I get asked ALL the time about my metalsmithing career. How did I get into it? How much does it cost? What do I need to get started? Is it really that hard?
Well.. yes. It is. BUT - with the right tools starting out, your metalsmithing journey will be a hell of a lot easier. I know this because I DIDN'T have the right tools for years and it cost me thousands of hours of "wasted" time. (I put that in quotations because I firmly believe that time making mistakes isn't wasted. After all, you learned from those mistakes, right? Right?)
But choosing the right tools off the bat will save you some serious mental anguish and physical discomfort. The "right" tools - by the way - don't always mean the most expensive. And the "right" tools that I'm going to list may not be the right ones for you. You may be using techniques that I don't use. You may formulate ways of doing things that are far superior to mine. So take this with a grain of salt. It's a jumping-off point; a springboard for people who love the idea of smithing but have no clue where to start.
I got you. Don't worry.
First, the basics. Your bench. Where you work is super personal to you as a smith. Some people like sitting when they work. Some (like myself) prefer standing. It really depends on you. But one thing is important - wherever you work must be sturdy. No glass tabletops, no plastic banquet tables. No card tables. Sturdy. It could be wood or metal or MDF, but it shouldn't move when you lean on it. You're going to be hammering away, after all. Old desks are great. As are fancy Husky brand benches that you can buy at a big box hardware store. All wood is the preferred choice as it is comfortable, customizable, and dampens sound. But whatever you can get your hands on is good.
Next is to decide whether you're going to be a hot or a cold smith. This has nothing to do with your thermostat and everything to do with whether you're going to use a torch or not. Some smiths prefer to use riveting or pinning or other "cold connections" without fire. Some love fire and all of the options it brings. That level of comfort is up to you.
If you do decide to use a torch, there are a plethora of options. The one that I'm using above is one of the more expensive and tricky options to source. This is an oxygen and acetylene torch - it utilizes a specialized hose system that connects to a large reusable oxygen bottle and acetylene bottle via "regulators" that - you guessed it - regulate the flow of gases. To protect from explosions (yes - acetylene is flammable and oxygen is explosive) you use something called flashback arrestors. These prevent sparks from flowing backward into the bottle and causing a ka-boom.
If the above just scared the crap out of you, no worries. While oxy-acetylene systems are preferred, there are many other options. One of the most popular for home smiths is a simple butane torch. You may have seen these used in the kitchen for creme brulee. It's the same thing. They use run of the mill butane canisters that you can buy in any hardware store. Clean burning, cheap, and relatively hot; they won't be powerful enough to heat large pieces but are good for people who just want to work on smaller pieces. My students are using a Dremel version below.
There are also propane torches out there as well that draw atmospheric oxygen (so no need for an oxygen tank.) They are also a good option to look into If you’re not ready to hop on the acetylene train yet.
Next, I'll list some of the bare-bones additions you'll want to grab for your mini studio. These are non-negotiable. They're not wants, they're needs. (We'll get to the wants later.)
- Fireproof surface. I've used 2x baking trays for years. They're cheap and effective.
- Hard charcoal soldering block(s.) One will do, two is better. They do wear out after a few months of use so keep that in mind.
- Flux. This is the stuff that we use to clean our metal before we heat is. I use HandyFlux.
- A small natural (hair) brush for your flux. You want natural here for a reason - while hair just burns away under heat, plastic or synthetic will melt on to your piece. No good. Get horsehair, ideally.
- Solder. It comes in varying grades - get "hard" and "medium" at least. I prefer 20g wire solder as opposed to sheet. I just find it easier to use and to cut to the desired amount.
- Tweezers. At least one good pair. Make sure they're metalsmithing tweezers and not just ones for your eyebrows. They need to be long enough to be under a flame and not burn your fingers off.
- A small crockpot. You can get these on Amazon for really cheap - somewhere around $15. This will heat and hold your "pickle" or acid bath (more on that in a second.) You WILL NOT use this for anything else but your pickle.
- Pickle. A warm acid bath that you will dip soldered pieces into to clean them. This is gnarly stuff. I suggest Rio Grande's pickle solutions. Make sure to follow the dilution directions and use filtered water! Also...
- Copper tongs. You can't use steel tongs in a pickle. I won't get into the tedious science, but if you "contaminate" your pickle with anything steel, it will copper plate everything you put into it. Yikes. Instead, you have to use a pair of tongs made with a non-ferrous metal. Copper is best.
- Sandpaper. A lot of it. Make sure it's graded for metals. At least 180, 220, 400, 800, and 1600 grit.
- Files. At minimum, get a half round German or Swiss file. #0 cut grade. It's a great all purpose tool. If there was ever a time to splurge on one tool, this is it. You will be using your file for about 50% of your smithing time. It's SO important. If you can get another, get a #0 cut flat bastard file and a small set of needle files. They will all be used, I promise.
- Bench pin. I fudged this for a long time and made my own. It worked kinda well. You'll see below - I took a 1x5 piece of scrap pine and cut a notch down the middle (offset works better) then secured that to my bench with an old c-clamp. Quick and dirty. It's the surface you're going to use to brace your pieces while you work on them. It's also a surface you'll saw and drill into so it'll change with your work - it's not meant to be pristine.
- A jewelers saw frame. This is another place that I don't recommend skimping and buying the cheapest. Sawing is HARD and a cheap saw frame will only make your job worse. I use a Knew Concepts saw which I love. I know a lot of smiths who use Green Lion saws and love them too. Just don't get a cheap one. You'll regret it.
- Also - blades. Let's chat. The first time I went to a silversmithing class/intensive, my mean old Chinese instructor made me saw out TWENTY discs from brass sheet. I thought I had discovered a new form of torture. But actually, it was only terrible because I was new at it and I was using cheap-ass blades. I will never forget that. Don't use cheap saw blades. I beg you. You will hate sawing for years as I did. It's not worth it. Spend the extra on Laser Gold saw blades from Rio Grande. Get #0 cut blades - they're good for almost everything.
- Sawblade lube. It's cheap. Use the paraffin stuff from Rio Grande or just use beeswax. It all works. But you need lube to slip-slide your saw blade into her DMs.
- A tumbler. No - not a rock tumbler. They're similar, but they're not the same thing. A tumbler is a spinning barrel with "steel shot" medium in it that burnishes and polished your piece for you without even having to do anything! It's magical. Dura-Bull is a great brand. As is Lortone. Pick one within your budget.
- Hammers. I could do a whole Ted Talk on hammers but I'll give you basics: a plastic non-weighted mallet for forming metals without denting them, and a ball pein hammer for the rest.
- A ring mandrel. Good for more than just rings! Get a sturdy one - solid steel with a smooth face (not stepped.) Use it to round out settings, hoop earrings, rings, and more.
- A bench block. A big chunk of solid polished steel. You'll be using it as your benchtop anvil.
- A bent steel burnisher. You can set almost anything with this tool. I love it.
- Magnifiers. These are a case by case basis. If you wear glasses, you might NEED them. If you don't, you might still want them. They're good to have because this craft is hard on your eyes. Keep your sight. Wear magnifiers.
- Materials! I would suggest a sheet of 22g sterling and some thin bezel wire to start with. Round stock wire is great to keep around. 20g for earwires, 14g for hoops or round rings, 11g for cuffs.
That's it. For now. Yes. I know it sounds like a lot - and it is! But once you get much of this, you won't need to replace it! They will likely be your tools for life. Treat them well, find a place to organize them, and keep them rust-free and they will repay you with many years of service.
Coming up soon I'll do a separate list of "wants" as well as an exhaustive list of tool and metal suppliers (as well as my thoughts on each!) If you want to expand your studio, or want to learn more about setting up the perfect workspace, let me know! I'd love to do a quick studio tour.
Be well, and create cool stuff!