A friend of mine was looking for a Bat Mitsvah present – a pendant or a bracelet with a clean, simple design that incorporated Jewish symbolism (the Star of David, hamsa, the dove, etc). He needed it very soon, and was looking for a metal-worked style rather than a beaded one. As a newbie metalworker, I was excited to explore this request as a personal project instead of a true commission. I figured – worst case, I’d have fun working out a design, and it would be a good learning experience.
Well, my expectations were justified. I wasn’t able to bring the pendant to satisfactory completion in the given timeframe, but I got to practice embossing and made some valuable conclusions about the process of taking on commissions.
The design process took me about a day. I started by browsing reference photos for doves, stars and hamsas, and practicing my hand at replicating the shapes to get a good feel for them. Once I was familiar with the shapes, I worked on combining and abstracting them. I ended up with six vastly different designs, a couple of which felt pretty straightforward and traditional. My friend chose the more unique of the latter: a dragonfly silhouette, superimposed upon the Star Of David.
Why a dragonfly? You know, there’s no underlying meaning to the motif. When I was brainstorming imagery that signified coming of age, I was hooked on portraying metamorphosis through an emerging butterfly. But as I was layering shapes one into another, the butterfly didn’t quite work for the star and just… morphed into a dragonfly.
Since this was a new design, and my first time working exclusively in silver, I wanted to bring it to Michael for advice – so it was perfect that Creative Metalworks was holding another Open Studio Session. Michael looked at my dragonfly, (probably found it insufficiently ambitious), and suggested that I emboss it using the more intimidating tools in his possession (they are actually labeled “Don’t use unless you know what you’re doing”).
As a first step, I needed to carve out the dragonfly in an acrylic sheet using a flex shaft and some diamond burrs. That felt like drawing inverted values on paper that makes all shades of grey look sort of alike, or like sculpting while partially blind.
I started out very cautiously: carving out the outline, then trying to give the whole shape an even depth. Michael assured me that this type of embossing process would transfer the detail from the carving to the metal, so I tried to be brave and included some lines in the dragonfly wings.
Unfortunately for this pendant, I was pretty impatient to finish it. You see, I felt that I needed to create and combine all the pendant parts – the dragonfly, the start of David, and the bail – by the end of that one studio session. I knew I could file and polish up the finished piece at home afterwards, but didn’t have the confidence that my home studio would be sufficient for the rest of the techniques required in this piece. So almost from the start, I rushed.
I spent over an hour on the first draft of the carving (with Michael passing by my shoulder from time to time, whispering “carve deeper!”), and another hour and a half testing the carving in copper.
The technique Michael suggests for embossing uses a hydraulic press and urethane of various densities. From what I understand, urethane is a type of rubber that keeps its shape incredibly well, bulging only under extreme pressure. So you set up a sandwich within the hydraulic press, from top to bottom: clean acrylic plate to avoid marring the project; the urethane of choice; sheet metal of choice, annealed; carved acrylic plate. Then you push the pedal to build up the pressure and hold it until the urethane gets so squished as to allow the two acrylic plates to almost touch (I’ve used up to 8500 psi).
The harder the urethane you use, the less it gives – thus creating sharper lines and less depth. The softer urethane changes shape more easily, takes less time and pressure to work, and creates greater mold depth. And of course, the thicker the metal, the harder it is to emboss it. I worked with 26gauge copper/silver, and #90 urethane that was about 1/2″ thick.
Michael insisted that I make 3-4 copper embossing trials before twitching to silver – I’m happy I listened, as each trial proved useful. They let me explore different types of urethane, and to improve the application of pressure. Gradually perfecting the carving between trials is also a great approach – as each embossing lets you see where the mold is missing depth, where the detail isn’t coming out, etc.
By the time I had the dragonfly successfully stamped in silver, pierced out and filed, I was into my forth hour of work and tired, though poorly aware of it. I wish I stopped there – or at least have taken a break, or re-evaluated my conviction that I had to finish the pendant within Michael’s studio.
Instead, I mapped out a Star of David in 18 gauge sterling, pierced it out, and only then discovered that I drew it crooked. Despite noticing that the corners were off, I somehow didn’t realize that this made it look sloppy, and happily proceeded to solder the two components together.
Guys. Don’t solder until you’re sure that all parts of your piece are up to your own standards. Soldering the dragonfly to the star somehow made the imperfections of both way more apparent. The star looked more crooked than ever, and the dragonfly just begged to have its contours filed down closer to the embossing line. By that point, however, they were forged together, and all I could do was shake my head and promise myself to learn from the experience.
Overall, this project was incredibly useful, as I gained valuable knowledge about my own limits, working process, and preferences for approaching commissions:
- 10 business days minimum per commission;
- No designs that use techniques I’ve never employed before;
- Minimum 2-3 days in the studio;
- 1-2 copper design prototypes, from start to finish, before working on the silver;
- At each step of the project, evaluate whether a component reaches standards of quality; start over if it doesn’t;
- Do not solder together ANYTHING unless you’re sure you completed step 5.
- If working for 6 hours straight, avoid making executive decisions after the third hour.