A young woman works a blowtorch over a heated pile of metal. An elderly man sets a copper plate on an anvil and begins hammering away at it with a mallet. Another saws away at a paper-thin silver plate to create little metal slivers. All this is typical when it comes to metal smithing.
At its core, metal smithing is the art of designing, sculpting and creating things from metals such as copper or silver. The creations include jewelry items such as rings or necklaces, bowls, plates, belts and pins and anything else that can be made from metal.
Even if making jewelry may sound like a dainty art form, the practice of metal smithing is anything but that. Students of the craft often have to work with dangerous instruments such as centrifuges that shoot hot liquid metal into molds and large, decimating blades that make precise cuts on metal sheets. It’s not quiet either. Metal smithing requires plenty of cutting, hammering and grinding, and earplugs are definitely a necessity.
But the process is more than playing with fire and anvils. It often begins with drawing the design and then carving it out of a block of wax. For rings or specifically designed pieces, artists first take a block of wax and carve the image they want. For custom rings, the block needs a hole carved into it with a drill bit of a specific size depending on the finger. This is done with a drill bit. Files and finite scrapers are used to get everything in the wax carving precise.
When the wax model is finished, it is fit into a molding canister and fired in a kiln for several hours. The wax melts and eventually evaporates completely, leaving the empty mold in its image.
After the mold has sat long enough in the kiln, it is put into a large, bowl-like device called a centrifuge. At the end of the arm, towards the rim, the mold is set into place.
The arm is wound up tight and a liquid hot metal is put into a chamber in the center of the bowl. The arm is broken on a hinge, so when it is released the front halfcocks forward and forces the liquid metal to shoot into the mold. The entire arm then begins to swing around the centrifuge, forcing the metal to fill out and cool.
When the arm stops moving, the mold is removed and the metal is taken out. It should now resemble what the final product of the wax model did.
Hammering or soldering together metal from specific strips creates other parts. Cuts can be made with a jump shear, which makes straight cuts through metal, or a small jeweler’s saw that makes little, precise cuts.
When all the pieces for the final product are assembled, they go through touch-ups such as filing and soldering. The pieces are fitted together and buffed, which helps smooth out the product. Afterwards it is put into a chemical bath known as “pickling” which puts a shine on the metal. Finally, after more touch-ups, the final product should be a nice, shining piece of art.
Ultimately, metal smithing provides a complicated and exciting way of creating art. It can be loud and aggressive, but the final, delicate product is almost always worth it.
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