Setting Stones in Bezels: Tools and Tips from Expert Tim McCreight
Creating bezels and setting stones in them are among the most difficult and rewarding skills to master in metalsmithing. The key to a successful bezel lies in making very precise measurements and then making very precise cuts to match those measurements–and then putting all the pieces together (you guessed it) very precisely.
That's a simplified version, of course, and there's much more to it, including the specialized tools that are required for setting stones in bezels. Here's an excerpt from a timeless Q&A with Tim McCreight about setting stones in bezels and the stone-setting tools used to do it (first published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine, July 1999).
Judith Kaufman's gold brooch features bezel-set blue chalcedony cabochons. Photo by Ralph Gabriner.
How important is it that I know the hardness of the stones I'm setting?
Well, you won't die from not knowing, but it's a great help to understand everything you can about the gems you're working with, because this information will allow you to select the best tools for the job. Most agates test around 7 on the Mohs scale, while annealed steel is around 6. This means that if you slip with a steel tool, it won't absolutely for sure make a scratch on the stone. If you were setting a material like amber (hardness 2-1/2), you'd be better off using tools made of copper (hardness 3) or plastic, most of which are soft enough that they won't scratch.
Perhaps more important than the hardness is the condition of the stone. Get in the habit of checking each stone under a loupe for hairline fractures, irregularities in the shape, inclusions, and any other factor that might come into play during setting. In some instances, you'll want to position the stone to hide a flaw, and in others you'll want to know where not to push.
Do I need to do anything to prepare a bezel pusher before I use it?
Most bezel pushers I've bought arrive with sharp edges that I think need to be sanded down. I use a medium-grit abrasive paper to round off the corners gently, then follow up with a fine grit to smooth the edges. I rub the face of the tool with this same paper to create a fine tooth on the pusher. This will help the tool get a purchase (a little grip) on the bezel.
Tim McCreight's sterling silver locket is bezel set with a garnet. Photo by Tim McCreight.
What bur can I use to trim around a bezel when the stone is set?
None! No sandpaper either! Burs are made of hardened steel and using them near a gem risks damage if the tool gets away from you. Most abrasives–and certainly the ubiquitous silicon carbide–are harder than many stones and will scratch them.
The one exception here is a wheel made of pumice powder and rubber. These are sold under several names and might appear as blue, beige, or pink. Get in the habit of testing the wheel on the underside of the stone before you set it to be certain the wheel will do no damage.
How can I hold on to a stone while I'm testing it for size in a bezel?
Generations of stone setters have used beeswax to help them lift a stone into position. I use a lump of natural beeswax about the size of a walnut that I have molded into a blunt cone. The wax is just sticky enough to lift the stone but releases its grip with a tiny twist. The advantage of having a reasonably large lump is simply that it makes it easier to locate the beeswax on a crowded bench. Another version is to press a wad of wax onto the end of a dowel or graver handle.
Some beeswax is the correct consistency when you get it, but if it's not right, you'll be pleased to know it's not difficult to modify. If the wax is not sticky enough, melt it (I use an old can) and stir in a little turpentine. Even a few drops will be enough to alter the wax. Allow it to cool and mold it into shape. If the wax is so sticky it doesn't "let go" when you want and if it leaves a residue on the gem, thicken the wax by kneading in a little charcoal dust.
How can I hold a jewelry piece on my bench pin while I set a stone and still have both hands free to work?
A graver's block or BenchMate would work, but here's a traditional trick that might catch your fancy. Take an old belt or a similar strip of leather or cloth and tie it in a loop that drapes over the bench pin and reaches almost to the floor. Set your jewelry piece under the strap and put your foot into the loop. As you press your foot down, the strap grabs the work and clutches it to the pin. To rotate the work, just lift your foot, move the work, and drop your foot again.
I was taught to set a bezel with a burnisher, but then I heard about a bezel pusher. Which is best?
This is a case of a choice between right answers: whatever works for you is the right choice. I prefer to use a bezel pusher first because it allows me to direct pressure squarely against the bezel to press it over the stone. When the bezel wall is securely laid against the gem, I use a burnisher to smooth and harden the metal.
A variation on a pushing tool can be made from a toothbrush or chopstick. When you are worried about using a steel pusher–for instance, when setting amber, shell, or coral–cut either tool to a convenient length and file/sand the end into a soft blunt shape. You'll still want to be careful about dragging the tool across the gem, but if you slip, the wood or plastic will do a lot less damage than a metal tool.
For more expert advice on setting stones in bezels, pre-order master metalsmith Lexi Erickson's newest metalsmithing DVD, Metalsmith Essentials: Setting Stones with Bezels. Through eleven lessons, Lexi shares how to set round and rounded square (cushion) stones, stones with sharp corners, high-domed stones, thin stones, raw- or natural-edge stones, and more. Plus get Lexi's indispensible advice about choosing and using the right bezel wire to make perfect bezels, every time.