Fearless Metalsmithing: Simple Samplers and How to Remove Fire Scale with Kate Richbourg
“When I’m pounding away on my anvil with a hammer or soldering parts together with my torch, I’m in my happy place.”
This line, from the beginning of Kate Richbourg’s newest metalsmithing book, Metalsmithng Made Easy: A Practical Guide to Cold Connections, Simple Soldering, Stone Setting, and More, describes me, too. I have more than one “happy place” in mind, but being in my studio hammering away or playing with fire is definitely high on the list. But even with such an amazing teacher, I was as timid as I was happy during my first several days alone in the studio. That happens to everyone, Kate included.
“What I want you to know is that I’ve been right where you are,” Kate says in her book. “I’ve made many of the same mistakes and have had the same frustrating setbacks and bewilderment at the variety of tools and materials that are out there. So I wrote this book with you, the home jeweler, in mind, to fire up your imagination with metalworking techniques that work in a small space or studio.
“Metalworking isn’t an easy craft that can be conquered with a few flicks of a torch flame. I’ll bet you’ve felt the frustration of a melted bezel or a piece that simply would not come out as planned, just as I have. While some techniques are simpler and mastered more quickly than others, honing your skills takes time,” Kate says. And please pay special attention to what she says next: “Ease and satisfaction come as you build muscle memory and see the results of your labor by completing a piece of jewelry to be proud of.” That is so true! When I was first learning to solder, I was amazed at how easily my teacher moved the torch around. It’s a super hot metal stick with fire shooting out of the end, after all! How can anyone be comfortable with that in their hand? But she was . . and now I am . . . and soon, if you aren’t already, you can be, too.
Metalsmithing Made Easy Samplers
If you’re familiar with Kate’s first hugely popular book, Simple Soldering, you know about her samplers and what a smart approach that is for learning metalsmithing skills. Through a series of short, simple, technique-focused tutorials, Kate helped Simple Soldering readers master one skill at a time–and she’s bringing that time-tested concept back in Metalsmithing Made Easy.
“When I was little, I was charmed by the idea of creating samplers,” Kate says. “I read stories of little girls in days gone by exercising their nimble fingers on crazy-quilt blocks or cross stitch samplers. Even at an early age, I was attracted to this idea of repetitions and variations, and I practiced my motor skills making doll clothes and building villages with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys on the living room floor.
“Enter the Sampler part of this book. These are your warm-ups and practice pieces. They offer a chance to learn basic techniques and try your hand at different methods. If you screw up or things don’t quite turn out the way you planned, who cares?” Kate writes. That’s such great advice. If it’s awful, try to fix it, and if it’s really, really awful, just melt and recycle it, I say! “It’s all part of the learning process. No one is judging you, and no grades are given. Keep working away, and I promise the next attempt will look better.
“The samplers intentionally use inexpensive materials, so all you invest is your time and a small cost. Once you’ve worked your way through them and are happy with your results, you’ll be ready to tackle the jewelry projects at the end of the book with confidence and gusto,” Kate says. “Each project refers to the Sampler skills used, so you can check back to the exact one if needed.
“One of the roadblocks that I encounter with students (from beginner to intermediate) is the fear of ‘messing up their piece’ simply due to the fact that they have not practiced the skill they’re using to make a finished piece of jewelry,” Kate says, “One wrong move with the saw or lingering too long with the torch can ruin a piece. That’s no fun.” Kate’s samplers take away that fear and bring back the fun!
How to Remove Fire Scale
Another roadblock for beginners–and every other person who has ever used a torch on metal, I bet–is troublesome fire scale. In Metalsmithing Made Easy, Kate explains how to remove the stubborn black layer that forms on metal when it’s exposed to a flame, which I’ve shared below. Of course, Kate says, “painting or spraying a layer of flux over your piece can prevent heavy fire scale from forming during soldering and makes the piece easier to clean.” But, as you might know, even with flux, sometimes #firescalehappens.
“The most common way to clean fire scale is to immerse the piece in a pickle solution. Pickle is made from a granulated acid and is produced under many brand names. Sparex, for example, is a brand name for sodium bisulphate, a common pool additive that also makes an excellent pickle. To pickle your metal, place the piece in a pickle pot, then use copper or plastic utensils to remove it from the pickle. Note: Do not use steel utensils, as steel will create a charge in the pickle that causes the copper particles in the solution to plate on the surface of the metal.
Another option is to make your own nonchemical pickle by adding about 3 ounces of citric acid powder (which you can get in the grocery store with the spices and pickling supplies) to 2 cups of water, in that order. You can also follow a 1-to-8 ratio, adding one part citric acid to eight parts water. If the solution dries up, add more water, and if it stops working, add more citric acid. Always add citric acid powder to water and not vice versa.
“Fire scale can also be filed or sanded away. Use 400-grit sandpaper to expose clean metal underneath. This method is appropriate for small seams that have light fire scale, but for larger pieces, sanding gets very time-consuming,” Kate says. A rotary tool can help cut down on that sanding time, just be careful not to use harsh attachments that will replace the ugly fire scale with ugly scratches.
Enjoy Metalsmithing Made Easy
Kate has some requests for how you read her book: “I’d love it if you read this book from start to finish before you even picked up a tool,” she writes. “Grab your favorite beverage, tuck in, relax, and read away. Make notes in the margins. Grab a highlighter and mark passages that speak to you. Spill coffee on this book. Get it dusty and dog-eared. As you digest the chapters one by one, a big picture is going to take shape.”
That big picture will help bring your thoughts full circle, give you a broad knowledge of basic metalsmithing skills, and help your work in ways you might not even realize. But, if you’re like me when I was learning metalsmithing, you’re probably a little impatient to stop learning and start doing! Kate understands that, too. “Sometimes we just want to jump in and make something. If you’re a beginner and that mood strikes as you’re reading, a great way to scratch that ‘I wanna make something’ itch is to pick a piece from the Sampler section and get to work. These projects are arranged in order of difficulty, and some can be completed with just a few tools and little experience.”
Start the new year off right by learning fun new techniques that will bring you joy the whole year through. With the quick samplers and complete project tutorials in Kate’s book, you can master metalsmithing one step at a time, without a lot of studio space or expensive tools. Treat yourself by ordering Metalsmithing Made Easy: A Practical Guide to Cold Connections, Simple Soldering, Stone Setting, and More, and if you’re really excited to get started, instantly download the digital version!
Get more glimpses inside Kate’s book, including a look at some of the projects and learning how hot is too hot for soldering so you never melt another bezel.