Working with Metals

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

(A reminder: Pictures can be enlarged by clicking once or twice.)

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I first discovered the joy of metalworking in high school. Prior to that time, I had been a consistent failure in woodworking – and I do mean “F”. I was convinced that wood was a living substance, defiant of my every effort to apply precise measures and shapes to it. As it turned out, there were more flaws in the worker than in the wood.

Metals required more rugged tooling, but their behavior was more predictable and they stayed put once they were measured and shaped. My first metal class involved instrument making in a machine shop.

One of my earliest jobs, during the final months of World War II, was as a helper sheet metal worker in a navy yard.

During the late 1940s, I used these skills to build cars for a model railroad. This involved cutting and shaping sheet metal salvaged from tin cans, creating trim items from wire, and assembling all with soft solder (alloys of lead and tin).

Also, some parts such as couplers and truck frames were cast of Babbitt metal by the “lost wax” technique, in which the pattern was modeled in wax and then covered by plaster of Paris. The resulting mold was heated to remove the wax, leaving the cavity open to receive the molten metal.

These same techniques were used in my first approaches to art metal work, creating sleighs and a carriage to go under the Christmas tree. The carriage is shown below, somewhat battered after about sixty Christmases. The coach itself was built of tin can stock and wires. The driver is a lost wax casting, and only the horse was bought ready-made, a “finding”. All parts were coated with the paints produced for model railroads.


Additional techniques were developed, one by one:

(1) Embossed metals, including the Apple Tree, the Nuthatch, the portrait of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, and an image of the Aztec Calendar.  These were formed in thin copper sheet darkened by liver of sulphur (potassium sulfide). The Akhenaten image is highlighted with gold leaf. The Nuthatch is mounted in a walnut dish, turned on a wood lathe. The fifth embossing, Radiance, based on a portrait of Leontyne Price, was hammered into a sheet of lead one-eighth inch thick.

   Apple Tree 2 300       Scanned-05 NutHtch

 Scanned-04 Akhenaten     Aztec Calendar 2 300

Scanned-07b Radiance

(2) A sunken bowl, hammered from a flat copper sheet, adorned with soft-soldered loops and feet of heavy copper wire. It was darkened by liver of sulfur. “Sunken” refers to a bowl-making technique in which the belly is hammered into a yielding material (such as asphalt, rubber, or as in this case even a stack of newspapers) or into a shaped wooden mold. There is also a “raised” technique in which the edges are hammered and compacted upward. For a shallow open shape such as this, the sinking technique is preferred for its simplicity.

Scanned-03 CoprBowlScanned-09 Lamp

(3) A lamp constructed by various techniques from scrap yard materials — brass strips, copper wires and sheets, assembled by a combination of soft soldering, hard soldering (silver alloy), and riveting. Also fabric and electrical parts, all purchased ready-made. What the lamp itself lacks in artistry is perhaps compensated for by the beauty of its light. A sleeve with spiral openings for the light rotates in convection currents over the hot main bulb. A small bulb in the base, when lighted alone, casts graceful spiral patterns upon the walls and table top in a darkened room.

(4) Heavy copper wire, shaped and partly flattened bScanned-09 CoprNcklc1y hammering against an anvil to produce a necklace. The necklace was trimmed with twisted fine copper wire, and darkened with liver of sulphur.

Later, an enamel pendant was added. The completed piece, titled “Celtic Wreaths,” was purchased by a collector of unusual and unique jewelry.

IV. Scanned-08 ScorpFsh           Scanned-08m  CeltWrths