Metalsmithing Zen: Learn the Value of Hand-Finishing Your Metal Jewelry

Nightfall on the Mesa Shaman pendant in sterling silver and copper by Lexi Erickson.

Hope all of our American friends had a wonderful Thanksgiving! The holiday rush has officially begun, and for many of you (and me), that means making jewelry gifts for friends and familly–or to sell at holiday shows for other people's friends and family! I got wonderful advice about jewelry-making and crafting once that I try to always remember when I'm making jewelry gifts for others: Make each one as special as if you were making it for your own mother. Great advice–and for metalsmiths, that means paying extra attention to finishing so each piece looks its best–and feels comfortable when a loved one wears it. No pointy pieces or sharp edges! Read on for some great advice I pulled out of the JMD archives from master metalsmith Lexi Erickson about hand-finishing your metal jewelry creations. -Tammy

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 metalsmithing DVD 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.

Sacred Path Red Creek Jasper and piercing with overlay pendant by Lexi Erickson.

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.

Gorman's Gate, made in honor of the Taos artist R.C. Gorman and featured as a step-by-step project in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, by Lexi Erickson. 

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.

Read on for Lexi's advice on finishing your metal jewelry designs.

Lexi's Metalsmith Essentials: Hand Finishing Jewelry DVD and instant download are both available in the Jewelry Making Daily Shop!

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