Continuing Education

Class Quest: Beginning Jewelry Fabrication

This week, CE Marketing Specialist Cole Hornaday peeps over the shoulder of Beginning Jewelry Fabrication instructor Robert Graham and his students to get the basics on handcrafting metals and designing your own works of art.

“There’s going to be a lot of stuff to cover tonight, so make sure you take notes,” advised Beginning Jewelry Fabrication instructor Robert Graham. I’m attending the Tuesday night session of this class, the other is on Wednesdays and taught by Peggy Foy. Though I’m only here to observe, I take notes inImage tandem with the students around me. There’s a lot to absorb, and thanks to Graham’s slide show featuring an intriguing array of pendants and settings, there's a great deal to spark a new jeweler’s imagination.

I haven’t explored jewelry making since I was a teenager, but what I learned then still holds true; skilled jewelers make it all look very easy. Trust me, it’s not. It takes time and practice and the guidance of an instructor like Graham who has mastered the craft and taught its finer points for quite some time.  

The North Jewelry Lab is stocked with the finest fabrication equipment from saws to soldering irons. You could tell from looking at each student’s face they were eager to master the tools surrounding them and get started on bringing their creations to life.

Time and practice.

Demonstrating on a thin rectangle of copper overlaid with a paper stencil design, Graham introduced the class to an integral tool in the jeweler’s arsenal; the jeweler’s saw. It looks like any kind of hacksaw or coping saw, but lighter and more delicate with whisker-thin blades. No, seriously, they look like black cat whiskers and are incredibly fragile. Fitting a new blade into the saw is a skill in and of itself and frequently involves holding the saw in place by wedging it between your hip and the work bench. When using a blade of this kind, you cut the metal with a smooth forward stroke and not the frantic back and forth you’d employ with a wood saw. When one considers the contortions required to replace it, you very quickly become mindful of the stress you put on each saw blade.

Cutting into your shape from the outside edge is one thing, but what if you need to cut within lines of your shape? That’s when a punch tool or flex shaft drill come into play. The punch tool looks like any Imagekind of old school awl and ranges in size and diameter. A few strokes against the punch with a hammer and you have access to the interior of your piece. The flex shaft drill, on the other hand, is connected to a motor and built into the jeweler’s work bench. The drill’s speed is modulated by the use of a foot pedal found under the bench.

Graham placed his trimmed segment of copper into a vice grip and began rotating it while sawing like you would a band saw, all the while fielding questions from the surrounding students. Upon completing the shape, next came a discussion on filing, sanding and buffing.

Jeweler’s files look as delicate as the saw blades. Long and thin, they’re designed to get in and around sharp angles and edges. Once more I learned that even though you’re working with metal, you want to be careful not to jerk the hand file back and forth, but use a smooth, forward motion. This was the tool I recall using the most while taking a class in jewelry design during the Reagan Administration. My intent was to create a sword pendant. The ends of the guard that jutted out of either side of the grip turned my life into a nightmare. I spent hours and hours filing the shapes on either side of the blade in an effort to make them look identical. I should have gone with a set of earrings… had I known about dapping at the time.

Dapping is a process in which you create a dome (or bowl) shape by applying your piece of metal into a shallow metal depression (called a dapping die) and punching the ball-headed tool with a hammer. Graham demonstrated how a Imageseries of different sized metal shapes strung together on a thin chain could make for a very attractive set of earrings.  Had I known this option back in the day, I may not have been so turned off by jewelry making at a young age.

The students around me were nothing like the easily discouraged youth mentioned abovethey were enthusiastic, engaged and radiating a high degree of creative energy. As I passed around the room snapping pictures, it was very clear to me they were all wrestling with a degree of impatiencenot for the teacher, but for gaining confidence with their tools. They’d clearly be happier bringing their ideas to life right then and there. I observed a couple helping one another fit and adjust their saw blades and then visit the metal press and cut their copper strips into manageable pieces. I wondered if they planned to fabricate jewelry pieces together and that lead me to wonder if there would be wedding bells accompanying their jewelry creations at some point. I would advise them they’d be happier not making paired sword pendants.

Learn more about Beginning Jewelry Fabrication.