1200 Years of Pitch Recipes

by Jamie Hall on September 20, 2010

As I’ve had a good experience with chasing recently, my dad wants me to do some repoussé at work. We had intended to start doing some last year, but we couldn’t get the pitch mixture right. Although we have a steel bowl to use, we’ll try making a small amount first – a kilo of black pitch cost us £30 (which must be far more than it’s worth) and we don’t want to waste it this time.

Looking through various texts (ancient and modern), it can be hard to tell precisely what the writers are describing. It seems that there are two main types of pitch – black (or petroleum) pitch, and pine (resin) pitch, plus a range of modern products, most of which seem to be premixed, and come in different colours. As we have a block of black pitch, that is what I’ll be using; although oil refining is a modern process, various petroleum products were in use long before, and only our total reliance on it can be considered a recent invention.

Probably the best modern instructions can be found at Brian Meek’s website, but this assumes that a pre-mixed pitch has been purchased, so I’ve had to look elsewhere for recipes. Starting with some recent sources, An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery by Anita Mason (p289) says “The pitch is usually a mixture of burgundy pitch, tallow or beeswax and a little linseed oil.” (this is presumably pine pitch, although I’ve seen over references to “Burgundy pitch” with a capital B, which inferred that it was black). On Carl W. Lemke’s website, he suggests 1 part black pitch, 1 part plaster of paris and “a little” linseed oil. There are a few more recipes from various sources on Repoussetools.com. Even Wikipedia has a recipe; it doesn’t list a source, but it’s worth a look.

Going back a bit further, my 1909 copy of The Goldsmith’s Handbook by George E. Gee (p129) lists a mixture that is probably more elastic, and intended for the engraver, rather than for embossing:

  • 4 parts Burgundy pitch
  • 4 parts Resin
  • 2 parts Plaster-of-Paris
  • 2 parts Beeswax

Gee doesn’t specify what sort of resin he uses – perhaps he is describing a mixture of black pitch and pine pitch. What’s really interesting about this recipe is the instructions which accompany it. He says that the ingredients should be mixed well, and then poured into a vessel of cold water. When the mixture is cool enough to touch, it is kneaded and stretched until any water is forced out of the pitch. If it isn’t elastic enough, then the process is repeated by adding more beeswax. What makes this interesting is that it is almost identical to the instructions from Theophilus, who was writing eight centuries earlier. My copy of On Divers Arts, translated by Smith and Hawthorne (p129), lists pitch, wax and powdered tile (but doesn’t give proportions). Although the ingredients are a little different, the process of kneading the pitch in water is the same. Translations of Theophilus were certainly available in the 19th century, or it might be that the process had been in continuous use for a millenium or more. This method could have also been used by Cellini, writing in the 16th century, who describes (very briefly) a mixture of Greek pitch resin, with “a little” yellow beeswax and “a little” brick dust or ground terra cotta – he doesn’t give instructions on how to make this.

Lastly, although it is not directly relevant, there is another translation by Smith and Hawthorne, of the Mappae Clavicula (ch146-F). This is an older text, probably dating to the 9th century, that contains a wide range of recipes for everything from making paint to cooking sweets – it seems to be a compilation of many works, rather than the writing of a single author. Along the way, it covers various topics related to pitch; most of these are for incendiary materials like the famous Greek fire. Only one recipe relates pitch to the jeweller, and this is a dopping mixture, for lapidary work. The instructions state that 1 part of pitch is mixed with two parts of powdered tile. I’ll probably keep some pitch aside, for mixing in this way.

Although there are various different ingredients mentioned in these recipes, they can be split into two groups – fats/oils and mineral powders. Linseed oil seems to be used commonly in modern recipes, but in the past it is generally tallow or beeswax which is used – these would be easy to obtain, regardless of location, so it is no surprise. However, Theophilus makes various mentions of linseed oil in his book on painting, so it must have been available. The purpose of the fats/oils is probably softening the pitch, while the powders are there to structure to the mixture. Presumably, the recipes that call for large amounts of fat/oil would need a large amount of powder, whereas those without powder must only use a small amount of fat/oil to soften the pitch.

I’ll hopefully have a pitch bowl by the end of the week, and I’ll either update this post, or write a new article on the different proportions I have tried; there is such a huge range of recipes available, so it seems that the proportions really depend on the particular needs of the artisan.


Bentiron September 20, 2010 at 23:39

I remember the Mexican coppersmith when I was a child. He would collect “tar” when the roofers were near by putting on “hot mop” roofing. He would take these small chunks of hard tar from where they broke up the large blocks of roofers pitch back to his shop and put them in a double boiler, add bees wax and pour in some kind of oil and add clay from the local soil to the mix. It stunk like crazy and when it was at the right thickness he would pour it into what ever gelatin or cake mould he was working on, let it cool and start to make the design with his hammer and little chisels. At the time I didn’t understand all that he was doing, his nephew and I just wanted to mess around in his shop. Now that I know better, I wish I had paid better attention to what he was doing. Some recipes haven’t changed very much over time or location. This is one that probably came over with the Conquistadors in the 1600’s to New Mexico.

Jamie Hall September 21, 2010 at 07:38

That’s interesting. It follows the basic recipe, but using whatever was lying around – it’s interesting that he used clay – do you know if he dried it or fired it? Most of the recipes I’ve seen talk about using powdered brick, tile, pottery…etc – I wonder if unvitrified clay makes any difference.

With hindsight, we should have all paid more attention. I should have joined my dad in the workshop much earlier – I should have been doing it in the summer holidays when I was 14, I think.

Page March 7, 2011 at 17:25

I have been doing chasing and repousse for about 25 years now, and have had very good luck with the black pitch that Rio Grande sells. It is black but has a distinct pine-pitch odor when it burns (not a petroleum smell at all) I will be experimenting with making my own pitch this summer starting with sap from my pine trees and trying to match the properties of the black pitch except trying to add more rosin to make it a little more solid in summer temperatures. The Burgundy (Red) pitch that Valentin Yotkov prefers I detest. I got some for when I did a workshop with him, and it’s melting temperature was too high, it burns at a very close temperature to its melting point, and I find it a nuisance to work with, so I ended up pouring black pitch over it in the one bowl


Jamie Hall March 7, 2011 at 20:36

I suppose that all of these things come down to personal preference and local conditions. Certainly there was access to both pine and petroleum pitch, throughout history, so you would have had to make do with whichever one was locally available.

Are there things that you can do with some mixtures that are impossible with others?

One interesting thing I was told by a Singaporean student was that there was traditionally no pitch used in Asia, and so a mixture of beeswax and a light touch was used. I don’t know if that is true, mind you.

Page March 8, 2011 at 00:11

The red pitch does not flow very well for filling deep work, also if you do not coat the back of the metal with some sort of grease (Valentin suggests chapstick) the red pitch is almost impossible to remove the metal from. Valentin cautioned against using black pitch based on his experience when he was young (I believe in Communist Bulgaria, but I may misremember which of the former soviet republics he grew up in) saying that it caused skin cancer and burns, I believe he was referring to petroleum based tar used as a “pitch” base because of how he described it.
I have found that the melting temperature and viscosity across most temperature ranges of the pitch I am currently using allows shallow or deep work with ease at ambient temperatures between 60f and 85 f, at around 90f the pitch gets a little gooeyer than I would like, and pieces start to submerge or climb out of the pitch while I am working them, and over 100f I have to periodically refrigerate the bowls. I am going to be experimenting this summer with formulations to make a summer working pine based pitch.


Page March 8, 2011 at 00:21

I have a friend who does architectural repousse work in 14 gauge steel. He hot sinks the basic form in reverse in a stump, then turns it over, folds up the edges, fills it with molten lead, and closes the back of the package with a sheet of steel crimped on. He then chases in the details and form, melts the lead out, and cuts it free (He usually only works each side once)


Jamie Hall March 8, 2011 at 08:53

Interesting about the steel method.

Not sure on the pitch/tar issue – I thought that petroleum pitch was the part of the material suitable for chasing work, and that tar had very different properties. I suppose that it might depend what you mix with the tar.

Black pitch isn’t particularly pleasant stuff, I always oil my hands, and I tend to wash it off with caustic soda at work, whereas at Loughborough Uni they burn it off (they have good extraction, which we don’t). Sadly, they have no idea what mix they are using at Loughborough, because the stuff predates the current staff members!

Page March 8, 2011 at 14:09

When I am working at home in my studio I use denatured alcohol to remove the pitch. I put the piece in a jar, cover it with alcohol, and set it on a perforated shelf in my ultrasonic cleaner about a half inch below the surface of the water. Usually almost all of the pitch dissolves (there is often some of the powdered filler stuck in the recesses that comes out with a gentle brushing) If I am doing public demonstrations at a craft show or an SCA event outdoors, I will burn it off, bringing the piece up to an annealing heat and quenching it in water (quicker than dissolving in alcohol, and big showy fireshow that brings in spectators)

I will not use a petroleum based pitch (roofing tar with mineral powder) for jewelry work. I have already had my hands in oil for far more of my life than what is healthy. I am considering using it for large scale steel repousse, (I am thinking of making an art-deco gas tank for my motorcycle) since at $40.00 for a little one-quart can I really cannot afford to use pine pitch for backing a 4 1/2 gallon tank, and I don’t have anywhere near enough lead.

I have started sometimes wearing disposable blue nitrile gloves on my left hand when I am working on the pitch bowl so I don’t have so much pitch to get out of my skin. I have found that putting on handcream about a half hour before working makes it less likely to stick to the skin, and I use mechanic’s handcleaner (the lanolin based stuff) or Dove moisturizing soap for getting it off my skin.

Jamie Hall March 8, 2011 at 20:38

Moisturizing soap works to take it off? What do they put in that stuff?

Page March 9, 2011 at 04:40

Oil dissolves heavier oil which is why the thing that dissolves automotive grease most aggressively is a McDonalds Bigmac and fries. Warm salty grease.
When I was a kid my mother would use baby oil for getting pine pitch out of our hair and clothes, the oil would help dissolve the pitch, I have found fatty oils (which is what skin cream is) work even better than baby oil which is basically mineral oil and perfume. Alcohol of course works really well but removes the oils from the skin cells.


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