Creative and Alternative Metals: Mokume Gane

Or, Mokume Gane: What It Is, How to Really Mess It Up, and How to Do It Right

By Lexi Erickson

I was recently interviewed for an article on jewelry-making techniques and was asked, "What was your biggest jewelry-making mistake as you were learning metalsmithing?"

Well, aside from the Art Nouveau tiara, which was my first soldered piece (isn't it everyone's?), I suppose it has to be my mokume gane project, attempted in my second semester of jewelry making at the university. Mr. Barker, my professor, casually explained the process. It seemed simple enough. Stack three 1-inch squares of copper, silver, and nickel together, solder them, and roll them through the rolling mill until they are twice the length (2 inches); cut them in half, solder those together (you then have six layers), and repeat the process until you have twenty-four layers. Simple, easy, right?

 
raindrop mokume gane from Reactive Metals

That's what everyone did . . . except me. Being an overachiever (and not one who follows directions well), I took it on up to ninety-six layers! Yep, ninety-six layers of alternative metals, all rolled down to what measured a thickness of 20-gauge sheet when I got through with it.

In making mokume gane, when you have the metals to your desired thickness, you "bump it up" using a round or flat punch, thus causing a lot of "hills" on the back. After that you file the "hills" smooth, taking what seems like hours, and gradually you see a pattern that looks like a topographical map or burl wood.  That is, unless you did ninety-six layers and then the layers are so thin that you see nothing at all. So after more than twenty hours of work, all I had was a blob! My layers were thinner than aluminum foil.

Take my advice, don't do that! Plus, we had to wait hours for the one rolling mill we had for twenty students. The whole thing was not a pleasant experience for me. I put the technique on a back burner for years. 

 

James Binnion mokume gane brooch. Sterling, copper and brass, with sterling overlay and black onyx center stone.

What is Mokume Gane?
Mokume gane (mocha-may gan-aa) is a Japanese sword-making technique developed in the 1600s by Denbei Shoami. It is elegant and sophisticated, and though it seemed to me to take forever to do, it really doesn't, and the effort is nothing less than spectacular. There are several outstanding artists who specialize in it (Surprise! I'm not one of them), but James Binnion, one of my favorite artists, has perfected this technique. In fact, he's one of the nicest guys in the business, and if you want to learn the process, I highly recommend taking a workshop from him. In his workshop you will learn a time-honored technique and will be very proud of your achievement. It yields a gorgeous piece of metal. I highly recommend it.  

But if you don't want to spend twenty hours making a piece of mokume gane sheet, you can purchase ready-made mokume gane from Reactive Metals. It comes in a variety of distinctive patterns. You can order a sheet, draw your design on the sheet, cut it out, and voila! There it is. Now you won't have the satisfaction of pounding, rolling, and soldering all those layers of different metals, but you won't have the blisters, bruises, and burns, either. So choose your poison.  

 
ladder mokume gane from Reactive Metals

You can also order pre-made sheets of already soldered together copper and silver (or copper and brass, if you're into alternative metals) and pattern it yourself. That's what my students do and they really enjoy "bumping it up" and then filing down to see the patterns appear on the front side. It's very exciting, and you can design your sheet the way you want it to look. They absolutely love doing that.

The Mokume-Gane Process
Actually, as I have learned more about this creative metal process and its history, I have found mokume gane to be almost Zen. I enjoyed my recent foray into making my own billet, because I wasn't under any time constraints and didn't have to share my rolling mill. The most exciting part is finishing the piece with patina, developed by Phil Baldwin (and appropriately named Baldwin's Patina), which makes the wood-grain pattern jump out at you. The patina only colors the brass and copper, leaving the silver a shining white. Spectacular effect for alternative metals fans! It's available from Reactive Metals, too.

So whatever you decide to do–take a mokume gane class from James Binnion, buy the metal already patterned, or pattern it yourself, mokume gane would be a great new addition to your jewelry techniques library, especially if you're interested in working with alternative metals. And the Reactive Metals catalogue is full of toys and unique alternative metals, such as titanium and niobium . . . think I'll go see what I can order now. . . .  

To learn more about mokume gane, other special metal jewelry techniques and alternative metals, check out our collection of jewelry-making magazines and magazine collections, many of which are on sale in the Jewelry Making Daily Shop Winter Wipeout Sale, now through January 24.

 

 

 

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