Tag Archives: metalsmithing

The I Ching of the Goldsmith

Hexagram Qian: "Force", also: "The Creative Heaven", from the I Ching.  From top: mandrel, hand forged setting tool, dapping punch, square needle file, hand forged setting tool, hand forged repoussé tool

Hexagram Qian: “Force”, also: “The Creative Heaven”, from the I Ching.
From top: mandrel, hand forged setting tool, dapping punch, square needle file, hand forged setting tool, hand forged repoussé tool

The holidays at last! Time to unwind and have fun. My idea of a good time is reading a book, and for this, I chose Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, by Ross A. Laird, a book I had read and enjoyed over a decade ago. Guaranteed gratification? Yes, and why not? It is the holidays after all.

In “Grain of Truth”, the author takes us through the process of designing and making a series of woodworking projects. This is not, however, a technical manual or a how-to book (although it is kind of, but in a poetic sense). Organized in eight chapters named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching (Earth, Water, Fire, etc.), and each dedicated to a different project, it flows elegantly and seemingly without effort from chapter to chapter. We follow the maker as he experiences joy and satisfaction or doubt and frustration. And although it deals with woodworking projects, it is quite universal and will resonate with any craftsperson, whatever their craft may be.

Trigrams of the I Ching

Trigrams of the I Ching

The book celebrates the importance of craftsmanship, the beauty of an object made by hand, but not in a sentimental way because, the “truth” is, this practice demands deep awareness and strict discipline. The process of creating and making something by hand, like meditation, requires us to pause and ponder often. “Working with hand tools”, says Laird, “teaches, in a pragmatic way, the art of stillness” (p. 28). When working with wood, or any other medium for that matter, one needs to be receptive, to watch and to listen. Observe the file as it glides on the edge of the sheet of metal. Hear the hammer as it hits the metal. When under pressure or facing deadlines, how many times have I felt the impulse to dominate the tools, to force them to perform a specific task? It is not, Laird adds, about will power, which will only bring disappointment and frustration. Instead, it “requires a purposeful surrender, a willingness to be taught by tools (…)” (p. 29).

This book, so full of wisdom, shows us that patience and humility, backed by concentration and deep knowledge of materials and techniques, will be rewarded with a sense of wonder. In the spirit of the Tao, Laird always starts afresh with each project, open to the possibilities and with “faith in the process and a willingness to be taken” (p. 50).

Happy holidays and best wishes to all for a creative New Year.

Ross A. Laird, Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto, 2001. ISBN 1-55199-065-2






The Lab

Still from "The Bride of Frankenstein", 1935.

Still from “The Bride of Frankenstein”, 1935.

It is funny how naming things can impose a different shade of meaning on how we perceive them. As a native French speaker, I often lament the neutrality of the English language. While, I admit, a gender-neutral language is often more practical and better suited to our modern day society, I find it at times less colourful and poetic. For me it is natural that flowers and cars are feminine, and trees and trucks masculine. And of course everybody will agree that the sun is masculine and the moon, feminine.

Henri Bué, Second French Book, Hachette, Paris, London, Boston, 1893.

Henri Bué, Second French Book, Hachette, Paris, London, Boston, 1893.

In the college where I teach Metal Techniques, our classrooms are called labs – a term I wasn’t comfortable with at first, maybe because it is a somewhat painful reminder of my “bad lab days” in high school when I never amounted to more than a “C” student in chemistry and physics. Up till now I was more partial to “workshop” or “shop”, but after much pondering, I am reconsidering.  The word “shop” conjures up a time not so long ago when most goldsmiths were men. When I think “workshop”, I see cute elves working frantically at their benches while Christmas music is playing in the background. None of that is really a true reflection of who I am and what I do professionally.

Ateliers Fabergé

Fabergé workshop, late 19th century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In fact a science lab and a goldsmith’s studio have quite a bit in common, and not just their physical attributes – the workbench or countertop, lots of cabinets and drawers, and a journal or notebook to keep track of the results of the experiments. In my previous post I expressed the need to explore and ask questions in order to reawaken my creativity. In that spirit, seeing my studio as a lab, a place for investigating and exploring, will certainly give me the freedom I need to do just that.

Ultimately, it comes down to the birds and the bees (No, I don’t mean that!). A goldsmith in her “lab” is more inclined to look at other forms of artistic expression, look at other disciplines and see how they might intersect with metalwork and jewellery; play with different materials, draw on a wider range of techniques and try new ones, explore new technologies, try a different hat on, collaborate AND allow for cross-pollination.  I will leave you with a quote by Andy Goldsworthy: “Every so often I feel as birds must before their first migration – a gut instinct that something is wrong where they are, a strong sense that they must now go where they have never been before.”

Andy Goldsworthy Yellow elm leaves laid over a rock low water Dumfreisshire, Scotland, 15 October 1991

Andy Goldsworthy
Yellow elm leaves laid over a rock
low water
Dumfriesshire, Scotland, 15 October 1991

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.

Skyfall (not the movie)

Dominique Bréchault - Homing Device (Detail)

Dominique Bréchault – Homing Device (Detail)

As you know, I have been living the life of a space station astronaut vicariously through ISS Commander Chris Hadfield (who has now returned to Earth). I’ve always found space travel inspiring. As a little girl, along with my brother, we would play Connect the Dots with stars. We would spread a blanket outside in the meadow, gaze up at the night sky, and try to find as many constellations as we could… or make up our own. Here on earth, I like nothing better than lying on a beach, on a clear night in August when the best meteor showers can be seen, watching shooting stars.

Shooting Star. Photo credit: NASA

Shooting Star. Photo credit: NASA

Meteor, meteorite, comet, or asteroid – I don’t always remember what the difference is, they are just beautiful. And this is all that mattered to me until I saw a documentary about the Catalina Sky Survey, and realized that our planet is surrounded by a lot of very large chunks of space debris hurtling through space. With the help of several giant telescopes, in Arizona and Australia, the Catalina Sky Survey is mapping out space in order to catalogue comets and asteroids. Some of these interplanetary rocks can be knocked out of their orbit and put on a collision course with our planet. By keeping track of these near-earth objects, the CSS would be able to give us sufficient warning and avoid deadly consequences. The asteroid that crashed on the city of Chelyabinsk in Siberia last February weighed about 7,000 tons and was the size of a bus. This was the largest strike in over a century, and it caused a lot of damage. If you want to know what is going to hit us next, go to the CSS website.

These rocks are very intriguing, and since most of us are not able to travel to the crash sites and pick them up, a good place to go to view them safely is the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. Or you can visit their website. In the Mineral Sciences Collections, look at the National Meteorite Collection, which is, with 45,000 specimens, one of the largest collections of meteorites in the world. The variety of textures, patterns and even colours is astounding. They are enigmatic, unearthly, and for a jewellery maker and designer, offer challenging and exciting possibilities.

Fortunately, certain types of meteorites are not that rare and are fairly affordable. Tektites are a good example although they are not, technically, meteorites, but rather the result of a meteor crashing on the surface of the earth, melting sand and combining with surrounding rocks. So, you could say they are more like extra-terrestrial glass. They come in various shapes, mostly odd “molten” shapes called splash-forms, darkly coloured, with a glassy, pockmarked surface. They are very light, and tinkle like glass when they touch.

TektiteTektite detail

My favourite “space rocks” are Gibeon meteorites, composed mostly of iron and nickel, with cobalt and phosphorus in smaller amounts. They are fragments of a meteorite that fell in Namibia during prehistoric times and were recovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Gibeon meteorites are extremely dense; a small piece of the material always seems heavier than it should be for its size. When sliced, the octahedrite crystal structure displays a stunning intricate network of marks in various shades of gun-metal grey that is characteristic of this type of meteorite and is known as the Wittmanstätten pattern.

Gibeon meteoritesGibeon meteorite detail

I bought several small pieces a few years ago. “Homing Device” is an example of what I made with one of them.

D. Bréchault : Homing Device - Pendant with lidded stand. 14k gold, silver, Gibeon meteorite, magnet, iolite, patina.

D. Bréchault : Homing Device – Pendant with lidded stand. 14k gold, silver, Gibeon meteorite, magnet, iolite, patina.

“Homing device”, a pendant with a lidded stand, is a “transformer” piece composed of three elements that can be arranged in different ways. Overall dimensions, when closed, are 5 cm (diam.) x 3.5 cm (height). The pendant (chain not shown) is a slice of Gibeon meteorite set in 14k gold; when not worn, it can be placed on the base and used as a “compass”. The hollow circular base, constructed out of sterling silver, is decorated with stamped and etched designs – the coordinates of my childhood home. A magnet, concealed inside the base holds the pendant in place (Iron-nickel meteorites like Gideon meteorites are extremely magnetic). The lid, made out of silver wire, with an iolite bezel-set on the “North Pole”, is an abstract representation of our hemisphere and, when on the base, can be turned around for further “calculations” (with some poetic license).

Homing Device - Overall view, closed.

Homing Device – Overall view, closed.

Homing Device - Open

Homing Device – Open

I am proud to announce that this piece is going to be shown in a juried exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Craft Council of British Columbia, in October 2013.




April. For many months the city has been swathed in layers upon layers of clouds. Muted tones of grey and silver; the pitter-patter of the rain. Now, under the bright new sun, the clouds have dissipated. Birdsong. And street after street, the city is blushing – so many shades of pink, from champagne to shocking, but mostly cherry blossom. These are our Sakura days. We celebrate the cherry blossoms and the arrival of Spring with picnics under the cherry trees, concerts, blossom paintings, and haiku competitions. I took in some of these events two weeks ago:

Van Dusen

Van Dusen cbf

Van Dusen  temple      Cherry Blossom Festival               Cherry branch       

What I enjoy the most is to walk around neighbourhoods, to track the blooms as they progress through the city, to revisit favourite spots or discover new ones.   

sakura walk

There are over a thousand varieties of cherry cultivars here in Vancouver, with names like Kanzan, Ukon, Asagi, Kiku-shidare-zakura ou Atsumori. Look at the English translation of some of these names: 

Shogetsu                     Moonlight on pine trees

Mikuruma-Gaeshi      The royal carriage returns

Ama-no-gawa             Heaven’s river 

Sounds a bit like a haiku, doesn’t it?

Two cherry blossoms

As Spring brings in more blossoms, streets turn pink and white, taking on a new identity. For a while, Graveley Street becomes “Akebono Street”:

Graveley Akebono 1

Some streets are lined with cherry trees so large they arch across and meet. With the sweet scent of blooms in the air and the warm late-afternoon light filtering through the canopy, it feels like walking through a cloud cathedral.    

Graveley arches 1Graveley arches 2

There is so much to experience: colours, striking compositions or patterns of petals on the grass – a rich source of inspiration that can be challenging to capture with a camera or a pen so I can revisit it later in the studio.

But then sometimes, Mother Nature does the designing for us. Fossil coral is a striking stone that, for me, encapsulates perfectly the beauty and the delicacy of cherry blossoms. I bought one a few years ago, a rectangular cabochon in subtle shades of pink, with a detailed flower pattern – a serendipitous find since I was at the time in the throes of one of my sakura walks. Here is a necklace I made with it :

D Brechault - Cherry Blossom necklace

D. Bréchault – “Cherry Blossom” . Necklace. Sterling silver, fossil coral, freshwater pearls. Fabricated, cast.

Fossilized or agatized fossil coral is formed from ancient corals which, over time, were replaced with agate; the cross sections of the coral branches form the flower pattern. It is actually a stone (agate), no longer a piece of endangered coral reef. It is found in various parts of the world and the oldest ones can be as old as 450 million years. This particular one, from Indonesia, is about 20 million years old. They range in colour from tan, to yellow, to pink, to black. With a hardness of about 7 on the Moh’s scale, it is not delicate, and is quite suitable for jewellery making.

Flower pattern on fossil coral

Flower pattern on fossil coral

With the fossil coral as a centrepiece, I wanted to make a necklace that would be as light and ethereal as possible – like blossoms landing softly on your shoulders as your walk under a cherry tree. The setting had to be minimal, discreet, so as not to distract from the intricate flower motif on the fossil coral. I chose a prong setting, which uses a minimum amount of metal to hold the stone in place: a narrow seat at the back and thin prongs on the front, to expose as much of the stone as possible.

Back of setting

Back of setting

The leaf motif is repeated throughout and provides a visual connection between the pendant and the strand of pink freshwater pearls that holds it. On the setting, a small silver branch acts as a claw to clamp the stone. The clasp is a small hook hidden under another branch, and there is a single leaf at the end of the chain on the opposite side that serves as a weight to make the clasp more secure.

Detail of clasp

Detail of clasp

7019 detail of leaf prong

Detail of prong

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just heard that Kiku-shidare-zakura is in bloom a few blocks away, a not-to-be-missed cherry tree with spectacular chrysanthemum-like flowers. I am tickled pink just thinking about it.

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:

Copy of DSCF6752

Copy of DSCF6753

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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Intro photo

Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

It’s almost the middle of March here on the “Wet Coast” of British Columbia, and the rainy season is not over yet. I can’t wait to get out of the house and go for walks in the neighbourhood, in search of inspiration. So in the meantime, for a change of scenery, I read Chris Hadfield’s tweets.

Commander Chris Hadfield. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Commander Chris Hadfield. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut, Commander of the International Space Station, and currently orbiting the Earth. He has been tweeting regularly since he arrived on the ISS last December. Test pilot, astronaut, mission specialist, commander of the ISS, etc. etc. I can’t list all of Commander Hadfield’s countless achievements in this post, but you can go to his Wikipedia page for more details. And he is also working on the first music album to be recorded in space. A true Renaissance man.

His tweets give us glimpses, often funny, of his daily life in space – on February 27th, “Just made myself another bag of coffee. One of those mornings, even in space : ) ”. When he gives interviews, it’s always a treat to see him in front of the camera, floating around and playing catch with the mike. I always learn a lot. For instance, how do you clean spills on the Space Station? Well, it involves gloves and rags, just like here on Earth, except, with zero gravity, it’s more fun!

As part of his research work on the Space Station, Chris Hadfield is testing for the Canadian Space Agency a device called Microflow, which, he says, could become “a real Tricorder” – yes, it turns out Commander Hadfield is a Star Trek fan (And so am I, by the way. There, I’ve said it). This device would be used to diagnose medical conditions on Earth and in Space. According to the CSA ,“The portable technology could offer near real-time medical diagnosis for astronauts in space, people in remote communities or in areas affected by natural disasters where medical equipment is not readily available.”

And his pictures of Earth, taken from the windows of the ISS, are…out of this world! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) From his unique vantage point, Chris Hadfield captures images of weather systems and storms hurtling across the skies, or shows how water and wind can slowly reshape the landscape. What I find fascinating is how his photographs reveal the impact that we have on our planet, whether through agriculture, industrialization or urbanization. There are places where the surface of the planet has been cultivated, tamed, and sometimes deeply scarred. There are also, still, some vast empty expanses. And then there are places where millions of us are huddled together:

Manila, Philippines. Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

Manila, Philippines. Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

What is obvious is that we humans share a beautiful home (and with a beautiful view).

Moonrise, March 4. Photo: Chris Hadfield

Moonrise, March 4. Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

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!

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.

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.”