Etching sterling silver

Every once in a while someone comes into the booth, regards my jewelry and asks, "Are you making this with pmc?" NO, NEVER!!!! I want to shout, but I gulp and moderate it down to, "No, all my work is sterling silver and I do my own etching." Now if they are really foolish they will gaze again at my work and particularly my box clasps and tell me I should use pmc. I am usually less moderate with my next answer.

But what is PMC and why am I not happy when asked if I use it and even less happy when told I should use it? It is precious metal clay that is fine silver suspended in a clay medium. It has a great appeal to hobbyists and people without technical metalsmithing skills. I am neither. Once a piece is made in pmc it is fired and becomes (if done correctly) fine silver. I have "issues" with pmc but that is for another blog entry. Today it's about what I do to get the etched patterns on my pieces.

First, I always work in sterling silver because of its strength and its ability to accept patinas. Fine silver is not a strong metal and it won't take a patina. Etching sterling involves a vile chemical process that I have worked long and hard to perfect, plus it's just plan hard work. Stamping a design on a piece of  metal clay is easy. Etching is a several day process.

Because of the time involved I always do several sheets of sterling silver at one time. This means it's expensive too, so I go slowly as I don't want any mistakes. I do have sheets of etched silver that are just downright ugly and unusable. I have learned. My etching starts long before I ever don my acid gear and put on a respirator. First, I must create patterns that I want to etch into the sterling. This usually involves many drafts and finally I scan the final version into my computer where I employ both Photoshop and Illustrator to clean up the final artwork.

Doodle do etch art
Doodle do etch art

Raw artwork before cleaning  it up

Resist on silver
Resist on silver

I transfer that artwork  to a resist... something that the acid (or in my case ferric nitrate) cannot eat through. This step is perhaps the most important, as a good resist makes  a good etch. Once made the resist is carefully applied to my sterling sheets.If I should stop here and drop the metal in the ferric nitrate it would eat out what is unprotected, including the back of my sterling sheet. The next step is to protect the side edges and back of the pieces.

Then it is outside to set up the actually table and hardware to etch. Because of the nature of the chemical it is best to etch under a fume hood. I have none. I etch outside. This is sometimes a dilemma for me. Once the day I picked was the first over 100° day of the season. I stood outside in it all day in heavy acid gear. Another year it was cold and damp. Spring or Fall are my favorite seasons to etch, but I seem to run out of material in the winter and summer.

4 me in my gear
4 me in my gear

Here's me in my chemical gear and my etching set-up, on a moderate February day. I etched 8 sheets and it was a day long process, just to do the etching. The prep work was another day. But in the end it was all worth it. I have the etched sheets that I can make into wonderful jewelry.

3 etching set up
3 etching set up
Finished etch on the sterling
Finished etch on the sterling
Finished piece
Finished piece

And in case you are worried about the vile chemical that I am using. It is a salt, a component in fertilizer,  and I always keep track of it until I turn it over to the folks at the dump to depose of correctly.

Etching sterling silver is a long multi-step process. But I like doing it. I can put my own artwork in the metal, I love the varied textures, and it makes my work more personal, more a part of me. Its one of my hard-learned skills that I am proud to share and add to my jewelry.

New pieces

Today it's sunny and Spring-like outside. Its hard to be inside the studio. But when I go outside to walk the dog and enjoy the weather I get all sorts of great ideas and I want to curtail my walk to hurry back to the studio. No pleasing me.

I am working on some pieces I'm excited about. So like the kindergartener I am. Here's my show & tell for the day.

Unless otherwise noted this are my quick photos of the work. My photographer does a much better job. :-?

First I took my new favorite shape, the Zoa, and made it larger, and worked it on to a simpler, more elegant neckwire. Its hung on 3 strands of stainless steel wire. The hook & eye closure is made to go with the pendant. This particular pendant went home with a wonderful sculptor in Bellevue. I delighted she saw and loved it. Some pieces find the right home quickly.

Zoa_multi-strand_nckl
Zoa_multi-strand_nckl

And while I was at it, I made another Zoa pendant into a box clasp. Or a box clasp into a Zoa pendant. This a new direction for my usually rectangular box clasps. I love these white fresh water pearls.

Zoa Boxclasp
Zoa Boxclasp

This box clasp lead to another idea. What if I made multiple shapes and attached them all together. Would that work?

I think so.

BoxClasp Circles mookaite
BoxClasp Circles mookaite

The stones in this necklace come from Australia. One doesn't see Mookaite often but I'm quite fond of it.

All these pieces can be seen live and in person at my next show in Scottsdale, Arizona. Come by, say hello, and mention you read this blog and I'll give you a gift and maybe a hug.

The box clasp

Like everyone else I sometimes have a hard time getting focused and getting going. Life happens and when your work is in your home, life interferes with work. I'm a great believer in my ability to multi-task, but sometimes it just leads to me bouncing around like a ping-pong ball getting a little done.

Metalsmithing requires focus and attention to details. A casual moment can undo hours of work as an over-heated piece falls apart (or melts!) under a too hot torch, a careless saw cuts a kerf into a carefully etched surface, a sanding disc is allowed to go too far.

When I get to this place I need to stop trying to do many things at once and refocus. As I retreat to my studio and sit at my bench more often then not, my thinking is still scattered  and I have no idea where to start. Things seem either too easy and simple or too complex to work on until I get my brain working. What to do?

I recently decided that the best thing I can do at this point is to start making box clasps. Technically box clasps are fairly difficult, but I've done enough to be fluent in them. I know each step, how to do it, what order to do them in. Making them challenges my skills as a metalsmith, with the precision, cutting, soldering, measuring, filing; but I know what to do and have no questions as to sequencing, what temperature solder I need, what the pitfalls are. Making box clasps brings me back together and centers me on the here and now.

All the intricacy and detailed labor of the box clasp is hidden on the inside. My version of the clasp is actually a box within a box. I was taught to make a tight precise fit to insure years of trouble free wearing. It is more time-consuming but ultimately produces a clasp that will last indefinitely and never release unexpectedly. It makes me proud every time I sell one as I know its a special item with a great deal of my efforts and thought put into each clasp.

Below is the very condensed version of the making of a box clasp plus a peek at its inner workings.

1. The inner box is made & a slot carefully filled to accept the tongue of the clasp.

box-clasp-step-1












2. The tongue with the trigger is soldered and carefully filed and fitted to the box.

box-clasp-step-2-tongue-trigger












3. The etched sterling top deck is soldered in place and a the slot for the trigger is pierced & filed into a tight fit. This photo shows the box within a box, part of this clasp.

box-clasp-step-3-box-in-box











4. Once the bottom plate is added the tongue continues to get refined so it has the pleasing and important "CLICK" when it is fully engaged. Then the findings are soldered on, it is thoroughly cleaned, and is ready to be patinaed and added to a necklace.

box-clasp-step-4_cleaned-ready-for-patina











5. Finally the clasp becomes the central part of a necklace. In this case a rough cut carnelian necklace with yellow turquoise. Its ready to go to a client.

box-clasp-step-5-strung