Shop Secrets Revealed – #1 Masking Tape

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In life, as in jewellery making, there are things that you can’t always learn from books or from taking a class; practical things like how to remove a broken drill bit stuck in a piece of metal, shortcuts to help you work more efficiently, time-saving tips, and tricks of the trade. These are things you learn from other people; people who have a lot of experience in the trade, people in the trenches. Of course, you could also find out these things eventually through trial and error – well, error, mostly.

Something I wish I could ask all the goldsmiths out there is: What are your favorite tools or pieces of equipment and why? There is a lot to be learned that way, and not just in relationship to their work, but about new and better ways of using these tools as well.

This is the first of a series of posts where I’ll be sharing my favourite tools and tips with you, and I look forward to hearing from all of you as well. What are your favourite tools, and what “life-saving” tips do you know that you could share?

High on my list of the must-have tools in the studio is masking tape. I have several rolls in different parts of my studio placed in strategic places. There is a roll on my bench, always within easy reach. Masking tape has gotten me out of several tricky “sticky” situations and has saved me a lot of time and frustration.

Something masking tape is good for, of course, is … masking.

In preparation for etching, cover the parts of your design that you want to “keep”; masking tape acts as “resist” and protects the metal from being eaten away by the chemicals. This works well when etching copper or brass with ferric chloride.

D Brechault 7280

On the finished piece, the areas that were covered with masking tape are smooth and slightly raised; all the recessed areas of the design have been etched. They show a beautiful texture, especially around the edges of the masked parts.

D Brechault 7273

Etched copper with patina.

Pieces of tape can be torn by hand or specific shapes can be cut out with scissors. You can see here how this produces different results. With torn pieces of tape, there is a more pronounced texture (“pull lines”) around the edges, whereas with the cut pieces, the etch is cleaner and sharper around the shapes.

More pronounced texture, with "pull lines".

More pronounced texture, with “pull lines”.

Cleaner, sharper lines around the edges.

Cleaner, sharper lines around the edges.

The same masking technique can be used for sandblasting as well. After finishing and polishing your piece, cover the parts of your design that need to remain smooth and polished. Whatever is left exposed will have a lightly textured and matte surface after sandblasting. For heavy sandblasting, duct tape or electrical tape might be more suitable, but I find that masking tape is sufficient for standard results.

The exposed areas are textured; the masked areas remain untouched.

The exposed areas are textured; the masked areas remain untouched.

It’s great for covering or protecting various surfaces.

Since rivets are put in and set after a piece has been finished and polished, it helps to protect the area around the rivets to prevent damaging the surface of the metal when tapping them in with the riveting hammer.

No matter how careful you are when setting a stone, accidents happen! To be safe and to protect your newly finished piece from scratches, cover with masking tape.

Setting a stone.

Setting a stone.

Cover a stone that’s already set, if you need to do some more cleaning around the setting.

Sanding around a setting.

Sanding around a setting.

You can use it to tape together a stack of sheets of metal.

This is useful when you need to drill through several sheets and make sure all the holes are perfectly lined up (for riveting for example).

Masking tape wrapped around 3 sheets of metal in preparation for drilling.

Masking tape wrapped around 3 sheets of metal in preparation for drilling.

Masking tape is quite sticky and can be used to make “handles”.

Use them to hold things that are very small, difficult to hold or slippery (like stones). With a “handle” it’s easier to put a stone in a setting, and take it out, to check whether it fits or it is level.

D Brechault  7257

To drill pearls. A pearl drilling vise is not really practical, because the pearl tends to slip out and worse, the tool can damage the delicate surface of the pearl.

Holding a pearl with a masking tape "handle" to drill it.

Holding a pearl with a masking tape “handle” to drill it.

Pearl drilling vise.

Pearl drilling vise.

D Brechault 7285

Life-saver. A piece of masking tape can be used to pull a stone out of a tight setting (works most of the time – more tips later on what to do when the stone is really stuck).

Pulling a stone out of a setting.

Pulling a stone out of a setting.


Some people prefer duct tape. Yes, it is tougher and stickier, but I find that it tends to leave behind too much of a sticky residue once removed. Other people swear by green tape or painter’s tape. I find it not quite sticky enough and sometimes too flimsy.

To each her own.

Oh, and one more thing!

When a bandage is not available, guess what I reach for?

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Note: The idea for this blog post comes from Secret Shop Weapons, a book recently published by MJSA Press.


13 thoughts on “Shop Secrets Revealed – #1 Masking Tape

  1. Pete's Pots

    Very interesting. You have inspired me to experiment with torn tape as a mask for pottery decoration – I’m sure the results will be on my blog one day.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Thank you very much, Pete. This is quite a compliment coming from you – the decorative patterns on your pots are always so varied and delightful!
      I look forward to seeing what you’ll do with masking tape.

  2. artdoesmatter

    It’s amazing how much I’ve grown to depend on my masking tape as a bench tool, too. Sometimes, when I decide to do something like set a rivet, or not protect a surrounding area of metal w/ the masking tape as I usually do, I get frustrated w/ myself that I should have used it!! Although I’ve never tried it as a resist in etching, seeing your fabulous results convices me to sometime try it. As always, a fantastic, highly informative post, Dominique!

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      I know what you mean. Can’t live without it!
      So, it feels good to use it creatively too, once in a while, and have fun with it.
      I hope you try it for etching – I’d love to see your creations.
      Thank you so much for sharing, Patricia.

  3. poodletalk

    What a great Idea to use masking tape for etching! Though at my school we use nitric acid instead of ferric chloride, do you think it would still work? I recently have been realizing how valuable it is to be in the company of fellow artists, especially metalsmiths, for the purpose of idea exchange but not limited to it. It is so important to have a regular dialog about conceptual ideas and technical skills outside of the critique setting with peers, it is so helpful in idea development and it is such an inspiration to hear about other peoples projects and to see that other people are out there creating and working. I recently have been interning at a jewelry studio, and it was such a simple thing, but they were all surprised that I used my ring clamp for things other than rings! I use my ring clamp for everything I file, or if I just have a hard time holding onto something, it is probably my favorite tool. The other day I also had an interesting idea exchange with a friend who uses clamps on his bench pin when sawing….who would have thought? I certainly didn’t, and find that small tip very useful. I find it interesting interacting with some of my peers and finding them to be very guarded about their ideas, like they are afraid that someone else will steel their idea, I used to feel this way to an extent, or at least didn’t realize how valuable it is to have other artists insight.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Thank you very much for your comments!
      I am not sure masking tape would work as a resist with nitric acid, as it is so much more aggressive than ferric chloride (It usually starts falling apart after about an hour in the etching bath). If you want to etch silver, you could use ferric nitrate instead of nitric acid (not quite as strong), maybe masking tape could resist that one better? I am not sure. But then again, why not experiment and see what happens? Whatever you do, though, do it safely – stop if that triggers any weird chemical reaction!
      Now, I always tell my students that the word “ring clamp” is a misnomer since it can be used to clamp not only rings, but just about anything! it is one of my favorite tools as well!
      And yes, there is more than one way to do things, that’s why it’s good to take classes with different instructors and share tips with colleagues and peers. Instead of repeating slavishly what the teacher is demonstrating, isn’t it more useful to THINK, understand what happens and why (where does the heat travel, how does the metal behave if I hammer this way, why did I melt that, etc…)? If something goes wrong, one is then able to troubleshoot and move on/learn, gain confidence, and master new skills in the process.
      Sharing of ideas: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Nothing bad ever came out of sharing ideas…just more ideas! It’s true that we all feel more vulnerable or under pressure to compete, when starting an apprenticeship, a new career, but it is not helping in the long run (hence the need for confidence-building attitude above). I am glad you don’t feel that way. It’s how we grow and find our voices as artists, isn’t it? And blogs are a wonderful way of doing just that. Your blog is a perfect example: engaging, informative, and thought-provoking.
      I look forward to reading your next posts and sharing more ideas with you.

      1. poodletalk

        It is interesting how sometimes our education system is structured in such a way that it doesn’t encourage students to think for themselves, yet it is such a crucial part of the learning process. Of course this changes with different areas of concentration and depends a lot on the teacher. When we do actually start to think for ourselves it is a process that is not soon forgotten, we may be able to regurgitate a technique or concept one time and never use it again. Even if it is something that is not completely an original thought, as long as it is approached with a critical and active mind its more likely to be absorbed long term. Today I had a really great experience with my peers, this summer we decided that we would create a more tight knit metals community within our school and had our first meeting today. The whole thing was very inspiring and what seems to be the start of a long lasting support system and venue for idea exchange. I look forward to reading your blog and sharing ideas in the future as well, and yes what a great way to contribute to the art community and develop as an artist and find a voice, the more I blog the more value I see it has in my life.

  4. metalandmettle Post author

    Well put! I could not agree more. And yes, a metals community is an excellent idea. It’s always a bit scary to leave the safe and structured environment of a school and find yourself in the “real” world out there. Having a support group will help. And even more important, I think, is to be able to bounce ideas off one another. As artists/goldsmiths we have to be business people as well, and that makes it difficult to remain fresh and vibrant creatively.
    I applaud your enthusiasm and your passion. I look forward to reading your posts.

  5. fayegreendesign

    What a brilliant post – I never once thought to have masking tape on hand for the simplest tasks you discussed above! I can’t think of anything quite as versatile that I like to keep on hand in the studio, but if I’m ever traveling, I always like to pack my three-in-one pliers. They help me in almost every pinch and are perfect for a little creative activity when I’m not around the technical tools in the studio.

  6. putyourkingdomupforsale

    Those are some fantastic tips for masking tape! I had never thought of using it as a clamp/handle before. My favorite unusual tool in the shop is Krazy glue. I use it a lot for marriage of metals to stack sheets together and saw the “puzzle” pieces all out at the same time. doing marriage of metals this way also provides you with three copies (or four depending on how many sheets were used) for 1/3 or a 1/4 of the total cutting effort. and similar to masking tape working as a bandage, krazy glue will work as stitches for one of those accidental saw blade cuts that goes a bit too deep.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Very interesting. When I was a student, Krazy glue was of course a bit of a taboo thing…It’s refreshing to see it can be put to good use.
      Thank you very much for sharing!
      (And by the way, how to you separate the sheets of metal when you’re finished? Is there a trick?)

      1. putyourkingdomupforsale

        as long as you are not dealing with a thinly plated material that could flake just using the torch with the piece under a vent works just fine(don’t breathe in burnt krazy glue fumes though!!!!) super glues are not impact resistant, so dropping also works. I wouldn’t use this method to separate, but it is a good fact to be aware of incase you do drop a piece so you know to check for missing sheets. other than that, I believe nail polish remover over time will disintegrate the bond. I hope that was helpful 🙂 I was talking just a couple days ago with a friend about how we need to share these things more and not “guard” our secrets, so blog posts like this are delightfully refreshing to see 🙂

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