Manufacturing methods and the organisation of the trade
The trade was to some extent divided in that there were companies which made "blanks" - that is the products which would later be japanned - and never did any japanning; and there were companies which never made the blanks but only japanned on those bought from others. Some companies of all sizes did both and the largest companies always did both.
The first thing to do was to make something for the japanned finish to be applied to. In the case of tinplate this was done by cutting, by hand, shaped pieces of thin iron covered with tin and then soldering or rivetting them together to make the desired shape. In the 1840s the Wolverhampton firm of Walton's got Nasmyth the adapt his heavy forging steam hammer to lighter work and from there on the larger firms used such machines, driven by steam power. Smaller concerns either had fewer of them or made do with simpler stamping machines.
Papier mache was not really papier mache at all - it was not chopped up paper reduced to a pulp. It was made by taking sheet of paper and either laying them flat (for panels) or laying them over moulds in the shape of the object to be made or parts of them. Successive layers of paper were piled on, each being thoroughly pasted with a mixture of glue and flour. It was said that up to 120 layers of paper might be used for some articles. The articles were stove dried, sometimes having to be stoved several times in the case of thicker items. Some articles, such as hollow ones, had to be made in parts, which were stuck together and then treated with further layers of paper. When the shape was finished it was soaked in oil and then stove dried for about a day and half at about 200 Fahrenheit. The resulting material was not dissimilar to wood or a modern hardboard and could be sawn, planed, filed, sanded and generally worked much like wood.
The resulting objects, whether of papier mache or tin plate were then sent to what was known as the blacking shop or varnishing shop. Here several coats of varnish would be applied, each having to be stove dried, until a thick and glossy coat had been built up. Each coat had to be stove dried, papier mache and wooden objects needing longer stoving at a lower temperature than tin plate objects.
The article would then be sent to the gilding shop where gold decoration would be applied by highly skilled craftsmen (women having been mainly restricted to the pasting shop). If painted decoration was required the article would then move onto the painting shop. There painters would either work on their own initiative or, very commonly, under the direction of an artist-designer who would provide a master work from which the others copied. These painters moved quite easily between decorating pottery and decorating japanned wear and some of them were very highly paid.
Finally the article would move on to the varnish shop where a final layer of clear varnish would be applied to protect the decoration and then much polishing (with pumice or rotten stone) would follow to produce the glossy shine that was a vital feature of japanned ware.
Japanning works were notorious for their heat and smell. Many visitors recorded that they gave up the attempt to look round the works. Of sterner mould was Theodore Mander who made notes of his visit to a factory in 1872:
(from Patricia Pegg, A Very Private Heritage: the Family Papers of Samuel Theodore Mander, Images Publishing, 1996, p.61).
All you had to do then was to sell your finished goods. Smaller men would have to do their own selling. Larger firms engaged salesmen who travelled the country but even in the larger firms, as well as the medium sized one, it might be a senior partner who travelled around doing the selling.
Experienced workers in japanning were in demand and well paid. Some were even tempted abroad to the USA to help set up japanning operations there and others took themselves abroad. (For one example of a very successful move, click here).
Japanning was not a very safe operation. We do not know what effect the smoke and fumes had on workers, but the risk of fire must always have been great. Lawley's History of Bilston records an early industrial accident, recorded in St. Leonard's registers: