February is my least favorite month. It’s just too short.
Typically, after I have attended to the usual chores, completed the required production projects for the galleries, finished any commissions, and prepared my classes, there is not enough time left for engaging in creative pursuits. And I am forever chasing those precious, but elusive, moments.
I’ve decided to submit a piece to an exhibition, and the deadline for this is …too soon. Now, this kind of situation stresses me out enormously, but it also spurs me to dive into the project. Let’s see if I am up for this challenge. The following is a synopsis of what I have been doing so far.
The exhibition will celebrate the 40th anniversary of a crafts organization that I belong to. Ideally, I prefer it when ideas have time to incubate a bit longer, but with a fast approaching deadline, efficiency is key. For this particular project, I chose to revisit some of my favourite themes: containers, lockets, pieces within pieces, journeys, symbols, transformation (of the materials and of the maker), and ultimately, the metalsmith as alchemist. I am in familiar territory. After much drawing, daydreaming, and more drawing, this is what emerges: a rounded, well-worn pouch, about palm-size – like something one would take on a journey, maybe to keep valuables or talismans. It’s made out of silver, with some gold details (we’ll see what my budget allows), and hangs on a long chain which has a decorative clasp (to be determined later). For now, I call it “Alchemist’s Travel Kit”.
Here is the paper model of the pouch, more or less to scale (6 cm/2 ¼” x 5 cm/2″). It will include three main parts: front, back and something in between to hold the two sides together and make the container roomier.
Now that I have a fairly clear image of the piece, I try to figure out which techniques will be best suited to make it. Die-forming is a technique that works well for creating three-dimensional, hollow pieces. The press, powered by a hydraulic jack, pushes a sheet of metal through a matrix die to form it. It’s perfect for making two matching halves for a container. And I really like how it bends the metal without leaving any marks on the surface, forming a soft-looking, smooth structure with pleasing curves. Also, I wanted an excuse to “play” with my custom-built hydraulic press (Thank you, Mike!).
First step: preparing the matrix die
I drew the shape of the “pouch” on graph paper (I prefer metric), to scale.
I transferred the drawing onto a sheet of acrylic (about ½ “or 1.2 cm thick) with a scriber. With a saw frame and a wax spiral blade, I pierced the acrylic sheet to make the die, then filed and rounded the edges slightly.
Next step: forming the metal with the hydraulic press:
Safety alert! Please wear the required protection gear and follow carefully the safety instructions regarding the use of a hydraulic press; it is extremely dangerous when not handled properly. Hydraulic Die Forming for Jewelers and Metalsmiths, by Susan Kingsley, is an excellent reference (20-Ton Press, Carmel, California, 1987. ISBN: 978-0-9635832-0-8). Because a hydraulic press exerts an enormous amount of pressure (up to 20 tons), safety is crucial. There is not enough room here for more complete safety information, so please see my notes below.
Here is how the different layers that were pressed together were stacked up: matrix die (only the outer part), annealed sheet of metal (22 gauge/0.5 mm), and urethane pad. The urethane pad (similar to very hard rubber) pushed the sheet of metal into the die and formed it.
For this, I used a yellow urethane pad (with a hardness of 60 durometers). Available at Rio Grande.
Hydraulic jack (8 ton):
Safety alert! Please follow carefully the manufacturer’s instructions. A standard hydraulic press comes with a jack. I had to purchase mine separately, as the frame of the press was custom-made. Bonny Doon Engineering is a well-known and reputable supplier of hydraulic presses for metalsmiths. You can check out their catalogue here. The how-to section of the website includes detailed safety instructions.
After every 5 pressings, I took out the stack, and annealed the metal. I repeated this process 4 times to get the desired depth. Of course, with a more powerful jack (10, 12 tons or more), the same depth would be achieved more quickly. Here is the result. This piece will be the front half of the pouch:
Die-forming with a vise:
Now, for the back of the pouch, I wanted a different look, flatter, a bit more angular – as it would be the side resting on the body, when worn as a pendant or carried in a pocket. For this, I used another die-forming technique, very low-tech, much simpler and much less scary. Yes, a simple vise can be used as a press as well. With this method, both parts of the acrylic die are needed.
The sheet of metal was placed between the two parts of the die (outer and inner parts), then I added the urethane pad, and pressed all 4 layers into the vise.
It took about half a dozen pressings, with annealing every time, to get a deep enough form. Here is the result:
The piece formed with the vise is on the left.
The next step will be to finish constructing the pouch. And there is much more to think about, such as the design of a closure, the fabrication of the pieces that go inside the pouch, and finally the chain and its clasp. Now I’d better get back to work, February is almost over!