Metalsmithing Techniques: Learn the Zen of the Process for Hand-Finishing Metal Jewelry
By Lexi Erickson
Everyone knows my favorite jewelry-making technique is soldering. I should have a bumper sticker that says, “A Day Without Soldering Is a Day Without Sunshine.” Most of the letters I get from you have soldering questions. But I also get tons of requests about how to make pieces have that antique or gently loved look, that look that makes them feel like they were dug up yesterday from some ancient civilization. Guess what? I have a new metalsmithing DVD coming out on how to do just that very thing, titled Metalsmith Essentials: Hand Finishing Jewelry with Lexi Erickson.
The trick to almost all of my metalsmithing designs is in the hand finishing, and it’s much different than putting them in a tumbler or finishing them on the rapidly spinning wheels of tripoli and rouge. The trick is what I call “The Zen of the Process” . . . the metalsmithing process, of course.
Once upon a time I was the Queen of High Polish. My university professor taught that the high polish was the hardest finish to achieve, so there I was, every day in class, goggles on, hair tied back in a pony tail, red rouge residue blackening my face, polishing and buffing away in front of those whirring six-inch wheels, making my pieces gleam with the high polish. Front, back, sides . . . nothing escaped my eagle-eye gaze, and I freaked out if there was a scratch or fingerprint on my mirror-finished piece. The pieces were sleek, contemporary, and you could see yourself in them. Laid out at the end of the semester, my work had that “Don’t dare touch me” look. It was cold and as perfect as I could get it. I got the “A” in metalsmithing . . . but I didn’t like a single piece.
Fast-forward a few years. My husband was transferred to South America because of his job. I had no visa for working, and my usually active lifestyle came to a screeching halt. My new friends were ladies who lunched and played bridge all day. I’d rather be shot out of a cannon than play bridge, so I started teaching the women of Chile to make jewelry. The only thing was, many of them didn’t have electricity or many metalwork tools. The typical metalsmithing studio had a rolling mill and a propane torch, a saw and a dozen saw blades, one file, a few hammers, two pairs of pliers, a piece of sandpaper, and the ever-present kitty rubbing against my legs. Teaching these women was a tremendous challenge for me, but as it turned out, they taught me so much. It changed my jewelry and me, forever.
The first thing I noticed about their jewelry versus mine was theirs had a lot of feeling, what I grew to call soul. I liked the look, and how they achieved it was by not overworking a piece. There was no frantic buffing-wheel finish, but a gentleness to their handling and sanding of a piece. The jewelry now felt really good in my hands, and the ever-present angst over a scratch was not there–in fact some scratches were okay, because they gave the piece character.
So I will share with you how to give your metal jewelry soul, that enduring feeling of gentle aging and timelessness. You don’t have to run get the polishing cloth each time you want to wear your jewelry. And it all starts with hand finishing your metalwork.
Metalsmithing Techniques: the Zen of Hand Finishing
As I say in my Hand Finishing Jewelry video, when you come to my studio, it’s calm and relaxing; maybe soft Native American flute music is playing; there is the smell of piñon incense from Santa Fe; and there’s the ever-present kitty. You’re transported to another time and place. No loud machines or loud music allowed.
My metalsmithing students are provided a variety of Fretz texture hammers, files, and finishing films. I love the 3M Imperial Micro-finishing Films. They are backed with plastic, and one sheet will last a looooong time. They are also micron graded; that gives you a consistent finish without some errant large “boulder” that can creep into your regular run-of-the-mill hardware store sandpaper and make a scratch that ruins your smooth finish. After soldering and final clean up, I like to go to the 30-micron (equal to 400-grit) finishing film. Cut yourself about a 2-inch square of the film and sand your entire piece, front, back and sides. The trick? Go in one direction only; don’t sand in circles.
After the surface looks even, move up to the 15-micron (600-grit) film and do the same thing. You will notice a smoothness and consistency of finish that is not always possible with other sandpapers. In addition, this should be a thoughtful process on your part; enjoy watching the finish happen, enjoy running your fingers over the surface of the metal, and enjoy the feeling that you may stop this process any time. You aren’t rapidly removing metal (or texture)–that can happen quickly if you are using a 60-mile-an-hour spinning tripoli wheel. You have complete control over the metal, and you see what is happening. You are learning the Zen of the Process. You have a consistency of texture.
When your sandpaper marks are satisfactory, you may move on up to the 9-micron (1200-grit) film, or you may stop where you are. When I get the finish I like, I rapidly burnish the edges and top, too, if there is some texture that I wish to highlight. What you must remember is that you are in total control of this finish. With hand finishing, you decide exactly what finish you like on your metal, when to stop, and what to highlight. Hand finishing, to me, means the ultimate in fine craftsmanship. The “scratches” or textures that give the piece soul are not the result of bad craftsmanship but of a highly thought out, controlled metalsmithing process. The highly burnished edges and attention to detail all come into sharp focus when you enjoy the Zen of the (hand-finishing) Process.
I demo how to do this and share many other details of hand finishing in my DVD, Metalsmith Essentials: Hand Finishing Jewelry. (You can also get it in a special metal finishing collection–see below for details.) I know the things I learned from the women of South America changed my metalsmithing for the better. My students taught me so much, and I feel my pieces now have soul. If you want your jewelry to have this timelessness, watch my techniques and then make them your own.
Have a great time experimenting with hand finishing your metal jewelry!
Treat yourself to the Metal Finishing for Jewelry Makers Collection, which includes Lexi’s hand-finishing jewelry DVD, the coordinating machine-finishing jewelry DVD by Helen Driggs, two issues of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine that feature information on finishing and cleaning jewelry, PLUS an ultrasonic cleaner to keep your perfectly finished jewelry looking its best! — Tammy
Learn more about finishing jewelry with Lexi in Filing and Finishing: 7 Metal and Jewelry Filing Tips from Lexi Erickson and Hand-Finishing Metal: Lexi’s Favorite Jewelry-Making Files and What They Do.