Intro to Chasing and Repoussé: Create Dimension in Metal With or Without Pitch
Along with gem cutting, chasing and repoussé are at the top of my “techniques-to-learn” wish list. I can’t think of another metalsmithing technique that creates such an impressive effect, using techniques that are thousands of years old. Chasing and repoussé are used to create dimensional works of art, most commonly in silver, for jewelry, flatware, serving pieces, and accessories.
What is Chasing and Repousse?
Chasing and repoussé are ancient techniques (possibly since 3000 B.C.!) that are still done basically the same way they were done back then. In simple terms, repoussé means to push forward or push up (it means “push up” in French); it refers to the metal being raised by hammering from the back to create dimension on the front. Chasing (from the French chasser, meaning “to chase”) outlines the pushed-forward designs by pushing back around their edges to define them.
So chasing and repoussé means you’d hammer a general design onto the back of a piece of metal. Then flip it over, and outline that design from the front. You’d use pointed chasing tools (punches) and a chasing hammer (yes, that’s where that name comes from!) to outline the design. You may or may not use larger rounded chasing punches or even dapping punches for the repoussé work.
Alternately, you can use those chasing punches (metal stylus-type tools with myriad tips) to “draw” your design onto the metal. Then flip it over, and hammer within or around the design, depending on what it is.
How to Make Chasing Punches
Chasing punches are very personal tools that are typically forged or at least modified by their owners. That’s why you’ll find chasing punches available for sale as blanks to be modified to suit your needs. Their tips can be flat, domed, or more detailed like screwdrivers, pointed like awls, or textured in various ways.
Many jewelry artists, like Tom and Kay Benham, make their own chasing punches from other old tools. “We make all of our chasing and rrepoussé tools. Our repoussé tools are actually repurposed cold chisels that we purchase inexpensively at flea markets and garage sales,” they shared. “We can’t drive by a garage sale without stopping to check for cold chisels or other castoff tools. You never know when you’ll locate a treasure.”
Here’s how they turn old tools into their customized tools for chasing and repoussé. “We cut off the sharpened end of the chisel with an abrasive cut off saw and the grind the ends into rounded smooth shapes (round, oval, teardrop, and straight) on a belt sander. Just about any shape you need to repoussé into the surface of the metal can be ground on the end of your tool.
“After the rough grinding is completed, sand the end of the tool with several grades of emery paper until they are smooth and blemish free. Then buff the ends with a cotton buff and Fabulustre compound until they have a mirror finish,” they shared. “There is no need to harden them as there are no sharp edges to wear or dull.”
Metalsmithing How-To: Chasing and Repoussé
Metalsmiths today, as well as those thousands of years ago, do chasing and repoussé essentially the same. Metal is placed in a pitch pot or pitch bowl (pitch is usually hard clay, wax, or resin) that supports the metal while it’s hammered upon (but not always–more on that below). Pitch is typically heated to soften it for repoussé work and allowed to harden to support more detailed chasing work.
If metal is hammered during the repoussé process on pitch that is too hard, it can create so much resistance that the metal is thinned, so the right temperature and hardness of pitch is important for successful repoussé work. Likewise, if chasing is attempted on metal with pitch that is too soft, the pitch won’t provide enough support and the punches can distort the metal too much or even pierce it. What a heartbreaking mistake that would be!
After the first round of repoussé work is completed, the raised areas are filled with softened pitch to support them. The pitch is allowed to cool and harden before the piece is returned to the pitch pot, face up this time. Then the chasing work begins to outline and define the areas raised during repoussé. In very detailed designs, this process can be repeated many times–with cleaning and annealing between each step. Chasing and repoussé is a time-consuming technique that involves many steps and quite a bit of repetition, making it a true artisan craft that is becoming more and more rare.
Another ancient chasing and repoussé method involved using wooden tools or punches to press and hammer malleable gold, silver, or copper sheet into carved rock, bone, or harder metals to imprint the carved design on the metal sheet. Early metalsmiths would carve one design into the harder material in a labor-intensive process. But then that one carved mold could be used to produce multiple pieces of dimensional metal work. Alternately, decorative designs using something as simple as wire were made and then metal sheet was hammered upon it.
Learn Easy “Air” Chasing and Repoussé Without Pitch
Two of our family of expert jewelry artists, Kim St. Jean and Janice Berkebile, created videos on chasing and repoussé. Bonus: Each one teaches you how to achieve the same effects in metal without pitch.
In Chasing Made Easy: Form a Perfect Metal Leaf, see how Janice forms a textured, three-dimensional leaf out of 24-gauge copper. Along the way you’ll learn basics about chasing and repoussé that you can use to create other dimensional designs and effects in your metalwork, simply using metal sheet, a hammer, and a sandbag. Plus you’ll gain an understanding about how metal moves and works that you can apply to your other projects.
Because she skips the part of the traditional technique that involves embedding your metal in a pot of pitch, Janice calls her method a “low-tech” and “down and dirty way” of creating dimension in metal sheet. Plus it’s incredibly fun and rewarding!
For another pitch-free approach to chasing and repoussé, Kim St. Jean’s video, Air Chasing with a Vise, shows her process for “air chasing” to create dimensional metalwork. She shows how to do it all without pitch, using only a hammer, a dapping punch, and a vise. I really loved learning this way to use my dapping punches, especially the smaller ones that I rarely use otherwise.
You can get both of these metalsmithing video tutorials in our Chasing and Repousse Bundle, which also includes the best-of-the-best Fretz chasing hammer, an issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist with a chasing bracelet tutorial from Bill Fretz and an in-depth look at chasing and repoussé tools, and five bonus chasing and repoussé metalsmithing project tutorials from experts like Roger Halas, Tom and Kay Benham, and Linda Ricci–all at a very special value.
Already have a Fretz chasing hammer? Get the Chasing and Repousse Digital Collection for all the same expert instruction!
For more on chasing, check out these articles:
- 10+ Excellent Things To Know About Chasing Metal
- Metalsmithing: Repoussé Tools — Repurposing and Alternatives