Making Three-Dimensional Metal Jewelry: What can your hammer do for you?

I'm always amazed at the malleability of some metals . . . the most typical metals that artisan jewelry makers work with at least–I can't speak much about metals like platinum and titanium and the like. Maybe someday! But for now, whenever I work with a piece of silver (in various forms–fine, Argentium, sterling, etc.), copper, or brass, I get very geeked out thinking about what's actually happening to the metal when I heat it, apply chemicals to it, or hammer it.

 

Hammering in particular is a big one, because the actual act of hammering is so simple. Jewelry making aside, who hasn't used a hammer? Everyone hammers up a nail for a picture, it's a very common thing to do. I don't know many kids who didn't have some sort of hammering toy, whether it was hammering shapes into matching holes or hammering pop-up animals, etc. We've known (and probably not given a second thought to) hammers most of our lives, but when I sit down at my bench with a piece of metal and begin to hammer it, it's a whole other story.

The change in metal that can be created through the simple act of hammering really impresses me–textures of course, you know that–but even new shapes can be achieved. Without a saw, you can turn a shape of metal into another shape, literally just by the sort of stretching and compressing/thinning that happens to it during hammering, by placing your hammer strokes in the right places at the right times.

 

The best example I've seen of this was in master jeweler Bill Fretz's DVDs, Metalsmith Essentials: Basic Jewelry Hammering and Forming and Hammering and Forming Metal Jewelry, Vol. 2. I was literally captivated watching the concave and convex, fluted and domed cuffs and three-dimensional pendants he created in his demonstrations, all achieved with simple hammering techniques. (Just hammering, I promise!) Here are some of my favorite tips from Bill.

 

1. You can create a slight dome with a steel (rather than nylon) hammer, too, but be careful not to twist your hand or turn your wrist at all as you hammer; hit straight down onto the metal to avoid creating divots on it. This is important to remember for all hammering in order to avoid creating marks and texture on the metal that you don't want. (See number 3 if you do make a mistake mark.)

2. When hammering on an anvil, move the metal, not the hammer. Keep the hammer bobbing in a straight-up-and-down motion and just turn the metal piece. Hold the hammer lightly in your palm and let it bounce off the metal in a fluid motion. Hammer each blow with equal effort for uniform marks or textures. If you hammer softly most of the time and harder once in awhile, those harder blows will stand out. It might create a look you want or one you dislike–just know that it will create a different and noticeable mark.

 
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3. After planishing with the round side of the hammer, you can refine the surface of your metal blank and smooth out the slight hammer marks by turning the hammer over and continuing with the flat side. Bill recommends this as a good exercise for creating better hammer control and accuracy. It is a more advanced hammering technique, because you risk errant blows creating unwelcome half-moon marks or divots on the hammered surface. If you do create a half-moon divot while you're hammering metal using the flat side of a hammer, you can turn the hammer over and use the round side to hammer it back out. Then continue refining the surface with the flat side.

   

That's just the tip of the iceberg! Bill's decades of experience shine through during his demonstrations, dropping tip after tip to help you along in the process. And you won't believe how easy it is to create the three-dimensional shapes he creates just by hammering with the right tools–and the right instruction, which he provides in both of his DVDs. No sawing (if you start with the right blanks), no soldering (though you can take your work one step further if you want, later), and no cold connections–just wonderful metal manipulation with hammers and stakes. Learn more in Bill Fretz's DVDs, Metalsmith Essentials: Basic Jewelry Hammering and Forming and Hammering and Forming Metal Jewelry, Vol. 2.

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