By Helen I. Driggs
Solid rivets are one of the most useful connections for joining materials that are delicate, heat sensitive, or not metal. I like to use them both as decorative and structural elements, and although there are manufactured rivets available on the market, I typically make them from scratch using brass rod or nickel wire as a starting point. Once you understand and master the fabrication of solid rivets, a wide range of other versatile cold connections can be added to your skill set.
For this example, I used saw-pierced and surface-textured 16-gauge aluminum sheet, some reclaimed and recycled acrylic sheet and 24-gauge patterned brass sheet with nickel wire, aluminum tubing, and 0.032-inch (0.81-mm) brass rod for the rivets.
In addition to typical bench tools, it’s helpful to have some sturdy flat nose pliers, a rivet hammer, and a drill gauge, which I find invaluable for most riveted work.
1. Fabricate whatever layers you wish to rivet together, and bring them all to a finished state, based on whatever materials you are using.
2. Cut a short section of the rod (or wire) you intend to rivet with. For this example, I used 0.032-inch brass rod, but you can use any wire or rod size you’d like. Typically, I work in the 18-gauge to 12-gauge range because these sizes are easy to purchase, manageable, and usually in scale with my work. Make sure the rod is at least long enough to pass through all the layers of the work with a bit of extra for forming the rivet head and tail.
Tip: For the first cut, choose a set of flat-nose pliers at least as wide as the piece is thick, and then trim the rod so it can be held in plier jaws with about 3/32” extending from each side to form the head, tail, and a bit of waste metal.
3. Using the drill gauge (or calipers), find a drill bit the exact size or smaller in diameter than the rod you have chosen to rivet with. If you have only a drill bit that is smaller than the rod, you must file or bur out the drilled openings to match the rivet’s diameter. For this particular stock, #66 was just the right size.
Tip: Always drill a test hole in a scrap of similar material as your piece to verify the fit of the rod. A well-made rivet should just pass through the opening—not too tight, but not loose, either.
4. Determine the positions of the rivets and mark them on the uppermost layer. I find it helpful to use painter’s tape to temporarily hold the layers together during this part of the construction.
5. Drill a hole in one corner of only the uppermost layer, and verify the fit of the rivet rod. Then, re-stack and drill through the remaining layers, making sure the drilled hole is vertical. Remove any burrs from the drilled openings on all layers.
6. Grasp the section of rod firmly in the plier jaws. File the cut edge flat and perpendicular to its length. Then, use a rivet hammer, sharp cross peen hammer, or goldsmith’s hammer to “upset” the top surface. The goal is to spread the metal out and “mushroom” it by creating a series of tiny parallel grooves on the cut end. Then, rotate the rod 90 degrees in the plier jaws, and create a second set of hammered grooves.
Tip: It helps to rest the tail of the rivet on steel as you do this, but you will end up widening the other end of the rod as you do, so you may need to file off that part at some point.
7. Inspect the rivet head. It should be round, flat, and visibly larger in diameter than the shaft. File, sand, and finish the rivet, repeatedly testing the fit in the drilled hole to verify that the rivet head will not pass through the piece. This will take some time and patience.
8. Once the rivet head is shaped and finished to your liking, flip the work over on the bench block. Mark the rod where it extends above the opening at a place about half the width of the rod stock. A good rule of thumb is about the thickness of a Sharpie thin marker nib. Saw the rod at the mark or snip off the rod above the mark and file down to it.
9. Using the same technique as for the rivet head, upset the tail end of the rivet just to the point where it will not fall through the opening. I call this “setting” the rivet, because there still should be a bit of play in the layers.
10. If there is only one rivet in the piece, inspect the position of the rivet and all the layers of the piece before securing it. If there are multiple rivets in the piece, choose one diagonally across the work and repeat steps 1-9 to install and set a second rivet. Once there are two rivets set, you can then secure them before completing any remaining rivets. To secure rivets, use the ball peen of a chasing hammer to gently flatten and planish the head and tail of each rivet. It helps to work slowly and evenly and from front to back and from corner to corner of the piece so the layers are brought together as evenly and tightly as possible.
Helen I. Driggs is an experienced metalsmith, lapidary, and studio jewelry instructor and has appeared in six instructional jewelry technique videos. Her book, The Jewelry Maker’s Field Guide, was published in 2013.