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Wood into Gold, and Other Tales of Transformation, Part 4

December 4, 2016

 

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And you thought Wagner’s Ring Cycle was epic…. How better to celebrate marriage than with Viking helmets and shattered wine glasses? In this fourth and final installment, the plan was to make my ring from whatever gold was left after making her ring. But alas, I did not have enough gold left to make a whole second ring. I had two choices. Buy more gold, or make my ring out of something else.

I had contemplated this possibility some time ago and already knew my answer. Being a blacksmith, I thought it would be cool to forge my ring from steel and to inlay a thin band of the gold into the steel. I may well have opted for this even if I had had enough gold to make a second ring.

[Brief aria for teutonic tenor]—“Ode to My Scrap Pile.”

I have a sizable collection of scrap metal that most people mistake for junk. Rods, bars, plates, blocks, coil springs, railroad spikes, lawn mower blades, etc, etc…. Whenever people help me move, I invariably have to make sure that no one tries to discard items from my scrap pile. It is hard to describe, but I have deep affection for my scrap pile. I have been hauling it around for quite some time. I like how it is all waiting to be turned into something new again. It seemed fitting that my ring ought to come out of my scrap pile.

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A tiny part of my scrap pile resides in this bucket. My ring came out of this bucket.

Forging a ring is not as difficult as it might sound. There are different ways you can do it. You can bend a band of steel into a circle then forge weld it. Or you can punch or drill a hole, then enlarge the hole using a tapered rod called a drift. I did the latter. You just have to be sure to do things in the right order. For instance, if you need to increase the thickness of the steel, you must do that before creating the hole. Forcing a drift through the hole will only enlarge the hole—it will not cause the surrounding steel to become thicker. And even more generally, trying to work on the outside of the ring once the hole has been created will make the hole larger than you want. Therefore you must establish the basic exterior shape prior to creating the hole.

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There is a very old blacksmith adage that goes:

“He that will a good edge win, must forge thick and grind thin.”

That adage can be found in Joseph Moxon and pertains to the making of edge tools. But it may as well refer to forging a wedding ring. At least for me. Sure, you could forge a ring so that the forged band is itself the finished product. But I had other plans. Plus I had never created a piece of jewelry like this, so I made sure to leave the ring a bit fat, so that I could sneak up on what I wanted.

After forging, I rounded the outside of the ring with files and beveled the edges. Then it was time to create the channel for the gold. I did that with a combination of chisels and a very thin file used on edge. The proportions and straightness of the channel I arrived at by eye, adjusting things here and there as I went. The trickiest part was undercutting the sides of the channel. I think my eyes are getting old. Even with magnification, I found it hard to see.

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The sides of the channel are undercut in order to trap the gold when the gold is hammered into the channel. The gold will mushroom, creating a dovetail of sorts, mechanically trapping it. No adhesives are required.

Getting this exactly right was trickier than it might sound. It took me a couple of tries. For instance, I found it important to not make the channel too deep. For one thing, it wastes gold. But for another, a deeper channel means that the strip of gold needs to be taller, and when you hammer the taller strip into the channel, the force of your blows will deform the uppermost gold and not the deeper gold at the bottom of the channel. Therefore you don’t get good capture. The gold’s malleability can work against you a little.

Fourteen karat gold is probably not the best gold for inlay, either. It has very particular working properties. It is harder, because of its copper content, so it requires more force, but then it also work hardens faster than higher karat golds.

My solution was to very carefully craft the strip of gold in order to maximize the desired effect when force was applied to it. This is what I mean—instead of creating a perfectly square or rectangular strip, I created a beveled strip, like this:

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A trapezoid, basically. The force applied with the hammer must go somewhere—a trapezoidal shape reduces the nonessential gold into which that force might have flowed. It guarantees that the gold at the bottom of the channel will spread into the undercutting.

It might go without saying, but it is important that the width of the gold strip match the width of the channel as closely as possible. Otherwise the gold’s malleability gets wasted spreading the gold into space that a better-fitting strip would have occupied in the first place.

[Aria for Nordic Shop Cat]

OK. All of this assumes that you have a strip of gold to work with. But the gold I started with was scrap just like the steel. Only it was in far worse shape than the steel scrap. The gold scrap was mostly dust and filings, with bits and nuggets thrown in for good measure.

A professional jeweler would melt this scrap into an ingot, then roll the ingot into a strip using a small but stout rolling mill. Well, I don’t have a rolling mill. If my shop cat Charlie were still around, this would have been a perfect job for him—to hammer the tiny ingot into a strip using his tiny hammer. But Charlie rode off into the sunset on that big beer truck in the sky some time ago. So this tiny smithing job was left to me.

My first couple of attempts at making an ingot yielded unacceptable results. This one I named “Gold Member.”

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And this one, “The Turd.”

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Then when I got an ingot worth forging, the seemingly countless cycles of work hardening and annealing made me realize that I was trying to work the gold too much like steel. I should have cast the gold into a shape that resembled the final shape as closely as possible. Screw the ingot.

Using an 8d nail as a pattern, I cast the gold into a long cylinder. From there it was a matter of drawing the cylinder out into successively narrower cylinders. To do that I used a series of successively narrower grooves that I filed into a block of steel (another piece from my valuable scrap pile, I might add), essentially creating a miniature swage block. I hammered the gold into one groove until it was as long and as slender as that groove could make it, then I would move to the next narrower groove. And so on.

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The final step of course was turning the slenderest gold cylinder into the trapezoidal strip. That involved a lot of careful crafting. From start to finish the whole process was quite laborious and time consuming, nothing like what a professional jeweler would do. Such is life.

The final final step was to inlay that trapezoidal strip into the steel ring. The trickiest part of this was estimating where to cut off the strip in order for the end of the inlay to meet the beginning. I’m sure there is a way to calculate this, but I would rather just look and do.

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This is what the gold looked like freshly hammered into the groove.

The final final final step was to clean up the inlay and ring with files and progressively finer sandpaper wrapped around small sticks. The inside of the ring also needed attended to. I left it until last. I had stretched it to just shy of my ring size with a drift. I used files and sandpaper to get the fit just right.

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Here is the same edge cleaned up. I can no longer tell where the two ends of gold meet.

So that’s it. A wedding ring for her. A wedding ring for me. It was an interesting and meaningful project. So maybe it wasn’t as epic as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I would take my wife over a boring valkyrie any day of the week.

 

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Wood Into Gold, and Other Tales of Transformation, Part 3

October 14, 2016

1576goldsmiths

Let me begin by stating the obvious—gold is expensive; very expensive. I had never worked with it before and honestly found it a bit daunting at first. In my world, dust does not have value—it’s just the opposite. Wood or steel dust can be a nuisance, even. It can make you sick; you track it everywhere; if you own a shop cat, your shop cat tracks it everywhere; both of you bitch about it. Your significant other bitches about it. That is the world of wood and steel.

The world of gold, on the other hand, is populated by people who hoard dust. Their shop cats hoard dust. Their significant others likely never even see the dust, because every possible crumb of it has already been hoarded. People have been collecting gold dust for hundreds of years, as is evidenced by the artwork above, depicting 16th century goldsmiths. Notice the fabric or leather “slings” beneath the bench pins on the nearside of the workbench? Contrary to popular opinion, those are not comfort slings for the goldsmith’s manhood. They are slings for catching gold filings. If you look closely, you can see that all four work stations at the bench have one. Gold is so valuable, there is virtually no amount of it that has no value. That is the world of gold.

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The idea was to juxtapose an organic element with a geometric element. And if you are wondering who “Kay” is, so am I…. I bought this engraving vise secondhand a long time ago.

It took a couple of days to make the transition from the world of wood and steel to the world of gold. But once I had made it, I felt great. Detailed metalwork is something that I particularly enjoy. The only difference was that now, every so often, my mind would tell me that the table was getting a bit messy; that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to scrape together the loose gold chips and filings. Yes, I had indeed become one of them.

The gold felt soft, almost “sticky,” as I worked it. It was fairly malleable, although not quite as malleable as I had expected it would be. It worked a lot like copper, which isn’t a big surprise, considering that the gold was from my old wedding band, and my old wedding band was made from 14k gold, an alloy that contains an appreciable amount of copper. Many wedding bands are made from 14k gold because it is more durable than higher karat golds.

2016-03-25-17-09-02My tools for shaping metal are a mixture of purchased and homemade. I carved the gold, chased the gold, and filed the gold, all in whatever order and to whatever degree struck me as the best method at a given moment. I call it my “look and do” method, pretty much the same as sharpening saw teeth, simply seeing what needs done then doing it. And not getting hung up on any preconceived idea about how it ought to be done.

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The shaping of the ring at an intermediate stage. You can see that the undercutting of the foliage has not yet been done. Just as with carving wood, undercutting is one of the last things to do.

My tools are not specifically for jewelry, of course. There were several times when I did not have tools that a professional jeweler would have. For instance, I did not have a rotary handpiece, such as a Foredom, which would have come in handy for setting the stone. The sapphire was 3mm in diameter, and while it isn’t normally tricky to drill a 3mm hole, with this ring it was a little different, because my goal wasn’t simply to drill a hole—my goal was to create a recess just deep enough to seat a flat-bottomed stone, so that I could burnish the gold to permanently capture the stone. The width of the cavity was to be just enough to allow the stone admittance. Therefore the hole wasn’t exactly 3mm, it was ever so slightly larger.

My solution was to use a sequence of engraving tools, rotating the ring in my engraving vise, gradually enlarging and deepening the cavity as I went. It took a lot of trial fitting. And lots of care.

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Here, the stone is in place, and the gold has not yet been burnished to capture it.

I refined the shapes until I had almost reached their final surfaces. Then I scraped, burnished, and polished until I had reached the final surfaces, and those surfaces looked the way that I wanted them to. I reached a point where I felt that I could not make things better. Which isn’t to say that I thought my work was perfect. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything that I felt was perfect. But I had reached the point where it was the best that I could do.

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I was shooting for a satin finish, not a high gloss finish.

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So that is pretty much it. This ring certainly involved some challenges and learning curves. Was it the most difficult project I’ve ever tackled? No, not really. And it certainly wasn’t the biggest. Or the most ambitious. But I will tell you this—I cannot think of a project that has meant more to me.

Don’t miss the final installment in this four-part series. The final installment is about how I made my own ring. It isn’t more of the same—it is a very different sort of ring and project.

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Wood into Gold, and Other Tales of Transformation, Part 2

September 12, 2016

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In case you missed our last episode, cue the recap montage—A curious twist of fate; ancient rings are cool; never try to princess cut a black market kidney.

Or you can simply scroll down and read the entry itself …. It isn’t long.

So how many ways are there to make a ring? Probably countless ways, when you get into the particulars. But they all boil down to a small number of underlying strategies. 1. You can cast a ring. 2. You can build up a ring up from constituent parts. 3. You can do the opposite and carve a ring from a single piece of material (stock reduction). 4. Or you can beat the metal with a hammer and forge a ring. Did I miss any?

The rings I made involved three of those four strategies—casting, stock reduction, and forging.  My plan was to make her ring first then to make my ring from whatever gold was left. Most of the gold came from my old wedding band, a run of the mill 14k wedding band identical to the ring worn by countless guys the world over.

Reusing that gold was a practical thing to do, but as anyone who knows me could tell you, I’m not that practical. I used the gold from that old ring mostly because I liked the symbolism of it. And yes, I know—I can hear the tiny violins. The jeering. The sentimentality gestapo is knocking at my door. Yawn.

Once I had settled on the design for her ring, it was time to decide how I would make it. Casting made the most sense, at least for producing the basic shape. The problem was that I didn’t own any casting equipment. My hobby isn’t making things—it is reading about making things. So I had been reading for years about metal casting but had never done it.

When it comes to casting, there are two basic types, sand casting and investment casting (aka lost wax casting). I won’t go into much detail about investment casting—it’s the method I did not use. It produces a cleaner, more detailed casting than sand casting, but it also involves a lot more equipment, and I didn’t want to buy a bunch of expensive equipment that I might not use again.

Plus I didn’t need for the ring to be cast perfectly in every detail. I just needed to produce its basic shape. I had other methods I could use to refine the shape.

Enter sand casting. Sand casting is ancient. It requires very little equipment and is very simple. You create a pattern of the item you wish to cast. You use the pattern to create an impression in foundry sand. You then fill that impression with molten metal. Voila. You have a casting.

There is a bit more to it than that, but that is the gist.

 

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You can get started sand casting for under $100. Really you can get started for virtually nothing, if you are enterprising enough. I wasn’t, so I bought a rudimentary sand casting kit.

Wood was a natural choice for my pattern. I started with a 1″ diameter oak dowel and bored a 5/8″ hole down its length using a lathe. My wife’s ring size (5.5) pretty closely corresponds to a 5/8″ diameter hole.

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I then parted off the wood ring and carved and filed it to shape. A finer-grained wood such as maple might have been better, but oak worked just fine. I finished the pattern with shellac.

 

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With the pattern in hand, it was time to melt metal.

Almost….

Sand casting might not be complicated, but it is careful, detailed work. You spend most of the time doing what I can best describe as “crafting sand.” And yes, I realize that “crafting sand” sounds about as idiotic as a commercial for “hand-crafting” sandwiches. (Is handwork really in such decline that we now brag about “hand crafting” sandwiches? What other body parts might we use?). But at least with sand casting, it is quite true, even if it does sound odd.

It took me several tries to get a viable casting. A lot can go wrong, some of it obvious, and some of it not so obvious. On the obvious side, any imperfection in the sand gets transferred to the casting. That includes errant bits of sand that fall into the mold.

On the less obvious side? With sand casting, the only force pushing the molten metal into the mold is gravity. (Investment casting makes use of a centrifuge and forces metal into the mold using centrifugal force.). Gold conducts heat very efficiently, which means that it solidifies very quickly, and if it doesn’t flow fast enough through the mold, it will not produce a complete casting.

Several variables determine how fast the gold will flow.

The mold contains air that must have somewhere to go when it gets displaced by the gold. Therefore a series of vents are created in the sand around the perimeter of the mold. If the vents are not big enough, the air will not escape fast enough, and the gold will not flow fast enough.

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The three thin channels lead to vent holes poked through the sand with a wire. If you look closely you can also see bits of sand that have fallen into the mold and that will need to be carefully removed.

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This is what can happen if the venting is insufficient.

Just the opposite can can happen too. If the vents are too big, the gold can flow so fast that it drains into the vents and creates an incomplete casting that way.

The gold can also get hung up if you simply don’t pour it fast enough. Or if the lip of the crucible isn’t hot enough. Or if, in your haste, you pour the gold a tad off center.

It helps to pour more gold than is actually required for your casting. The added weight helps push the gold into the mold.

This is a sampling of the issues involved. Metal casting is a world unto itself. I was a mere tourist in that world for this project. And the metal casting was just part of the project. In fact, once the casting was finished, there was still more work left to do than was already done.

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It wasn’t perfect, but it was successful.

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The basic shape I was looking for. Essentially a starting point for the cold work to come.

There is a lot to go, and we are about to change gears, so let’s stop here for today. Tune in to Part 3 of this series to see this ring get completed.

My favorite part of the project is yet to come.

 

 

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Wood into Gold, and Other Tales of Transformation, Part 1

August 19, 2016

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I used think that aging meant liver spots, bingo, and bearing witness to the gradual deterioration otherwise known as “scrotal descent.” And I suppose that I do still console myself that I’m not super old yet. But I’ve realized that aging isn’t all bad, either. Some experiences would hardly be possible without the passage of time—second chances; fresh starts; reversals of fortune; redemption. There may even be wisdom for those who make enough mistakes to earn it. How is it possible that I haven’t already made enough mistakes? I digress.

So let me talk about what I do know. Second chances and redemption.

A special project recently came my way—the opportunity to create a pair of wedding rings. I had never made a ring before. Nor had I worked before with gold or with gemstones. The project was made even more special by the fact that an old wedding band was to be melted down to supply most of the gold.

Those things were all quite cool, but what really made the project special was that these rings were for me. Well, for us. For my wife and me. Or, more precisely, my ex-wife and me. My ex-wife-about-to-be-my-wife-once-more, and me. I know, I know, it sounds oddly recursive, or circular, like trying to explain how you married a cousin. Or like life imitating the Pina Colada Song. She likes to tell people that I am her second husband.

I had several ideas in mind when designing the rings. For hers, it had to be something she couldn’t just buy in a store. What would be the point? I also didn’t want its value to reside primarily in it being made of gold and containing a diamond that could pass for the world’s largest kidney stone. In fact I thought it would be more interesting if it didn’t have a diamond at all. I wanted its value to lie elsewhere.

What do I have against diamonds? Nothing really. I just don’t think they are the panty droppers they are made out to be. They’re just stones. Uh oh. Did I say that out loud? If you are a diamond connoisseur or sold a kidney in order to buy a larger diamond, I apologize. Believe me, I get it. Luckily my blushing bride-about-to-be-once-more felt the same as I do, or else I’m sure that one of my kidneys would have been for sale on Craigslist too.

Here’s the deal with diamonds. Even a cursory examination of contemporary wedding rings reveals that many rings are little more than scaffolding for holding diamonds. To my mind, diamonds mainly sparkle, and sparkle mainly allows for a piece of jewelry to read well from a distance. That’s well and good, but jewelry stores all have microscopes so that you can actually see the reason your diamond costs what it does. Since it takes a microscope or a loupe to do that, I can’t help but wonder if the average person could tell the difference between this or that diamond? Or for that matter, between a real diamond and a fake?

Ok. As much as I would like to keep talking about diamonds (yes, I really could), I need to reign this in. The bottom line on diamonds is this—I neither hate them nor love them. Under certain circumstances I would use one. But I think they are grossly overused, to the extent that they can easily make a piece of jewelry less interesting, not more.

While I had never made any jewelry, I suppose that I had given jewelry a bit of thought over the years. I appreciate interesting metalwork wherever I find it. Some of my favorite jewelry designs are very old. Roman, Etruscan, and Viking, for instance. I didn’t want either of our rings to be a reproduction, but I wanted for her ring, at least, to have an old feel, as if it might have been made a very long time ago. I don’t even know how many rings I studied. Here are a handful of rings that had features I liked.

 

roman gold ring

This ring is Roman and appears to be either unfinished or damaged, in that the button at the center is blank. I like this ring’s lines, but I think the tall button is too masculine for a woman—kind of like a man’s signet ring.

bronze viking ring

This is a bronze Viking ring, and all told, I liked its silhouette the best of the rings I’m showing you here. In some ways it is similar to the Roman ring but without the signet ring feel.

gold ring

I’m not sure what time period this ring heralds from. Not exactly. Medieval? Early modern? I like two things about it—the flower at the center, and the fact that it is made entirely of gold, with no stones. Much of the workmanship looks pretty crude, though. The band does not look very comfortable either.

roman ring2

Here is another Roman ring. A signet ring. I don’t care for how large the stone is, but I like the thick bezel surrounding it.

15thcentury italian ring

Lastly, here is a medieval ring. Again, a signet ring. I like the facets that extend around the band. I also like the arrises that separate the facets.

At about this point I realized that I had more ideas than I had rings to make, so I had better utilize my phone a friend. After all, it’s not like I was proposing on the jumbotron—complete surprise was not important. So, what did she like? She said she’d prefer either a blue or a green stone. Definitely not a red one. A diamond would be fine, but it wasn’t her first choice. She was also concerned that the ring be comfortable and that it not be too fancy, in which case she’d be nervous wearing it. The rest was up to me.

I tossed her feedback in with my ideas and daydreams, then I watered it all with a few IPAs and slept on it. I still had more ideas than rings to make. But at least now I had some solid feedback to work with.

Let’s stop there for now. Otherwise this is going to run long. Go water your brain with a few IPAs and sleep on it. In the next installment I will focus on processes and how I made the rings.

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Proof of Life

September 2, 2014

2014-08-30 14.02.03Maybe the gigantic turkey vulture perched on my workshop should have given me a clue. Or maybe the emails I receive checking up on me should have done it. But what really brought things into focus was a coffin building party I attended this last weekend….

I need to write an update!

A lot has happened. I moved from the city to the country, then moved from the country to the city. I’ve begun working again as a paramedic. I’m not sure where the time goes.

The saw book is nearly finished. In fact it is to the point where I am compiling a punch list of details that need attended to before the book can be considered finished.

Also, the website is still to be updated to reflect the artistic work I am interested in doing. I’m excited for that.

That’s all for now.

But there will be more news sooner rather than later. I don’t plan to wait until I get asked to build another coffin before I write another blog entry….

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A Good Friend Is Hard to Find …

May 6, 2013
ready for work

A Unique Appreciation for Dirty Overalls and Boots

Then every once in a great while you get lucky and one takes up residence under your porch.

Unexpected. Unheralded. Down on his luck. Exactly how you go from being a hobo to being a highly prized shop cat is something I’m still trying to figure out. Charlie figured it out, though. My shop cat Charlie, that is. He made the transition seamlessly. You’d have never known he hadn’t swung a hammer before or ever used a saw. He was a natural.

Not all animals are cut out for the rigors of shop life. The work is hard. The hours are long. The pay is meager. Charlie wasn’t in it for the money. While most cats are content to lie around all day in patches of sunlight, a good day for Charlie began with a stiff cup of coffee and ended with a beer and a dirty joke. It wasn’t uncommon to find him in the shop late at night working on his own side projects. Although I suspect that at times he was secretly fixing my mistakes.

A Little Well-Deserved R&R

A Little Well-Deserved R&R

Charlie broke the rules. He didn’t care that every bucolic image of shop life depicts a dog. He didn’t even groom much. He didn’t let the absence of opposable thumbs slow him down. All of the follies, failures, and small victories that characterize the life of a small shop, he was there for it all. He became proficient in human profanity.

He will be missed.

Join me in raising a glass to the animals that grace our lives. They give us something that can’t be bought. They come into our shops and give us something that can’t be made. They hold back nothing. They give away everything. They adopt us at least as much as we adopt them. We are lucky for getting to be a part of their brief sojourn. So, Clink! Clink! Hear! Hear! As Charlie always used to say, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

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It’s Time

April 5, 2011

What is it Bruce Buffer says at the beginning of each UFC ultimate fighting event? “It’s TIME!!” And, well, it is time—not for me to become an ultimate fighter, though. No, it’s time for me to move on from making saws. That may come as a bit of a surprise to some, but I’ve finally begun to lose my steam for making them. It’s really just that simple. There are countless jobs where feeling fulfilled doesn’t remotely matter, but hand making saws isn’t one of them—fulfillment is pretty much what it’s all about. And not just for me—the saws themselves will show it if you aren’t fulfilled by making them. It’s not work in the same way some other things are work.

I’m profoundly grateful for everyone who has supported me. I’ve been very lucky to have had the support of so many kind people. It goes to show that there is a place for the smallest tool makers and that there is a desire for handmade saws. But more than that, it shows there are some very good people out there.

I’ll still be around. I’ll just be making different things. What exactly? Lots of things—a wide variety, and probably not many of the same thing twice. Creativity and variety are what really keep me going. I’ll revamp the website at some point here and will keep the Toolworks writing in an archive of some kind.

So this is goodbye in a sense but in another sense not. It’s kind of like a cage fight—sometimes just when you think it’s over, that’s when it really gets good.