A Lobed Phiale

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A phiale is a Greek style handless, footless bowl for drinking. Many bowls have omphalos or a raised boss in the middle for one or two fingers to aid in drinking. You can clearly see the omphalos raised in the middle of bowl as pictured in the vase below. Achaemenid style typically has ‘lobes’ or the raised bumps as seen above. I do not have enough providence to say who originated the phiale, omphalos, or the lobed design, as the cultures intermingled heavily.

Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting a man and a woman sacrificing at an altar

These libation bowls were widely used not just by the Greeks but peoples all over the ‘known’ world, with each culture putting their own style on it. We have examples of glass, ceramic and metal phiales.

Initial Process

Originally my goal was to create a Thracian Beaker. Vessel making, known modernly as silversmithing (regardless of the material used), is what got me into repousse and metal working. I had fallen in love with the ryhtons and wanted to make one. I have enough sense to know that is far down the line. The original goal for this project was to make a simple vessel. I chose the Thracian beaker as the shape was simple in comparison to the ryhtons. The Thracian animal style also consists of simplistic repousse work, something that was hopefully within my skill level.

Beaker with birds and animals https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/324029?pos=1

I began trying to raise a vessel from copper. It took a while to understand what I was doing and get some proper tools. I am still struggling with both of those processes. Vessel raising is a difficult thing and I wanted to do the project justice. Modern obligations would prevent me from creating or purchasing the needed tools in the amount of time I had. This made me want to refocus my efforts for the Athenaeum project onto something that could be completed with the limited tooling I had available to me. Ultimately I decided that a lobed omphalous phiale was not only a project I really wanted to make, but one I had the potential tools to do. As an added benefit it would stretch my creative skills to the make. I am am not good at creating symmetrical objects and am even worse at making round.

Design decisions and patterning

I am a textbook over analyzer. I even bought my first sketch book to draft out plans for what I was going to make. That failed badly. Spacing and symmetry aren’t my strong suits. I missed some important details and realized that the week I had set aside to work on this project was after the due date. So with the deadline looming I went to my bench and tried to let creativity flow.

It actually worked really well. I made decisions on the fly in order to keep the process moving. I knew I was going to work in copper, I was already familiar with the annealing process and its other properties so I hoped that would help me achieve a good result. Originally I was going to make a six-inch bowl but I had a scrap piece of copper that would give me a 4″ bowl. Phiales range greatly in size from over a foot in diameter to smaller cups roughly the same size as I was planning.

The omphalos was going to be of a size. There was going to be a ring around the omphalos to act as a base. The lobes would start just off that ring. A carination (out turned shoulder) would be at the top. That was all I knew.

I punched my center mark for the compass to seat in and make consistent circles. I grabbed the compass, twisted it until it looked good and scribed the 3 rings. I then flipped it over and scribed the omphalos outline on the bottom side. It was all by eye and entirely without foreplaning. It worked beautifully. Approx. 4″ in diameter with a 1″ omphalos.

Lining and dishing

Next up came marking out the pattern. I pulled out my templates to try and use ovals and circles to create the lobed design. Eventually I just gave up, went with the flow and free-handed it onto card stock. That too went really well. I drew out the lines with sharpie then went over them with a small lining punch. I had a small jewelers sand box to make an initial dishing impression in using my plastic mallet.

Sinking and repousse

After a quick pass with the blow torch to anneal I was able to start working again. Copper work hardens so the more I hammered it the tighter the crystalline structure gets. By annealing it with a blow torch I heat the metal so that the molecules slide back to a loose state, making it pliable again. This process is quick and easy and allows me to stretch the metal a good ways before breaking. Unfortunately it does leave firescale or a patina behind on it.

The jewelers sandbag was too small to get a good depth from the bowl. In another stroke of luck I had the cap from a metal barrier. The phiale fit inside it perfectly. Since the steel is sturdier and thicker it was able to withstand the sinking of the copper vessel into it and all the hammering.

After this point I stopped for the day.

Lobes and plannishing

It took nearly a week to get back to work on the bowl. The next step was to repouss√© the lobes on the vessel. I coated the barrier cap in wax (to aid in release from the pitch) and pressed it into the very hot, soft pitch. Being thicker, it wouldn’t burn my fingers and wouldn’t warp as I pressed. The cap created a perfect indent to seat the phiale into. After removing the cap I reheated the pitch and pressed in the piece.

The first lobe was really easy. I really only used 3 tools for this process: my round punch, and my small and large oval. All tools were handmade by myself from Allen wrenches. The small punch was great for creating a bulbous effect on the edging, the large oval was my main outlining tool and the round punch created depth. Creating symmetrical, identical pieces is incredibly hard and I have a new found respect for ancient metalsmiths. I did my best to ensure that the lobes were of similar depth but did not use anything to measure.

Finishing Touches

After this I only had a few steps left to do. Sir Ataias encouraged me to planish the piece, or smooth out the tool marks. Unfortunately I didn’t have any real planishing tools in my kit. Thankfully, I had a tent stake from Wal-Mart. I used a hand saw to cut it down, a bench grinder to smooth the top out and 1000 grit sand paper to remove any blemishes and polish up the striking end. Planishing is something I do not have a lot of experience in and was a good test of my ability. It also really showed the imperfections in the raising on the lobes. Planishing presses the metal flat to the lowest point against the hard cold pitch beneath it. It was essential to make sure that the pitch filled all of the gaps so I melted it to the point it was nearly liquid and filled the bowl itself. After letting it cool down I heated the pitch in the pot so that I could press them together. There were a few defects in the raising on the lobes that became apparent. If the lowest point is too low see visible divots as everything evens out or lose height on the piece to bring everything down to that lower level. This was the case on a few of the lobes where I did lose a little height.

I also needed to remove the wrinkles around the edge. This is a common issue when raising or sinking. Wrinkles will form and are easy to remedy. The issue is if they fold onto themselves, it can create a crack. Striking the rim on a flat metal surface with a plastic headed mallet I was able to smooth out the wrinkles around the edges. This can sometimes warp the lip. Depending on how badly warped it is I may need to hit it on the belt sander to smooth it out.

The final step is pickling and polishing. Pickling is submerging the phiale into a solution that will dissolve the firescale, leaving just the copper behind. After that I hit it with a brass brissel wire brush and some elbow grease.

Lessons Learned

The most important lesson I learned is that art is as often about going with the flow as it is planning out every detail. This is one of my favorite pieces and it was made almost entirely on the fly. I tried to identify the pieces that inspired me later and came up with these two. The inspiration for the out-turned rim and the lining around the lobes really came from these two.

Also it is that I should be careful when punching the center point. During the raising of the omphalos it caused a slight break-through. I will seal that with wax to make sure it holds liquids. Copper should not be used to consume while hot so the wax seal should hold for a while.

Quick Update:
It holds 1.5 oz of liquid so perfect shot glass.


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9 Replies to “A Lobed Phiale”

  1. This is really lovely work – I greatly appreciate all the pictures you have here of the process! I also liked the honesty around being an over-analyzer (I am one as well) and how just going for it actually really helped rather than trying to exhaustively plan.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your process and what you learned. Did you study how to do this on your own? Or did you have someone showing you how to do these techniques? We have a few people over in the inlands who do reposse and chasing as well if you are interested in talking to others who do this craft.

    1. Absolutely I’m always interested in more people who do this.
      I had Sir Attias help me out in the beginning. I also used a few online tutorials and Chasing and Repouse By Nancy Martin is THE book to get on the subject.

      Mostly its lots of trial and error.

  3. When you were describing this project to me I had no concept how intricate this process was. How much bigger did the bowl become than your original piece of cut copper? Did it stretch during this process? Also, my experience with copper is that it is very malleable and dents easily. Does this process strengthen the metal? Are you planning on using it at events? Will you coat the inside or is it “food safe” as it is? Facinating piece. Nicely done!

    1. Not much larger maybe half an inch total (quarter per side). It does stretch out during the dishing process.
      I can deform it just by holding it.
      Copper works harden so during the dishing, when making the lobes and plannishing it gets tougher. By annealing it (hitting it with the blow torch) it softens.

      I might use it at events, I need to fix the edges so they aren’t copper flavored razor blades. It is food safe….however heated copper releases potentially toxic materials, usually they get tinned.
      Thank you

      1. I was wondering about the edges. I looked at your inspiration photos as well as some of my own pictures of roman metal bowls & they clearly didn’t do any fancy folded edge to protect the drinker’s lips, so I was curious if there was anything specific you had to do to smooth the edge down?

        1. The edge is razor sharp. It’s not really intended for use but I go back and finish the edge up.
          I sanded it to make it even on top and that just made it a blade. I could take a file or more sand paper to get it smoother and might since it does hold liquid well.

          1. I also think I used a thinner gauge than they did ( though I’m not sure) so that would help too. I’m finding they didn’t work alot in the mid gauges (mid 20s) but seemed to either do leaf or thick stuff.
            This would get damaged easily during camp life

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