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Old School Skills: Coppersmiths continue pounding away

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Published on Jul 18, 2007

BRAINTREE -- The gleaming copper dome is one of the first features the eye is drawn to when you pass by the new St. Catherine's Greek Orthodox Church on Common Street in Braintree.
At 31 feet in diameter and with a base circumference of 120 feet, the dome is an architectural highlight of the new church. It's also an impressive display of craftsmanship.

"It's going to last a long time," said Marc Green, whose wife, Sharon, owns Custom Copper & Slate of Medfield. "They haven't found a replacement for copper yet, and I don't think they will."

Custom Copper & Slate is among the few remaining companies that specializes in cornice work, or the use of copper as an architectural decoration, especially along roof lines.

Copper was once a common feature on buildings, but its use has become limited in recent years because of the cost, a lack of trained craftsmen and changes in architectural preference.

In new construction, the use of copper is now largely limited to flashing and downspouts.

But the architect for St. Catherine's, Chris J. Kamages of CJK Design Group, included a healthy amount of copper when he designed the 5,600-square-foot Byzantine-style church.

Each piece of the dome was cut and molded on site by Jake Pedro and Joao Carvalho, Custom Copper & Slate's main two-man crew.

On a recent day, Sharon and Marc Green were crafting the dome's "gravel stop," raised-lip copper flashing that runs along the roof line. After folding a piece of sheathing along its length, they made a series of bends and cuts on one end to create a complicated tongue-and-groove locking mechanism for holding the individual pieces together.

As they bend and cut the shiny metal sheets, they use many of the same hand tools that coppersmiths used hundreds of years ago -- snips with angled heads and 3-inch-wide pliers, for example.

"We all take pride in what we do up here," Sharon Green said. "There's not many of us left."

The dome and flashing have the rich orange shine of a new penny, but a couple of years of exposure will turn the metal that classic green color.

The Greens say a skilled cornice worker has the fabrication abilities of a sheet-metal worker and understands roofs and drainage like someone who installs heating and air-conditioning systems.

Realizing that copper is softer than steel and has its limitations is a must.

"You need to have a little finesse with the metal," Marc Green said.

Rick Collins
The Patriot Ledger

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