Metalsmithing Basics: Tips and Tools for Filing and Finishing Metal Like a Pro
Nothing sets your metalwork off like finely finished edges and a nicely polished surface. In the rush to finish a piece, sometimes this is a job that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
There are a variety of methods that you can use for the process, but this is my tried and true method that I use for hand-finishing my jewelry. There are speedier methods, but I look at this time as “bonding” with my piece. It requires a minimum of tools and a bit of elbow grease. Let’s get started.
First, You File
Here are my files.
From left to right: half-round 4-cut hand file, needle files, coarse and fine salon boards (aka nail files, found at beauty supply stores), coarse and fine 3M sanding pads (found in the paint section at the hardware store), 220-, 500- and 1000-grit wet/dry sandpaper.
Use the half-round file first. Place the piece to be filed on a rubber block or other stable surface. Hold the file in your dominant hand. The file works on the forward stroke. Lightly push the file forward to remove metal but ease up on the backstroke so the metal that is removed does not get ground back into the piece. Move the file in one smooth motion back and forth, pushing and lifting. Use needle files to get into smaller spaces if needed.
Follow up to refine the edges with a salon board, sanding pads and sandpaper. Choose the grit according to how rough the edges are after the initial filing with the metal file. All of these remaining files are multidirectional and put a nice finished edge on the piece.
Editor’s Note: When filing fine silver, Argentium silver, or sterling silver jewelry especially, try to keep a tray or fabric under your work to catch all those filed-off bits of silver. They might not look like more than dust, but all collected, they add up to money! You can recycle the metal yourself or send it off to be recycled into cash.
Second, You Polish
Hand finishing and polishing with a variety of abrasives after fabrication and soldering your piece is an alternative to traditional pickling and polishing methods. Here is what I use.
From left to right: 1000-grit wet/dry sandpaper, 3M metal finishing pad (found in the paint section at the hardware store), Pro Polish pads (a foam pad with a micro-abrasive found at jewelry supply stores).
Start the polishing process with the wet/dry sandpaper. Sand the surface in all directions to remove all traces of firescale from the silver or other metals. Continue with the metal finishing pad. This pad gives a nice matte surface, so sometimes I just stop there. To really get some shine going, I give the piece a final buff with the Pro Polish pad. I love the smooth, just-enough-shine surface.
Here is the progression from raw material to firescale and final polish. Don’t discount the beauty of firescale! It adds an antiqued look to a finished piece of silver jewelry as well as other metals and can be used instead of liver of sulfur or other oxidizing methods. Just skip the sandpaper and use the metal and Pro Polish pads to soften the look of the firescale.
Good luck and enjoy communing with your jewelry! —Kate
Update: Learn more expert metalsmithing techniques and tips with Kate in her DVD featuring six metal projects and instruction for using six different torches, Make Soldered Jewelry with Six Easy-to-Use Torches with Kate Richbourg.
Did you catch Kate’s handy post, Tips and Tools for Cutting and Sawing Metal Like a Pro?