the beginning, Kathleen has been assisted by her father, Jim Armour, who worked part-time in the company until coming on board full time this past summer after retiring from his job in software and technical support. He says he was excited about helping his daughter in her new career path — although he had a few initial reservations when Kathleen and Dan broke the news to him and wife Nita.

“At first, I thought, ‘What kind of person buys a company that does something they don’t know how to do?'” says Jim. “But I knew it was going to be interesting. And it has been. It’s nice to be able to work with my daughter; not everybody has the chance to do that.”

Kathleen now considers herself an authority on pewter, which is an alloy made from tin, copper, and antimony, a metal element used as a hardening agent. Tin, the fourth-most precious metal behind platinum, gold, and silver, makes up 92 percent of pewter, she explains.

Kathleen and Jim produce their pewter items two ways: spinning and casting. In spinning, raw pewter in the form of a flat disc is mounted on a lathe and rotated at high speeds while it is shaped by using metal tools and a special mold called a chuck. This is how most of the glasses, cups, plates, bowls, pitchers, and vases are made.

“It’s kind of neat when you start out with just a flat piece of metal and watch it take shape,” says Jim, who handles all of the company’s spinning. “It’s sometimes hard to believe that I’ve actually made an object like we sell here. It’s really amazing.”

In casting, pewter nuggets called “ingots” along with shavings left over from the spinning process are melted and poured into special rubber molds, yielding a nearly endless variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. Casting is how the company’s Christmas ornaments, jewelry, spoons, coasters, and decorative trinkets are made. In addition to her role as owner and salesperson, Kathleen is also the designer and caster as well as engraver and buffer, putting the finishing touches on every piece.

“I enjoy the engraving because I like the details,” says Kathleen. “And I enjoy the buffing because I like watching a piece of metal come to life. I can envision it being on a table at a party and creating a memory for its owner.”

Dan helps out, too, in his spare time — an enjoyable diversion from his full-time job as a certified public accountant in Jackson. His family farms in Fayette County and are members of Mid-South Farmers Co-op. Kathleen says marrying into a farming family has been nice, since she earned a master’s degree in agriculture from Mississippi State University. It’s also been convenient when she needs assistance in repairing the equipment in her shop.

“My most difficult challenge is making sure the equipment is working right, and if it’s not, how I can get it fixed,” says Kathleen. “The guys on the farm have been really helpful with that.”

Tennessee Pewter’s product line includes an interesting mix of both modern and traditional items. In some cases, like the popular mint julep tumbler and round-bottomed Jefferson cups, the designs have been in the company’s catalogs for years. In others, like the a new straight goblet and punch cup, they are modified designs or fresh additions.

Prices range from about $8 for smaller pieces to more than $300 for larger, intricate items. That wide variance, Kathleen says, helps ensure that anyone who visits her shop can afford to take home a piece of handcrafted pewter.

“Very few people walk in here and don’t leave with something,” says Kathleen. “We understand that not everyone can afford the higher-end pieces, but anyone can buy the lower-priced items.”

Kathleen also points out that her creations are more than collector items and encourages purchasers to take them home and use them as the practical, durable pieces they are.

“When I first bought the company, I would ask customers what they were doing with the pieces, and I quickly learned they were putting them in china cabinets,” says Kathleen. “It bothered me that they weren’t using them. These things are for real, not just for looks. We make sure of that.”

Kathleen says she’s never second-guessed her decision to buy the pewter company, even though she’s had to overcome many hurdles, not the least of which is being a female in a male-dominated industry.

“It is fulfilling to know that women can do this,” she says. “I even think a woman’s touch makes these pieces more beautiful. Yes, men are every bit as good at making them, but I think women are more particular about the details.”

Since she began operating Tennessee Pewter, Kathleen has been building on its decades-old reputation for craftsmanship and quality. But she’s also reinventing the company with new products and services like bridal and baby registries and custom designs. As a result, business is growing quickly through word-of-mouth, repeat customers, and Internet sales, with a new website that launched the first week in December. With the success she’s seen so far, Kathleen believes the sky is the limit.

“It is not the company I bought, and it has evolved at a rapid rate,” says Kathleen. “I feel like we’re in the very early stages of a great thing, and I’m not sure where it’s going to go. Every morning I wake up, I’m living a dream that I never could have imagined.”

Tennessee Pewter Company is located at 16030 Highway 64 in Somerville and is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays by appointment. For more information, visit online at www.tnpewter.com or call 901-465-2609. See more photos and video of the pewter-making process on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TennesseeFarmersCooperative

This document copyright © 2011 by Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. All rights reserved. Legal Notice

Please see original article published by Tennessee Farmers Cooperative in February 2011.