From the moment I began posting my pieces on social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to know how I taught myself to make jewelry. Requests for lists of tools, books, and videos have piled up in my various inboxes from day one. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely responded to these kinds of inquiries.
It isn’t that I don’t want to help. The reality is, I do not have the time to answer those questions. I just don’t. I work two full time jobs while trying to maintain my writing, reading, relationship, and social life. Most days my feet carry me from my first job, to my studio, to the kitchen for dinner, and then to my bed. There is not a spare minute. When I do have a spare minute, the first thing to occur to me isn’t to go answer those messages. It is to sit down with a book, a beer, and a home-cooked meal, and relax for once.
So, I got to thinking about how I could solve this issue of the many questions that I have no time to answer. I will answer them here, in one blog post, with some basic information and resources about metalsmithing. That way, I can send this link to those with questions. I am not a metalsmithing teacher; my goal here is not to teach, but to provide a basic list of what is needed to start out. I will provide some of the foundation, and the rest is up to you.
This is going to be a long one, continue if you dare.
There are TONS of tools out there. Tons. A lot of them you do not need, especially in the beginning. Certain ones, like sandpaper, basic files, snips, center punches, etc. are available at Home Depot for much cheaper than jewelry tool shops, and are more appropriate for beginners (eventually you will want to upgrade these items, especially files, if you decide to stick with it). The basic workbench mainly needs a saw frame and saw blades, beeswax or synthetic lubricant for the saw blades, a bench pin, a rawhide mallet, a ball-peen hammer, files, sandpaper, a steel bench block, pliers, snips, a millimeter ruler, a ring mandrel, dividers, and a center punch. You may also need certain household items like a standard hammer, scissors, sharpies, and glue. Safety items like dust masks, a heavy canvas apron, and goggles are also a good call.
If you plan to solder, this will first require a torch. I cannot specify which type is appropriate for your space and commitment level, but I hear that a handheld butane torch sometimes works for “kitchen table jewelers” or small scale hobbyists (I’ve never tried one, though), and the Smith Little Torch with disposable propane/oxygen set up is perfect for work in smaller spaces as well. Please make sure to do your own research into what torch is appropriate for your circumstances. Soldering also requires solder (no way!). Hard, medium, and easy solder all flow at different temperatures. You will most likely need all three types, along with a soldering surface, like a solderite board or charcoal block, on ceramic tile. Soldering tweezers, a third hand, soldering picks, a striker to light your torch, flux, and a paintbrush to apply the flux are also necessary. You will need pickle (the acid that cleans metal after it has been heated) or an alternative (there are many natural mixtures to use for this purpose) and a pickle pot in which to heat it (a crock pot works just fine).
If you couldn’t tell already, I am an enormous bookworm. I read all the time, carry books in my bag everywhere I go, and can always find an excuse to buy more books. However, when it came to learning the basics of metalsmithing, I did not rely heavily on books. Most smithing books you find nowadays are less instructional and more oriented toward outlining projects for those who already know the basics. Those books are great if that is what you’re looking for, but they provide almost no help to the beginner. With that said, I did find The Complete Jewelry Making Course by Jinks McGrath to be extremely helpful, along with Soldering Made Simple by Joe Silvera. Both of these books are available on Amazon.
Videos are what helped me the most in terms of basic instruction, but I didn’t learn everything from them. I kind of just obsessively watched one series on creating a bezel set stone ring by Art Jewelry Magazine until I had the damn thing memorized, and then I hit the bench and figured out the rest as I went along. You can find the first video of that series here. There are a handful of other videos on their YouTube channel that helped me with various other aspects of jewelry making as well, including clasp making and setting a cabochon in a bezel.
Rio Grande also has an extensive YouTube channel.
To make jewelry, you obviously need metals and stones. There are many suppliers for these materials, the most accessible probably being Rio Grande. I recommend starting with base metals like brass and copper, and then moving on to sterling and fine silver when you feel ready. Stones can be found all over the internet and at gem shows, and depending on the specific types your looking for, can be found in abundance. Avoid softer stones at first (turquoise, opal, malachite, coral, etc.), since they scratch and chip more easily than other materials.
As you can see, this is a ton of information and I’ve only skimmed the surface of the surface. As I said before, this post is meant to be foundational. I can’t possibly take the time to list what all of these tools are for, or get into talking about techniques. That is the work left up to you, if metalwork is something you still want to pursue. It takes time, money, commitment, and passion. There will be blood. You will saw through your fingertips, inhale metal dust, and file your knuckles. You will spend all of your money on tools and materials. You will spew profanities at rates you never thought possible. If it sounds appealing to you regardless, and if you persevere through the aforementioned shitstorms, you just might find yourself with an incredible outlet for artistic expression, or even a lifelong career.