A Custom Piece, From Start to Finish

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Sterling silver sheet and wire, fine silver bezel strip

The beginning of any fabrication project always looks about the same…wire and sheet, maybe some bezel strip, and the idea of where you want to go. When I was asked to do a custom piece for Nicole Wakelin, podcaster and core contributer to several delightfully geeky publications, my mind immediately started designing. I knew she liked pieces that were smaller, and that she is an active mother, so I wanted something that she could wear comfortably, but that suited her individual personality and needs.

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Sterling silver sheet, brass mallet, steel round hole punch, polyeurethane pad

Since I knew I needed to make a custom bezel, the next step was to punch out two 24 gauge sterling silver disks, and to make a bezel the correct size from the bezel strip. Since the stones would be round, this was easily done by wrapping around the stones to get the correct size.

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Sterling silver stamp, sterling disk, polyeurathane pad, hammer

I use a .925 stamp to mark all the sterling silver that I use. I know from experience that stamping the plate before soldering it to the bezel is MUCH easier than trying to do it afterwards!

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Bezel strip, Sterling plate, Solder and plenty of heat…

In my studio, I use propane and oxygen to solder, and my trusty “Little Torch,” which is a truly magnificent piece of equipment. This torch heats up to almost 5000 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that it is so hot that my dear husband will occasionally announce “The Fire of Mount Doom” when I light it up!

Soldering the plate and the bezel together takes even, steady heat from the bottom. Too little, and the join will not make it all the way around the bezel. Too much, and you will have a lovely ball of molten metal!

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Sterling silver bezel, Bench Snips

After soldering the bezel, I use a sharp pair of bench snips to trim the excess metal. The excess metal is reused in other projects, like granulation, or recycled when I send off my scraps to the refinery.

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After trimming out the bezel cups, I use a barrett file to rough out the shape. Then, I use 400 grit sandpaper (in the easy to use form of an emory board) to smooth out the shape. By the time it is finished, it is impossible to see the solder join.

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14 gauge sterling silver wire, graduated steel ring mandril, leather hammer

Using a graduated ring mandril, I start shaping the 14 gauge sterling silver wire into rings of the correct size. My best trick for this is to start on the end of the wire, two sizes smaller than I want to end up, and then to use the leather hammer and my fingers to round out the shape.

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14 gauge sterling silver wire, jeweler’s saw

A jeweler’s saw has a thin, sharp blade and is one of the most commonly used hand tools on my bench. A bit like a sewing machine, the saw works best going straight up and down, perpendicular to the metal. However, since it is a fine blade, you have to be careful not to torque it to the right or the left – it will snap easily!

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Barrett File, Sterling Silver 14 gauge wire

The secret to getting a good clean solder join isn’t really a secret. Mostly, it is a matter of good preparation. Solder joins must be flat and well aligned before they will be truly unnoticeable, and that usually involves filing.

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Sterling silver 14 gauge wire, solder pad, paintbrush with flux (Handy Flux)

The other component to getting a good solder join is that the metal be clean before you add the solder. The easiest way to do this is with a flux, which traps and cleans the oxides and dirt on the surface of the metal. The flux is painted onto the area you will be soldering, then heated with the torch until it bubbles, turns clear, and then flows over the surface of the metal. Then you are at soldering temperature.

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Titanium solder pic, Gentec Little Torch, 14 gauge sterling silver wire, solder pad

The technique I use to solder most often is called pic soldering. You heat a small square of solder to melting, then use a titanium pic to move it and place it where you want it. I find this a much more precise method than melting chips to my piece and hoping that the solder will go where I want it!

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Sterling Silver bezel cup and ring shank, Gentec little torch, Solder pic, Third hand tweezers

Soldering requires holding the torch in one hand, the solder pic in the other…so when I need a third hand, this set of cross lock tweezers on a heavy stand get a lot of action. In this case, I use them to hold the ring shank even and level while I solder it down to the bezel cup.

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Acid bath in a small crock pot

At some point, the legend goes, Italian jewelers figured out that the citric acid in the juice left over from the pickles in their lunches was good for cleaning the jewelry that was dirty from soldering. So, ever after, the warm acid bath that sits in the corner of the jeweler’s studio is referred to as pickle. Plus, after it gets really dirty, it turns pickle green from the excess copper.

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Steel Graduated Ring Mandril, Sterling Silver Ring, Small Jeweler’s Hammer

After a long hard look at the rings, I decided that the bands needed a little bit of detailing. Using a small jeweler’s hammer, I add a hammered texture to the bands so that they have a sparkle once they finish polishing.

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Foredom Grinder, Sterling Silver Rings

Before you polish a piece, you first pre-polish…carefully removing any tool marks, scratches, or dings that might keep the piece from looking its best. Although there are a whole range of abrasives available, most often, I turn to a flexible abrasive rubber disk that doesn’t remove metal too quickly. No good to take out the scratches, just to have nothing left!

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Sterling Silver Rings

The secret to a good final product is working slowly and carefully, and making certain that all of the pieces work well together!

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Vibratory tumbler, sterling silver rings

Once pre-polished, the rings go into a vibratory tumbler. The tumbler is filled with different sizes and shapes of steel shot, plus a soap-based burnishing solution. By tumbling for several hours, the sterling acquires a high shine, plus the surface is hardened so that it will stay bright longer.

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Circuit board, round punch, polyeurathane pad

All good jewelry needs to be interesting…but who says it always has to be a gemstone?

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SRS Graver’s Ball, Sterling Silver Ring, Circuit board

A few years ago, I began to have problems with my wrists, which were being made worse by the stress and strain of setting stones. So, with some trepidation, I spent an inordinate amount of money on an SRS Graver’s Ball – a 25 pound cannon ball that holds the piece perfectly still while I set the stones. Honestly, it was one of my best investments. Not only do I use it every day, but it cut my setting time in half and has made my settings a consistently better quality!

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Glass Cabochon, Circuit Board, Sterling Silver Ring, Graver’s Ball, Setting Tool

After placing the circuit board in place firmly, I added a glass cabochon, both to protect the board and to magnify it. Then, using a steel setting tool, I began to lay the bezel over the edges of the glass cabochon. Always work from opposite sides, so you don’t end up with the stone unbalanced in the mounting.

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Sterling Silver Ring, Rose Cut Citrine Cabochon, Graver’s Ball, Setting Tool

The final stone I had to set was a rose cut citrine cabochon. These are a little tricky to set, since you work around each of the facets to make certain that the bezel is laid down.

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Sterling silver stacking ring set – 12 mm Circuit Board under Glass, 6 mm Rose Cut Citrine

And there you go…start to finish! Did she like it? Well, I’ll let you know – she is supposed to interview me in the next few weeks for a spot on the D6 Generation. Stay Tuned…

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About moonkistdesigns

I'm a resident of upstate South Carolina, and live with a spoiled and opinionated Doberman named Remington, a Chihuahua mix who thinks she is a Doberman, and several really rotten cats! I have a muse that wakes me up with jewelry designs in the middle of the night, and a studio that is my favorite place in the world. I first began my jewelry career when I was 10. I started out cutting cabochons (they're the rounded-non faceted stones) at the local gem and mineral club in Augusta, GA. When I turned 14, I took silversmithing and fabrication lessons from a local bench jeweler, and I've been making jewelry ever since! From 2005-2008 I taught beginning silversmithing at Earthspeak Arts Jewelry school in Asheville, NC. In 2008, I started Moonkist Designs and now I enjoy creating artisan crafted mixed metal jewelry! Please visit our store at www.moonkistdesigns.com; or our Etsy store at www.etsy.com/shop/moonkistdesigns, www.etsy.com/shop/moonkistcreations, or www.etsy.com/shop/moonkistgallery.
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One Response to A Custom Piece, From Start to Finish

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