Trade Secrets: Teachers Share Some of their Best Metal and Wire Jewelry-Making Tips
Few things thrill me as much as learning new tips and techniques for making jewelry. But I get an equally joyful buzz from seeing the “Ah hah!” looks on students’ faces when I’m sharing my own tips that will save them time and help them make more beautiful jewelry. I decided to ask a few experienced jewelry-arts teachers about their favorite metal and wire jewelry-making tips and techniques.
Jewelry Tips from Richard Salley
Artist Richard Salley makes beautiful wearable art with found objects. Found objects can imbue jewelry with deep meaning, but working with them involves challenges as well. “When you’re working with found objects,” he explains, “you want to preserve those natural patinas on the piece, which means you’re probably not going to take the torch to it. Soldering is not appropriate if you want to maintain that, so you need to lean toward cold connections. You need to develop ways to work with found objects, rivets, micro bolts, prongs, tabs, those kinds of things.”
Salley believes one of the keys to success in making wearable art is learning some basic techniques. “I see a lot of students afraid to tackle sawing and I understand that because I went through it myself. I wasn’t confident or competent. If people don’t learn to saw, they’re always going to be limited in the kind of work they can produce. Learning to saw is going to open doors designwise.” Salley’s advice for sawing: “Just practice. The more teeth you have on the surface, the finer cut you get and it’s just easier to maneuver a thinner blade.” He points out that turning corners is easier when using a finer saw blade (“more teeth is better”) and highly recommends watching Thomas Mann’s video, Metal Artist’s Workbench: Demystifying the Jeweler’s Saw.
Tracy Stanley’s Favorite Tip
Tracy Stanley’s favorite tip centers on being prepared with options so that the creative juices can flow when she’s ready to make a piece of jewelry. “What I like to do is work on components. I’ll texture metal, get it antiqued and polished up. Then when I sit down to do a project, I have a whole palette of things to work with.”
I can attest to the wisdom of Tracy’s advice. Most of my jewelry is made from polymer clay beads and components. In the “old days” I used to conceive of a piece of jewelry, and then sit down to make the beads and components to go into it. Of course, what I had in my mind’s eye and what I produced usually were not the same, resulting in lots more work and design. At some point I realized that if I made lots of beads and components ahead of time, then when I was making a new piece I could go “shopping in Ronna’s bead store.” It was not only more efficient, but certainly more pleasurable as well.
Tim McCreight’s Tool Tips
A chat with Tim McCreight left me with a completely new approach to thinking about how well my tools are working for me. “When it comes to tools,” he explains, “people–particularly newcomers–tend to adapt themselves to the tools, which is backwards. Be alert to that. ‘This tool isn’t working right. What am I doing wrong?’ But an equally good question is ‘Why is this tool not working for me? Is the problem my hand, what I’m doing with my hand, or is the tool too long?’ It’s liberating and exciting to say it isn’t me. I wasn’t able to draw a straight line; I sized up the situation and shortened my pencil, whereas it might have taken me a year to adapt my hand motions to adapt to this tool. It’s joyful, it’s empowering, and it’s fun.”
McCreight’s consideration of how tools were working for him led him to examine across the board modification of scale. “As I was working on jewelry,” he explains, “half of the tools on the desk were five inches or smaller and half were significantly larger. A riveting hammer head was the size of a ring finger but the handle was nine or ten inches long. I was forced out of my work zone. I’d have to reach outside that in a physical way with a 12-inch ruler or long riveting hammer or scissors that were three times heavier than the last thing I was holding. Now I try to make things uniform. Paint brushes, riveting hammer, pencils, rulers, files—they all look like someone came by with a buzz saw. I found that really changed the way I worked. My concentration was different. My flow from one step to the next was a better process. The whole process was more fluid. Using a jeweler’s saw to cut off the handle for a paint brush for flux, a trisquare that is probably an inch by an inch and a half, drill bits in little blocks of wood that are dollhouse size. Staying in the zone.”
Celie Fago’s Funny Tip and More
Celie Fago had a tip for me that totally tickled my funny bone: Toenail clippers for cutting wire. Who knew? “I started using them because I didn’t want to take my good wire cutters to a class with beginner students where I had silver, brass, and steel wire.” Fago thought it would be unfair to students to make them have to keep track of which cutters to use on silver and which could be used on stronger wire like steel. Also, she didn’t want to buy several pairs of wire cutters. I think her solution is genius. “I do almost all my wire cutting with toenail clippers,” she adds. “The straight-ended ones work a little better than the curved. I use them for up to 14-gauge silver and brass wire, and 18-gauge steel.” Describing them as working like plough horses, Fago says that although they get dinged up eventually, they’re good for years.
Fago loves the 20 by 20 by 20 rule she learned from her father, a graphic artist. “Every 20 minutes, focus on something 20 feet away and you will maintain your 20-20 vision much longer. You need to change your focus to keep your eyes strong.”
Kate Richbourg’s Wire Storage Tip
Artist Kate Richbourg stores wire in three-ring binders. She uses page protectors to store each gauge separately and backs the protectors with cardboard to stiffen the pages. “I have a binder for each of the metals,” she explains. “On the spine of the binder I write ‘sterling silver’ or ‘copper’ or whatever metal it is. They fit on my bookshelf. They don’t take up much room, but I can flip through them quickly.” She makes notes on the protectors, such as information about the supplier.
Do you ever find a bead you love, but wonder whether the hole is the right size for the gauge wire you want to use? When Richbourg is trying to find the right gauge for beads she spots when she’s shopping, she pulls out a handy tool she made for herself. “I’ve made little one- or two-inch cuts of wire that I’ve wire-wrapped on one end and left stems of wire on the other. I have that on a key ring. I like my wire to fit pretty tightly but not so tight that I’m going to crack the holes when I wire wrap.” Richbourg has samples of wire from 24-gauge all the way up to 12-gauge on her key ring, and keeps it in a change purse so it’s always at hand.
Richbourg also has a sensible and economical tip for keeping tools in good condition: She throws little packets of silica gel into her toolboxes to eliminate moisture and its threat of rust. “I save all the packets of silica gel,” she explains. “People save them for me. I reuse them. They really work! And,” she adds, “you never know what to do with those, anyway.”
Lisa Niven Kelly’s Wire Tips
Artist and Beaducation.com founder and CEO Lisa Niven Kelly’s favorite tip is her recommendation to pre-oxidize lots of wire so it is always on hand. “It saves time when cranking out pieces,” she explains. “Plus you can get the oxidized look when using beads that might otherwise be affected by oxidizing solution.” Some porous stones, such as turquoise and lapis, and also pearls and some shells, react to the liver of sulfur used to darken metal. Having pre-oxidized wire on hand is also helpful when making jewelry with metal beads, fibers, and textiles.
Kelly also recommends keeping lots of mandrels around—plastic, wood, metal, and whatever else works—and labeling them. “I have the perfect mandrel for ear wires, one for my favorite jump ring size and my favorite coil inner diameter. They are some of my most used tools.”
Do you ever wish you knew exactly how much wire you used in that last project? Of course you do. Kelly has a solution for that. “When designing,” she explains, “I always precut a certain amount of wire, and then write that amount down. I overestimate and use craft wire. Then when I am done making the piece, I will measure the leftover wire, subtract that from the initial wire measurement and voilà! I am left with a measurement that tells me how much I used. Then I take the wire design and either photocopy it or tape it to a piece of paper and write down the measurement and technique steps so I can replicate it easily anytime. This is especially great when making ear wires or earring components so you can get them to match.”
Kelly’s recommendation for using craft wire brings back a memory of coming home from the first wire class I ever took. I was having a heck of a time making simple eye pins. I bought a spool of cheap craft wire and used that to make eye pin after eye pin, gradually moving from sadly misshapen ovals to happily rounded and centered eyes. Have plenty of craft wire so you can liberate your inner designer. Play around; bend this way, kink that way. You will discover, you will learn, you will increase your artistry in wire. One of the things that holds most of us back the most, keeps us from perfecting those tips and techniques, is our unconscious reluctance to waste pricey wire. But you’ll only learn and push your artistic boundaries and really get great when you experiment, practice, and discover. So get yourself some cheap wire. And goof around. I can’t wait to see what you make.
Get More Expert Teacher Tips and Instruction
Jewelry tips from teachers are priceless. Just imagine how many times they’ve done tasks over and over in jewelry classes–and how many shortcuts they’ve developed along the way! Plus working with students always brings the unexpected, which leads to great tip discoveries. Join us at Bead Fest to work with the industry’s top jewelry teachers and gather a collection of pro tips along the way! Plan your trip and register for classes quickly at BeadFest.com. Workshops are filling up fast!
Originally published in the August/September 2013 issue of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry. Get more brilliant expert advice, technique info, and inspiring wire jewelry-making tips and projects in timeless back issues of our favorite wire jewelry magazine.
Updated July 2019.