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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.”


Gas Up the DeLorean

November 30, 2010

Maybe even have Biff give it a good spit shine. Today’s destination? Seventeenth century Denmark. The joiner’s guild has built an ornate chest with various tools of their trade depicted on it. Chests like this were constructed by guilds and proudly displayed by them in their guild halls. A black and white photograph of the front of this chest is on page 130 of Goodman’s History of Woodworking Tools. Let’s don our puffy shirts and go in for a closer look.

All of the tools depicted on the chest are interesting, but one particularly caught my eye. Even if you didn’t already know, you could probably guess which one—that bow saw with the nice lines and the scrolls at the tops of the arms. Some time back, a year or more I’d guess, my neurons were mounting a titanic mutiny and I decided I needed a side project—so I decided to make this saw. I normally don’t copy or reproduce tools, but that’s pretty much what I did here, with the exception of a few liberties that I’ll explain momentarily.

Different people mean different things when they use the word “reproduce”—all biological senses of the word notwithstanding. With this saw my goal was to make a “reasonable” copy but not to agonize over reproducing the saw down to its last molecule. I wouldn’t imagine that was the spirit in which the original was made anyway.

So making the saw involved one actual measurement—the blade is about 22″ long. I chose that length because I thought it would be useful, and because the saw on the chest clearly is not a small turning saw. Everything else was sized according to information gleaned from the image on the chest, or in the case of the stretcher, the length was dictated by the length of the blade. I sketched an arm of the saw onto some poster board to make a pattern for the arms.

The toggle that tightens the cord is one of the places I took some liberties. The one on the actual saw is plain and I chose to put some low relief carving on mine. I also made the brackets that hold the blade decorative. The one liberty I took that I soon regretted was to make one of the saw’s handles longer and more vase-like. With the way the arms of the saw are shaped, it tilts your wrist right down into that handle. That could be easily fixed by simply replacing that handle with one that matches the handle on the far end, but in fact, making this saw once showed me several things I would do differently were I to make it again, so I didn’t bother changing anything.

For instance, I didn’t entirely care for the curvature of the lower part of the arm for other reasons—the way it forces your wrist to tilt really saps your leverage and feels awkward. Were I to make this saw again I’d play around with that lower part of the arm to find something a bit more user friendly while retaining the character of the saw. Also, there is more wood in this saw than in most bow saws—while it was not ungainly or unwieldy, were I to make a second one I would play around more with the design to make it a bit lighter. Why not?

So why not just replace the large handle on this saw and tweak the arms a bit more? Well, I think I’d rather just leave this saw as it is and keep it as a frame of reference for subsequent forays. Sometimes it is best to let a first piece be a first piece, rather than try to impose on it from the outside a degree of refinement it didn’t possess from its inception. I just haven’t gotten around to making the second saw yet. Maybe some of you would like to make it too.

But first thing’s first—let’s get out of the 17th century before something happens and we’re stuck for the rest of our lives with no indoor plumbing. Or worse, 17th century beer!