5 Feb 2011

Cufflinks born on a woodland path

I end up particularly fond of some of the pieces that I make that have more of a story behind them – some feature that makes a piece unique to me – either the way it evolved, the materials used or the thought process that inspired it. Some pieces just end up more personal than others.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

I saw a TV program many years ago where a sculptor was making big metal structures in a barn attached to his home – one of his comments really struck a cord with me and I think of it very often.

He said that the work he did reflected his daily life and he didn’t worry too much about always trying to make it perfect. If he woke in a bad mood and his tool marks went a little deeper that day, then his mood was embodied in the work. If his cat came along and rubbed his head against his arm as he was working and the nudge caused his tool to make an additional mark, then that mark was a permanent declaration of his cats love for him. His life was an important character in the development of the art.

I really like the idea that a piece of work reflects our lives in this way – they become personal and organic and much, much nicer than something impersonal churned out in the thousands from a machine.

I have always been fascinated by fir cones. I simply cannot resist picking them up and putting them in my pocket when I walk – they’re perfect little natural sculptures – I love the regular geometry of their appearance and the spiral patterns of the open scales. I have a house full of cones picked up on walks, little tiny wee ones still on their branches and even one mahoosive one (well over a foot long) that I saw drop from a specimen tree in a stately home garden. I figured that as it nearly brained me, it was fair game to keep it.

I have favourite trees that I know drop particularly pretty cones and even though I have more than enough cones to decorate my home, I still can’t resist picking a few up when I pass by. They even get to play a part in presenting my jewellery.

So it was a natural progression to me to encapsulate the abstract of them into an etched design. I have spent some time since I started making jewellery, trying to figure out how to bring my love of cones together with a jewellery project. I had the idea that using the regular geometric shapes of a cone I could make an abstract pattern for a texture to etch. Not necessarily obvious as a fir cone image, but a unique texture inspired by one.

I picked up a long cone from the path as we walked through Beacon fell in Lancashire, a place I’ve mentioned several times in my blogs – they had been doing a lot of tidying of trees and there were a lot of cones and trimmings on the path edges. I also took some nice needle-clad branches for the same purpose. Once home, I took an assortment of photographs to use as my reference and settled on one particular cone photograph that I thought would lend itself well to making a texture and set about digitally manipulating it into a two tone image that would be suitable to etch from.

For etching, the image needs to be just black and white – not a black and white photograph, but the image must only have black and whites – white is the area to be etched and black protects the copper surface and prevents it being etched. If the image is recognisable, like a photograph, the image needs to be both mirrored and made into a negative, as the white areas within the image will be removed from the copper surface and once oxidised black, will be the darker areas that form the image.

So I worked several versions of the photograph, until one looked like it would work as I hoped, which I then mirrored and made a negative of it, ready to apply to the copper sheet for etching. Whilst it is now very much an abstract from the original photograph, I hope you can still recognise some of the structure of the pine cone bracts.

I wanted to make this design into a pair of cufflinks for a gift, but was working on them far too close to Christmas to have time to get suitable fittings in a copper finish (appalling winter weather had seriously impacted on postal deliveries) – so I had to design and make my own. So I settled on a short chain and toggle bar for fitting them in wear. I attached a small D loop to the back of the etching and a couple of links of chain, to a two part toggle bar, much as I make for my toggle bracelet clasps.

5 Jan 2011

My scrap pot bracelet and Christmas gift makes

My name is Boo and I’m a hoarder. I just can’t help myself – if I think something might be useful, I just keep it. I can’t bear to part with anything that might just come in useful some day, be used to fix something or just the part I need when making something. The fact that my house is stuffed to the rafters with junk is testimony to my [bad/good/environmentally sound; take your pick] habit.

Inevitably, the true usefulness of a saved item often peaks the very week after you finally part with it, so I tend to hedge my bets and keep things anyway. Just in case. I also feel slightly smug about re-purposing what most would probably consider to be rubbish and Christmas is one of those times when the rubbish generated is often of even higher calibre than the rest of the year – it’s amazing, once you tune into it, just how many foodstuffs and gift items are packed with nicely coloured or coated card liners, for example.

I spent a few happy hours in front of a film over the Christmas period, making gift tags and bags ready for next year – the idea being that I don’t want to end up in a last minute panic like I did this year – wrapping gifts into the early hours, as I’d left it too late. I made in excess of 50 gift tags just from one box of Christmas crackers, more from chocolate boxes and lovely received wrapping paper spray mounted onto white card.

All the smaller pieces of gift wrap I had from wrapping my own gifts were made into small gusseted gift bags – a habit I’ve got into in recent years as a quick and much easier way to wrap small and awkward items – a little tissue to wrap the item itself, then the bag is tied up through a punched hole with copious quantities of curling ribbon. making an attractive and easy wrapping method and you can make a bag with as little as an A4 sized piece of wrapping paper.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

The rag tag assortment of failed links from my scrap pot that went on to become a new bracelet for me.

I’m loathed to part with anything that might have a future purpose and it’s no different with the materials I work with. Failed parts, clumsy solders or those that break when working, are put aside for potential repair, re-use, or simply melting into other components. I grade my Sterling silver scrap into two pots, one that’s truly scrap, every smidgeon of trimming is saved for melting into nuggets etc. and larger pieces that might be useful are kept separate.

Thus over time, I’d accumulated numerous silver ‘rings’ that had the potential to be re-worked or rescued in some manner and the idea formed some time ago, to make these good, in between other work, to make myself a Sterling silver bracelet. So I started working on sorting some of them out and soon had a dish of assorted links for a bracelet. I made some new smaller links from those that couldn’t be made decent and supplemented these with some new jump rings (some indeed cut individually from scrap itself) and a hook to bring it all together. I wanted to finish it to wear at Christmas and didn’t really have the time to do it properly, so rather rushed the finishing.

The finished, albeit rather rough and ready scrap pot bracelet ready to wear for Christmas.

I have filed off the worse of the blimps and hammered to cover a multitude of sins, but the work certainly couldn’t withstand close scrutiny or be good enough to give someone else, but I rather like it for myself – it feels rather virtuous that I have something nice to wear from my rubbish and whilst I could do with giving it some more time, I suspect that I won’t and it has already been worn most days since I made it.

I don’t normally do haphazard or random, it doesn’t come naturally to me. But this ‘scrap pot’ bracelet was made up from a completely random assortment of parts – I just hastily arranged them on my bench in a way that looked pleasing to me and actually gave the end design very little thought. I suspect that this is part of its charm – I certainly think that, on this occasion, the end result benefited from very little thought and serendipitously just worked. Although I don’t think I’d recommend this approach in client work – I was lucky this time.

The original source photograph for the leaf pendant – the larger leaf was manipulated into a black and white line drawing as an etching resist.

One of the reasons that I didn’t have much time to work on the bracelet just before Christmas was that I was concentrating on making gifts for others. Further to recent posts on copper etching, I still had some ideas I wanted to work for loved ones as gifts. One of which was a leaf pendant for my mother which started life as a photograph of a backlit beech leaf taken one autumn, as above. I created a two tone resist design, transferred this to the carefully prepared copper sheet, sealed all the edges and back surface, etched it, cleaned the etched copper and sawed around the leaf shape and polished and rounded the edges, giving it a little leaf like shaping too.

I wanted to keep the plain border of copper sheet beyond the etching to a minimum and parallel to the leaft outline, but didn’t want to drill a hole through the etching either, for various reasons, so this would require fixing something invisibly on the back to hang it from. I didn’t really want to use a tube bail, as I have in the past, as I wanted to put it on a chain with quite a large clasp and a tube bail works best on fine chains with in-line clasps like snake chains.

So a soldered D shaped hoop on the back was the obvious solution, I could make it easily in whatever size I wanted to accommodate the clasp. My usual practice when soldering, especially in silver, is to use my own cut strip solder pallions, but I’d recently bought some solder paste to try and have found this especially good with copper, but less so with Sterling. The texture and workability of the paste allowed me to get a nice neat join and I was delighted that it took oxidising so well – as an Easy paste I didn’t expect it to. So I left the back of the pendant with a dark gunmetal finish as a potential alternative way to wear it.

I made my first pair of cufflinks for a Christmas gift and I’ll write more about the process and inspiration behind the pattern I etched in a later blog.

4 Nov 2010

New Adventures in Etching

In my previous blog post, I’d shown some new pendant designs using sheet copper, where in the past I’d worked largely with wire based designs. My intention, when stocking up on sheet, before I got distracted with some other ideas, was to set up to do some etching. I’d been accumulating the necessary materials over time and working out the methodology and designs in my mind and sketchbook.

I had in mind that I wanted to combine my love for photography and an extensive portfolio of available images with my jewellery making. It was my idea to take suitable photographs and put them into a stylised monochrome format in order to etch these into copper sheet and finish by oxidising to bring out the texture of the image. I had several images in mind that I thought would prove suitable and had been in my minds eye for some time. All of the designs I’ve made thus far have been based on a photograph I took, albeit some of them have ended up very abstract and not obviously image based at all. But this way I know that they’re unique and original.

I’ve always loved daisies and the first image I intended to try etching was one of my daisy photos. This is just a standard lawn daisy photographed in the grass outside my front door. I don’t like cutting the grass and getting rid of them, so often leave particularly abundant patches of them to grow unhindered.

I hoped that this particular image had enough contrast and detail that it would be self-evident in a very simplified form and set to work to improve the contrast, reduce the colours of the image and retouch it into a very much stylised graphic format, as shown.

The etching method I’d decided some time ago to work with was one using a pure and saturated salt solution in combination with an electric current from a battery holder. I liked the simplicity of working with household chemicals and whilst it does produce a potentially dangerous solution of copper salts that will need careful disposal, the process itself is pretty innoccuous and I was happy that I could work comfortably with the materials within my domestic work space.

The process necessitates putting the image onto the meticulously prepared (i.e. smooth and very clean) metal surface as a resist – something that will mask the copper where you don’t want it etching and leaving spaces where you do want to eat away at the surface. Consequently, the image needs to be worked in negative (and mirrorred), to give rise to the image the correct way round once appearing on the sheet metal surface. Hence my daisy image has been reversed.

As with many jewellery making techniques, meticulous preparation is at the heart of the eventual success – the results are directly proportional to the care taken setting it up – cut corners and you cut quality. And like many techniques, the core of the work is in the preparation, the process itself is relatively easy, but getting to that stage is where the effort lies.

And like many techniques, the methodology often needs fine tuning and honing as you work. It’s all very good working from a tutorial – and this one was detailed and extensive – but there’s no substitute for hands-on experience and practical problem solving – something you can only really do for yourself. So I knew as I set off to produce my first item that the initial results would not be perfect, in fact, I was lined up for a total fail, as others had said they hadn’t done well with this particular technique.

The first etched incarnation of the daisy, which is softer and more granular than I’d intended, but still significantly better than I was expecting.

But despite not working with the ideal materials (I was missing something that I hoped wasn’t going to be a deal breaker) and improvising a little, my first etch was better than I’d dared hope. The image had obviously transferred to the metal (using a laser printed original and heat) – which was actually the area where I was improvising and crossing my fingers – and the etch had happened as predicted.

It’s funny how past experience continues to inform current work. As a technical illustrator specialising in airbrush work, a technique I often used to transfer line illustrations to board to airbrush them, was to photocopy them and then iron this onto the art board, so I’d already settled on this as a potential transfer method.

From a long time in my past, some technical airbrush illustrations. The top one is the front suspension of an Aston Martin Vantage – which Aston Martin helped me with, I took measurements and reference photographs directly from parts on their shop floor. The second one is an SME tone arm – it resides on our turntable.

Where my print had missed in places, I’d patched it in with Sharpie, one of the recommended techniques, but that proved to be insufficiently resilient and gradually lifted during the etch and left holes in the design which then started to etch too. So the result was a little soft around the edges and had quite a lot of background noise where it should have been clean – see the photo above of the finished pendant.

On subsequent etches I used a metallic Sharpie and that was rather better – nail polish was better still, but hard to apply in small amounts. It was evident that the quality of the transfer of the design to the metal was the really vital stage. It’s also vital to cover all of the metal you submerge as anything not protected will etch. I also learned that any duct tape used to cover edges etc. needs to be burnished down tightly, any place where a droplet of etching solution can get inside will also etch.

Digging around on line for methods of transferring my images to the sheet metal (I was trying to avoid the delay and expense of getting some printed circuit board transfer paper, the recommended technique) I found a post in a model makers forum for making printed circuit boards where I think this chap had stumbled upon something that worked, by accident and so I decided it was worth a try as I did have the materials to hand. His recommendation was to use the laser printer, but print onto glossy inkjet photo paper. The glossy coating sticks to the toner too, making the transfer much thicker and with more distinct edges and when done, it lifts off relatively easily after soaking in some nail polish remover (I tried every solvent in the house before I made this particular discovery).

The image transferred to the cleaned copper sheet – you can see from the paper peeled away after transfer that not all of it transferred at the edges. See the finished pendant at the bottom of the article.

It worked incredibly well – the image transferred was crisper, thicker and looked much more resilient, see above. I now had to hold my breath while I waited to see if it stayed stuck to the metal during the etching process. I had visions of it dissolving clean off as I watched.

Take 2 – the initial and cleaned up etch from the better transfer – the edges are crisper and cleaner and the background has remained clean.

The finished pendant from etch no. 2. I cut the sheet to shape and rounded the corners and polished the flat surface, oxidising it to fill in the texture of the etch and only polishing back the top surface.

I was absolutely delighted with the results – a much cripser etch and the areas around the design had remained predominantly clean. I was so encouraged that I went with a much finer design next, with some lettering, to test how much detail would actually show in a sketch-like original. I haven’t yet oxidised it to see how good it looks finished, but I was incredibly happy with the results, it had worked rather better than I’d expected. This is my parents’ boxer Chelsea and this will go on a keyring for my Mum’s birthday. So I have to hope that she doesn’t read the blog.

The process to get an image onto metal started with a photograph which was actually the size I have it here. I partially digitised it as a sketch and then hand worked it to bring out more detail and make it a bit more blocky to be more suitable to etch, then it’s reversed and mirrored before printing – where your image is white will be etched, so had I used the middle positive image I would have got a raised Chelsea with an etched away background – I wanted the image etching, so had to make a negative and then mirror it to ensure she faced the right way and the writing wasn’t backwards.

The initial resist transferred to the sheet metal is on the left – the image area looked clean and detailed and my transfer paper was largely clean, which is a good sign. I blocked over the plain areas I wanted keeping clean with a mask of hand cut duct tape to be on the safe side. The resulting etch on the right – it too will be oxidised to show the detail, which I hope will look like a sketch on the metal.

The finished piece, oxidised and the flat polished surface partially polished back and hanging from
a heavy weight hand made oval jump ring.

My head is now fit to burst with the ideas tumbling over each other in there waiting to see the light. I just need to fine tune my workflow to make it more economic to make things to sell, the method at the moment is a little too work intensive to be profitable.

These are a couple of smaller pendants using the abstract designs I created by coarsely halftoning some photographs – one using a square ‘dot’ and the other was a linear pattern – the resist for the square one is shown above. I’ve finished them simply, with a very chunky oval shaped jump ring to keep the costs down by reducing the amount of work I do on them (they’re already quite labour intensive) – I like the tube bails I’ve used recently, but these add to the time I spend on a piece.