What is metalsmithing?

We define metalsmithing as "creating jewelry through the manipulation of various metals." Those manipulations or metalsmithing techniques include fabricating metal jewelry by forming and shaping it with hammers, mandrels, and other tools, sawing with a jeweler's saw or cutting with metal snips, doming with a metal dapping set, forging, fold forming, drilling holes for design elements or for use with cold connections such as rivets and screws, soldering, texturing metal with hammers and other metalsmithing tools, and metal stamping.

Other specialty metalsmithing techniques include chasing and repoussé, etching and engraving, electroforming and electroplating, raising, swaging, reticulation, casting, and creating settings such as bezels. All metalsmithing work should end with proper finishing techniques, such as filing, buffing, polishing, and then perhaps adding patinas with liver of sulfur and/or heat, if desired.

Learn more about metalsmithing and some of these techniques below.

Metalsmithing Basics: Cold Connections


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The term "cold connections" means to join or "cold join" materials without the use of flame or solder. No heat means more design possibilities! Using a cold join, you are able to join materials that might otherwise melt in the soldering process.

Metalsmithing Basics: Safety
Safety first. In order to make fabulous metal jewelry, you'll be drilling a lot of holes in sheet metal and perhaps some other materials. Protect your eyes from flying bits when you drill by wearing safety glasses. Protect your lungs with a mask when you're filing or sanding. Little metal bits in your lungs will never make their way out once they're in. Be kind to your ears, and wear earplugs when you are banging and pounding your metal.

Metalsmithing Basics: Jewelry Bench
Set up a metalsmithing work surface that you're comfortable with. Ideally you'll need a drilling surface. Clamp a piece of scrap wood to your work surface with a c-clamp and save your bench pin. You'll also need a metal anvil or steel bench block for punching and texturing. A bench pin is an ideal work surface to brace your metalwork on or against when you need to file or saw interior and exterior shapes in sheet metal.

Metalsmithing Basics: Finishing
Finishing with files and sandpaper will reward you with a professional-looking finish and is well worth doing. Use files to round off corners on rough-cut sheet metal. Sand with sandpaper in successive grits. The lower the number, the coarser the grit. Start with the lowest number and move up to the highest number. You can make sanding sticks with sandpaper and paint stirrers. You'll be reaching for your small set of needle files to flatten the end of your rivet wire, and the round ones are perfect for deburring drill holes. Flexible shaft accessories are ideal for polishing and texturing sheet metal. Steel wool and polish pads are a great final step to highlight and bring shine to areas after patination.

Metalsmithing Basics: Patina
Liver of sulfur is used to antique or darken the finish on copper, bronze, and silver. You need only a tiny amount in a large bowl of heated water to achieve many different effects on metal. Use rubber gloves. Warm your metal, dip in the liver of sulfur bath, and quickly quench in cold water. Dry it off and repeat until you have the effect you desire. Use wooden or rubber-tipped tongs to avoid making marks on your jewelry. If you patina your metalwork, and it's not too fragile, try a tumbler for a really nice polished finish. Use one pound of jeweler's shot in the tumbler with a couple of drops of dish detergent. Fill the tumbler with just enough water to cover the jewelry and the shot. Turn it on for an hour or two, depending on how many pieces and the effect you desire.

Source: Metal Style by Karen Dougherty, Interweave, 2011

Metalsmithing: Techniques, Surface Treatments, and Finishing


Soldering Metal: Soldering creates a permanent join between two or more pieces of metal using an alloy of the metal called solder. The solder has a lower melting point than the metal and with the use of flux and heat, it flows to make a join. The different grades of solder are hard, medium, easy, and extra easy, (there is also an extra hard/IT for enameling). Each grade flows at a different temperature, which is determined by the quantity of zinc in it. Solder can be purchased as sheet, strip, or wire. Flux is painted onto the join to absorb oxygen during soldering, keeping the silver clean and preventing it from oxidizing.

Annealing Metal: For metal to retain its malleability, it must be annealed when it becomes work hardened. The annealing process of heating silver to a given temperature and then quenching relieves the stresses that have built up in the metal and therefore restores its workability. If work-hardened silver is not annealed and work is continued on it, faults and cracks will form.

Pickling Metal: Pickling refers to the cleaning of metal after heating and soldering in a dilute acid solution to remove oxides and flux from the surface. A warmed pickling solution works better than a cold one. After pickling, the silver should be rinsed thoroughly in water. Dry thoroughly afterward to make sure that moisture does not remain inside hard-to-reach areas.

Metalsmithing: Cutting and Filing
Cutting and filing are essential techniques for metalsmithing. Once mastered, these skills will be used again and again in almost every area of metal jewelry making.

Guillotines, shears, and tin snips can all be used to cut sheet metal, but the cut produced by these tools will not be particularly accurate and will leave a distorted edge. Wire can be cut with top or side wire cutters, both of which leave a distorted end that needs filing. Flush cutters leave a clean end that requires little cleaning up. Sheet, wire, and tube can be cut using a jeweler's saw that produces a more accurate cut. A saw is an essential and versatile tool that can be used for both basic and intricate cutting. The saw consists of a frame into which a fine blade is set.

Filing is used to shape, refine, remove defects and burrs, enlarge holes, and create grooves in metal. A file is made from steel and has teeth that cut into the metal as it files. The various types of files are hand files, needle files, riffler files, and escapement files. It's important to use the correct file for the job. Use a rough file to remove a lot of metal and a smoother file to remove the marks made by the rough file.

Metalsmithing: Basic Metal Forming and Shaping
Basic forming uses metalsmithing techniques that quickly bend sheet and wire into simple or more complex forms for jewelry. Ring shanks and bangles are examples where basic forming is utilized. Basic metal forming often involves using a combination of mallets, mandrels, stakes, and pliers.

Metal Forming Tools: It is useful to have a good range of pliers with different profiles. Flat-nose, snipe-nose, and parallel pliers are used for bending angles in metal; half-round pliers are used for making curves and are useful when starting to bend a strip of sheet metal to form a ring shank; round-nose are used for forming tighter curves and are particularly useful for wire. A rawhide or nylon mallet will not damage the silver and can be used for the basic forming of ring shanks and bangles by hammering the metal around a steel mandrel. Mallets are usually flat-faced and available in various sizes.

Metal Shaping: The elasticity of silver is exploited through a range of techniques that use stakes, formers, and hammers to produce three-dimensional forms for jewelry. Compared with basic metal forming methods, there is more scope and freedom in metal shaping. It is essential for metal to be soft and malleable when shaping and it should be annealed regularly. Metal shaping techniques include:

  • Dapping (also known as doming) involves creating a hollow dome from a disc or other shape by shallow forming using a dapping/doming block or die and a doming/dapping punch. Blocks or dies are available as cubes or rectangular blocks made from steel or brass and consist of semicircular polished concave domes graduating in size. Punches are made of steel or hard wood and are cylindrical with one flat end for striking with a hammer and a rounded ball at the opposite end. They are available in sets with each rounded ball measuring a different diameter and fitting a matching concave dome on the block.
  • Swaging: A swage block is a steel former with parallel grooves or channels, which, when used with the appropriate former, can create curves, troughs, and tube from flat sheet.
  • Fold forming utilizes the properties of metal to create lightweight, strong, solder free, and flexible pieces. A bench vise, mallet, raising hammer, and stake are all that is required. Each piece starts with a fold that is shut in a bench vise and then tapped closed with a mallet on a steel block or pushed through the rolling mill. There are many variations for continuing from here, including opening the piece and planishing along the fold line to confirm it, or keeping the fold closed and forging with a raising or creasing hammer by striking the metal at right angles to the fold, causing the piece to curve as the metal becomes thinner. Regular annealing is essential. Once a sufficient curve has been achieved, the piece is annealed and opened.
  • Forging refers to the controlled shaping of metal using the force of a hammer and utilizes the ability of silver to stretch and elongate. It is used for spreading metal, tapering, curving, and creating wedges. The type of hammer and stake or support used will directly affect the outcome-a cylindrical hammer, such as a raising or creasing hammer, will displace the metal at right angles to its curve pushing the metal along the axis; a domed headed hammer, such as a blocking or ball-pein hammer, will displace the metal all round. A flat stake is the most popular to work against and will not usually affect the results; a curved or rounded stake will cause the metal to spread outward.
  • Raising is used by silversmiths to create hollowware from a single sheet of metal without a solder seam and can be used on a small scale for creating both symmetrical and asymmetrical hollow forms for jewelry.

Metalsmithing: Texturing Metals

Metal is soft and malleable and will easily receive pattern and texture from rolling mills, hammers, or punches. It's important to prepare silver before texturing. It must be annealed to make it soft, which will help it to take up the texture more readily (this is particularly important for fine details), and it will also prevent the metal from splitting. Basic and more advanced metal texturing methods include:

  • Hammering: Always hammer against a hard surface, such as a steel block or anvil. Formed pieces should be hammered against an appropriate hard steel former such as a mandrel, doming punch, or stake. The hammer should always strike the metal so that its head makes full contact with it.
  • Roller Printing: A rolling mill is usually used to reduce the thickness of sheet metal, however, passing a sheet of silver through a rolling mill along with another textured material will emboss the silver with the reverse image of the pattern.
  • Metal Stamping: Stamping utilizes decorative punches made from hardened and tempered tool steel together with a hammer that delivers a blow to the end of the punch causing it to make an indentation in the silver sheet. Decorative, letter, and number punches can be purchased from jewelry suppliers. The stamping punch must be held at 90 degrees to the silver sheet with its face making full contact with the metal; otherwise the mark it makes will be incomplete and repositioning it can be difficult.
  • Chasing and Repoussé: Chasing-derived from the noun "chase" meaning furrow, groove, or channel-is an intaglio technique used for ornamentation on metal. Repoussé, from the French for pushed, is a shaping technique used to create patterns in relief on metal. Both techniques make use of the elasticity of metal by stretching it using punches and a hammer to produce embossed designs. Chasing is carried out on the front of a piece and repoussé from the reverse side. Pitch is used to support the metal during chasing and repoussé; its elasticity allows the metal to be pushed out with the punches while also providing the necessary support.
  • Engraving: Engraving is the technique of making incisions in the surface of a metal by hand using a hardened steel tool called a graver. Gravers come in a variety of shapes and sizes with each one producing a different-shaped cutting end. The graver is held with the handle in the palm of the hand and with the thumb and index finger extended along the graver. Forward pressure from the hand pushes the graver along, removing slivers of metal as it slides forwards.  
  • Etching: Etching is the technique of corroding away metal using acid to create areas of varying depth below the surface. The acid is often referred to as a mordant. The process involves applying a resist to the metal to mask off areas, leaving the exposed metal to be eaten by the acid. Etching can produce a range of different effects that are dependent upon the type of resist and its method of application, the strength of the acid solution, and the careful timing of the etching process. 
  • Reticulation: Reticulation is the texturing of metal by controlled heat to produce a unique raised and wrinkled effect. The results are unpredictable and depend somewhat on practice and serendipity; consequently it is not possible to repeat exactly the same effect more than once. Reticulation relies on the different melting points and cooling rates of the metals in the alloys. The wrinkles created from reticulation appear to have taken place on the surface, when in fact all the movement takes place underneath. Sterling silver, which consists of 92.5% fine silver and 7.5% copper, works well, however, a higher copper content will produce more dramatic results.

Finishing Metalwork 
Finishing generally refers to the removal of scratches and marks on the surface, as well as the nature of the final finish, such as satin/matte or polished. The type of finish given can transform a piece, so it is important to plan the finishing before and during the fabrication stages. The finishing steps should start with using a file to remove solder and any marks left by tools. Sanding the surface with emery or wet and dry sandpaper is the next stage to remove firescale and scratches. It is important that the various stages required to remove the scratches are worked through; this is a process of removing deep scratches by replacing them with finer ones until a fine satin or mirror-like surface has been reached.

Abrasives: Both emery and wet and dry papers are available in a range of grades from coarse to fine. They can be applied to various shaped wooden sticks with double-sided tape or glue, used by hand in small pieces and as flat sheets, as well as with a split pin in a pendant motor to clean up inside rings, etc. A matte or satin silver surface can sometimes look a little dull and can be brightened by using a brass brush with liquid soap as a final stage. Other abrasives include steel wool, flexible abrasive blocks, pumice powder (available in several grades), and brass and glass brushes. Using the pendant motor speeds up the finishing process, and there are a wide variety of abrasives and texturing tools available as attachments, including steel burrs, silicone rubber wheels, steel, brass and bristle pendant brushes.

Polishing: This can be done by hand or using a buffing machine, pendant motor, or a barrel polisher. Polishing by hand is suitable for small areas or very delicate pieces and can be done with a polishing cream applied with a soft clean cloth or using leather that has been glued to wooden sticks and then had Tripoli polish/rouge applied to it. Polishing strings are useful for hard-to-reach areas. A steel burnisher can be used to polish or burnish details and edges by hand, but the grades of abrasive paper must be worked through prior to this. Machine polishing is quicker and is carried out using polishing mops that attach to a rotating spindle on a buffing machine. The polishing compounds used for silver are Tripoli (dark brown), used first on a stiff mop to remove fine scratches, followed by rouge (red) with a softer mop. Each mop should be used with one compound only. Machine polishing must be carried out with care wearing safety glasses and a dust mask. The piece should be washed in hot soapy water or in an ultrasonic cleaner between using each different polish. Certain items should not be polished by machine, such as chains, because these are easily snatched away. There are numerous pendant motor polishing attachments that can be used with Tripoli and rouge for polishing hard-to-reach areas. Tumbling is carried out using a rotating drum called a barrel polisher containing steel shot in various shapes and sizes and a lubricant of water and soap or a commercial solution. Tumbling will polish or burnish and also work harden; it does not remove metal like an abrasive will. Chains should be polished in a tumbler and not on a buffing machine. Pieces that are particularly delicate or have stones should not be tumbled.

Source: Silversmithing for Jewelry Makers: A Handbook of Techniques and Surface Treatments by Elizabeth Bone, Interweave, 2011


Metalsmithing Resources

Metalsmith Essentials: Basic Fabrication Join jewelry artist and experienced metalsmith Helen Driggs in 9 watch-and-learn lessons as she shows you how to fabricate metal jewelry pieces.


Master metalwork basics and boost your skills with how-tos on sawing, filing, hammering, forging, and more!

Plus! Learn Helen’s tricks to making your own sanding stick, sawing your own designs, creating a sample texture bracelet, and more!


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