From Metal-Nothing to Metalsmithing: Coax Interesting Shapes from Flat Sheet

Being able to turn flat metal sheet into curved, dimensional shapes is among a jewelry maker’s most impressive metalsmithing skills. Using only simple tools and elbow grease? Even more impressive! Sometimes referred to as shell forming, it’s like making something from almost nothing–and it feels like one of the most creative things I’ve ever done. Metal cones, tubes, spirals, and other interesting shapes become stunning pendants, cuffs, and other jewelry.

Flowers, leaves, shells–they all have dimension in nature, and they need dimension in your designs to look their best. You’ll create life and dimension in these shapes and hollow forms if you know the basic rules of moving, stretching, and raising metal. Your hammer is your magic wand, and Andrea Harvin-Kennington’s video, Metalsmith Essentials: Shell Forming for Jewelry Making with Hammers and Stakes, is your spellbook for this metalsmithing magic. A master instructor and metal jewelry artist, Andrea’s expertise also includes tool designer and inventor. Here are seven things you must know about shell forming. See how this beyond-basics metalsmithing technique will help you create more interesting jewelry!

Metalsmithing Beyond Basics: 7 Things You Must Know About Shell Forming

    1. Andrea’s techniques were born out of the shell-forming techniques in Heikki Seppä’s book, Form Emphasis for Metalsmiths. Seppä writes, “The word shell means the outer skin of any form. The shell form is never solid. It begins as a flat shape, but through the shell-structuring technique, it evolves into a three-dimensional object and finally into a hollow structure.”  Andrea re-imagined Seppä’s techniques in micro form and developed tools to achieve these shapes.metalsmithing hammers and stakes
    2. Metal can be shaped by using hard steel metalsmithing tools and relatively soft wooden or nylon forms (stakes and mandrels). It can also be shaped on hard steel stakes and mandrels using relatively soft nylon or wooden mallets. Spiculums (tapered hollow tubes), synclastic (sunken) and anticlastic (raised) shapes, fluted designs like leaves or feathers, and more are all made using these same tools.
      metalsmithing: forming metal tubes, flowers, leaves, and other three-dimensional shapes
    3. You’ve probably picked up seashells during a walk on the beach. Andrea and Seppä’s shell-forming techniques include the shapes you know from those kinds of shells as well as many other types of shells found in nature. Eggs, turtles, nuts, oysters, and snails have uniquely shaped “shells” that can inspire your designs as you form curved to form leaves, tubes, and other dimensional shapes with metalsmithing techniques
    4. Shell forming isn’t all about the shape, however. Think about the flat or angular lines that you see when you look at flat metal sheet. How do they make you feel? Now think about curved, fluted, ruffled, or spiral shapes in metal, like the leaf above. How do they make you feel? With shell-forming techniques, you can turn flat, lifeless metal into something that looks fluid, soft, flowing, inviting, rippling, ethereal, fluttering . . .
      metalsmithing technique: forming tubes, spiculums, and other hollow forms
    5. In addition to interesting shapes, shell forming also creates drama with size. Hollow forms allow for dramatic statement designs with volume–but without the weight or expense of similar solid shapes. Andrea’s video examples are made using affordable, lightweight 24- and 26-gauge metal sheet that gain strength and stability during forming.

2 Bonus Metalsmithing Techniques: Roll Tapering and Better Soldering

roll tapering metal for metalsmithingI loved seeing how Andrea brought life and dimension to flat metal, but I think my favorite part of her video was learning how to roll taper metal into thinner gauges using a rolling mill. By rolling portions of your metal through the mill, you can flatten some parts of into thinner gauges. That thinness allows you to more easily form the metal into tubes, spiculums, and other forms. Plus, roll tapering doesn’t mar the metal as it thins out like hammering would. My mind is abuzz with ways to use this bonus metalsmithing technique!

metalsmithing tip: file metal ends before forming to help solder the ends closedAndrea’s broad expertise is peppered throughout her entire video, allowing you to learn best practices for other metalsmithing techniques, too. For example, in the middle of a lesson on forming metal, Andrea explained an essential soldering tips. Before soldering closed the seams of hollow forms like tubes, file a 30-degree angle on the inside edges of the metal. This creates perfect alignment for a perfect solder seam. Refer to her diagram, above, and I’ll spare you the extra thousand words a picture can explain!

Shell Forming for Jewelry Making with Hammers and Stakes will help you understand metal’s malleability and learn the relationship between hard and soft tools and forms. Once you’ve mastered those basics, you’ll be able to create in metal essentially any three-dimensional form you can imagine. Your work will move into the realm of advanced metalsmithing–and what an interesting body of work that will be! Plus: You don’t have to spend a fortune in metalsmithing tools to create these curved and curled metal designs. In fact, Andrea shares how to make your own affordable tools in her video!

Download Andrea’s shell-forming video to add interest and dimension to your work!