Metalsmithing: Tool Makers, Legends, and Insight on Hammering from Bill Fretz
Having grown up with a tool and die maker (my Dad), I hold tool artisans close to my heart. I also have a love for tools, but what jewelry maker doesn’t? There’s just something about a well-crafted tool you can apply to metal (or other material) and have it yield to your touch and perform tasks for you you couldn’t otherwise perform without them.
Miland Seuss was the first jewelry toolmaker and legend I met. I remember the day so well: It was a bright, crisp day in Tucson. I was walking the shows with Merle, we were out in a tent, and all there was to see and learn overwhelmed me. We strolled up to Mr. Seuss’ booth and, well, let’s just say, that’s where my day improved beyond my wildest dreams. There were tools upon tools upon tools on his table. And each was wildly different and beyond what was “standard.” There was a potential for hours of conversation but we kept it to a reasonable amount of time given there were other people for Mr. Seuss to be helping!
I came away from his booth with too much for my brain to retain, a really cool tool I was sure I would be able to justify purchasing by making tons of curved bangles, a bag of “free” brass stampings he was sharing with each sale, and a lead for a few articles.
Nina Graci wrote an article on this legendary toolmaker for the July 2002 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. To follow are excerpts from the article.
“Tools are an extension of a jeweler’s hands. They are the essential components necessary to give shape and dimension to a linear form and transform concept and design into wearable metal art. Jewelry, the glittering offspring of this unique synergy, owes its very existence to tools.
Jewelers may never stop to consider the person who invented their favorite pliers, imagining instead an anonymous assembly line in a Third World country. Although this is sometimes the case, there is one toolmaker who pursues what must surely be a dying art in our machine-driven age, that of inventing and making handmade tools.
Meet Miland Seuss, inventor and toolmaker, known to his customers as “The Answer Man.””
“I just know that jewelers need to bend and cut metal and I enjoy thinking of ways to make the process faster and easier,” says Suess. “People have always asked me to help them solve jewelry-making problems.”
“For many jewelers the annual pilgrimage to the Tucson gem and mineral shows begins with a stop at Suess’s booth. Long-time customers feel comfortable bringing their current jewelry-making problems to Suess, who often solves them by modifying tools on the spot. As the saying goes, for every jewelry-making problem, Suess has the solution. Or, if he doesn’t, wait two hours.
Many of Suess’s tools were invented as the result of hearing professionals say, “If I had a tool that could…then I would save a lot of time.” This was the case with the no fuss Double Cylinder Bracelet Maker and the Channel Bracelet Maker, which formed bracelets in minutes instead of hours by putting large radius curves into flat metal stock and wire. The plus here was the process did not disturb any stone settings.
Decorating metal is as immediate as squeezing your hand around the Dimpler, which punctuates metal with precise, circular domes in seven sizes. Punch a hole through an exotic coin with the Hole Punch for an instant gratification necklace.
Rings, earrings, and children’s bracelets are easy to form with the Double Cylinder Ring Maker and Channel Ring Maker.
Hobbyists and wirewrappers too can add to their workbenches. The Double-Flush Cutter is a miracle of efficiency that flush-cuts up to eight-gauge wire leaving both ends flush, thus eliminating waste and the need for filing. The adjustable gauge allows the cutting of multiple pieces of the same length. The Double Cylinder Metal Wrap and Channel Metal Wrap quickly curve wire into earring hooks and bales while the Prong Setter bends prongs and tightens stones. The Tapered Extra Long Nose Pliers has countless applications for wire bending.”
This reminded me — I have a pair of these pliers, too! I think it was an early prototype.
On a more recent trip to Tucson, I had the pleasure of spending time with another toolmaker and legend–Bill Fretz. I’ve visited Bill’s booth before but this time I was able to spend more time with him and watch him demonstrate some hammering and forming. He also gave me a lot of great pointers, help in picking out some hammers and a new stake. It was my last day of my Tucson trip and a wonderful way to close out the week.
Bill has an amazing command for what is needed to move metal this way or that way. And he has a way of translating his knowledge into his tools so they do the work for you, with professional and amazing results. After coming home, I spent some time watching his videos again. My take-aways include:
- Any hammer can form metal or texture metal–depending on how you use it. Every single hammer can do both things, and Bill explains both texturing and the ins and outs of planishing, raising, embossing, and blocking–the four essential processes of metal forming.
- There are three categories of Fretz hammers. The jeweler’s hammers are coded HMR 1, 2, 3 etc. HMR stands for hammer and then, there is just one number. For the most part, these are the hammers jewelry makers will use the most. The larger silversmith hammers are coded HMR 101, 102, 103, etc. These are for bigger work–bowls, sculpture, and other large forms. The precisionsmith hammers are coded HMR 401, 402, 403 etc., and they are daintier than the silversmith hammers.
- The faces of the Fretz forming hammers are curved. They are intended to create curves when you want to transition from flat to formed metal against a stake. If you don’t want to create 3D forms, those hammer faces will create marks–or texture–on the flat sheet. So, that narrow raising hammer can also be used to create comet-shaped marks on flat sheet. Change directions while you are making the marks, and you can create starbursts, waves, or swirls!
- There’s more of a science behind what kinds of hammers create which kinds of effect on metal. Here’s a list from Bill:
- Rounded raising or cross-peen hammers make it possible to form curved, concave lines.
- Dimple shapes are produced with different sized embossing hammers.
- Flat areas need a light planishing hammer.
- Like a chasing tool, a rounded raising hammer makes a good tracing tool to mark the edges of a design or to form ridgelines while working metal from both sides of the line.
- You can also hammer curved, concave, fluted shapes. Picking the size of the hammer depends on the width of the flutes being formed and how noticeable the hammer marks are meant to be.
- A broader, rounded raising hammer will leave the metal smoother, while the narrow rounded hammer will leave a sharper mark.
- Use embossing hammers to push domed areas into concaves. A small planishing hammer will create the fewest marks on convex areas.”
Too bad I only bought a few hammers this trip. Well, there’s always BeadFest Philly this August.
Have a hammer and need more on the how to use it? Be sure to check out one of Bill’s great videos. They are each wonderful, presented with great insight on the hows and whys, done at a great pace, and you can see exactly how to use your tools and the results you’ll get.
For more, read an exclusive interview with Bill Fretz
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