About My Metalworking Process

I start most of my work in my sketchbook, as drawings. Many concepts never make it beyond the sketchbook to actually be made. Even works that are started, are not always completed the way they were originally designed.

I am constantly refining a design, right up until the end (and sometimes later). A concept in my head becomes an idea on paper, which once started in metal may change again and again until it pleases me.

I use a lot of different metalworking techniques in what I create. Fabrication, which is the cutting, bending, and joining of materials, is the foundation of what I do. My work also uses techniques of forming, which is the stretching and shaping of metal using hammers and stakes;  chasing and repousse, which  is the creating of relief designs in metal using hammers and chasing tools; and patinas, which are the surface treatment of metals to give different colors.

After completing a design for a piece, I create a pattern (or multiple patterns for some pieces). I use the pattern as a template to cut out the shapes I need in the metal, or to transfer a design. Sometimes I create the pattern on the computer in a vector drawing program and sometimes I draw the pattern by hand. Sometimes I draw a rough pattern by hand, and scan it into the computer to refine it further. I cut the metal by hand with shears or a jeweler’s saw.

With the cut metal in hand, the next steps are to form it and do any chasing & repousse that is part of the design.  Before working the metal, I anneal it by heating it with a torch. This makes the molecular structure of the metal expand and the metal becomes softer. For forming I use heavier hammers with smooth faces and rounded face-edges that won’t make creases in the metal. These kinds of hammers are named by the process they are designed for; I use leather and nylon mallets, raising hammers, forging hammers, and planishing hammers. I hammer the metal while holding it over a stake. Having more sizes and shapes of stakes determines the variety of forms that can be achieved. Another forming technique is called dapping, where the form being hammered on is concave and the metal is hammered into it to create a bowl-shape. When a piece is formed (or, sometimes, before), then the chasing and repousse is done.

I transfer the design to be chased to the metal, usually by using rubber cement to adhere a paper pattern on the metal and an exacto knife to trace the design. With the design transferred, and pattern removed, I put the metal into “pitch”, which is a combination of ingredients that will soften/liquify when heated (so that it conforms to the formed shape of the metal) and become semi-rigid when cooled to support the metal while it is being worked. Using small tools that look like punches, but are not hard-edged, and different sizes/weights of chasing hammers, I hammer the design into the metal. This pushes the metal inwards to make a groove in the metal; engraving is similar but unlike engraving there is no metal removed.

With a completed outline of my design chased into the metal, I remove it from the pitch by heating the metal until the pitch is soft again, clean the metal, and embed it once again into the pitch for the repousse (which is French for “to push out”). The repousse process is similar to chasing but the tools have broader, rounder faces. Getting the metal pushed out to the right depth can be a challenge and requires practice and skill. Typically a piece requires multiple rounds of chasing to sculpt the design from the front, and repousse, the build it from the back. The last round is usually chasing, where I smooth out any areas with tool marks, and refine edges.

After forming and doing the chasing and repousse, more fabrication is usually required. This may be creating and attaching a bezel for a stone, cutting off excess metal left around the design while it was being worked, adding chains and clasps to necklaces and soldering pieces together. Additional forming may be needed, such as in making a cuff bracelet which is chased while flat and formed gently using leather and nylon mallets.

When all of the fabricating, forming, and chasing & repousse is complete, the piece is ready for clean-up and polishing. This is an important and sometimes time-consuming step, and where I get to see what the piece has become. Usually pieces are quite ugly before this stage, because there are edges to be filed and smoothed, excess solder to be removed, tool marks to be buffed out, and oxidation from repeated torch-heating to be removed. I use a flex shaft with various kinds of sanding/polishing bits, and also do a lot of hand filing, sanding and polishing as well. A dip into a crock-pot of heated pickle (acidic bath) will remove oxidation and soldering flux. A brass wire brush will remove any loose residue on the surface of the metal after it has been pickled. It is after this stage that I will add a patina if I want. The two patinas that I use most are a liver-of-sulfur patina, which darkens copper and sterling silver, and an ammonia-fume patina, which creates a layer of blue-green crust on copper and brass.

After all this, a piece is finished. There might be some minor polishing to remove patina from areas where I don’t want it, or some hand-polishing to bring out highlights in the metal, but overall, it is done. When a piece is done I usually find it a place to display it for a while so that I can enjoy seeing it completed.