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Repoussé.  Creating a relief design by hammering thin metal from behind. Repoussé is a form of embossing and is also called beaten copper because copper has such excellent malleable qualities and is the most used material for this process. Repoussé objects are typically uniface in round or plaquette shape. Infrequently, however, two repoussé designs made separately are joined back-to-back to form a conventional medallic object (they may be made solid by use of drop-in metal usually lead). If dies are made to form the design by embossing (one male, one female) the resulting strike is called a shell. Repoussé designs are frequently given added sharpness by chasing the design on the front after the design is formed from the back.

Repoussé technique.  Repoussé is made by placing an oversize sheet of thin metal, as copper, on a cushion. Historically this cushion was a bowl or tub of pitch. Today however a commercial preparation is made of pitch, rosin and crushed plaster of Paris. This material allows the metal to bend where intended and to retain the shape in the surrounding area. If a pitch bowl cannot be used – as in the case of an oversize work –a sand bag is used, a leather bag filled with sand made slightly larger than the piece of metal to be worked.

The design is formed by the use of punches and a chasing hammer. Repoussé tools are held about 1/16-inch from the back surface and the punch tapped by the hammer. Like a tiny drop hammer the punch hits the metal with a springlike action. Continued tapping with the use of various punches completes the design. The design rises on the front of the metal – called ground – while it remains depressed or sunken on the back.

The beaten sheet of metal heats up somewhat and adheres to the pitch. Continued embossing also causes the metal to work harden and occasionally it needs to be annealed to soften it for further work. It also requires pickling during intermediate stages – and certainly as a final step – it is pickled to remove oxidization which may have formed, possible fire scale, and the pitch adhering to the front side. The pickling also brightens the metal and prepares it for patina finishing.

History of Repoussé.  Repoussé was practiced in the Renaissance, and highly developed by the Dutch in the 1600s. Early goldsmiths and medallists used this technique for a number of objects including many that fall within the definition of medallic art. Repoussé was practiced in the silver industry in Europe and Great Britain to decorate  a range of silver items. The first repoussé work in the United States was by silversmith Samuel Kirk in 1828.

Modern medals of repoussé are scarce. An obscure artist, Arthur Frechinger,

created a 1913 Lincoln Medal (King 735) by this method, and a larger Mark Twain Plaque the following year (now in the Yale University Art Gallery). Later the New

York State American Bicentennial Medal of 1976, by Americo Giannicchi, was made from a repoussé model. The artist claimed he could obtain finer detail, as sculptured hair,

in repoussé metal rather than in clay or plaster model.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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