Handmade: Copper artisan’s work reflects top quality

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

If you’ve ever been on the John R. side of the Detroit Institute of Arts and seen the metal “DIA” lettering flanked by two artist’s brushes attached to the railing along the staircase, then you’ve seen the skilled workmanship of copper artisan Matthew P. Ridky of St. Clair Shores.

Ridky has been creating both functional and visual art with copper since 1985, back when he went from being a driver for a local sheet metal specialty shop to working with copper and brass for the company. “I learned the trade from the owner, and then I turned around and taught him a few things,” he says. “When I started doing it, we expanded into copper and brass kitchens with range hoods, sinks and countertops, as well as handrails.” Inspired by the longevity of the metal, he adds, “When copper is installed properly, it will outlast the life of a home.”

In 2001, Ridky made a copper sink for the governor’s suite at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. “That was a big thing,” he says. “It was 3 feet deep by 3 feet wide. It was a referral, and I was lucky enough to hand-deliver it.” He says the truck he used to make the delivery is one of just “a few vehicles to ever be on Mackinac Island,” and it’s where he was sitting at the time of this interview.

Most of his jobs — like roofing projects, church steeples and gutters — were done on location. “For the church steeples, I did some of the prep-work in my shop. I used to have a full-blown shop up until 2002. When China geared up for the Olympics, they bought up all of our copper, including scraps. Copper went from $4 a pound up to $12 a pound. It shut down the industry. A lot of sheet metal shops that worked with copper went out of business.” Ridky’s customers had been mostly kitchen and bath companies, and designers affiliated with the kitchen and bath industry.

These days, Ridky still does copper bay roofs, but he’s also started a home improvement business called M.R. HandyMan. “I do anything that has to do with home remodeling — kitchens, baths and full basements. I also install vinyl siding.”

In addition to roofs, Ridky now fulfills his artistic urge for working with copper by designing and creating smaller scale objects, including birdhouses, planter boxes and copper healing hearts, like the one featured here. He says, “I custom make copper hearts for therapeutic use. They’re kind of like rubbing stones, but with the added benefit of copper.”

Detroit News Staff Writer Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or jbrown@detroitnews.com. For more craft news and giveaways, visit her blog at detroitnews.com/crafts.

Copper Healing Heart

Level: Intermediate

Estimated time: 1 hour

Tools: Dremel or wood carving tools, small ball-peen hammer, two Quick clamps, soft round-nose punch, sheet metal snips, propane torch, rosin core solder, vice grip clamp, file, Brasso or metal polish

Supplies: 16-ounces of copper, 1-inch thick oak or maple

Instructions

1. Start by carving a 1-inch dimensional shape into wood, keeping in mind that shape is symmetrical, so the two halves will need to line up evenly when joined.

2. Use sheet metal snips to cut a 3- by 4-inch piece of copper and clamp over carving. (Note: If doing something larger, cut copper oversized by about 20 percent.)

3. Then, use ball-peen hammer to hammer copper down into carving until you reach depth/shape of carving. Repeat for other half.

4. Trim pieces to within 1/16-inch of edges. Cut about 4 pieces of rosin core solder and put in one half. Align other half carefully, and apply clamp with only enough pressure to hold halves together, as copper will deform easily.

5. Light propane torch and apply heat to shape while rotating piece on side edge. It won’t take much to get solder flowing, and any irregularities will allow solder to flow out, something you don’t want to happen. Let piece cool.

6. Now, file rough edges and polish.

Contact Matthew P. Ridky at (586) 945-2265 or Mridky123@hotmail.com