Learn to Form Metal with a Pro: 5 Tips from Metalsmith and Jewelry Tool Maker Bill Fretz
Take a Guided Tour of Metalsmithing As If You Were the Hammer
“Hammering is why most people become smiths in the first place — hitting things is just plain fun,” explains metalsmith and tool designer Bill Fretz. “Hammering on stakes and forming metal puts one in the tradition of metalsmithing, but you get an immediate result. It gives the craftsperson the honor of saying the piece was hand-wrought. Also, forming shapes that have thin walls is difficult with casting, and expensive with molds.”
Bill knows what he’s talking about. And when he describes hammer-forming metal, it’s almost like being on a guided tour from the metal’s perspective — except you don’t have to worry about getting hit! He tells you what’s happening with your hand, the hammer, the metal, and the stake. He also shares what effect each little adjustment has on the finished design. It’s a simple idea but is drawn from many years of thoughtful experience. He also knows that there’s more than one way to perform so many operations, and frequently offers alternates.
Getting a Design Started
Here are 5 examples of the way Bill approaches metalsmithing and how he shares his understanding of the process with all of us.
1 Mark lines for sawing: “A marker makes a line that is too wide for an accurate cut. A simple scribed line is accurate but can be hard to see on shiny metal. The solution is to scribe a line on top of the marker line: the shiny scribed line will show up easily through the black marker line and make cutting easy and accurate because of the contrast. Another solution is to paint the entire surface with Chinese white water-based paint, and scribe through the matte white surface. Shear or cut the excess metal along the drawn lines.”
2 Find the center of a circle. “As in all metalsmithing techniques, there are numerous ways to find the center of a circle. The simple way is to use a circle divider with a bar that will indicate the line down the middle. Draw a line with a Sharpie pen along the bar and the center will be marked. Rotate the circle blank and the middle will be the intersecting lines. Another way is to use a compass or divider and make four arcs from the circle’s perimeter, at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00, as close to the middle as possible. The center of the marked lines will be the middle and a line can be drawn through this spot.”
Make the Heat Work for You
3 Anneal in pumice. This essential process makes metal more malleable (softer) and, therefore, easier to use. Metal that has been annealed receives hammer blows more easily, forms to mandrels and stakes more easily, is even easier to saw. Working with annealed metal is also easier on your tools. When working with large pieces, Bill suggests putting pumice in your annealing pan as the pumice makes a good reflective surface for large pieces.
4 Find the right hammer. Here are some guidelines from Bill about how different hammer types, shapes, and sizes can change the way your hammered metal will look.
- “Rounded raising or cross-peen hammers make it possible to form curved, concave lines.
- “Dimple shapes are produced with different sized embossing hammers.
- “Flat areas need a light planishing hammer.
- “Like a chasing tool, a rounded raising hammer makes a good tracing tool to mark the edges of a design or to form ridge lines while working metal from both sides of the line.
- “You can also hammer curved, concave, fluted shapes. Picking the size of the hammer depends on the width of the flutes being formed and how noticeable the hammer marks are meant to be. A broader, rounded raising hammer will leave the metal smoother, while the narrow rounded hammer will leave a sharper mark. Use embossing hammers to push domed areas into concaves. A small planishing hammer will create the fewest marks on convex areas.”
5 Position the metal for fluting on a stake: “The metal must overhang the stake slightly so the metal is hammered down to the stake. Use overlapping blows for a smooth domed surface.”
More From Bill
Now here’s a brand-new pendant design that Bill Fretz has created exclusively for us. This design demonstrates exactly how to use some of his newest hammers to create visual interest. In his Fluted Brass Circle Pendant, he describes his design approach as shape shifting. “Shape shifting” he says, “is the ability to take a given shape and make it different. The goal of this pendant project is to take a familiar shape, a round flat brass circle, and transform it so it becomes a dynamic creative shape. The process is simple and only uses a few hammers and stakes to make the metamorphosis complete.”
He starts by cutting out a simple circle, twisting it once to create that very dynamic shape called a mobius, then forms flutes on just part of the twisted circle to add dimension and movement. He finishes the metal to show some of those lovely hammer marks he’s known for, and urges you to experiment with your own touches to the design. And now you can find just the right hammers and stakes to do it in our exclusive Fluted Brass Circle Pendant Kit.
Get this kit and other Bill Fretz projects in our shop!