Saw, Solder, Finish: Jewelry-Making Tool Basics for 3 Metalsmithing Essentials
When you make jewelry by hand, you’re usually fabricating it. This simply means that you’re making your jewelry directly from metal wire, tubing, and sheet rather than making models and molds and then casting with metal grain, says Sharon Elaine Thompson. “In fabricated jewelry, metal is formed or shaped, sawn, and then joined by soldering or other connection methods. Finally it is polished, patinated, and any stones are set.”
ABOVE: For fabricating jewelry or finishing jewelry work, you’ll work most comfortably at a jeweler’s bench. Although it is seen as furniture on which you use your jewelry tools, the bench is actually another specialized and important tool itself, designed for the many tasks of the working jeweler. Photo: Jim Lawson.
There are at least a couple of dozen categories of tasks involved in jewelry making, and well over a hundred pretty standard tools within them. To help give new makers a handle on all those tools and all makers a few tips from seasoned pros, Sharon prepared a compendium of jewelry making tools for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist that originally appeared in the May 2009 issue. Excerpted from her Illustrated Guide to Jewelry Making Tools, below you’ll find a quick look at a few of the tools involved in metalsmithing at the beginning, middle, and end of making a piece of jewelry: cutting, assembling, and finishing your metal.
Jewelry Tools for Cutting Metal
Forming metal often starts with cutting a shape from a sheet of metal. For very thin metal, this may be done with snips; however, snips can curl, twist, and deform the sheet. Most often, cutting is done with a jeweler’s saw and blades. Simple holes are cut in metal with drill bits, by hand, or with a motorized tool. Depressions in the surface of the metal are cut with burs or with gravers. Stamping cuts the surface — typically in a decorative pattern — unlike a punch, which merely moves the metal. Files are the first step in finishing metal, and come in a range of shapes and “cuts” from coarse to fine.
“Cutting” is really a misnomer when it comes to metal. Because of the malleability of metal, it typically breaks or chips, rather than cuts, depending on what tool is used to “cut” it. Snips, shears, and nippers compress the metal to the point where the sheet severs at the place where it is pushed so thin the molecules break apart. Saw blades chip away tiny shards of metal.
Saw blades are available in a range of sizes, from 8/0 to 8, to suit the type of metal being sawn. Smaller numbers indicate finer blades for thinner metal. Blades are held by clamps at each end of a U-shaped saw frame. The base of the U is adjustable for the length of the blade. Throat depth, from the top of the U to the bottom, ranges from 2 1/4″ to 6″ and up to 11″.
Professional’s Saw Frame Choice: Cynthia Eid
“My saw frame, made by Lee Marshall of Knew Concepts, is light and comfortable. It has a great blade-tensioning mechanism — no more need for pressing the saw frame between your chestbone and bench!”
Jewelry Tools for Soldering
A torch is a device that mixes fuel (natural gas, propane, acetylene) with air/oxygen to produce intense heat. It is possible to fabricate jewelry using only cold connections such as rivets. However, almost all jewelers use some kind of torch for soldering, texturing (such as granulation and reticulation), and coloring metal. Torches are also used to heat metal for casting.
Torch tips are available in a variety of sizes for different applications. When using a torch, you’ll also need supplies such as metal solder, borax flux, pickling solution (a weak acid) to remove oxidation caused by the torch, a charcoal block, soldering pad, striker, and a third hand (or two) to hold the pieces you’re soldering.
Torches can be dangerous. They require volatile gases under pressure that must be regulated, and produce a very hot, open flame. When working with a torch, always follow all manufacturer instructions and safety precautions. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask your gas or tool supplier for guidance, and be sure to develop safe working practices.
Professional’s Torch Choice: Christine Dhein
“The best torch for you is the torch best suited to the type of work you do. For most jobs, I use the Mecco Midget torch, which offers a lot of flexibility. I use it with propane and oxygen; however, natural gas and oxygen is cleaner, for those who have that option. This torch has a variety of torch tip sizes available, including very small tips for fine chain and other delicate operations. You can also use it without a tip to get a larger flame. I also like the way I can control the heat with a two-tank system, using a reducing, neutral, or sometimes oxidizing flame, adjusting the flame type to suit the job.”
Jewelry Tools for Finishing
The final step in jewelry making is finishing. Finishing may include texturing a surface as well as polishing. Finishing may be done by hand, with sanding and polishing sticks, with a flexible shaft motor tool, or with a dedicated polishing machine.
The basic tools for hand finishing include:
Burnisher: a small hand tool with a steel or tungsten carbide tip that is used to push down and polish bezels, or burnish (polish by rubbing metal on metal) prongs or other areas on a piece of jewelry.
Sanding sticks: flat wood tools fitted with a variety of grits of sandpaper, for use in addition to or instead of files. Reusable plastic sanding sticks allow jewelers to replace sandpaper without replacing the stick.
Stones: small stone blocks used to abrade away solder, scratches, and file marks. Usually used wet.
Professional’s Finishing Choice: Christine Dhein
“I rarely polish. I prefer a satin finish. I use a brass brush, 4/0 extra fine steel wool, or 3M radial bristle brushes to achieve my final finishes.”
Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing on gemstone and jewelry topics for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of Birthstone Romances under the name Liz Hartley.
Check out these metalsmithing giants for more in-depth info:
Learn to Use Essential Metalsmithing Tools
See jewelry tools in action in a special collection of six workshop videos that will teach you the basics of metalsmithing for jewelry making. Learn the essential metalsmithing skills of sawing, soldering, cold connecting, hand finishing, and creating textures and patinas in depth, plus quick basics of hammering, forming and filing, all in the Metalsmith Essentials Anniversary Collection.
Free Complete Jewelry Tool Guide
Find out what basic tools are necessary or nice to have and what each one is designed to help you do better in the free Illustrated Guide to Jewelry Making Tools: More than 125 Jewelry Tools in 30 Categories Described — Plus Pros’ Favorites! by Sharon Elaine Thompson.
Find this metalsmithing collection and even more metalsmithing resources in our store: