Master the Hydraulic Press to Bend Metal to Your Will

Solid. Immutable. Unyielding. When I think of metal, adjectives like these come to mind. And yet, with the right amount of heat and pressure, metal will stretch, compress, and bend — transforming into a unique design of the artist’s making.

ABOVE: Give your metal depth and dimension with a hydraulic press.

Richard Sweetman treats us to a prime example of metal’s amazing mutability in his online workshop Jewelry Basics for the Hydraulic Press. With a little annealing, some handmade dies, and a hydraulic press or a vise, he demonstrates how to coax sheet metal into beautiful, dimensional forms.

Richard fabricated his own hydraulic press, the Shark Bite.

Richard fabricated his own hydraulic press, the Shark Bite.

As an artist and teacher for more than 30 years, Richard has a deep appreciation for metalsmithing. He even developed his own hydraulic press model, the Shark Bite, which he uses in this workshop.

What exactly can a hydraulic press do for your jewelry designs? Let’s find out!

You’ll learn how to make your own Plexiglas die, create inserts for depth, and size and anneal your metal.

You’ll learn how to make your own Plexiglas die, create inserts for depth, and size and anneal your metal.

Making a Die

It all starts with making your own die. Richard leads us through the process, first tracing a pattern onto Plexiglas, then drilling a small hole in order to slide the piece onto the blade of the jeweler’s saw. After carefully sawing and filing, the die is ready. (Note that he saves the central section that was removed!)

In addition to the die, you’ll need rubber inserts to create the desired depth during the actual pressing. Richard uses old inner tubes to make a stack of inserts, each layer slightly smaller than the previous to achieve a gentle doming effect.

Two Options for Pressing Metal

Richard shows you how to size your metal, anneal it, and secure it to the die. Depending on the depth you want, you’ll place three or four rubber inserts on top of the metal, above the negative space in the die.

A good jeweler is resourceful in finding ways to achieve the desired results. That’s why Richard demonstrates two methods of pressing metal — first with a vise and then with a hydraulic press.

If you don’t have a hydraulic press, you can easily press metal with a vise. If your vise has teeth, cover them with steel plates to protect your metal.

If you don’t have a hydraulic press, you can easily press metal with a vise. If your vise has teeth, cover them with steel plates to protect your metal.

A vise puts out more than enough pressure to successfully press metal into a die. If your vise has teeth, however, it’s a good idea to cover the teeth with two steel plates, protecting your project. Luckily, Richard explains how you can easily make these plates yourself.

Load your die, metal, and rubber inserts into the hydraulic press and watch the magic happen.

Load your die, metal, and rubber inserts into the hydraulic press and watch the magic happen.

If you’re using a hydraulic press, simply place the die, metal, and inserts onto the bed and crank the handle. If you want more depth to your metal, add more inserts and press it again. But make sure you anneal each time you press; the stress of the press work-hardens your metal.

Left: Richard has filed these Plexiglas pieces to create ridges. Right: Repressing the metal with the shaped Plexiglass inserts results in eye-catching designs.

Left: Richard has filed these Plexiglas pieces to create ridges. Right: Repressing the metal with the shaped Plexiglass inserts results in eye-catching designs.

Getting Creative

Once you learn the basics, you’ll love learning Richard’s additional tricks for personalizing your dimensional forms. Remember the section of Plexiglas that Richard removed when cutting out his die? He shows how to file that piece and use it to re-press your metal, creating tasteful ridges and angles in your work.

Be inspired with Richard’s collection of designs created with the hydraulic press.

Be inspired with Richard’s collection of designs created with the hydraulic press.

Richard covers plenty more besides, from solutions to common problems to inspirational design ideas from his collection. I love how he uses roller-printed metal for interest, creates symmetrical pieces by joining two pressed halves, and manipulates metal into curves and points. He even created a set of irresistible bug-mobiles!

Be creative in using the hydraulic press in conjunction with techniques you already know and enjoy, such as roller printing, riveting, and more.

Be creative in using the hydraulic press in conjunction with techniques you already know and enjoy, such as roller printing, riveting, and more.

Richard’s Top 5 Tips for Pressing Metal

Richard’s years of experience make him an authoritative source on the hydraulic press. Check out his top tips!

1. Choose the best gauge.

If your die has sharp corners or a lot of detail, use a thinner gauge of metal such as 26 or 28. The thicker your metal, the less detail it will pick up.

2. Use a vise instead.

No hydraulic press? No problem! A vise puts out enough pressure to do the job. If your vise has teeth, you’ll want to protect your metal by placing steel plates over the teeth.

3. Anneal each time.

To prevent your metal from splitting, anneal it before you start. Pressing will work-harden your metal, so if you want to press it more than once, make sure you anneal it each time.

4. Press out the wrinkles.

Pressing metal in a die can result in wrinkles on the flat part of your metal. To smooth out the wrinkles, place the metal and die back into the press as before and re-press.

5. Add interest with texture.

Take your work even further by using textured metal. Roller printing and etching are a few ways to create texture before you press your metal.

If you’re looking to introduce dimensionality into your metalwork, Richard Sweetman’s workshop will give you the instruction you’re looking for. For a bargain, subscribe to Interweave’s Online Workshops for $9.99 a month and stream our ever-growing library of courses.

Go be creative!
– Tamara Kula
Producer, Bead & Jewelry Group


Master Metalsmithing with More from Richard Sweetman