By Shawna Kulpa
For jewelers, making homemade tools is almost a rite of passage. Some do it because they have limited funds and resources (especially if they’re just starting out). Some need a tool they can’t find anywhere, to increase their functionality and speed. Others want something aesthetically pleasing or simply like a challenge.
Whatever the reason, they all share a similar mindset, which jeweler James Dailing describes well: “We’re creating tools to work how we work.”
We’ve spoken with several bench jewelers about the tools they’ve made for themselves over the years. We hope their creations inspire you to expand your own tool kit. After all, it’s almost a rite of passage.
Sometimes a jeweler has time to experiment with different materials when constructing a homemade bench tool. Other times, the tool is quickly made out of necessity, using whatever happens to be readily available. For Shannon Dalton of Wickersham Jewelry in Wausau, Wisconsin, the quick and easy way often wins out.
When he was looking for a handy and inexpensive way to hold rings while removing crowns, Dalton stumbled across the ubiquitous metal binder clip found in just about every home, shop, and office used to clamp paper together. Dalton figured that if it could clamp paper, why couldn’t it clamp a ring? But first, a few modifications were needed.
Since it’s designed to be used with paper, the inside of the clip is smooth—”you could pull the ring right out,” says Dalton. To get a more secure grip, Dalton cut a metal washer in two and welded a half to the center of one of the clip’s inner sides, open end up. He then divided the remaining washer and, on the opposite side of the clip, welded a piece to each corner. This left enough space between the corner pieces to accommodate a ring when the clip is closed, while enabling the half-moon–shaped washer to hook the shank. “The ring stays stuck inside until you open the clamp,” Dalton says.
The binder clip came attached to a large round magnet, which Dalton clamps into his GRS ring clamp. Now he can easily reposition and spin the clamp as needed, which makes it also useful for retipping projects. “You can also grab a chain with it, but it works best for rings,” he says.
When setting a stone in a bezel, most jewelers know to string a bit of dental floss across the bezel first, to make it easier to remove the stone if needed. But what happens when the stone is already firmly set and there’s nothing to grab to pop out the stone?
Lisa Bialac-Jehle, owner of Byzantia Jewelry in Topanga, California, has worked with a lot of bezel-set stones, and she always had a tough time removing the stones without scratching them or ripping up the bezel. One day she noticed the car antennas that littered her then-husband’s car stereo installation shop. Discovering that the antennas were made of solid steel, she decided to try to transform them into bezel-popping tools.
After cutting down an antenna to a length that fit her hand, she forged, sanded, and filed the end of it into a rounded wedge shape. Through some trial and error, Bialac-Jehle discovered that the tool worked best when she gave it a spoon shape.
“It gives it a slight curve,” she explains. “All cabochons have a dome. The curve helps the tool slide over the stone.”
The tip of the tool is sharp, but not sharp enough to scratch the stone, and it allows Bialac-Jehle to work her way around the bezel, slowly loosening it until she’s able to remove the stone.
“The wedge shape tends to push [the bezel] open as you push it in,” she explains. She notes that the tool works best on thicker bezels, and that it can be used to remove both cabochon and faceted stones.
The best part is that “the end of the antenna acts like a little handle,” she says. “The shape of the end fits the palm of my hand perfectly.”
Judy Hoch, owner of Marstal Smithy in Salida, Colorado, admits that the most accurate way to determine a bezel’s size is to measure the stone and make the calculation. However, that’s not always the most convenient way if you’re setting dozens of stones. A quicker method (particularly if you’re not mathematically inclined) is to just wrap the metal around the stone to determine the length needed.
But what do you do when the stone is so small that hanging onto it while trying to wrap becomes impossible? Hoch often found that to be the case with tiny cabochons especially. To speed up the process, she created a bezel gauge, an idea she got from Michael Boyd and Ryan Gardner, two of the owners of the Colorado Center for Metal Arts in Pueblo, Colorado.
To make the gauge, Hoch cut bezel material in lengths from 8 to 16 mm. She shaped and soldered them to a piece of 20-gauge metal. She stamped the length of the bezel material to the left of the bezels. Just as important, she recorded at the top of the gauge the thickness (0.35 mm) and height (2.4 mm) of the bezels. “This way, anyone who picks it up knows what I was using, and can make adjustments [if the stones are being set into bezels of different thickness or height].”
Hoch also drilled holes through the plate inside each bezel, allowing the user to easily poke out any stones that get wedged in.
“It’s an odd little thing, but it sure is useful,” she says.
Jewelry making can be a dangerous business. Between caustic chemicals and sharp tools, dangers lurk, so caution should always be at the forefront of every jeweler’s mind.
This is especially true when it comes to buffing and polishing. The high rate of speed at which buffing wheels operate can quickly heat up any metal being buffed, which can burn the fingers of the person doing the buffing. Gloves would seem to be the solution, but the wheel’s high rate of speed makes wearing gloves a big risk, as they could get caught in the wheel and cause permanent damage to the user’s hands.
Looking for a safe solution for his buffing work, Dalton came up with a way to create holders that, like a pair of tongs, would securely grip materials while protecting his hands from overheating or getting caught in the buffing wheel.
To make them, Dalton used a separating disc to slice into and remove material from the end of some PVC pipes he had in his studio. He created an assortment of holders, varying the amount of material he removed based on the types of jewelry he would need to buff. He used heat to curve some of the pipes, making it easier to hold onto things. “The curve at the end allows you to hold things to be polished with your hands out of the way and is more comfortable,” he explains. For a more secure grip, he lined the inner portions of the pipes with leather. He lined parts of the outside with leather, as well, so he could hold them more comfortably over long periods of time.
Michael David Sturlin, owner of Michael Sturlin Studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, has been making his own tools for as long as he’s been making jewelry.
Many of his tools consist of odds and ends of wood and steel that he’s managed to rummage over the years. And that’s certainly the case with his solder picks, which he devised from a wire clothes hanger and a wood dowel.
To make them, he cuts the wood dowel to his desired handle length. Next, he measures and cuts a suitable piece of wire that measures 25 mm longer than the desired pick length. He files the working tip of the pick to a tapered point. If he intends for the pick to be curved, he’ll bend an angle into the wire. Then, using a drill bit the same diameter of the wire, he drills a hole
25 mm into one end of the handle. Once he inserts the wire into the hole, the tool is ready to go.
Who says tools only have to be functional?
James Dailing, owner of Jim Dailing Designs in Portland, Oregon, had no idea what to do with a cello tuning peg a friend gave him in college. Still, he held onto it for decades. “I loved it, but it got in stuck in a drawer for a while,” he says.
It wasn’t until he began to have an appreciation for the aesthetic as well as the working properties of his tools that he began to think about doing something with the peg.
When he studied it, he discovered that it was the perfect length to serve as a sticky wax tool for picking up and placing gemstones.
“All I had to do was apply micro crystalline wax on the end so that it can hang onto stones during the setting process,” he explains. Dailing finds it to be not only an extremely functional tool, but also a great-looking one.
“It’s beautiful and sits on my bench every day,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite tools.”
Dailing doesn’t look at making his own tools as a chore done simply to save money or to improve his speed at the bench. Instead, he enjoys the process, seeking out ways to create functional tools that are a pleasure to use. And if they just happen to turn out looking like little works of art, so much the better.
When Dailing set out to create a set of punches, he purposely worked to balance aesthetics with functionality. Using water-hardened steel, he cut the rod to fit his hand and placed one end of the tool in a vise. Using vise grips to hold the other end, he heated the steel with his torch and slowly twisted the rod. Because steel is not very conductive, Dailing can heat specific areas to twist, allowing him to create a set of truly customized, and beautiful, punches.
This technique not only makes his punches pleasing to the eye, but also improves their functionality.
“I tend to twist it higher up because that’s usually where my fingers hold the tool...it gives me a little bit of a smoother surface to hold on to,” he explains. “It aids in how I hold the tool to keep it from slipping.”
When it comes to Dailing’s tools, aesthetics matter. When he was looking to devise a tool that would help him push stones into their seats while flush-setting them, it was important that it not only worked well and fit his hand nicely, but also pleased the eye.
Working with heavy copper rod, Dailing forged his copper punch so that its length and shape fit his hand perfectly. A slight taper provides comfort, and its forged divots and slightly asymmetrical shape make the punch easy to hold securely.
“The imperfections in the copper are aesthetic but also add a grip to the tool so that it doesn’t slip,” he says.
He’s had the tool now for nearly 20 years. “It’s too soft to push metals, but it works perfectly for stones,” he says. “When I flush-set stones, the copper punch is soft enough to tap the stone into the seat without causing any damage. It takes just one or two slight taps to wedge a stone into place.”
Mike Brenner, who in retirement began making jewelry in upstate New York, has purchased several ring vises over the years. However, they’ve always left him a bit unsatisfied. “Rings tend to pop off the commercially available ones,” he says.
Tired of not being able to find a vise that could do what he wanted it to, he finally decided to create his own. He started with a cherry wood dowel that measured 1.5 inches in diameter. He cut one end of it with a saw and then filed the end of it into a rounded, narrow dowel shape.
He next used his saw to cut the entire dowel in half lengthwise. He drilled a hole through the wide end of both pieces, threaded a 2-inch long carriage bolt through the holes, and secured the bolt with a washer and wing nut. About midway down the length of the tool, Brenner inserted a pivot to allow the carriage bolt and washer to spread the thin tip. On the far end of the tool, another screw helps keep the halves aligned.
Unlike the commercial ring vises Brenner previously used, his version allows him to fit the entire ring he’s working on if need be. “[Other ring vises] have a narrow lip that grabs the ring,” he says. “On mine, I can grab the entire ring and have room left over. It increases my holding power tremendously.”
To make his ring vise even more handy, Brenner carved out a space for it in one of his bench pins. “It’s like a cradle,” he explains, noting that it allows him to hold the vise comfortably with one hand while using his saw with the other. “It’s very efficient.”