Wordsmith, coppersmith

Sara Dahmen makes copper cookware like that used centuries ago with equipment in her Town of Port Washington garage. Photo by Sam Arendt
Mitch Maersch
Ozaukee Press staff

Sara Dahmen said she never expected to make a career out of writing.

She never expected to be making cookware from hundreds of years ago either, but the Town of Port Washington resident is now working on a six-book series in her office and copper bowls in her garage.

Oddly enough, the two ventures are related.

The writing bug hit Dahmen early, while she was growing up in northern Wisconsin near Stratford.

“I was writing before I could spell,” she said.

Dahmen earned a degree in communications from Marquette University and worked in advertising before starting her own wedding planning company. After a decade, other career aspirations began to develop, and she sold the company.

She self-published a novel in 2014, and  it started winning contests. She landed a publisher that requested changes and asked to stretch the tale into a series.

“Widow 1881,” the first of six books in the Flats Junction series, was released on Feb. 14.

Hitting the publishing company’s goals of 110,000 words every six to eight weeks wasn’t a problem. Dahmen has always been a fast typer, and ideas sometimes flow from brain to fingers just as quickly. She can cover 2,000 to 3,000 words in half an hour to describe a scene if she’s “into it.”

Her book went from having a few characters to more than 200, all with their own families.

“It was worth the pain of editing. It’s so much better,” she said.

It was Dahmen’s topic, historical fiction about life in the 1800s, that piqued her interest in cookware.

“What were people carrying in Wisconsin during the fur trade? What was Paul Revere using?”

Dahmen found her new mission, and off she went. Like her writing, her venture to start a cookware company moved quickly. She remembers discussing the possibility on the phone with her husband while he was at work.

By the time he got home, Dahmen had the URL and tax code, and had called people to research products.

Figuring out how to make copper cookware in America, much less finding suppliers of raw materials, became a three-year passion that she used her bubbly personality to describe.

Dahmen found help nearby. Bob Bartelme of West Bend is a tinsmith who runs his own company called Backwoods Tin and Copper LLC, and made some pieces for the movie “The Revenant.” She became Bartelme’s apprentice, and works with him twice per week. Most of Bartelme’s pieces are used for re-enactments.

Dahmen found someone else on the East Coast who turned into a mentor. Mac Kohler founded Brooklyn Copper Cookware and is working on starting a copper cookware guild with Dahmen.

Landing suppliers was a formidable challenge. Dahmen found companies in Belgium, France and India, but nobody in the U.S. Even Kohler does French designs, while Dahmen wanted to make American versions.

She ended up finding a company in Houston to provide copper. A company in Ohio would shape it and ship it to Dahmen to turn into cookware.

She remembers the first meeting with five men in Ohio to hammer out the details. Dahmen knew what she needed but none of the lingo. She laughed as she described the scene in which she asked wise questions to seem more knowledgeable than she was.

She found rivets from a company in Markesan, but handles were another issue. Trial and error led to only error.

“I remember sitting at a writers’ conference in Madison. I must have made 40 cold calls in one sitting.”

People would often ask her, “‘Are you an engineer?’

‘No, I’m a wedding planner,’” Dahmen said with a laugh.

Dahmen landed a place on the West Coast to make her handles and ship them.

Once she has all the pieces, Dahmen grinds, polishes, sands, drills holes on several pieces of equipment in her garage.

She continues to pick up tips on domestic manufacturing. Once, a family member noticed she had grey toes.

“I learned the hard way not to wear my steel-toed boots when it’s negative 20,” Dahmen said.

Her research in cookware led her to a parallel to the growing trend of eating natural food.

“If I’m concerned about my food, shouldn’t I be concerned about my cookware? That’s where the chemical changes happen,” she said.

Dahmen said she will never go back to using products from China “because it’s cooking on arsenic.”

“I’m actually making, basically, the equivalent of organic cookware.” she said. “It’s safe. You go back to basics. You know people have been cooking on tin-lined copper for centuries.”

Dahmen’s pieces are more expensive than other cookware, but she said they last longer. She can put a new tin liner in pieces after about 15 years, and they’ll last another 15, and “it will never go into a landfill.”

Her product line has expanded to wooden spoons that are made in Indiana and 100% cotton towels made in New York that don’t need to be washed and can be used right out of the bag.

Dahmen said she doesn’t mind growing, but her cookware will never me mass produced.

“I don’t ever want to lose the integrity of what I make,” she said. “If people want to help, she said, “it would be more of a labor of love.”

Dahmen’s newfound skill of making copper cookware has led to developing other talents. She helped her oldest son with his pinewood derby car, a flatbed truck that she said would have worked better going down the track backward. But her son still earned a medal for it.

She also learned how to sew.

“Suddenly, when you’re building cookware you can see how things work in 3D in your head,” she said.

Dahmen plans to publish a nonfiction book on the science and history of her cookware by the end of the year, and four of her six books in the series are already written and in the editing process.

For more information, go to www.saradahmen.com and www.housecopper.com.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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