Metalsmithing Best Practices: 3 Essential Metal Preps for Creating Dimensional Fretz Designs

When you’re trying to make complex metal jewelry like the fluid, dimensional designs Bill Fretz creates, there are few metalsmithing basics and best practices that you need to do before you begin. Here are three to get you started!

1. Anneal metal. Before you begin nearly any metal jewelry-making project, you should anneal the metal. To properly anneal metal, heat it with a torch until it glows a dull red, being careful not to go too far or you’ll melt the metal. Some metalsmithing gurus recommend marking the metal with a Sharpie marker and then heating until you can’t see the mark anymore for perfect annealing. But why do it?

Simply put, annealing metal makes it more malleable (softer) and, therefore, easier to use. Metal that has been annealed receives hammer blows more easily, forms to mandrels and stakes more easily, is even easier to saw. Working with annealed metal is also easier on your tools. All of this easier metalsmithing means your work is easier–and it’s gentler on your hands and wrists. Whether you’re creating dimensional Fretz-like designs, fold forming, or forging metal in other ways, softer metal is just easier to work with.

create fluted dimensional metal jewelry with expert-quality metalsmithing tools

2. Grip properly. It’s important to hold your tools, particularly your hammers and file or saw handles, properly. In general, you should never grip tools too hard, because it impacts your range of motion and can hurt your hands. It certainly wears you out faster! When I watch Bill creating dimension from flat metal, I’m amazed at how fluid and rhythmic and easy he makes it look. If you grip a hammer too hard, you won’t benefit from the natural balance and bounce-back that a hammer’s blow has, which helps you keep a nice gentle rhythm when texturing and forming metal. On the other hand (no pun intended), you also don’t want to hold hammers too loosely. Poor hammer control can allow your hammer blows to go where you don’t want them–including on your thumb.

I’ve heard many metalsmith experts say that you should hold a hammer as if you’re shaking hands–same grip, same strength, same firmness. This handshake method will allow you to have a strong enough grip on your hammer so that your blows are well placed and just hard enough. Plus, you won’t hurt your hands or hit the metal too hard and create a divot or mark that was unwanted.

Bill Fretz creating dimension in metal with metalsmithing tools

3. Know your materials. It’s essential to know the relationship between metal and wood, metal and plastic, metal and metal, etc. If you use steel tools on metal, the metal will stretch and deform. If you use plastic, wood, or rawhide tools on metal, the metal will move without stretching.

In an article in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine, Helen Driggs shared easy-to-remember formulas to help you know how tools affect your metal during metalsmithing: steel + steel = stretch metal, and steel + wood, plastic, or hide = move metal. Helen wrote about the two basic ways to move metal: “You can stretch or compress it by deformation, or you can move it without deforming it. Anvils and blocks are usually wood, plastic, or steel–and you can use steel, wood, hide, or plastic striking tools (hammers, punches, or blocks) with them.” Those tools and what they’re made of determine whether we stretch or move (deformation or no deformation) our metal.

“The metal will generally take the shape of whatever the harder surface is,” Helen writes. “Put annealed metal on a flat wood [or plastic] block and strike it with a steel hammer, and that metal will typically curl up away from the wood [or plastic] toward the hammer. If you do the opposite and put a curled piece of annealed metal on a flat steel block and strike it with a hide, wood, or plastic mallet, the curled metal will flatten down to the steel.” Remember Helen’s handy formulas and you’ll never stretch your metal when you want to move it!

These three best practices–annealing, handling tools properly, and knowing how different types of metalsmithing tools will affect metal–will give you a great start on creating fluted, dimensional, concave and convex forms like the ones so distinctive of Bill Fretz’s style. Now you need the tools and instruction!

fluted bracelet by Bill Fretz using Fretz and Fretz Maker metalsmithing tools

Learn to make this bracelet with the Fretz Basic or Deluxe Fluting Bracelet Set!

We’ve created two exclusive fluting bracelet collections featuring high-quality Fretz metalsmithing tools. In the Fretz Basic Fluting Bracelet Set, you’ll receive three professional-grade Fretz stakes, a stake holder, three Fretz Maker hammers, and the November 2016 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine, which includes Bill’s fluted bracelet (above) tutorial using the same tools you’ll receive in the set. (Fretz Maker hammers have the same faces as the Fretz hammers you’re familiar with, but they’re more affordable because of the still high-quality wood used in the handles.)

You can also get the Fretz Deluxe Fluting Bracelet Set, which includes everything in the basic set plus a flat cuff stake to go with the other three and an awesome Fretz double-ended insert hammer with 9 plastic insert faces that will forge metal without stretching it or leaving marks–see #3 above!