Top Tips for Aspiring MetalworkersA Jewelry Expert's Dos and Don'ts

I find metals exciting, intimidating, fun, alluring… most of the time. Dabbling in metals is one thing: jumping off the cliff and diving in, quite another.  I asked our metal expert and managing editor of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist Helen Driggs for her advice on starting out in serious metalworking.

Get started in jewelry metalwork with the right tools and expert advice.

Kristal: What's your best advice for anyone who wants to begin working in metal?

Helen: The most important thing I did was take a 10-week Jewelry and Metals class at the The University of The Arts in Philadelphia. It gave me a firm foundation in all of the basics, plus I learned to solder, use the shop tools properly, and I had access to open-studio time to continue working after hours. That time was invaluable, because I was able to see what the metals majors were working on, ask lots of questions, and I was exposed to many techniques and metalworking disciplines that weren't covered in my basics class, such as blacksmithing, enameling, forging, and casting. Seeing that work going on helped me to decide what I wanted to pursue in my own work. Plus, art school is just a kick!

Kristal: Dos and Don'ts for the aspiring metal worker?

Helen: DON'T buy every tool just because it is there. Buy what you need, as you need it, or as you learn how to use it. Buy it if you are certain you need that tool at least once a week. It's really better to have lots of metal than lots of tools! Although I seem to have lots and lots of tools…

DO take every class or workshop you possibly can, according to your interests. Being a good metalworker is based on skill building: each thing you learn builds on what you have already learned. Even if you don't want to go in the specific direction the class is focused on, be open to learning what that teacher can show you. Pay attention and commit to making the object you are learning to make to the best of your ability. Do it the way the teacher shows you. Take a lot of notes and ask the teacher for more information. Then, you can freelance later at home.

DON'T work too far above your skill level, because you will only become frustrated. Sure, everybody wants to make complex, well-designed, interesting, and beautiful pieces with gold and precious metal. But first you need to be a competent fabricator, be able to solder well, use your tools like an expert, know how to set stones, and work in several metals to do that. The best thing to do is practice a technique without a thought of making a piece of jewelry. Work in copper or brass. Get good at sawing, forming, and soldering. When you perform a specific task over and over, you'll eventually have what it takes to make nice jewelry. Make twenty bezels just for the sake of learning. It's worth it. "Go slow and get them all" is my motto.

DO read everything you can to learn about techniques. There are literally millions of ways you can go with metal. It's your job as an artist to find your way. Once you find a technique you like, try making 5 or 10 pieces using that technique to build a body of work with a logical progression. Eventually, you'll figure out where to go next.

DON'T give up. If a piece stonewalls you, set it aside for awhile and start something else. Eventually, through good work and practice, an idea to solve the problem on the set- aside piece will spring up. All artists have blocks—it is a natural part of the cycle of creativity. I always have four or five works running at once. Breaking away to do something different is often just what I need to help me go back to address a problem in another work.

DO try something spontaneous once in awhile. Creativity is really just play. Just take out a hammer and a sheet of copper and see what happens. Or, find a project in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and give it a whirl. If you don't have the exact materials, do the best you can with what you have. Remember—you are learning, so no effort is wasted.

Riveted Mixed Media Bracelet by Connie Fox
Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, March 2010
Photo by Jim Lawson

Kristal: What's new and exciting coming up in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

Helen: Our August issue is full of cool stuff for every level of metalworker, but it is particularly perfect for people who are interested in giving metal a try without too much investment in tools or materials. For wire enthusiasts, we've got a chain mail bracelet and a complete "Megaguide" to jump rings—how to make them, measure them, use them, and store them. If you want to try soldering, but don't have the space, time, or courage to purchase a jeweler's torch, check out "Torch Lite," a look at using various brands of butane torches for jewelry, which is accompanied by a project "Micro Torch Soldered Bezel."

The issue features a wealth of stone and stone-working information, tips on tools and materials, the latest on shows, books and events, and loads of other jewelry-making information that's too good to miss. Don't miss this exciting issue or all the year-round inspiration, subscribe to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist today.

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