Intro to Chasing and Repoussé: Ancient Ways to Move Metal Plus an Easy How-To

8 May 2013

 
Chasing and repoussé are tied with gem cutting at the top of my techniques-to-learn wish list. I can't think of any other jewelry-making or metalsmithing technique that can create so many unique designs on metal or one that creates such an impressive effect--all made using techniques that are thousands of years old. Chasing and repoussé are used to create dimensional works of art in various metals, most commonly silver, for jewelry, flatware, serving pieces, accessories, home décor, and more.

What is Chasing and Repoussé?

In simple terms, repoussé means to push forward or push up (it means "push up" in French); it refers to the metal being raised by hammering from the back to create dimension on the front. Chasing (from the French chasser, meaning "to chase") essentially outlines the pushed-forward designs by pushing back around their edges to help define them.

 
chasing punches
chasing hammer
So the technique of chasing and repoussé means you'd hammer a general design onto the back of a piece of metal, flip it over, and outline the design from the front. You'd use pointed chasing tools (punches) and a chasing hammer (yes, that's where that comes from!) to outline the design; you may or may not use larger rounded chasing punches for the repoussé work. Alternately, you can use those chasing punches (metal stylus-type tools with a variety of tips) to "draw" your design onto the metal, flip it over, and hammer within (or around the outside of) the design, depending on what it is.

Chasing punches are very personal tools that are typically forged or at least modified by their owners. Many of the chasing punches found for sale are blanks that are ready to be modified to suit your needs. Their tips can be flat, domed, or detailed like flat- and Philips-head screwdrivers, pointed like awls, or textured in a variety of ways.

Metalsmithing How-To: Chasing and Repoussé

Chasing and repoussé are ancient techniques (possibly since 3000 B.C.) that are still done today basically the same way they were done hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Now as then, metal is placed in a pitch pot or pitch bowl (pitch is usually hard clay, wax, or resin) that supports the metal while it's hammered upon. Pitch is typically heated to soften it for repoussé work and allowed to harden for more detailed chasing work. If metal is hammered during the repoussé process on pitch that is too hard, it can create so much resistance that the metal is thinned, so the right temperature and hardness of pitch is important for successful repoussé work. Likewise, if chasing is attempted on metal with too soft a backing, it won't provide enough support and the punches can distort the metal too much or even pierce it. What a heartbreaking mistake that would be!

After the first round of repoussé work is completed, the raised areas are filled with softened pitch to support them. The pitch is allowed to cool and harden before the piece is returned to the pitch pot, face up this time, and the chasing work begins to outline and define the areas raised with repoussé. In very detailed designs, this process can be repeated many times--with cleaning and annealing between each step. Chasing and repoussé is a time-consuming technique that involves many steps and quite a bit of repetition, making it a true artisan craft that is becoming more and more rare.

Another ancient chasing and repoussé method involved using wooden tools or punches to press and hammer malleable gold, silver, or copper sheet into the carved cavities of hard rock, bone, or other harder metals to imprint the carved design onto the metal sheet. Early metalsmiths would carve one design into the harder material in a labor-intensive process, but then that one carved mold could be used to produce multiple pieces of dimensional gold work. Alternately, decorative designs using something as simple as wire were made and then metal sheet was hammered upon it.

 
Learn "Low-Tech" Easy Chasing and Repoussé

For a quick and easy introduction to creating dimensional metalwork with chasing and repoussé, get Janice Berkebile's new video tutorial, Chasing Made Easy: Form a Perfect Metal Leaf. In it you'll watch and learn as Janice forms a textured, three-dimensional leaf out of 24-gauge copper. In the process, you'll learn basics about chasing and repoussé that you can use to create other dimensional designs and effects in your metalwork, simply using metal sheet, a hammer, and a sandbag or similar surface--plus gain an understanding about how metal moves and works that you can apply to all of your other metalsmithing projects. Because she skips the part of the traditional technique that involves embedding your metal sheet in a pot of pitch, Janice calls her method a "low-tech" and "down and dirty way of getting some dimension into your sheet metal"--plus it's incredibly fun and rewarding!


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Chasing Made Easy: Form a Perfect Metal Leaf Without Pitch

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Join Janice Berkebile for a jewelry making workshop dedicated to basic jewelry chasing technique. Discover the steps and techniques you need to create beautiful three-dimensional forms.

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