Christine Cox

Archive for August, 2012

Metalsmith: Oyster Knives and Bacon Cookers in the Studio

Oyster Knife

The oysters are safe from me

Part of the fun of being a metalsmith is collecting and customizing tools and containers for your own use. Besides the obvious, such as measuring cups, spoons, and the ubiquitous creme brûlée torch, how many kitchen items do you use at the bench? Here are a couple from me:

  • Fold-formed metal opener: Opening up folded pieces of metal, especially when they’ve been hammered closed or closed in a vise, can be really difficult, even with 2 pairs of flat nose pliers.  I’ve come up with the perfect tool; a cheap oyster knife. It has a short, sturdy blade, a comfortable handle and, my favorite bonus, a hand guard. Just poke the tip between the two legs of the annealed metal and give the knife a little twist. Be sure to point the tip of the knife away from your hand.
  • Saw blade storage: I found a great bacon cooker for the microwave at Wal-Mart. While I didn’t like how it cooked bacon, it’s exactly the right size and shape to hold 10 plastic tubes with saw blades. Check out the used blades on the right. They’re stuck to a magnet so they don’t end up all over the drawer. The magnet came from an old executive desk toy. The plastic tubes came from Volcano Arts.
Saw blades

Saw blades in bacon cooker

Treasure: Books of Gold Leaf

Just got an email asking for ideas on what to do with several books of 23k gold leaf. Depending on the thickness of the gold, here are some ideas:

  • Gilding on a lot of surfaces (put down glue, wait for it to get tacky, put leaf on, dry, brush off spare leaf)
  • Keum-boo (heat fine or depleted sterling silver to 600 degrees or so and then burnish gold leaf to it)
  • Tooling book covers (blind tool line with hot tool, paint with glare – glorified egg whites, apply gold leaf, dry and brush off spare leaf)
  • Applying under transparent enamels
  • You could always melt it down in a crucible with borax and then roll out the ingot to make your own gold sheet.

The original email mentioned working with silver sheet, so I’m thinking keum-boo is the answer to her question. Celie Fago did an excellent book on it. Here’s a link to it on Amazon:
Keum-boo on Silver Techniques for Applying 24k Gold To Silver, By Celie Fago

Keep that iron tip tinned

Weller 100

Weller 100 soldering iron with tinned tip

Kris sent me some questions about stained glass soldering this morning. I’ve had similar questions in the past so I thought I’d cover it here too.

Q. Years ago I bought a Weller 100 soldering iron and always had a problem keeping the iron hot enough.  It would start out great and after a short time the solder would quit flowing.

A. If your iron is hot enough when you start, but not later, it’s probably because the tip is getting oxidized. When the tip is oxidized (not bright silver), it can’t melt solder. Here is a tutorial that might help with keeping the tip tinned:

Clean Solder Iron Tip
The tip of your soldering iron should always be silver. If it is any color other than silver, stop soldering immediately and clean it as solder will not stick to an oxidized tip. Normally this is done on a damp synthetic sponge while the iron is hot. If the tip of your iron becomes black and you just cannot get it tinned (silver colored) again, you can use a Sal Ammoniac Block to re-tin the tip.

Hints to Keep the Iron Tip Silver

  • Do not leave the iron plugged in when not in use.
  • Do not use the iron at a higher temperature than is necessary to melt solder.
  • Clean the tip of the iron on a damp synthetic sponge as soon as it starts to change from silver.
  • Even when heating up or cooling down your iron, check that the tip doesn’t discolor. If it does, wipe it on a damp synthetic sponge.

The tip must be tinned and fluxed all the time that you’re soldering. That synthetic sponge thing is critical.

Q.  Would it work better if I had a temperature controller? I see that you have a mini one and was wondering if this would work?

A. Your Weller 100 has a built in temperature controller. It came with a 700 degree tip and that’s plenty hot to melt solder. I don’t think a rheostat is your answer, and the iron isn’t made to work with one.

Q.  Also would like to know what soldering tips you would recommend for jewelry making.

A. Regarding which tips for jewelry making, any tip will do, even the big one that came with the iron. You tend to use only the corner of the tip anyway, but if you’d like to try a narrower tip, I’d suggest the 1/8” 700 degree tip. It’s here:

In case you haven’t already seen it, here is a tutorial for photo charms:

I hope this helps. Hang in there. It takes time to practice keeping the iron hot and the solder flowing.

Specialized sanding blocks


Bookbinders are forced to make their own tools every now and then. Here are some ideas for specialized sanding blocks.

When preparing the edges of a text block for edge decoration, wrap sandpaper around an eraser (my favorite) or a small rectangular piece of wood. Presto! An instant mini-sanding block.

If the fore-edge of the text block is curved (rounded spine), then you can sand it smooth with sandpaper wrapped around a wooden dowel that fits into the curvature of the fore-edge.

To clean out the joints between the cover boards and the spine, wrap the sandpaper around the edge of an old credit card.

Organizing for a busy studio

Post Its

Sticky notes keep me on track when I’m doing multiple projects or need to break up my projects over several hours, or days.

Between the studio and the store, my hamster brain keeps me hopping with multiple tasks. Let’s get organized!

  • I give gifts to my future-self by using sticky notes to keep track of where I am in a process or to write down the next step that needs to be done. I can just pick up where I left off the next time I have studio time. The steps seem so doable if they are written out. If I don’t use the reminder I find that I spend a lot of time regrouping and figuring out what the next step on the project is.
  • I also use the sticky notes to note what time something went into a chemical bath or to note steps I’m worried I’ll forget later. Because of my reliance on the notes I have pads of sticky notes all over the studio. My rule of thumb is to just assume that I will be interrupted or that I’ll forget the next step. Think of it as a preemptive external memory tool.
  • Along the same line, if working on a multi-day project I will set everything up for the first task to be done on the next day. When I come back to the project the next day I don’t have to step back and figure out what needs doing next or to spend time cleaning up an area to work and get everything out of various cupboards. This is great for keeping your creative juices flowing when you’re ready to work. One of my pet peeves is when I’m feeling all creative and ready to work but instead must spend 15 minutes cleaning and looking for tools. It sucks the creative juice right out of me.
  • In my younger life I briefly worked in an assembly line job. I learned to do tasks the same way every time. If you use this principle in your artwork, you’ll improve your speed but you’ll also develop your muscle memory, increase your accuracy and your strength. You’ll get better at jobs that you have to do often and you’ll be less likely to leave steps out of a process. Remember to rest every so often and to do some stretches to avoid repetitive stress injuries.
  • If you have room in your studio, set up separate work areas for each major category of work you do. For example I have separate areas for glass/enameling, for bookbinding and for metalsmithing. This means that I can sit down and start enameling without getting everything out of cupboards and drawers, but it also means that my enameling area stays relatively free of metal dust and other contaminants (except cat hair, of course – that’s ubiquitous).
  • I read an article recently where the author told us to remember that our benches do not become storage areas. If you don’t use it often, it should be somewhere else. I took that advice to heart and now find that I almost always have what I need, and don’t have to constantly move things that I use only once a year.

Inspiration in a Box


I got a great box full of inspiration in the mail Friday. It’s a wealth of riches; lovely, lovely books!

At the top of my box of treasures, Victoria Finlay’s Jewels; A Secret History, (originally published in GB as “Buried Treasure; Travels Through the Jewel Box”).” I bought it because I had read the author’s previous book Color; A Natural History of the Palette, and because I heard Ms Finlay on RadioLab (an awesome show that you can podcast through iTunes). I’m about half-way into the book now and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Both of Finlay’s books are travel journals. In both she chooses a personal reason to investigate a jewel or color (depending on the book). Each chapter is a brief but colorful (PTP) history of colors or gemstones and how they were discovered, mined or produced. It’s fascinating stuff, full of unusual characters, beautiful but deadly places and nature’s mysteries.The books are very personal and the author tells us of her failures, as well as her successes. She’s a very brave woman and gets herself into situations I wouldn’t try, like sliding down into ancient emerald mines.

Jewels is arranged by the Moh’s hardness rating of the particular stone: amber is first, diamonds are last. For a woman with a seemingly casual interest in gemstones, the book is full of information that any jeweler would love. It’s also chock-full of ancient history, so history buffs will love it too.

Next in my box of goodies is The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean. Mr Kean’s last book The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements was a really lively history of the discoveries and people around the periodic table. Boring? Absolutely not!!! I got poor marks in high school chemistry, and I just can’t tell you how much Kean’s writing style kept me interested and curious. I got so much out of this book that I use in the studio every day. Oh, and I also learned how electricity works (turns out it’s not magic after all). Unlike a bad movie sequel, I’m not afraid to read “The Violinist’s Thumb.” I have faith in Sam Kean’s writing. I’m sure it will be excellent.

Next up in my haul of books is Mixed Metal Mania by Kim St. Jean. A student recently brought a copy to class and I just had to own it. Ever since watching Harold O’Connor’s DVD on fold-forming, I’ve been on a folding tangent, and Ms St. Jean’s book has several fold-formed projects. Though the photos are small, they’re of excellent quality and there are a lot of them. I’m looking forward to the inspiration I’ll get from St. Jean’s techniques.

My last book is Handmade Photo Albums by Tami Porath. Books on how to make album-style structures are few and far between. The projects in this book look simple and fun and will take a lot of the guesswork out of my future photo albums. I especially like the idea for a folding drawer for folding the edges of papers. I’ll have to give that a whirl.

Now I’m off to the studio to take my inspiration out for a spin and see what it can do today.


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