10 Aug 2009

Bringing a piece of metal to life

We had a reasonably rare summer weekend of decent weather and I was sitting in the garden finishing off a piece I’d been working on and my husband was nearby. He took the piece and turned it over in his hand and asked how much I was going to sell it for. He shrugged and said that if people knew how much work went into it and all the stages, necessary tools and skills involved, they’d realise what a bargain they were getting.

So I decided that it might be useful to take the piece in question and outline the workflow such a piece entails to get it to the stage where it is ready to present to the buying public. I wish I’d taken photos of it in progress, but I will do with the next piece.

The raw ingredients I started with.

The piece is a 50mm/2″ diameter heavy copper ring pendant, hammered and filled with random copper squiggles, bound with wrappings of Sterling silver, complimented with a Sterling silver wrapped bail – all hanging from an antiqued copper chain with hand crafted hook and loop fastening.

1. The first stage is to come up with the design. Sometimes I draw an idea straight off and work it from that initial idea and it ends up almost exactly like my drawing. Sometimes I start with an idea and it morphs as I work into something different and sometimes I just pick up materials and the design just happens – some materials just present their own ideas. In this case, it was a plan to replace some recently sold pieces with something similar – but not copies – same basic design premise, but different shapes. So I didn’t initially sketch this time – although I did part way through as I wanted to visualise what style of bail to use.

2. I worked the heavy copper into a ring and prepared for soldering closed. In order to make a good, safe connection, the join in the metal before I switch the torch on must be as perfect and clean as it can be. So I carefully position and angle the cut ends and clean and smooth the end surfaces. If I put the piece down and then can’t find the join, I know I’ve done a decent job in preparation. The idea is to bond the ends to each other, not to connect the ends by filling the gap with a blob of molten solder. If you can see more than a pencil line width of solder in the join, you did a bad job. I find the trickiest aspect of this is actually cutting a piece of solder small enough – even the tiniest little ball will cause it to run over the outer surface if you were good in preparing a really nice tight join.

3. The join needs to be soldered with silver solder – I need a torch, solder, flux and safety gear and an appropriate place to work. I have to prepare my work area meticulously before lighting the flame – you don’t want to find some key tool is out of reach and be tempted to reach over a hot work surface. I only once started to work and realised that my goggles were on the bench, not my nose – and that was the very moment I lost my eyebrows, eyelashes and an inch from the front of my hair. I was very lucky that was all I lost, as a failed O ring in the torch caused me to be engulfed in flames – it happened in an instant. Please never be tempted to save time or cut costs by compromising safety. Gear simply can fail and accidents can just happen – ensure you’re as safe as you can be, I learned that lesson the hard way – make sure that you learn from it too – not first hand.

4. Once the joint has been soldered, the piece will have become firescaled and blackened and needs cleaning – this is done by immersing in a hot pickle solution and subsequently cleaning. The torch heat will also have softened the copper too, so it needs carefully re-shaping and hardening. I did this for this design by hammering the ring slightly flat, after ensuring that I had a good circle shape.

5. I now create the internal copper squiggles, which takes quite some trial and error to get them to fit in the circle and touch each other and the edges enough to ensure the piece is stable and secure in wear. Once satisfied, I hammer them for appearance and to lock the shape. This then requires some further fine tuning as the hammering expands the size of the piece, even though I’d made it a bit small initially in anticipation.

6. I decided that the open size of the circle would be more secure if the inner squiggles were soldered to the frame in a couple of spots – this would also benefit me in securing it for me to wrap with the silver – the first wraps can be like knitting with mercury without something to keep it all stable. So in order to ensure that it joined exactly where I wanted it, I needed to prepare the joints as carefully as previously and I had to temporarily wire the squiggles to the frame so that they didn’t move while I worked.

7. Once soldered, I again had to treat the firescale by pickling and then also re-harden the copper. Ideally, I would have done all the soldering in one sitting, but the design and workflow don’t always make this practical. At this stage I fine-tuned the shape and finally hammered the overall piece for finish and strength.

8. By now I was ready to wire wrap with Silver. I wrapped carefully at all the junctions where the two frames connected, with soft Sterling wire. This is best done by doing part of one, then a section opposite, gradually working all the sections, to ensure that the tension of the overall piece isn’t compromised – although the earlier soldering makes this task much easier.

9. The raw ends of the silver were all carefully pressed down tight on the back of the piece and the ends individually filed to ensure that there are no snag hazards on the back of the piece.

10. I was now ready to add a bail. My first early thought was to wrap something in silver to co-ordinate with the decorative edge wrappings – and despite several sketches to explore other ideas, I didn’t change my mind – it felt right for the design. So I created a double wire loop bail and wrapped the ends around the outer circle.

11. The ends of the bail were also extensively filed as the heavier gauge of silver wire used would present a serious potential to scratch if the ends weren’t smoothed. I used several gauges of file to take the corners off the cut ends, finishing with some elbow grease and polish to give a lovely smooth finish to the touch.

12. At this stage, I considered the metal work to be completed and the next stage would be to finish the piece – in terms of both colour and touch. I love it when a metal piece feels silky smooth to the touch and I put a lot of effort into this stage. I manually polished any imperfections in the surface – this needs time and a lot of caressing the piece with your fingers – I am guided by how the metal feels to my touch. Once satisfied with this stage, I tumble polish the piece, checking regularly, to get a nice surface feel and to clean the metal thoroughly for oxidising.

13. I like to antique both copper and silver pieces where I’ve done much wrapping, as the oxidisation really brings out the texture of the coils and adds detail. So the entire piece was oxidised to black in a warm liver of sulphur solution. This is how I often end up working in the garden – it tends to pong, so I usually do this outside.

14. Once oxidised thoroughly to black (see the stages illustrated above), I wash it or tumble it again in warm soapy water, to get the surface clean to the touch for final polishing. I’m not going to detail how I do this stage, as I suspect I do it differently from other people and I’d like it to remain my little secret for now. Suffice it to say, I usually end up with very grubby hands. At this stage I always work by hand to get just the finish I want.

15. When I like the colour, I usually tumble polish it again for a short while, simply to ensure it is properly clean – I wouldn’t want my customer to end up with a dirty neck the first time she wears it. Sometimes I tumble, sometimes I wash it by hand and use a baby toothbrush to get in the nooks and crannies.

16. The pendant may be finished, but there’s still work to do. I like to make my own clasps and the copper chain I want to hang this pendant on will be closed with a hand crafted hook and loop. I tend to make the clasps in batches ready for use, but both components are made from raw wire. The wire for the hook is initially given a round end, which is hammered and shaped into a lip, the hook and it’s connecting loop formed, then hammered some more for stability and both parts are polished and antiqued to match.

17. I then need to photograph the jewellery – in order to publish maybe 7 photos I will take 15 or more to choose from. They need editing, re-sizing, cropping, sharpening and retouching (polishing cloth lint is almost invisible to the eye, but a large resolution image makes them huge on screen). I also need to measure the item and write a description and add these to my various on-line shops. I need to purchase packaging and make wrapping materials – I need to know about postal services and customs forms and maintain records and spreadsheets and submit my own tax return.

Only now is it ready to sell – I hope you can see how much effort and care is involved and just how many skills I need to hone to get this far and how much equipment I must purchase, maintain, power, light, insure and know how to use – from hammers and pliers, to blow torch and goggles to computer and camera. I hope when you understand this, you can appreciate the price tag attached to this piece and feel that it is fair.

2 thoughts on “Bringing a piece of metal to life

  1. What beautiful work you do! I would love to take a class or two from you but I know that won’t happen because of where we each live. Thank you for helping me get inspired all over again!

Comments are closed.