Teacher’s props are Hollywood hits

By JIM SABATASO | Correspondent.

Most people know John Peterson from his day job. For almost 30 years, he has taught history at Rutland High School, inspiring students with his passion, humor, and bold fashion sense. However, it’s his after-school activities as a tinsmith that have caught the attention of Hollywood.

In late October, movie prop master Don Miloyevich contacted Peterson about making some items for director Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film, “The Hateful Eight,” which will premiere next year.

Best known for his iconic, heavily stylized and often violent films such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s new film is about a group of bounty hunters who take shelter during a blizzard in post-Civil War Wyoming. Tarantino mainstays Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Roth star alongside Walter Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kurt Russell.

An accomplished tinsmith, Peterson fabricates items both simple and complex using traditional 19th-century tools and practices. A selection of his work is available for viewing at www.ottertin.com, which is how Miloyevich discovered him.

Peterson notes that this is not his first high-profile project. In the 1990s, he made several ornaments for the Clinton White House Christmas tree, though this commission is significantly larger.

Peterson keeps his operation small. A message on his website states that he rarely takes on new clients these days, preferring to keep his circle to friends and established customers. He made an exception for Miloyevich, however, whose name Peterson says he recognized from his work on many films and television shows. Miloyevich’s credits include “Ender’s Game,” “True Blood,” “The Town,” “Face/Off,” and “Sneakers.”

Typically, museums comprise most of Peterson’s orders, often commissioning recreations of items based on fragments. He is happy to oblige, using his extensive knowledge of the 19th-century material culture to deduce what the piece looked like.

In its heyday, tinware was ubiquitous — “it was the plastic of its time,” Peterson says. As such, items were fairly common and mass-produced.

“I recognize that most of what (I) do is this common sort of thing … It’s a craft, not an art,” he says, dismissing the folk art cachet surrounding tinsmithing today.

That humility does not diminish the pride he takes in his work. He says many contemporary tinsmiths talk a big game, but few possess his level of skill and attention to detail. It’s not a brag; it’s a statement of fact upheld by the reputation he has garnered from appreciators of the craft.

The traditional 19th-century process, which Peterson follows, starts with sheets of tin that are cut using tin snips and formed around shapes called stakes. Simple machines, which made tinware more affordable when introduced in the mid-1800s, are also utilized. Once the desired shape is formed, pieces are soldered together.

Peterson’s passion for history and material culture began at an early age. He recalls asking Santa Claus for a tinsmithing set after a family trip to historic Greenfield Village in Michigan. The tin shop with its various wares, including small toy soldiers, especially piqued his interest.

His fascination with historical metalcraft grew. At 13, he fashioned a harpoon, which some RHS students may recall from his classroom. Over the years, he has also dabbled in blacksmithing and historical carpentry.

After college, Peterson worked for a time at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. “I took a shine to tinsmithing there,” he says. He soon began collecting equipment, and honing his craft.

The hobby evolved into a side business in the mid-1990s when his wife suggested he use the skill to fund his other hobby as a Civil War re-enactor. Many of Peterson’s wares are on display in his tent at re-enactments when he appears in character as “Saul Goode,” a regimental sutler (one who sells provisions within a military encampment).

The pieces commissioned for “The Hateful Eight” are a tall order with a tight deadline. By January, Peterson will have completed approximately 35 pieces in all, including lanterns, cups, coffee pots, oil cans, spectacle cases, and various boxes and trunks.

This type of detailed work takes finesse and patience. A typical piece, like the bullseye lantern, of which Miloyevich has ordered several, can take up to eight hours to complete individually. (The process gets more efficient as the scale of production increases — two can be finished in 10 hours.)

But Peterson is up to the challenge, approaching it with the same passion he seems to imbue in whatever project he undertakes, whether it’s teaching students, re-enacting history, or wielding a pair of tin snips for Quentin Tarantino.

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer and Rutland native.