Little things mean a lot - finishing techniques
by Helen Goga
You’ve made several pieces of wire-art jewellery and love each and every one of them for their individual features. Your journey as a wire artist has become personal, you’ve worked hard and each piece reflects a part of you. You passionately point out how the symmetrical lines on the bezel were strategically placed to complement the lines in the tourmilated quartz stone, how the striking curves in the top wire deliberately flash across the kite-shaped labradorite to project a lighter-than-air effect; and who could resist, the clever combination of silver and gold wire that enhances the natural warm colours of amber as they dance their way through the tumbled freeform?
You love them all for the same reasons: the fun and excitement of making personalized wearable art; your enthusiasm for the art form as, with each one you make, your appetite to do more increases. Ideas are bursting to come out and you admit that you haven’t had this much fun since you were a kid when it was fashionable to be creative. Yet, . . . there are those little things that you haven’t solved that you know would make the difference between your work being mediocre and exceptional.
These concerns have nothing to do with your design but have everything to do with product development and its end result. They are finishing techniques and they begin the moment you pick up your pliers and end with the final last touches that are done to help present your work in its best light. Many perceive these finishing techniques to be a maze, but in these immortal words: “Elementary, my dear Watson!”
For a new artist, perhaps the most challenging of these techniques is how they do their bindings. Done poorly and the piece looks crude and amateur — no matter what is done with the rest of the design. The inferior binding may be a result of the artist’s inability to apply the first turn of binding wire. Because the first turn sets up the binding wire to lie snug against the previous turn, the artist may notice this as an uneven binding with slight gaps between each turn.
This may happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, when the artist forms the small skewed hook on the end of the binding wire, the jaw of the flat-nose pliers they are using is too thin, causing the space between the hook and the longer end of the wire to be shallow. Once the hook is slipped over the group of wires that is to be bound together, the tight area of the hook cannot fit over the outside wire and the first turn of binding is out of line:
Wanting to correct this, the artist lifts the hook to straighten and re-shape it, not realizing that the area of the binding wire that was bent, straightened and re-shaped is now compromised. It may break off at that moment or at some later time when the piece has been completed, leaving a raw edge.
If this scenario sounds familiar, study the end of your flat-nose pliers and pay attention to the slope from the tip to the base of its jaw. If the tip is too thin, then the hook will be shallow. Try forming the hook at different increments along the jaw to see if you can find the exact spot that will form a hook that will fit exactly around the square corners of the outside wire. As you form the hook, it should naturally skew to one side as it shapes over the side of the plier and across the face of the jaw:
By studying your tools, you can learn to use them to their best advantage. If it feels like you are working against your tool, you probably are.
Another reason why the binding may turn out lacking (inadequate) is due to poor finger positioning. Finger positioning helps control the binding wire (and tool) as you work. A good rule to follow is to learn to work with your fingertips as close as possible to the area you are binding. If you were to watch experienced hands, you would not be able to see the tip of the tool nor the wire where it is being shaped. (It is for that reason you do not see finger positioning in the projects of this magazine.) Like an experienced knitter who watches TV and carries on a conversation without looking at their work, this wire-art jeweller has learned to control their tension and let their fingers feel their way.
For those who are fortunate enough to watch accomplished artists, you would surely pick up a couple of useful tricks. Should your work be compromised because you need to bind in a very tight or difficult-to-reach spot, simply start the binding a short distance from where you normally would and slide it into position. Or, perhaps making a small hook to begin your binding doesn’t work well for you. Instead, make the hook larger — let’s say about an inch — and slip this over your mark on the wires. Then bind using both ends of the binding wire by first taking the short end around at least once before you cut it off and then finish binding using the longer end. There’s always more than one way to get the same end result.
Another area that really sets the expert’s work apart from that of a novice is how the ends of their wires are finished off. Sometimes this can be as simple as filing off the end so that it doesn’t scratch as it comes into contact with the skin. Or, it merely means that these ends should be tucked in — out of the way — so they won’t catch. To file the end of a wire, even a thin wire, an artist would need a jeweller’s file that has a fine cut similar to that of a diamond-cut nail file. The method used is to hold the tip of the wire with your non-dominant hand and swipe against its end with the file at a slight angle. This will remove the straight cut and leave a sloped end that will disappear into the surface of your work once it has been pressed into place.
One cannot talk about finishing techniques without mentioning the quality of an artist’s tools. Experience has shown that, if the tools have flaws, these flaws will register on the wire as it is being shaped. That’s why wire-art jewellers become avid and critical about their pliers. When they are looking for tools, they expect to see round-nose pliers that are round — not oval, rough with ridges or cursed with flat spots. They know they need jaws that are smooth so as to not scratch the surface of the metal, and jaws that meet evenly to ensure that the wire will be held securely. After carefully selecting their tool(s), many artists will then remove sharp edges on their pliers with fine emery paper to avoid leaving tool marks on their work.
When you begin each piece, think of ways to control the wire(s) as you develop the design. Maintaining each wire in its proper space will have a direct effect on the outcome of your work. Learning to recognize when to use tape to hold the pieces in place is an important skill that is often overlooked, resulting in misshapen bezels or ring shanks that have spread apart or have uneven wires.
As a finishing technique, buffing your work will bring a high polish to your piece. A flex-shaft power tool (or hand-held version of) with the appropriate size collet to fit a spindle that has a cotton wheel on one end is ideal for the job. Use a water-soluble rouge (red for gold-filled) to coat the cotton wheel as it spins. Holding your piece firmly and, taking care that any piece that is protruding won’t catch on the wheel as it spins, lightly touch your work to the cotton wheel for just a few seconds in any specific spot. The friction of the wheel will heat the gold-filled wire and allow it to melt slightly. Move your piece to buff all of it.
You can use the cotton wheel repeatedly even though it will turn black and the loose cotton fibres will fly off in all directions. Each time you buff a new piece, re-apply the rouge. Eventually the wheel will wear down in size after many buffings, at which time you can replace it. After using the jeweller’s rouge, you will need to clean your piece in warm soapy water using a soft toothbrush to gently scrub away the rouge. The shine is worth it.
There are other methods of shining the wire including using a jeweller’s polishing cloth as you straighten the wire while working. This adds rouge to the wire as the piece is being made and is a very practical way to shine up your piece if you do not have access to power tools. Other options are ionic cleaners that use a liquid concentrate to clean the wire or Vibrasonic tumblers (and rotary tumblers) with steel shot that burnishes and work-hardens the wire.
With practice, these techniques will definitely single your work out as the pièce de résistance. Now all you have to think about is the right packaging to fit the image.