Jewelers look outside the industry to stock their tool box
By Shawna Kulpa
Jewelry supply houses are a treasure trove of tools. Flip through any of their catalogs or comb their websites and you’ll find page upon page of useful, functional tools and equipment—all designed with the jeweler in mind.
But what about those times when you can’t find what you need, or your hunt culminates in a great tool with an unbearably hefty price tag? You could try making it yourself, but your time might be better served making jewelry. Or better yet, take a look around. Scope out the tools used in other industries—what are watchmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, dentists, doctors, and even hobbyists using? Do they have tools and equipment that you could put to use in your shop?
This month I spoke with three jewelers about some of the best finds they’ve made from outside the industry. From tools used during delicate eye surgeries to common sporting goods, these borrowed tools will have you looking at everything in a whole new light.
When her husband walked off with the regular jewelry shears she uses in her shop, Agnes Weessies in Orlando, Florida, looked around for a substitute tool and came across her gardening shears. “I didn’t know if they would work, but they were pretty cheap so I decided to try them,” she says, noting that they cut better than any other metal shears she has used.
“I even have a pair of Joyce Chen kitchen shears [which jewelers rave about], but I like the gardening shears even better. They’re especially great when I’m cutting edges around bezels. Because they don’t warp the sheet when I cut, I don’t have to worry about knocking anything out of orientation. I’ve used them on copper, silver, and gold, and they cut them all like butter.”
Where some see a heavy ball for tossing at pins, Weessies looks at a bowling ball and sees an anvil. Although she admists that there are lots of great, durable steel anvils available for jewelers, she says she gets some of her best results using an old bowling ball. To transform the ball into an anvil, she used a core drill to drill a hole about halfway through the ball. She then heated up a steel I beam and inserted it into the ball. “The heat melts the plastic a bit but makes a nice, tight fit,” says Weessies, who advises that you do this outside for both safety and olfactory reasons: “It’ll stink!” After it cooled, she turned it over and filled the remaining cavity with a 24-hour epoxy. Once it was set, she drilled a hole into a tree stump, inserted the free end of the steel beam, and filled the hole with epoxy.
“Now you can use the ball as an avil,” she says. “It lets you do more than if you’re pounding on steel, which is harsh. Working on the ball is almost like working on resin—it’s more gentle and giving than steel. And because the ball is made out of a heavy-duty plastic, any nicks you make can be easily sanded out.”
And when you’re picking out a bowling ball for your shop, consider grabbing a bowling pin or two as well. “They have a nice, gentle curve that I use for creating synclastic forms,” says Weessies. “They’re good for shaping smaller pieces.”
Sometimes invention is the product of necessity. Sometimes it’s the product of frugalness. And sometimes it’s the product of both. Weessies admits that her frugalness has led her to find new uses for just about everything she comes across, including some knitting needles she had lying around. In this case, it started when she lost the little mandrels for her jump ringer.
“I needed to make jump rings, but I didn’t want to go to the store and spend three times as much as I should [on new mandrels],” she says. “I took a knitting needle, cut off both ends, put it into the jump ringer, and it worked.”
She soon found that the needles’ usefulness expanded way beyond making jump rings. “You can use them for all sorts of things you’d use a mandrel for, such as making bezels. You can also use them as kind of a punch; if you’re gentle with them, just sharpen the pointed end and there you go.” Since most knitting needles are made of aluminum, they can deform with time. But because they’re so cheap, Weessies finds them a good, affordable investment, given the range of things she can do with them.
“I’ve also taken larger ones, cut off the ends, flattened them in my rolling mill, patterned them, and used them to create patterns on copper and silver,” she says. “You’re only limited by your imagination!”
Susan Mazon of Honors Gran Jewelry in Palm Harbor, Florida, is always on the lookout for items she can use to help organize her tools at the bench, particularly her straight tools, such as scribes and punches. Enter the antique flower frog. Made of lead, pottery, glass, or bronze, these frogs were once created to sit at the bottom of a bowl or vase, with holes molded into them to hold flowers in place.
When Maxon came across an antique domed glass flower frog that’s been in her family for generations, she immediately started thinking of the things she could do with it. She quickly realized that the frog’s cone-shaped holes would be ideal to hold tools. “When I put the tools in, they fan out,” she says. “Each tool stands up separately, even if I put two or three into the same hole. It keeps my tools separate and makes them easier to see and quickly grab.”
She uses the frog to hold her scribes, punches, antique burnishers, and anything else that’s straight and will stick up. “It’s domed, so it’s tiered so I can see everything,” she says. “It takes up minimal space, with maybe a 3-square-inch footprint. And it’s pretty, too.” What more could you ask for?
Desktop File Sorters
Maxon is a firm believer in the maxim that necessity is the mother of invention. She had been searching for a handy tool caddy for her bench but wasn’t happy with the options she found in jewelry supply catalogs. “I wanted something that would keep my tools at hand,” she explains, noting that she had them laying in a drawer or hanging up on a little rod she had attached to her bench. But this wasn’t satisfactory.
“One day I was in a stationary store looking for a hole punch when I passed a bunch of file sorters,” she says. “I realized that they were exactly what I needed.
“I keep all of my pliers, cutters, and nippers stored there,” she continues. “Pretty much anything that doesn’t have to stay closed. Because the holder is tiered, I can see every tool and then reach for the exact one I need. It has a small footprint so it doesn’t take up a lot of room on my bench. And because the dividers in the sorter are solid, the tools don’t spin off like they do when hung on a dowel rod.”
And the best part of her find: the cost. “They’re a third of the cost of something similar to what I’ve seen in jewelry catalogs. They’re a great deal!”
Occasionally Maxon is working on a project, such as making a chain, that involves using the same tools over and over again. “If you drop the tool in your drawer between uses, it can get covered up with debris or by other tools, or even get dinged,” she says. “I tried hanging them on the edge of a drawer, but they would flip off.” To prevent this, she was looking for something that would allow her to keep her tools right at hand.
Eventually she stumbled across a towel rack that she realized she could just clip onto the front of a drawer on her bench. “It has a hook on each end that goes up and clips over the top of the bench drawer,” she explains. “I just hang my tools on the rack, and I can leave them on it until the job is done.
“It’s real handy, and it doesn’t get in the way,” she continues. “The drawer still opens and closes; the tools are just hanging off the front. If I have to remove it, I can just easily lift it off. And not only does it fit perfectly, it was really, really cheap. If I have to spend money, it’s going to be on metal!”
Know any ophthalmologists? Find out what they do with old tools—especially surgical scissors. J Collier of J Collier Metalsmith in San Antonio, Texas, was able to acquire a set of surgical scissors from a friend, and he credits them with allowing him to expand his design repertoire. “I came up with the idea of using them while I was doing gold foil work, which is really delicate,” he says. At the time he was using an X-Acto knife, punches, and cuticle scissors, but he found them limiting.
“With the tools I was using, I was limited in executing smaller sizes with greater detail as well as some particular shapes,” he says. “In addition, the time spent using these tools was a factor. I knew there had to be an easier way.”
Because they’re designed for intricate and delicate work, Collier finds the surgical scissors ideal for working with thin, 24k gold foil—and they didn’t require any modifications. “They give me a lot more finesse in my designs,” he says. “The biggest advantage was the increase in useable foil pieces in specific shapes. Plus, repeating designs is easier with the scissors. They offer me the ability to replicate the design in my mind as well as more control over the outcome.”
Collier is always on the lookout for tools he can use to create unique surface finishes on his pieces. He finds it helpful to look at equipment used in other craft industries, such as woodworking, which is where he found a set of cabinet scrapers. Woodworkers normally use these for finishing: By scraping with the grain, the surface can be made perfectly smooth, and they are ideal for finishing blind corners and other obstructed areas that are difficult to reach with sandpaper.
“They’re just thin, flat sheets of hardened steel,” he explains. “I’m a curious person, and I picked them up and wanted to see how they worked on sterling silver, and I was pleased with the results I got.”
To use them, he takes a burnisher to the edge of a scraper to create a hook. “I then lay it on a metal surface and draw it toward me, peeling up a thin curl of metal, similar to a file. This creates a little stripe that I can quickly replicate to create a finish.
“Perhaps it could be done with a jeweler’s tool, but I think these scrape the metal in a pleasant way,” he admits. “And because the scrapers are available in different shapes (some curve in, some curve out), I have options to create different effects. I can choose one that’s narrow and like a groove, or instead opt for a wider one. It depends on the type of finish I want.”