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

October 14, 2016


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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

September 12, 2016


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.



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.

2016-03-04 03.22.11

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.



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


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.


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.


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.


It wasn’t perfect, but it was successful.



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.




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

August 19, 2016

2016-08-16 00.08.06

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.


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….


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.”


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.


My Micrometer Is in My Other Pair of Pants

February 22, 2011

My left brain and right brain each accept the presence and ultimate necessity of the other, sort of like Sam the sheepdog and Ralph the wolf in the Looney Tunes cartoons I grew up with. My left brain tries any number of ploys to get over on my right brain—obvious gambits, like carefully reasoned arguments, and then subtler maneuvers, like trying to shame me into being more organized. But it got downright dirty when a very attractive and silky smooth micrometer was inserted into the the picture. My left brain slipped the micrometer into a pocket of my shop apron, and my right brain let it stay there for a little while, no doubt due to its nice weight and perfectly smooth mechanism. But that’s all the farther it ever went.

The fact of the matter is, when I make saws I rely on as few measurements as possible. I start with a handful of them, but by the end there are no numbers left that I care about. And the numbers I do use are not built into templates and things like that. I apply the measurements themselves each time from scratch. No doubt this is very inefficient and conducive to tiny errors.

So how can I work this way and ensure that all of my saws are the same?

Well, they aren’t. No two are exactly alike. Not exactly. The differences aren’t so great that one dovetail saw, say, is completely unlike another one, but they aren’t either carbon copies of one another. Far from it. I mean, what’s the point of working by hand and trying to emulate automation? That negates perhaps the biggest advantage that working by hand affords you.

What maintains consistency between them is the amount of care and attention given to each one, so that any uniqueness becomes a strength, not a deviation from a standard or ideal pattern. They all start from about the same spot and then are allowed to develop a bit of their own character. What is exactly the same in each case is the degree of internal consistency—everything gels. This way a saw can be unique and still be spot on. Otherwise, if a measured pattern is your standard, and you have any deviation from it, and that pattern remains your standard, you now have an error. The idea of tuning a tool for performance isn’t uncommon—I just start that whole process from back when the tool is built.

No it isn’t the most efficient way to make a saw—but it isn’t supposed to be. And yeah, a lot of the differences are soft and are difficult or maybe even impossible to quantify. That’s kind of the point. Measurements aren’t necessarily the most complete expression of detail. The left brain doesn’t always have a comparable way to express everything that the right brain does.

My left brain baits my right brain as if asking for Grey Poupon. “Pardon me, may I borrow your micrometer?”

My right brain yawns. “Sorry. It’s in my other pair of pants.”