Handmade Metalwork in Marrakech

On my trip to Morocco a few weeks back, I took the opportunity to dig into the design and making of the metal arts. I only had a few hours, so consider this barely scratching the surface. Nonetheless, I found a few interesting and forthcoming people and places to share.

One definitely must ask before photographing people and wares in Marrakech for several reasons: You’ll surely arouse the ardent interest of the shopkeeper, whether you want it or not…. It’s common to pay people to photograph them and you’ll want to know what you’re on the hook for before shooting….You may get a better picture…. And of course to not ask would be rude.

I found one of the metalworkers markets and even managed to have lunch there among the sounds of clanging hammers and shrieking angle grinders… ah sweet music. The shops are full of bonafide local, handcrafted metal things; the most common items being lanterns. There are so many lanterns. The quality of the goods is fair, not excellent, as you might expect from shops set up in 50 square feet that successfully bang out a full range of product.

This engaging young man was applying a brown patina to a light made of steel that he would let rust and then later varnish.  A process not unlike what we might employ in our factory. His colleague was sitting on a low bench curving the blanks, snipping the shapes, and punching out the pierced work designs with a coffee can full of simple chisels. I was impressed by the scope of their work relative to the simplicity of their tools.

Applying the patina

A body of a light raised from a flat sheet by hammering over a steel stake and into a sandbag

The chisels used for punching the pierced-work designs

The work surface used for punching the pierced-work designs

The sharp steel chisels are hammered through the softer sheet metal on an cake of lead that’s supported on a heavy block of steel (think mini-anvil) which is itself supported by a block of wood or a tree trunk.

One of the most interesting aspects of the shops on this square is that they were universal in a way. You could ask for a duct angle for your air conditioner, a tin lantern, a watering can, whatever basic article you might desire done out of sheet metal, and they would make it. While eating our eggplant dip and tomato salad we saw a 8 or 9 year old apprentice hammering away on some part or another while his dad or the shop foreman checked in to assist or comment from time to time.

On a note related to hand craft in general, you still see these primitive bow-lathes used to turn chess-pieces and other small items in the narrow alleys of the souk. The turner moves the bow, with a piece of cord wrapped around the work, back and forth while he holds a gouge-chisel against the work to cut his profile. This tool has been in use since the 10th century in essentially the same, unchanged form.

In another part of town I found an alley of metal polishers and a brass supply house where you could get a bit of banding or a bit of wire. The techniques, sounds, and scent of polishing is the same the world over I think.

On the other side of the quality divide we were lucky enough to see for a minute two gentlemen who were real top artists in their field. They of course take a LOT more time with each piece in design, layout, and execution. The pierced work shade in this case is sawn with a jewelers’ saw, similarly to how we would approach a one-of-a-kind job.

-David Calligeros

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