Tag Archives: Jewellery

Alchemist’s Travel Kit

Alchemical symbols

Alchemical symbols

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.

Paper model of locket

Paper model of locket

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.

Drawing on graph paper

Drawing on graph paper

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.

Acrylic sheets

Acrylic sheets

Transfer of design on acrylic sheet

Transfer of design on acrylic sheet

Acrylic die

Acrylic die

 

Next step: forming the metal with the hydraulic press:

Hydraulic press

Press frame and hydraulic jack

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.

Stack placed between two platens of the press

Stack placed between two platens of the press

For this, I used a yellow urethane pad (with a hardness of 60 durometers). Available at Rio Grande.

Urethane pad

Urethane pad

 Hydraulic jack (8 ton):

Hydraulic jack

Hydraulic jack

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:

Front half of the container (inside)

Front half of the container (inside)

Front half of the container (outside)

Front half of the container (outside)

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.

Stack set up in the vise

Stack set up in the vise

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:

Back and front halves of the pouch

Back and front halves of the pouch

 

The piece formed with the vise is on the left.

The two halves are ready for assembly

The two halves are ready for assembly

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!

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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.

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.

Cat wrangling tips for the small studio

The working life of a studio jeweller is pretty much a solitary one. Now that the hectic craft fair season is over, and another crop of students have been sent on their own jewellery-making journey, I am back at the bench. Clang – clang – saw – saw – the studio is alive with many sounds. No human voice is to be heard though; except for the occasional swearing (yes, sometimes metal can test your patience). This being a one-woman operation, my only companion in the studio is a tuxedo cat named Sasha.

Sasha

Sasha

Sasha is not allowed to be in the studio by himself. When he visits, he usually likes to sit on the window sill or on the stump that I use for hammering. From his vantage point he watches and listens. Movements, activities, sounds, nothing escapes him. He loves the rhythmic scraping of the file on metal, and the whirr of the flex shaft. He is fascinated by the torch, but because he is a well-behaved cat (generally), and because I have trained him to stay at a safe distance, he has developed a healthy respect for it, and keeps well away.

Our partnership would be perfect, except for the fact that I cannot always keep Sasha entertained or interested (Is my work not good enough?). When he gets really bored, he jumps on top of the bench, and starts pushing everything off the edge – pieces of metal, small hand tools, stones – and then lands in the scrap drawer; his paws now nicely coated with shiny silver filings. To make matters worse I sometimes let things get a little messy in my studio. In-progress pieces left out on my work table are allowed some “breathing space”; they can evolve more freely somehow. I might also leave out samples of textured sheets that could spark some ideas for a new project later on. And I find that not putting tools away encourages me to “play” with them and use them in a more creative way. There are always sketches spread out on the table, and various found objects. A little bit of mess provides a more stimulating environment and helps creative juices flow more easily. This, unfortunately, is also a very stimulating environment for a bored cat.

Good cat

Good cat

Bad cat

Bad cat

In a small space with a lot of tools and equipment, things could quickly get out of control and compromise your pet’s safety, and yours. In a jewellery studio, safety should always be a priority, for everyone’s sake.

There are areas of the studio that should be off-limits to your pet: soldering station (don’t leave the torch unattended, the tanks should be secured), polisher, flex shaft, ultrasonic cleaner and pickling pot. All chemicals should be stored safely in a cabinet, all containers labelled clearly. Small parts should be put in bags or containers. Sharp objects should be stored away when not in use. Chains or spools of wire (Sasha’s favorites) should be stored safely as well. Be careful with magnets (used in clasps for example). Some are very powerful and can pose serious health risks if ingested. With etching, make sure your pet is not around. Period.

Charles Lewton-Brain has written extensively on studio safety. He has published numerous articles on this subject; several can be found at: www.ganoksin.com.

His book, The Jewelry Workshop Safety Report (ISBN 0-9698510-4-9), is very comprehensive and deals specifically with safety in the goldsmith’s studio. And don’t forget to consult MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) to find out how to handle and use products and chemicals safely. They are available online.

The holidays are fast approaching. So what to get the cat who is not on the naughty list?

What about a Charming Collar for a Lucky Cat?

Dominique Bréchault - Charming Collar for Lucky Cat - Gold plated copper, silver, crystals. Fabricated, cast.

Dominique Bréchault – Charming Collar for a Lucky Cat

 

Dominique Bréchault - Charming Collar for Lucky Cat - Gold plated copper, silver, crystals. Fabricated, cast.

Dominique Bréchault – Charming Collar for a Lucky Cat – Gold plated copper, silver, crystals. Fabricated, cast. Charms: Fish, bird, food bowl, number 9, yarn, cheese and mouse)

Best wishes to all for a prosperous, creative and safe New Year!

Nice cat

Nice cat


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