Legendary Miland Suess Jewelry Pliers Speed Up Repetitive Tasks in Five Experiments
In this corner: a pair of Miland Suess synclastic forming pliers, over eight inches long and weighing 15 ounces. In the other corner, a 6×6-inch sheet of 24-gauge copper and a couple ounces of scrap sterling silver. Place your bets for this matchup of jewelry pliers and supplies; then sit back as I attempt five rounds of experiments to see if I can KO a project or two.
But first, you ask, who is Miland Suess?
Answer: Suess was a legendary Arizona toolmaker who had a booth at the annual Tucson gem show. If a client had a special problem making a piece of jewelry, Suess would concoct the perfect pair of forming pliers to reduce fabrication time. For a number of years after Suess passed, his tools were no longer being manufactured. Then in 2016, Euro Tools began duplicating some of his most popular forming pliers for jewelry makers.
“Wow. This works really well and is probably what these pliers were made for. This technique adds strength to 24-gauge metal and allows me to create light-weight earrings that have volume.”
The Interweave Store is offering these jewelry pliers as part of the Miland Synclastic Bracelet Forming Collection, paired with two eBooks featuring 10 projects in each. You’ll also find plenty of ideas in this post. But be careful: Word has it that these 1/2-inch channel pliers can amp up your creativity.
Of course, you probably want to know what “synclastic” means. So here’s a simple definition: “Synclastic – dome shaped. Two curves go in the same direction; versus Anticlastic – saddle shaped. Curves go in opposite directions.”
About Miland Synclastic Pliers
A half dome of steel has been smoothly machined and brazed onto one handle opposite a 1/2-inch channel, which is curved into a smile. When a strip of sheet metal is repeatedly pressed between these two forms, it becomes U-shaped and curves inward.
Jewelry Pliers Experiment 1: A Copper Cuff
For my first project, I use a 6-inch strip of 24-gauge copper that’s about 5/8 inches wide. As I work, I discover these things:
- 24-gauge copper is probably too light for a cuff, despite compound curves. But the gauge is great for earrings, brooches and necklaces. Try 20- or 22-gauge copper sheet instead, for cuffs.
- Cut your bracelet blank into the shape you want as a finished piece. I started with a long, rectangular strip, leaving sharp corners when I was done. I had to snip these off with shears and sand away the burs. With copper this is easy. Not so with harder metals.
- The pliers are heavy, which ensures that they are durable and will last a long time. Rest the handle against the edge of your bench or table to prevent hand fatigue.
- Use the pliers “right side up.” For most of you this will be obvious. But when I first tried out the pliers, I thought the ball should be facing downward. All this did was give me a view of the inside of the metal I was forming. To see the side that shows, flip them over.
- After each squeeze of the handles, reposition the metal in a zig-zag pattern. Squeeze the top, the middle, and the bottom and back up again as you inch millimeter by millimeter along the strip of copper.
- From time to time, remove the project from your pliers, flip it around, and work it from the opposite end.
- Horizontal scratches appeared along the cuff, caused by the edge of the curved channel. This is probably because my strip was too wide for the half-inch channel. It may take you some practice to avoid this. I was able to sand these out, and I sanded the edges of the cuff to round them.
- I annealed the cuff several times and eventually used my fingers to shape this form around a bracelet mandrel. Despite hardening it in a shot-filled tumbler, it was a bit too soft. But I liked the look.
- Consider etching a pattern on your metal or running it through a rolling mill sandwiched with a piece of patterned brass, before you use the forming pliers.
Jewelry Pliers Experiment 2: 20-Gauge Sterling Silver Cuff
Emboldened by my first project, I jump right in with a 20-gauge 1×6-inch blank of sterling silver. I round the corners, hallmark the back, and anneal it by heating with a torch to a dull orange glow. After quenching, I sand front, back, and along the edges, then begin pinching it into shape with the synclastic pliers.
- This metal is harder to form, naturally, so it takes two hands to squeeze the pliers. I anneal the metal with a large torch between passes.
- Once the basic curve is shaped, squeezing the pliers is easier, but my hands eventually start to get tired. For some reason I can’t stop, though.
- It looks like a 1-inch wide strip of metal is about all these pliers can handle. But more horizontal scratches develop. I’ll sand them out, and spend more time finishing this project, even though I like the hand-hammered effect. A half-inch strip is probably a better choice for the pliers and your hands.
- I complete the shape on the bracelet mandrel, using a non-marring rubber mallet.
- Although I love the way the cuff comes out, this method is labor intensive. It’s great for a one-off or a prototype. A hydraulic press system might be the way to go if you plan to make a bunch of these.
- You could try a thinner piece of sheet, such as 22-gauge sterling silver.
Oh, by the way, the pliers didn’t even break a sweat. They handled themselves well and were ready for more.
Jewelry Pliers Experiment 3: Little Stuff with a Pattern On It
I wonder how a piece of patterned material will hold up to these forming pliers. Very nicely, I discover. In my scrap heap, I find one piece of sterling with tree limbs etched on it. I texture two additional scraps with punches and hallmarking stamps. I use a template to draw ovals on each piece. Then I use a red marker to draw a tail at the top of each oval. After I cut these pieces out, I will be able to use the tail as a handle, so they don’t get lost in the channel.
- Wow. This works really well and is probably what these pliers were made for. This technique adds strength to 24-gauge metal and allows me to create light-weight earrings that have volume.
- I use the pliers “wrong side up.” This way, gravity keeps the metal cradled in the channel and easy to move around when grabbed by the tail. I will trim this off after polishing.
- You could create a bunch of oval petals and cold-connect them together into a large, lightweight flower brooch or pendant.
Jewelry Pliers Experiment 4: Turning Heavy Chain Into Rings
At this point, I am now running amok creatively, and time is whipping by. I run a scrap of heavy double-reverse chain through the forming pliers, giving the material a nice bend. Then I cut and solder the ends together, and shape it on a ring mandrel, using a non-marring nylon hammer. Voila. After a twirl in a shot-filled tumbler and a bit of buff and polish, I have a highly detailed ring. Next time I’d like to try even bigger chain.
Jewelry Pliers Experiment 5: Sterling Silver Tubing
I spot a piece of sterling silver tubing about the diameter of a drinking straw. After annealing the metal, I work it through the pliers. But dips and dots appear that I cannot sand out. So I work it over with a ball peen hammer on a trailer hitch and throw it in the tumbler. To my surprise, it comes out nice and springy and keeps its shape. The final decision? It’s worth experimenting to get this technique right if you like a rustic look. If you want to start with copper, check out a plumbing supply.
The Learning Curve
After four hours of work, my left hand is tired, after pressing out three cuffs, two rings, and three textured ovals. But these pliers seem exceptionally handy and have inspired me to experiment in directions I have never gone before. Meanwhile, where did the day go? On the plus side, these jewelry pliers are great for adding dimension to small pieces of metal, without scratching them. For larger projects, you’ll need to do more clean up. Regardless, I know I’m going to be happy with my sturdy, sterling silver cuff.
Tips from Experts: Kate Wolf & Tim McCreight
Once upon a time, making specific forming pliers was taught in jewelry schools. And at jewelry manufacturing factories, an employee could braze together a pair of pliers and some steel stock, creating a perfect forming tool for small details. Last year, wax carving tool inventor Kate Wolf showed me one such pair that was designed long ago for shaping metal flower petals.
Don’t have a brazing torch? Wolf says you can modify a pair of pliers with Jet Sett, a bullet-proof Rio Grande plastic. Heat it up in water in a microwave oven and shape until it cools.
In a quick phone call to Tim McCreight, he says he learned from others how to make some of his own forming tools. Then he sends me cell phone images of two of them: a pair of standard hardware store pliers with huge tubes attached and another pair with winged flanges (above). They look like Frankenstein’s monster, but they get the job done.
“Look what you can do with these things,” says McCreight, author of The Complete Metalsmith. “This is something you can make in 10 minutes and save a half hour of work.”
Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her story on Colorado diamonds appears in the September-October issue and she will be writing about her experience in Kate Wolf’s class in 2018, along with her grant-writing adventures as a silversmith. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.