Save Time and Money (and Avoid Frustration) with 10 Metalsmithing Tips
Through watching our metalsmithing videos and reading our metalwork-related magazines and books (especially the three books in our special bundle, below) over the past four years, I've collected quite a collection of helpful tips for working with metal–sawing, texturing, dapping, and more, as well as soldering, pickling, and adding patina. Any time a tip helps you save wasted metal, save hours of finishing time, or prevent mistakes that lead to do-overs, it's money in your pocket!
The funny thing about tips is that I don't seem to remember some of them as well as I might remember techniques or steps in a process, so I like to read back through my list at times and remind myself of these handy shortcuts and tricks. Here are 10 of my favorites. I hope they are handy for you this week and beyond!
1. Metal on File vs File on Metal: It's not always easy to get an edge that's straight, not to mention a long edge that is flat, straight, and square, when using a jeweler's file. Try the opposite of what you've learned: bring the metal to the file and not the file to the metal. Using a large 14" fine-cut file, sold as a Formica file for smoothing the edges of countertops, place the file flat on the bench and then, holding the metal in a vertical position, pull it along the cutting surface of the file. This method creates a long, flat, square edge in a fraction of the time of the traditional method.
2. File Straight, Flat Edges: When filing flat edges, mark a straight line on your metal using a square and scriber for you to work toward. Make sure your file does not "dip" or slope up or down at the beginning and end of your cutting stroke, because that will create an uneven or rounded edge.
3. Recycling Charcoal Soldering Blocks: You probably know that soldering and fusing on a charcoal block generates a reducing atmosphere that diminishes silver oxidation and produces stronger soldered joints. However, charcoal blocks deteriorate rapidly, so you might end up with unusable chunks of charcoal. These blocks are expensive to replace, too. Try rubbing broken charcoal into the surface of a white firebrick to create the same effect.
4. Smooth Sawing from the Start: Begin sawing with the blade tilted at a slight angle; then return to a vertical position to continue sawing sheet silver.
5. Oversized Sawing Solution: Have you ever attempted to cut a piece of silver sheet that's longer than your saw frame and come to a screeching halt when you realized it won't fit? One solution is to use your pliers to twist your saw's blade 90 degrees so that the saw frame is perpendicular to the axis of the saw cut. With the saw frame to the side, you can make cuts of unlimited length as long as the width of the silver sheet isn't greater than the saw frame depth.
6. Pickle-Safe Strainers: Sometimes it can be a challenge to fish out small pieces in your pickle pot. Look for nylon-screened or plastic strainers to use as "dipping baskets" in your pickle pot: Cool the soldered piece in water first, place it in your metal-free strainer, and then place the strainer in the pickle pot. It can be easily retrieved and then rinsed right in the strainer, too. Do not use metal strainers in your pickle pot or you'll risk copper plating all the metal pieces in the pickle.
7. Protect Textured Metal While Dapping: Cover textured metal with a couple layers of masking tape while dapping, or you can place a layer of thin craft foam between the dapping block and the textured metal to protect the texture during forming. Craft foam can also help protect the wood from being marred by the texture on your metal if you're dapping with wooden blocks. If you're texturing both sides of a metal piece, use craft foam or a couple layers of masking tape to protect one textured side against the bench block while you texture the other side.
8. Form Perfectly Round Rings on Tapered Mandrels: When forming rings and bangles on tapered mandrels, keep turning the metal around the mandrel to counteract its tapered shape and to ensure that both edges become the same size.
9. Control Your Liver of Sulfur: The longer you leave metal in liver of sulfur (LoS), the less control you have over the color. Dip your metal into the LoS and rinse it off with water. Repeat this process until you achieve the color you're looking for. Darkening in layers will also give you a more durable patina. Remember that copper can affect the chemical balance of your LoS, so if you put silver into LoS that has already had copper dipped in it, you'll see that it turns a yellowish color. Either make a separate liver of sulfur solution for your silver, or dip copper after you've finished with your silver pieces.
10. Quiet Pounding: Ever notice how loud the sound is when pounding on your steel bench block while it's sitting on a wooden bench top? The bench top reverberates like a drum, amplifying the sound. To correct this, simply place your steel bench block on an old computer mouse pad to help absorb some of the shock and noise. You'll still have the benefit of the bench block's hardness.
Tips for improving processes are super handy, but first you have to know the processes. Our Fundamentals of Jewelry Making book bundle can teach you any metalsmithing technique you want to learn.
The list of techniques you can learn from The Workbench Guide to Jewelry Making Techniques is so thorough and extensive, I can't even list them all here–basic metalsmithing, soldering, and cold connection techniques as well as beyond-basic techniques like casting and mold making, stone setting, chasing and repoussé, etching and engraving, enameling, mokume gane, reticulation, electroforming, fold forming, plating and leafing, and many more creative techniques to help you expand your jewelry-making ability. Once you've mastered those techniques, you can dig even deeper with Gemstone Settings and Patinas to get tutorials on every type of stone setting you can think of and recipes and tutorials for creating THREE HUNDRED patinas and surface coloration effects on metal.
You can learn from this bundle of essential metalsmithing books for years–and possibly never stop learning new things! I can't say enough about how extensive, thorough, complete, and informative the top-rated books in this metalsmithing book bundle are! In addition to oh-so-many techniques, you'll learn about dozens of tools used for basic and specialty metalsmithing tasks and how to use them wisely. If you don't have them, you must get them–and here's another handy tip: if you have any of these books already, grab the whole bundle to get the others at this special price and then give the book you already have to a friend.