NEW MILFORD COPPER ARTISAN
LCT Monthly Magazine April 2009; By: Emily M. Olson 03/27/2009
Al Ferris Jr. loves working with copper. He loves the feel of it between his fingers, its texture and weight, its delicacy and beauty and its aging process as it changes color over time. A self-taught craftsman, Mr. Ferris enjoys sculpting the soft, burnished metal, creating custom mailboxes, lamps, weathervanes, candlestick holders and other indoor and outdoor accessories that are increasingly complementing rooftops, lawns, driveways and businesses of Greater New Milford and beyond.
Since he founded the Secret Copper Shop at his home in New Milford in the 1980s, Mr. Ferris a homebuilder and remodeler by trade has learned more about copper and his own artistic inclinations than he ever dreamed.
"It's something I just wanted to do and wanted to try," he said, as he proudly displayed his latest creation a large lantern with a weathervane on top. Within the glass panes of the sculpture, a young girl made of hammered copper twirls on her ice skates, her arms outstretched and her hair "blowing" in the wind.
The girl was created after his own daughter, Rebecca. Beneath the skater's feet is a pane of mirrored glass, meant to depict her skating pond, while the exterior of the lantern is the weathervane-a faceted hood which, when it catches the breeze or wind, will twirl the skater within.
"This is hours of work the skater alone is a full 40 hours," Mr. Ferris said. "This is for my home. I'm going to put this on a post in the yard. It's a pretty special piece."
His work as a homebuilder and remodeler included collecting scrap metal. One day, during a job on a house where he was installing a bay window with copper flashing, he looked down on his worktable and admired the three flat pieces of copper on its surface. "I saw a sailboat," he said. "I took those pieces home with me, and when I would come home from work I was out in [the workshop] working on that… my wife started to get mad. She said, 'I'm in here with the kids, cooking and cleaning. What are you doing out there?' Then I showed her the sailboat, and she went crazy over it. I've been tinkering with copper ever since. I made a lot of things after that."
His "tinkering" soon became a bona fide hobby, and over the years he refined his skills and began selling custom pieces and showing his work at local fairs and shows. Then, several years ago, Mr. Ferris lost his full-time job with a local company and began to devote himself full-time to the shop, working in a tiny red barn behind his vintage home.
"I loved my job I loved meeting people and working, but it's gone now and I've found that I love what I do," Mr. Ferris said during a recent interview at the shop. He sat at his worktable, which was neat and tidy, for the moment, at least. Many of his tools were culled from flea markets and tag sales, where vintage hammers, vises, clamps and other metal working tools can often be found for a song.
"I tagged along with my wife [also named Rebecca] and I found the tools I needed most of the time," he said. "As I learned more about working with copper, I figured out what sorts of tools worked for the metal. It was a learning process."
The walls of the Secret Copper Shop are adorned with clusters of copper curls, weathervane templates in various stages of completion, bunches of fine wire, small and large sculptures, newspaper clippings, photographs and a conspicuous cache of fishing gear near the door. The shop's barn, which Mr. Ferris built himself, overlooks the Aspetuck River a picture-perfect view that illustrates one of the many reasons he chose to move to the community.
A native of Stamford, Mr. Ferris remembered visiting New Milford as a Boy Scout when his troop hiked from Norwalk to a camp in Goshen. "We stayed at a different place each night," he recalled. "I remember staying at the old Bridgewater Firehouse, and another night at the Danbury Airport. And I remember New Milford. Everyone had a smile. I was just a kid, and that struck me. So when we decided it was time to move, this is where we looked."
The Ferris' children are now grown up two boys, David and Daniel, and their daughter, captured in time as the ice skater inside the weathervane lantern have been joined by a grandson, Jacob, who enjoys working by his grandfather's side in the shop, or fishing in the river. The shop is Mr. Ferris' oasis as he continues to hone his skills.
Experimentation with various shapes and ideas developed the repertoire of items he makes and sells. He found that mailboxes, for example, were a popular item. He creates his completely from copper, using thick slices of the metal to craft them, at a hefty cost to himself. But they're worth it, he says, because they are made to last. "Making a mailbox was the hardest thing I ever did, but it was also the best," Mr. Ferris said. "I got calls for those from all over the country."
His weathervanes whimsical but sturdy, specially designed to catch the wind and twirl in a delightful fashion-are equally popular. Now that he has a Web site, www.thesecretcoppershop.com, to display his works of art, business has improved significantly, he said.
Weathervanes and other items that awaken with the wind appear to be his favorite pieces. "I love the wind, spiritually and personally," Mr. Ferris explained. "There's something about seeing it move things… I mean, I don't like cold wind, but I love what it does."
The allure of working with copper is almost seductive for the craftsman. "I love it," he said. "I love the fact that I can bend it, work it with my hands. I love that about it. I use whatever kinds of copper I can get, from supply houses, recycling center and junkyards. I'm intrigued by what the blacksmiths do with metal, and while it's not exactly the same with copper, the concept is there. Copper is also the most recycled metal today. No one buys it new anymore, it's all reused."
He created a quick candleholder in his shop during the visit, starting the project by molding copper tubing around a coffee can. Several steps later, he declared of the finished product: "This is for you when your daughter's boyfriend comes over to visit. You set the candle at a certain height, and when it burns down, it's time for the boyfriend to go home."
"Of course when you're not looking, the boyfriend moves the candle back up a few notches," he added with a laugh.
Light soldering keeps the small pieces of metal in place, while hammering with his special small hammers help Mr. Ferris create works of art that are one-of-a-kind.
"Copper pieces are fragile they bend, they dent it's a fragile, soft metal," he said. "What you get are pieces of art that express themselves as a lamp or a weathervane. I like that part of it."
When he can't decide what to make, Mr. Ferris cleans his workshop, and is often inspired by something he finds. In other instances, he remembers something he sees or reads and tries it out himself. Such was his experience as he tried to figure out how to make his skater in the lamp "spin."
"I saw a program about Jay Leno using solar panels and wind turbines and I was struck by the wind idea," he said. "I had to find a power source to make the ice skater spin, and I used that idea… then I put it outside and said, 'OK, wind, do your thing.' And it worked. I think I've finally got it."
A larger project he finished recently was the logo for a furniture refinisher the hammered copper figure of a woodworker standing at a table-fashioned into a weathervane that will soon stand on top of the company's barn on Great Plain Road in Danbury. "That should be going up soon," Mr. Ferris said. "That was a big project. I'm pretty excited about that. I drive around to see my pieces sometimes. That pleases me greatly-to see something I've made for someone, up and working. It's also hard to ship something off that I've worked so hard on."
Mr. Ferris will continue to work his copper magic in his shop as long as he is able. "There's a little arthritis setting in now, and sometimes I get pretty sore," he said, stretching out his hands. "But I love doing it. It's a really special craft. Not a lot of people do it. But it's something I thought I could do and I did. That's how I approach most things in life. I try them and make them work for me."
To reach the Secret Copper Shop, call 860-354-0783, or visit www.secretcoppershop.com.
©Litchfield County Times 2009