Metalsmithing, jewelry -- how to?
December 16, 2005 2:29 PM   Subscribe

I want to make jewelry! Like, real jewelry. Read: metalsmithing, not putting manufactured beads on wires. What tools should I buy? What books would you recommend? Do I need to take a class or not?

So, I'm already planning on purchasing this book: The Encyclopedia of Jewelry-Making Techniques: A Comprehensive Visual Guide to Traditional and Contemporary Techniques.

I suspect that a class at a community college would be useful, and if there's one offered at night, I'll probably give it a shot; however, I've found the quality of these classes can be iffy, depending on the instructor's experience and ability, and most of them are offered during the day (when I'm working). I'm hoping I can stumble through it without having to take a class for this reason.

I've got maybe a $200 budget to spend on the initial toolbox, and I'd probably put $100 (if it's possible to go that cheap) into materials (obviously, no precious metals here) for experimentation, etc.

My friend has a company that sells gold body jewelry and I'll have access to his shop tools, which include tumblers, polishing media, dremel polishers, etc. However, I'm not interested in making captive bead rings, blah blah blah, for the tattooed and pierced set -- I'm more interested in handmade rings (either cast or soldiered from parts), necklaces, and bracelets. Basically, hip crafty things BUT with a high degree of finish. I would like to eventually be able to sell my output, but I'm realistic -- I don't expect to have any incredible designs for quite some time, so for right now I'm more focused on getting started than having a saleable product. (Although ideally within six months to a year I'd like to be able to make some cool jewelry for my girlfriend.)

Ideally I'd like some to hear some anecdotal experience, suggestions and tips, and also some qualified web resources that you frequently turn to for information. Here's some general questions: What tools should I buy? What tools can be cheap and what tools should be quality? What brands do you recommend? Where are good places to buy? What kind of jewelry is complicated to make? What kind of jewelry is easy to make? What are the base materials I'm likely to be working with?

Here's a couple links to the kind of jewelry I think is pretty awesome and what i'd like to make:
Beer Can Ring
Bubble Tag Necklage
Ruler Bracelet
Forever Earrings
Safety Ring
BingBang 88 (flash)

Skullflower Ring

you get the idea.

no beads, seriously, unless I'm making them myself.
posted by fishfucker to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Lost wax metal casting can be done quite nicely with a centrifugal device often used to make dental appliances, coupled with a torch to melt the metal.

That's how one would normaly make something like that skullflower ring.

You will also need a buffing wheel and other polishing tools.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:34 PM on December 16, 2005

I'd take a class. If you're serious about this the class will be worth the investment even if it wasn't as good as you hoped.
posted by pwb503 at 2:42 PM on December 16, 2005

Rio Grande
posted by hortense at 3:05 PM on December 16, 2005

If I recall from your posting history you used to live in the Bay Area but have moved?? If you were still here I would send you directly to the crucible in Oakland. If you aren't far away it looks like they have some weekend workshops in the kinds of skills you're looking for. I've taken a couple of classes there and find the entire place totally inspiring.
If you're impatient - you might want to give PMC a try. Its clay made of silver. You work it just like clay - fire it in a pretty cheap home kiln and you have instant silver jewlry. Might tide you over until you have access to molten metal and the skills to use it.
posted by Wolfie at 3:06 PM on December 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

ahhh yeessss. The crucible. My mechanician in art school taught there.

A weekend workshop might just be the thing.

Still, I should make this more clear -- most of the stuff I linked to (excepting the skullflower ring, which I kinda threw in there as a penultimate goal) isn't cast, and seems mostly a combination of shaping and soldiering.

It's this sort of stuff I'm interested in being able to produce, because I'm not sure that I'll ever realistically have access to a serious shop where I can do metal pours and shit. So maybe a step down on the craftsmanship ladder -- I'll get some training when I get my feet wet and want to up my skills.

Still, I realize classes might be a worthwhile investment of my time, and so if there's qualified suggestions specific to my location and needs, feel free to offer them! thanks!
posted by fishfucker at 3:24 PM on December 16, 2005

Seriously take a class. I took one, and if you get a good instruction, you'll learn a ton about the materials and tools used that might not be in a book, as well as the best places to get your materials from.

We had to buy a jeweler's saw, anchor, and files; he provided the blow torch and polishing machine. It was lots of fun.
posted by lychee at 3:25 PM on December 16, 2005

wow! great answer wolfie -- those weekend classes look about perfect and might also be a cool gift for my gf!
posted by fishfucker at 3:26 PM on December 16, 2005

as a follow up - molten shit that you're not used to seeing in its molten form is absolutely the coolest. I've been on a glass blowing kick - damn expensive hobby (as is jewelry making) but endlessly satisfying.
posted by Wolfie at 3:44 PM on December 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

A class is well worth it because you can figure out what the bare minimum set of tools, etc. is you need to do what you want to do. It may save you money in the long run. Once you've soldered jewelry with the fancy gear in class you can look at the cheapo blowtorches at home depot and figure out if they're going to be too big and clunky for what you want to do, etc. Plus you can meet people who can tell you what the best gear is.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:20 PM on December 16, 2005

fishfucker, I've been thinking about the same thing for months. I don't have time for classes though, although I do think that's a good idea. So instead, I'm just going to buy a bunch of junk jewelry from the goodwill and pawn shops and deconstruct and rebuild them. Like a kid with a wind up alarm clock.

I've done similar stuff, detail work for harleys, and it's pretty easy. The tools are cheap and easy to come by. Dremel tool with metal working bits, hemostats, tiny needle nose pliers and vice-grips, and a small blow torch. That kind of work doesn't need much heat.

Just for practice, I would get a cube of stock aluminum and sculpt it with a dremel. You can even get pretty inexpensive titanium bits that are really fine for detail work.

I'm excited for you, have fun!
posted by snsranch at 5:21 PM on December 16, 2005

The bubble tag necklace is made with precious metal clay - the Crucible offers a class in it, but it's pretty easy to work with yourself if you're comfortable with a propane blowtorch. For $200, I'd buy a torch & some PMC, and perhaps some silver wire to melt & play with. You'll want tongs and pliers, and a ceramic work surface. For a bit more, you can buy a small kiln.

If you want to do non-jewelry metalwork, the Crucible has great welding & blacksmithing classes. For glass, as Wolfie mentioned, Public Glass in San Francisco is excellent.
posted by judith at 5:31 PM on December 16, 2005

I use a large 18x24 fresnel lens as a torch sometimes, to silver solder stuff. and have heard about folk who melt silver in a micro wave for casting, if you are interested in auto didactic
outside art methods.
posted by hortense at 5:46 PM on December 16, 2005

First off, you want this book and this book. You'll be better off just buying these two books than spending the same amount of money on several lesser books.

The point of a class is not just to learn what you're doing (which is very important), but to get access to a bunch of tools and workspace that you'll need to do this right. And the budget you've given here is consumed already by books. . .

If you plan on soldering anything you'll need to buy an acetylene torch (with a tank of gas of course) and a fireproof block to do the soldering on. Soldering requires a ventilated area. Once you've put a torch to something you've put firescale on it and will have to remove it in a "pickle bath." This is a hot pot full of dilute acid. This also requires ventilation. And a place to dispose of the saturated acid. There are other chemicals you can use, but this is what most people use. You'll need some small needlenose pliers (without the knurled grips inside the jaws), some diagonal cutters, some tweezers, a set of needle files, a flat file, a ring file, a ring mandrel, a couple 'smithing hammers, a small wooden mallet, a stainless steel block (for when you need to hammer on a flat hard surface), et cetera, et cetera.

Forget Dremel. You want a Foredom for polishing and carving. Polishing requires various grits of sandpaper, and at minimum a couple grades of polish like "white diamond" and jewler's rouge. Polishing requires ventilation too, and at minimum a dust mask but preferably a respirator. The silica particles in polish will do a number on your lungs. Oh yes, you will also want a set of safety goggles. Always wear your safety goggles.

Experiment on copper first, then play with silver.

It's hard to visualize all this stuff and its cost. So I will parrot the earlier poster by suggesting you order the two main Rio Grande catalogs. They're costly, but huge and worth it (Metafilter: Costly, but huge and worth it).

Expensive? Yep. But it's fun and it's nice to learn a very old art/craft like this one. So please do take the class so you can work your way into this slowly and not invest in all this equipment until you're sure it's worth it to you. If this interests you at all, I'd suggest you look at actual metalsmithing (not "jewelry making") where you learn to make bowls and other vessels out of sheets of metal with little more than some hammers and forming stakes. Awesome stuff. E-mail me if you have any questions.
posted by BrandonAbell at 6:01 PM on December 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

My experience is similar to lychee's.

When I lived in Halifax I took a weekend jewelry design course offered by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It was great because we had access to the same facilities and instructors as the students who were doing their BFA in jewelry design.

Check your local art schools to see if they offer anything in the evenings or on weekends, you might be surprised. Courses like this usually include free/cheap extra studio time as well. Once you've taken a course, you can probably rent studio time whenever you need to do the big stuff (e.g. soldering and polishing) and invest in a basic set of tools (saw, files, etc.) to use at home.

For tools, you might want to try eBay. I lucked out and got a partial set of tools for cheap a couple years back. Try searching for "jeweler's tools" and "jewelry tools."
posted by sanitycheck at 6:10 PM on December 16, 2005

you guys are frickin' awesome! thanks!

this is great information!
posted by fishfucker at 6:39 PM on December 16, 2005

What if you just find a local jeweler, perhaps a member of SNAG, and offer to do some menial task like gluing bits and bobbles together, or dealing with paperwork, etc.. in return for some bench time? It's not like most fine-art jewelers are exactly swimming in dough, and there's always less-skilled labor to be done around the shop.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 10:18 PM on December 16, 2005

I think my girlfriend and I are going to take the Crucible weekend class in Feb. I'll let you all know how it goes.
posted by fishfucker at 5:07 PM on December 23, 2005

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