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What is Metalsmithing?

What is Metalsmithing?

Metalsmithing is not a commonly heard word in the mainstream, and autocorrect and word documents always question its spelling, but it’s a word about a world I have been immersed in since 2007, and one that many people like me call home. There are even symposiums and conferences dedicated to Metalsmithing!

The first time I learned how to work with metal, a new level of agency opened up in me. I had thought of metal as the strongest, most stable thing, not even as a workable material: something only machines manipulated. I never even really imagined that humans were responsible for the silver rings I had worn on my fingers since I was little. 

I knew within two weeks of the start of my first beginner's jewelry class that I would do this for a long time. I loved the feeling of drawing a sharp file across copper, catching the sharp cat-tongue-like blades of the file against the edge of the metal at just the right angle, a feeling I have come to appreciate with the same sentimentality of the description “like butter.” I also loved the sounds of steel metal tools on the milder metals I work with, and the soft droplet chorus of little filings curling out from under a file, and hitting the desk below, glittering. It was all so sensorially appealing to me, and all of the small tools and micro tasks involved in completing a piece of jewelry kept me on my toes, eager to get the process right. Then there was the adrenaline producing first year or so of working with a torch! And the rush of finishing a wearable piece of jewelry was one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole discipline. 

Metalsmithing. A wholly engulfing set of tools and tricks and feelings and techniques that captured me instantly. 

You could say Metalsmith is an umbrella term encompassing the trades of many more familiar sounding names, like Blacksmiths, the ones who swing heavy hammers to forge blackened steel tools and artful decor. Or Goldsmiths, the ones who typically set diamonds, make wedding rings, and repair chains in every decent sized town. Then there are Silversmiths, a perhaps lesser known group who tend to specialize in art jewelry and exquisite functional objects like candlesticks and serving utensils. These are a much less common folk artisan these days, now that the market for handmade goods like these has dwindled under a world market of much more affordably produced pieces. 

I call myself a Metalsmith because I have some experience in all of these fields, but I primarily use traditional silversmithing techniques invented for making ceremonial objects like censers, drinking vessels, tableware, and personal items like mirrors and hairbrushes (think Victorian era European vanity table displays or the large intricate gold objects in the Egyptian section at art museums). I also relate to the world Metalsmithing simply because it was the word used to describe my major in art school, and because I use my skills to make more than just jewelry. I hold a bachelor’s degree in 3D Fine Art with a major in Jewelry and Metalsmithing, and I have supplemented this well rounded education with many summer trips to craft schools for varying one-week to two-month intensive courses in specific metals-related subjects. 

Sometimes I think I’d like to work with other materials, but the world of Metalsmithing keeps calling me in to hone my skills further. There are many little jobs and tricks and tasks in working with metal that make up the world of Metalsmithing as a whole. Each task or technique demands its own unique precision or attention to detail, that one could remain a student their whole life and never run out of techniques to master in this art form. 

The techniques I use most are synclastic hollow forming, anticlastic raising, and angle raising for creating vessels and hollow jewelry forms. These all hammering techniques that incorporate the use of various steel and heavy plastic forming tools, and involve working with metal at room temperature after annealing, or softening the metal by heating it up. 

I also do a good deal of silver soldering, aka braising, not to be confused with the type of soldering done on electronics which requires much less heat. Jewelers and Metalsmiths who work with non-ferrous metals (metals that don’t contain iron) like gold, copper, and silver, use a silver alloy to connect different pieces of metal to each other, in a similar manner to welding, and we simply call it soldering (pronounced “soddering” in the US.) Soldering is useful for attaching ear wires and chains to pendants seamlessly. 

My next favorite practices are used together and are called Chasing and Repoussé, which are the names for the techniques of adding detail to the front of a piece of metal, and giving it volume from the back to create a sculptural relief in sheet metal. This set of techniques is great for adding imagery and symbols to metal to be used in jewelry or objects. Techniques like this have been invented in different places the world over, where metal was worked for beautiful sculptural details in architecture, fine home decor, and spiritual gathering spaces. 

And down the line, I'd love to learn how to engrave metal. But that is one of the areas of metalwork that some people dedicate their whole lives to, and there are some seriously exquisite engravers out there. But I'd still like to learn the basics to add to my repertoire. 

I enjoy knowing I’m part of a long line of artisans, using my hands to create beautiful pieces for people to enjoy, using techniques that haven’t changed a whole lot over time, although the abundance and variety of tools we have access to today is beyond what any metalsmith from centuries past would have had available to them. Most of them made their own tools, or worked with other artisans to design the things they needed to get the job done. This is a tradition I also try to incorporate in some ways, by doing things like making my own chasing tools. They are like the brushes of a painter, in that brush choice adds to the texture of the final piece. So having made my own chasing tools means that there is even more of my own innate aesthetic in the chasing and repoussé that I do. 

I love working with metal, I really do. But the best part is getting something beautiful into your hands, maybe even something you had a part in dreaming up, ready to go live a life of its own with you!