27 Mar 2010

Bringing a piece of metal to life – part 2

Work in Progress (WIP):

There has been much discussion recently in various on-line venues – and directly with customers – about making buyers aware just how much you put into a piece to distinguish them from ‘assembled from components’ or mass produced items. Sometimes it isn’t obvious from item descriptions which of these it is and your only guide may be the price. It’s important to me that buyers should be able to make that distinction and make an informed purchasing decision.

The finished bracelet with my own toggle clasp – the design and engineering of which was quite a learning process.
Please click the photographs to see a larger version of them.

The idea of seeing pieces part-made and in progress, or studio photographs, appealed to buyers – to reinforce the wholly hand crafted nature of the work. Those that choose to buy hand-crafted work rather than off the peg on the high street do so because they like to feel a direct connection with the artisan that made their new piece. They seemingly enjoy getting to know the artist and about their work and are fascinated with the work that goes into making a piece directly from scratch from raw materials and enjoy seeing in-progress photographs, something I aim to do more of in future.

As someone who tries to make every element of a piece of jewellery myself – from earwires, headpins and clasps – it is important to me that potential buyers are aware of the many stages of this process and how this informs the price of a piece.

Hence I decided to chronicle this particular project in photographs as I worked. I did an earlier blog on bringing a piece of metal to life, but only retrospectively, without the benefit of in-progress photos, but in view of recent discussions, I took photos as I worked on this particular piece.

I actually made two bracelets largely the same at the same time, so the photos are from both pieces and the first incarnation of it had a different toggle design. But as often happens when working on a piece, the design gradually evolves as practical considerations are addressed and problems overcome. Sometimes you can only hone a design once it takes on 3 dimensions – you need to have it in your hands in solid form to test what works – and just as often, what doesn’t. In this case, the first toggle looked pretty, but didn’t work as well as I hoped. More of that below.

The links and clasp sections are hand formed and sawn from raw wire stock.

The links start life coiled as rings, sawn apart, cleaned and closed ready to solder closed. After soldering, they must be pickle-cleaned to remove the firescale and molten flux.

The circular rings are then hand shaped to the long ovals I chose for this design.

The links start as circular, are stretched to ovals, then the sides straightened a little more.

The links of the bracelet are hammered slightly for both stability of the metal and appearance.

The chain is assembled and all the links soldered closed.

The final stage is hand filing, shaping and polishing, for which there is no substitute for getting your hands dirty. Despite the messiness of it, it’s a very satisfying process and one that I don’t mind. It’s lovely to see the beauty and colour of the metal emerge after seeing how rough it looks in progress.

As you can see above from the Work In Progress (WIP) photos, there are many stages to creating something of this nature from raw materials, especially if you want to make something unique and ensure that all components balance and work well together and give rise to a piece that will withstand wear and last for many years to come.

The design of the toggle:

Designing a piece isn’t just about drawing pretty sketches of the finished article – of which I do plenty and have pages of ideas yet to see metal – it’s about engineering too. A piece of jewellery has to be attractive, but work and be wearable in a practical sense too. You don’t want sections snagging on clothing, earrings trapping hair behind a loose edge and functional areas like clasps – especially on bracelets – must be fasten-able with one hand and not come undone in wear.

So the lion’s share of my initial time on this bracelet was in designing the clasp. I wanted to make my own toggle from scratch – not just use a bought component – and yet it has to sit easily with the design of the rest of the piece – you want shapes to mirror the design and be balanced with the piece as a whole – the clasp shouldn’t be an afterthought, but an integral and important aspect of the design. My scrap pile is a little larger as a result of this particular design process. Sometimes your first idea is spot on, sometimes they need a lot of snagging and trial and error. Hopefully that effort will result in a better final result for your customer.

A clasp has to be an integral part of the design, not an afterthought. I try to match my closures to the style and weight of the piece, to reflect the shapes and yet work well in a practical sense too.

For this copper long link chain bracelet, I used the basic toggle design principle from a project in a book I have from the library and when finished, it simply came undone too easily in wear and clearly that was unacceptable. I did wonder if it might be like the old joke about how many rolls of wallpaper a neighbour said he used to decorate his lounge – “yes, I had 3 rolls left over too” – I wondered if I told the designer that it didn’t work, they’d say “no, mine didn’t work either”.

I liked how this toggle looked, but it simply didn’t work well in practice. It fastened well, but wouldn’t stay that way!

Even commercially made toggles don’t always work, I have several that I’ve bought that are either too tight or fiddly to fasten one-handed, or come undone too easily and cause the bracelet to fall off. So toggle design is seemingly especially critical in terms of size and shapes – where the hooks and rings I do more often are much more forgiving. I found very little information about the basic engineering of a toggle to guide me, tutorials either give exact sizes for the particular design, or skirt the issue entirely and must give rise to a lot of unsuccessful results and frustrated makers.

In this case, I wanted the toggle to reflect the long links of the chain, but in practical terms, it had to be wide enough to let the toggle bar and the first links of the chain adjacent to it to pass through to fasten it, so in order to make it wide enough to allow this, it would have needed to be much longer than it is shown if I wanted to keep the same proportions as the chain links. Which would then require the toggle bar to be much longer too in proportion – longer than I decided would look nice or be comfortable to wear. So I compromised on widening the loop slightly in order to keep it to a more modest loop length and to balance overall with the weight of the rest of the chain.

The toggle bar itself needed much consideration too. It needs to sit nicely against the loop, hopefully as flat as possible, but also be easy to manipulate when fastening one-handed – and remain securely fastened and also securely attached to the chain itself.

So this too went through several incarnations. In this instance, I worked on several versions of both elements of the clasp until I was entirely satisfied they were just what I wanted – and now that I’ve done that process, it’s a design I will no doubt use often – and an important stage for me is in taking detailed notes and measurements as I work for future reference. But they are vitally important learning processes and sometimes you have to get it wrong to learn why it doesn’t work and to learn how to overcome those important practical considerations. I spent more time on this project than I’d intended, but the learning process was well worth it to me and I hope it reflects in the quality of the final result.

I think I prefer this sort of practical lesson to just being told how to do it – one of the advantages of being entirely self-taught and working independently.

14 Nov 2009

Copper loop in loop bracelet – part 2

Further to my earlier post about the thought process that gave rise to the copper loop in loop bracelet featured – I decided on a finished colour for it.

I oxidised it fully black initially – I get a good solid black on copper by heating the pieces in a bowl of just boiled water to get the metal nice and warm, then drop them into a warm solution of liver of sulphur – a task I relegate myself to the garden for as it pongs something wicked. When it appears to have taken on a good tone, I take it out and rinse it, give it a good rub on some kitchen paper and repeat the process.

A copper pendant that has been oxidised, then polished back
to give an antiqued finish.
Please click to see a larger version of all of the photographs.

Pieces to be oxidised must be really clean – my habit is to tumble them just beforehand with some warm soapy water and avoid touching them with my fingers – I’ve seen pieces with flat hammered sections not take the colour properly and leave a clearly visible fingerprint, just from picking it up – the oil in your skin is enough to create a resist area. Hence I feel the hot water bath also helps get any surface grease off too. If I don’t want to fire up the tumbler, I just give them a quick scrub with a baby toothbrush in hot soapy water.

One of my copper raindrops necklaces, antiqued.

Once I had the bracelet – and several other pieces – good and black I rinsed then washed them again with the toothbrush and washing up liquid – the oxidisation process tends to leave the surface rather sooty and I aim to get all the surface blackening off initially before I decide if the colour is good as it is, or it needs something else. In the case of the bracelet, I was delighted that the silver soldering (each of the 32 links and clasp is soldered) had taken the oxidising well – I’d chosen a harder solder for this reason and it worked well. Even after some polishing, it has remained less visible than I expected.

Darkly oxidised copper earrings which have been extensively
tumbled to give rise to a glossy gunmetal finish.

If the piece can withstand it, I tend to tumble again at this point as I really like the gunmetal finish this gives the post-oxidised metal. Some pieces are left like this, others get more attention. At this point, I extensively tumbled the bracelet before I decided on the final finish. I tumbled it until the outermost surfaces were just showing the copper through.

But I decided that it was rather too dark for the style, so manually polished the proud surfaces to settle on an antiqued finish instead. So this is the final version of it, heavily antiqued (more so than I typically do) and giving a good contrast between the internal and external aspects of the link structure.

12 Nov 2009

The perpetual gift-giving dilemma gives rise to a new piece

If you’re a craftsperson like me (I use that term loosely to mean you make things) you’re surely familiar with the dilemma we continually face around Christmas and birthday times when it comes to gift giving. Do you give your nearest and dearest yet something else you’ve made, or head to the shops?

Please click on the photos to see a larger view.
They look rather dark and woolly here on the page.

The way I see it, if I’m going to spend a given amount of cash on someone, if I spend that on raw materials and increase its value by adding a chunk of my time too – they ultimately get that much more of a gift, value-wise, than if you’d spend the same cash on something priced at retail. This is especially worthy of consideration when times are hard and you simply don’t have enough dosh to buy something you feel would be suitably worthy. Not to mention that most people value a little extra care and thought than just popping into a department store and grabbing the nearest shiny. For me, personal time given is ‘value added’ in every sense of the word. I’d much rather have an hour of someones time than know they just flashed the plastic.

But do others appreciate that thinking? Do they get sick to death of some piece of hand made goodness, no matter how carefully crafted or how many hours invested? Do they just think you’re a cheapskate? I do have one particular relative who always calls my creations ‘home made’ deliberately to demean them. But thankfully she’s the exception.

It’s a perpetual dilemma to which there is no easy answer. I hope those that I invest the most time on will take it in the spirit in which it’s intended – an effort to make my hard earned cash go that bit further, as well as giving them something that is perhaps even more precious than a few quid – some of my time and a resulting piece that I often aim to remain unique for them and something I’ve given particular thought and care to. I actually really enjoy sourcing materials, sketching designs and ideas in order to create that particular piece I hope they’ll treasure.

Which is what took me to a reel of copper wire this week, to test out a Christmas gift idea I had, before committing myself to some Sterling silver. I wanted to try a chain maille technique I’d done before with rubber ‘O’ rings – a chain making technique which uses closed and usually fairly thin rings – where most maille techniques use open jump rings – at least initially to create the weave. This weave starts with closed rings that you shape and link together.

I know this as a loop-in-loop weave, but it may well have other names. It is reputed to be one of the oldest chain patterns found in antiquities, examples have been found up to 3000 years old. The design often features in Roman jewellery and as they knew a thing or two about personal adornment those Romans, that’s good enough for me.

I soldered together a handful of rings of a guessed size and made a section of chain. The first attempt looked very nice, but there wasn’t enough space for it to move and the chain was too rigid, so I made some sightly larger rings. Only a couple of millimetres larger in diameter (but over 6mm more wire in each loop), but it made quite a difference to the weave. They were now a little too loose and open.

But I made a few more to see how it flowed in a decent length and decided that I liked the loopy open look of it, so stuck with the size. It was intended to be a snagging and measuring exercise before I made a reach for the silver (I think of them as prototypes – I learn by trying), but I actually really liked the result in copper, so made a pile more rings and made me a bracelet.

It took me a while to work out a clasp design and methodology that worked with the shapes of the chain links, but I’m pretty happy with how it worked out – after a bit of trial and error and some that weren’t quite right. I often see beautiful chain maille pieces, with poorly executed clasps or commercially made ones just plonked on. To me, the clasp is an incredibly important part of a design. It has to work efficiently, so be well engineered, but also sit comfortably aesthetically alongside the rest of the piece – to look like an intentional part of the design, not an afterthought.

So this one needed a little extra thought (I left it overnight for my brain to work on) as the links are directional, so one end of the chain is a different shape from the other, so making the clasp flow nicely, but with connections 90 degrees from each other and to reflect the shapes of the main links, took some working on. I also have bruised fingers for my trouble too. It’s hazardous stuff this jewellery making.

I took some photos of it in its raw copper post-polishing state while I decide what final finish to give it. I’m erring towards antiqued – as I just like that colour best – but it depends on how the silver soldering will look once oxidised.

What do you think?