Meet Bill Fretz and Master His Hammering and Forming Techniques

First, a little background: A frequent contributor to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, William Fretz has been a jewelry designer since high school. Since then, Bill has added a BFA from The Rochester Institute of Technology's School for American Craftsmen, exhibits at galleries and juried shows across the country, numerous jewelry design awards, and his own line of jeweler's tools (hammers and stakes) to his resume. He has spent years teaching students jewelry making and metalwork, including silversmithing at The Cleveland Institute of Art and jewelry at The Portland School of Art.


Now, lucky for us, Bill is starring in his own jewelry-making DVD, Metalsmith Essentials: Basic Jewelry Hammering and Forming. I was so captivated watching the gorgeous concave and convex, fluted and domed cuffs he made in the DVD with simple hammering techniques, I couldn't wait to tell you about it. (Just hammering, really! You won't believe how easy it is.)

But first, I want you all to meet the man himself, and he graciously answered my questions.

What sort of jewelry did you design in high school? In addition to silversmithing and metalwork, what other jewelry-making techniques do you enjoy?

"In high school I did textured band rings, pierced pendants and sterling pendants with carved wood inlays. Most of my designs had forged elements. I read the current books on metalsmithing using Robert von Neumann's book The Design and Creation of Jewelry as my main source. Now I like mixing techniques with fabricated areas and cast elements. I actually like the drawing or design phase the most now. I like to know where I'm going now rather than coming up with a pleasant accident. I want to see the thought process in the final piece."


I read that your essay titled "Creativity" was read at your high school graduation ceremony. What advice did you share with your classmates in that essay?

"I wrote about making a twisted wire cuff bracelet with caps ends. The real theme was that the process in craft is more important and rewarding to the maker than the final result."

That's timeless advice! Now a timeless question: Where do you get your inspiration?

"I like to think of jewelry as a three-dimensional art form, so sculpture is my main area of inspiration.  Texture and color can be important but the piece holds up by the shape and form that the design employs. I was very taken with Clive Bell's book called Art in which he describes 'significant form'. "


What tip(s) do you find yourself sharing with students most often?

"Raising and planishing metal are the main focus of my workshops and articles. If you get these concepts, the process of forming metal becomes a much broader area. "

If you weren't in the jewelry industry, what would you want to do?

"I would probably be an industrial designer. I am sort of going in that direction with the tool design. I am always impressed by good design in the function of things. We make almost all our buying decisions now on design and how well something works."


Can you share why you were drawn to forming with hammers and stakes?

"I like the primitive quality of the forming process while still making very sophisticated contemporary shapes. It is still a valid way of crafting art objects from metal. Also, the same tools can make so many different shapes by using them in different combinations. Watching the process unfold as a direct result of repetitious hammer blows can be mesmerizing."

It absolutely is mesmerizing; I was captivated watching you create the bangles in your DVD, seeing how the combination of the right hammer with the right stake could create what looked like nearly effortless beauty (except for all the hammering, of course!). As you worked, you explained which hammer and which stake was necessary for each task and why, as well as how to use different parts of each one to achieve the effect you were after. That was fascinating to me.

Would you explain the relationship between jewelry-making hammers and stakes?


"The shapes you obtain are really the shapes of the stakes from the hammers that compress the metal to them. Picking up the stakes and the hammers that will work together are really design decisions." 

What advice would you give a beginning jewelry maker or one who isn't having a good response to their work? 

"Start by copying work of accomplished craftsmen that you admire. Draw variations of a theme and pick the design that works the best. It's much cheaper in both time and money to leave the less inspired designs on the paper. Cutting designs out of paper is another variation of drawing."


Great tip from Bill's DVD: While you're hammering a bracelet cuff on a mandrel, you might worry that you'll hit the mandrel if you hammer too close to the cuff's edge. Bill suggests putting a few layers of masking tape on the mandrel to protect it and the hammer surface.

What is the one essential hammer that a beginning metalsmith should have? 

"For convex work, the planishing hammer with flat and slightly rounded faces. The same hammer sizes rings, flattens stock, forges, coins edges, and makes bezels."

What's the best thing you've ever learned from a jewelry-making student?

"To be reminded constantly of how much fun it is to create things."

I love that! We're lucky to work in such a fun, creative industry.

Other than designing beautiful jewelry and tools, do you have any hidden talents?

"Most of what I do has revolved around running a small shop and gallery. I learned the basics of photography and it has been very useful. Shooting small shiny things is difficult because of reflections.  Watching John Paul Miller make large tents to photograph hollowware was really impressive. Documenting your work through photography is the best way to promote it."


Don't miss your chance to get one-to-one metalsmithing instruction from a master like Bill Fretz! To learn more about metalsmithing and to master the nuances in hammering and forming, get his new jewelry-making DVD, Metalsmith Essentials: Basic Jewelry Hammering and Forming. In it, you'll learn the basic techniques and terminology for hammering and forming metal, as well as how to use various hammers, stakes, and a bracelet mandrel. Then you'll watch and learn which hammers and which stakes to use to turn simple two-inch diameter pieces of brass tubing into several stylish cuff designs with stunning curves, ripples, and textures. You can even order a brass bracelet blank with your DVD–but hurry, limited quantities are available!

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