Jewelry Making with Alternative Metals: Upcycled Cookie-Tin Earrings, Part One

Having been a tree hugger since college and a crafter since long, long before that, I get real joy from seeing some of the clever ways artists reuse materials to make beautiful things. I can't go into an antiques store or junk shop without finding some fabulous metal whatnot that, more often than not, I want to make into (hopefully) even more fabulous jewelry, and my newfound respect for jewelry making with alternative metals fuels this passion.

earrings by Kate Wadsworth of Natalia Designs

My friend Katherine Wadsworth, a lampwork glass artist and metal jewelry designer, recently told me about jewelry she'd seen made out of old cookie (etc.) tins, and I was immediately interested. I love gorgeous old . . . well, everything, really . . . but tins are among my faves and I wish I'd thought of this first! She graciously agreed to write about her experience with it for Jewelry Making Daily readers. Enjoy! –Tammy

Making Artistic Jewelry from Recycled Resources: Cookie-Tin Earrings
By Katherine Wadsworth of Natalia Designs

Most of my own work is in lampwork glass, and lately a little PMC as well, but I started my exploration of handcrafted jewelry making with straightforward metal fabrication techniques. One of my friends refers to these as the "hack and cuss" techniques, and maybe that's why I set it all aside for glass a dozen years ago or so. But a recent experience inspired me to dust off some of my basic metalsmithing skills and try to have some fun making jewelry from metal again.

My first encounter with this idea was on a trip to Austin, Texas. The Haven Gallery is a local Austin craft gallery that emphasizes art glass (my first love), but the item I fell in love with that day was made of metal–old enameled tins of all things! 

earrings by Kari Stringer of Fat Cat Studio

We happened to arrive on a day when artist Kari Stringer of Fat Cat Studio was visiting the gallery to show her latest work to the manager. A huge variety of earrings, necklaces, and bracelets were displayed across the counter, draped beautifully over the sides of the fantastic antique tins they were carried in. A friend and I had first pick, and we loved pawing through all the offerings.

Kari creates unique jewelry by repurposing beautiful antique enameled tins. People call them cookie tins, biscuit tins, or pie tins, but containers like these were once used to store all kinds of goodies, including cakes, pies, cookies, tea, coffee, candies, and even medicine. Kari seeks out a great variety of colors and images in antique tins of all kinds for her work; then she cuts the metal into geometric shapes and joins the pieces to create fabulous jewelry.

Kate's tins, before . . .

After taking some of Kari's lovely things home, I decided I wanted to try my hand at making something simple and sweet out of these readily available and inexpensive raw materials. When I considered trying to make some cookie-tin jewelry for myself, I knew I couldn't match Kari's fabulous antique finds, which I'm sure she acquires with a lot of effort and time spent scouring garage sales, thrift stores, and beyond.

However, I started to look at tins around my house in a new light. I no longer saw them as just another useful little storage box for the many (many) miscellaneous findings and tools I have collected. Now I look at them and think, "How will I chop you up? What will you be for my friends?" Here are the steps I took to successfully deconstruct my tins and use the parts to reconstruct some fun earrings for my friends.

. . . Kate's tins, after

1. Find decorative tins for your jewelry project. We had lots of Christmas cookie tins around the house, mostly ginger snaps, as well as some candy tins. You might not look at them with an eye for fashion at first, but once you get going with this idea, everything metal looks like it has possibilities! You may even have a few antique tins cluttering the back of your closets, who knows? But I would recommend that you don't start dismantling really rare and lovely tins until you've practiced a few of the necessary skills. Even fairly plain tins can be combined to good effect or accented with engraving tools.

2. Disassemble your decorative tins with basic metal-cutting tools. We call them tins, but most are actually made of very thin pressed steel, not tin. The metal has a lot of spring to it, but the thinness of it means it's not too challenging to cut, so you won't need huge manly tools for this project. I used a pair of small snips that I usually use for cutting silver solder pallions. They have small jaws, long handles, and are very sharp, so they make quick work of snipping and work well around curves. Larger hardware-store tin snips will do the trick for the basic deconstruction but can be awkward for details. Also, some tin snips have a shallow serrated texture on the jaws to keep the metal from slipping, but these will leave a ridged texture behind that you may not want. Good sharp shears of any kind will work, but remember that snipping metal is likely to dull your good scissors.

Basic disassembly of an enameled cookie tin means snipping down the side at the join, and then cutting around the bottom to remove the wall of the tin. That will give you easy access to lots of nice flat material to cut up for jewelry elements. The top of your tin is already nearly ready to go, but you probably want to remove the rim. The cutting process can be a bit difficult at this stage, because the tin has been pressed into a shape it will want to keep and it will resist you. Persevere! And more importantly, protect your hands and eyes. 

Your snipping will probably leave sharp edges and pokey burs, and it's very easy to get focused on what you're trying to snip and end up cutting yourself on a part you already snipped. Good gloves to protect your hands are a must. Pointy snippets can also fly up as you work, so protective eyewear is very important. Try to keep your snips straight and cut clean edges.

Read on for part two of how to make jewelry using alternative metals such as recycled/upcycled tins and cans.

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