Category Archives: bench tips

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


My two cents worth

Two cents

Two cents

A few weeks ago, the Canadian penny was taken out of circulation. At a cost of 1.6 cent, the one-cent coin was obviously too expensive to make. Sure, as a taxpayer, I applaud this cost-saving measure ($11 million a year), but unlike a lot of people who are happy to see the penny go, I will miss it; the penny is invaluable to us metalsmiths. I always keep a few coins on my soldering table – and not just for good luck. 

Pennies can be really useful as soldering aids. Here are some examples of how they can help you:

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Use them as spacers to prop up an object on the fire brick when soldering (use one or several depending on the height you need).

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Penny used as a heat sink

Or use them as heat sinks, for instance when connecting a small chain (already soldered) to a much heavier piece.

Since copper has very high thermal conductivity, the penny will absorb some of the heat and direct it away from a delicate object that needs to be soldered (but not melted beyond recognition). It can also shield a previously soldered seam and prevent it from reopening. And yes, it works like a (good luck) charm!

Check out Charles Lewton-Brain’s article “Some jewelry Soldering Hints and Tricks”, on the ever helpful Ganoksin website , for more details on how you can use heat sinks to your advantage by preventing the heat from traveling to a specific area.

There are of course other tools that are available to the metalsmith for these purposes, like cross-locking fire tweezers, pins or a third hand. However, depending on the size or the shape of the object that you are dealing with, they might not be practical to use.

Make sure you use older pennies for this as they need to be solid copper. Until 1996, these coins were made mostly out of copper (98%). After 1996, because of the rising cost of copper, they were made out of zinc or steel. These newer pennies look like copper but are only copper plated, and as zinc has a fairly low melting point, it could melt and stick to your workpiece.

Pre and post 1996 coins. The oldest one is on the left.

Pre and post 1996 coins. The oldest one is on the left. *See note below

Now at this point, and on my lawyer’s advice :), I would like to remind you that, according to the Currency Act and the Canadian Criminal Code, “no person shall melt down, break up or use otherwise than as currency any coin that is legal tender in Canada”. Yes, although it is no longer being made, the penny remains legal tender in Canada. It is true that the Currency Act does not mention explicitly metalsmithing techniques or soldering aids, but you’ve been warned!

No need to start hoarding pennies yet, though. In 2011, the Mint issued $1.1 billion pennies. So they’ll be around for a while. Meanwhile, those who feel a bit nostalgic can read “The Life & Times of the Canadian Penny” on the Royal Canadian Mint Website there is some fun penny trivia there.

*Note: This is a dramatized representation of the cross-section of pre and post 1996 pennies. No actual pennies were harmed in the making of this blog.

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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.

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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.

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.”