Monthly Archives: January 2013

Zen and the art of sawing

My motorcycle, circa 1984

My motorcycle, circa 1984

This is a picture of my motorcycle, a Yamaha XS400, circa 1984. I bought it because I wanted to be free and feel the wind in my hair (and also, as an impoverished art student, I needed cheap transportation). But life took a different turn, as it sometimes does. In the end, I got more than what I bargained for, and learnt many valuable lessons. And what does this have to do with jewellery, you ask. You’ll find out soon.

The New Year has come and, with it, a new crop of students. One of the first basic metal techniques they need to know in order to make a piece of jewellery is sawing. And I keep hearing: Why are saw blades always breaking? Sounds familiar? Here are some tips that might help:

When inserting the saw blade, make sure there is sufficient tension in the frame. Pluck the saw blade to check the tension; if it does not “ping”, the blade is not taut enough.

Keep the frame perpendicular with your work piece.

When cutting on a curve, turn your work piece slowly (not the frame) while moving the saw frame up and down and without pushing.

When sawing, use the whole length of the blade, making long strokes, not short ones.

If these first tips have to do with knowing your tools and understanding the physics of sawing, the last two have to do with trust and balance – the key to learning to ride a motorcycle.

In order to get my motorcycle licence, I took a motorcycle training course. Our instructor gave us many tips, and the most helpful was to always anticipate, whether it is when scanning traffic to avoid obstacles or when negotiating a curve; “where you look is where you go”. As a novice rider, you tend to want to look down at your wheel. If you do, you hit the obstacle or you lose your balance and fall (and believe me, lifting a 400 lb bike was no mean feat for me!). Instead, look ahead. I would give the same advice to someone learning to use a jeweller’s saw: anticipate and look ahead of what you are cutting.

Copy of 0013_###

Our instructor would also often tell us that it was important “to look good” when riding a bike. Of course, he did not mean we had to wear stylish or cool motorcycle gear. What he was referring to was posture. Having a good posture means that you are not only comfortable, but also in full control of your bike and can operate it safely. The riding posture involves many things that are obviously not relevant to sawing, but surprisingly, some are. For example, relaxing your arms and holding the handle bars lightly. To a newbie, who is eager to learn, and maybe a bit impatient, gripping the frame with a white-knuckled hand and pushing forward with gusto, this will sound very counterproductive. The fact is, this kind of pressure only results in breaking more blades. Use your whole arm, not just your wrist, and remember, as I was explaining in the previous post “Ode to a bench pin”, to keep your back straight when working at your bench. Your work must be at mid-chest level.

And sawing may not be a high-risk activity like riding a motorcycle, but even still don’t forget to keep your fingers on the side or at the back of the blade – never in the front!

The title of this post is a play on Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry into Values, first published in 1974. The title of his book was itself a play on Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. R. Pirsig famously said that his book did not have much to do with Zen practice, or with motorcycles. It does, a bit; it relates a motorcycle journey during which the protagonists have extensive philosophical discussions on science, technology, and the meaning of quality. I reread it recently and found it even more moving and powerful than the first time. And this quest for quality is certainly much more relevant now, at the beginning of the 21st century. But enough of that; it will be the subject of another post.

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Ode to a bench pin

My bench pin is no more. Reduced to a mere stump, it has come to the end of its life and has to be replaced. Still, I find it hard to let go of it. I look at the scars left by the tools and I reminisce about the projects I have lived with these past years.

old bench pin

Old worn out bench pin

A bench pin is a small wedge-shaped wooden extension of the workbench and, as humble as it may look, it is a very important piece of equipment. In fact, as Michael David Sturlin notes in his excellent article “Bench Pin Basics” (in Art Jewelry Magazine. September 2012), for us goldsmiths, “… the bench pin is the center of our world”. And I would add that it might be the most personal piece of equipment as well. Let’s explore how one can develop a better relationship with it.

Workbench with bench pin (centre) and cutting board (left).

Workbench with bench pin (centre) and cutting board (left).

To help you work more comfortably, the bench pin should be placed at the right height. When you sit at your bench, facing the bench pin, your back should be straight and you should be able to keep your head up, with the pin at mid-chest level. And since we are on the subject of ergonomics, you should always be connected to your bench pin while you work – remember, it is the centre of your world. This means that your workpiece, your hand or your tool should always be in contact with the pin, whether you are sawing, drilling, forming or filing. This will ensure you work efficiently and safely. To quote M.D. Sturlin again, no “air jewelry” please! For that reason, the bench pin must be firmly secured to the bench. Pins come in different styles, but regardless, if your bench pin is wiggly, you won’t be able to work with maximum accuracy and control.

You are going to work with your bench pin for several years, so make it your own, and make it work for you. Don’t be afraid to carve and cut into it to modify it. Here is a diagram of the modifications I made to mine, but feel free to customize your own bench pin according to your needs (if you are left-handed, you might want to reverse the diagram).

Modified pin - side

Modified pin – side

Modified pin - front

Modified pin – front

modified pin with diagram

1Depressions: carve with round burrs; great for holding rings when filing inside the shank.

2Vertical grooves: clamp a board on the side of the pin, and drill holes of various diameters perpendicular to the top; good for filing the top of tubing sections.

3Nub: cut with a saw, and then file; good for holding a coil of wire while sawing the jump rings (push the coil onto the nub to stiffen it and secure it). Can also be used to cut a ring shank when sizing a ring – for that, slide ring over nub, and saw safely.

4Notch: saw first, and then file, carve one or several in different sizes. Great for forming (brace object in the notch).

5Slanted edge: useful for filing or when using a ring clamp (when setting a stone on a ring, for example).

6Tapered groove: for filing evenly the tapered end of a piece of round wire.

In addition to these, you could make a V-shaped cut for sawing. I prefer to use a separate cutting board for that, but it can be done on your bench pin as well. In that case, make sure you install the pin with the flat side up. For more suggestions, I recommend Tim McCreight and Charles Lewton-Brain, metalsmiths, teachers, and best-selling authors of way too many technical books to mention here, and of course, the Ganoksin Project (search in “bench tips”).

The beauty of the bench pin is in its simplicity; you can personalize it to your needs. Start with a few basic modifications, and then customize it further for your next project. It’s easy. Simply use a file, a saw or a burr and shape it as you like. As Rick said in Casablanca, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”