I signed up for a week-long workshop last week with Tom Herman because his work amazes me. He uses the same nature for inspiration that so many artists do, but of course his interpretation is totally original, gorgeous, and very true to detail. His technique is bas relief, carved directly into thick metal. Crazy!
Hydrangea Brooch by Tom Herman
I know I’m not going to make jewelry this way, but I felt irresistibly drawn to the class, as if there was information there calling my name: “Vickie, you need to know how to do this!!!” After all, I do all my metal carving in the clay state, but the idea that I might make modifications at the fired end was tempting. So, off I went, expecting to at least learn a tremendous amount about making custom tools and using them. And that I did.
learning to carve metal
I started off by drawing a leaf design onto a piece of nickel silver glued to an aluminum plate, using a metal “tracing punch.” After removing from the plate, I drilled many tiny holes and sawed out excess metal with the new saw frame I purchased (levers on both ends, so fast change blades). I then glued it back to the plate and mounted it in an engraving ball to allow firm access at any angle. Then began the challenging task to learn to move the metal, smoothly and in the desired way, with tiny metal punches called planishers. First, can I just say? I hate nickel silver! It’s hard! I was longing for my buttery soft Argentium sterling silver. Learning to sharpen drill bits that dulled immediately will come in handy, though.
gravers made in Tom Herman class
After that experience with a set of four punches provided by the instructor, we began to make our own tools, in earnest. First, a set of six gravers – think of tiny chisels on handles, used to whittle away bits of metal. Six different shapes, each ground and mounted into its handle and sharpened to dangerous levels. I have three other gravers in my drawer from previous classes, but now I feel a lot more comfortable with these tools.
punches made in Tom Herman class
Then we learned about punches. I’ve made a few before, but this was an intensive for me. I made it my goal to consume both three foot lengths of tool steel provided to me, and I came very close. At just over 3″ per punch (customized to my grip), that was 22 punches, and I made 20. Cup punches. Tracers. Planishers, rounded and not. Saddle punches, liners, and chisels. Tiny punches with parallel lines carved into them with liner gravers (I made sets with the lines at angles to make feathers). Mill grain liners – OMG, I’m in love! After a lot of sore muscles from filing steel, we water hardened the punches by heating in the torch and quenching, then tempering.
carved bird, using custom punches for textures (still glued to the steel bench block)
Finally, it was time to work on a design of our choosing. Many in the class made Tom’s class project – a ring with carved leaves and smooth borders, some with 2mm stone “berries.” I began my design from the previous post. Although I started out with the border as drawn, I quickly removed it, as it was hard to work with Tom’s methods and I disliked the suggestion that the shape referenced a mouth eating the bird. I left a tiny bit on top of the bird for a possible bail, but I think it will come off at the next saw session.
Of course, I don’t ever consider my class samples as real work, so this will probably never be finished. But I learned a lot about making custom tools, about moving metal in a sculptural way (in a different way than with regular chasing and repousse), and about giving a sense of volume with a thin piece of metal. I also used the tools to modify a metal clay bird (fired), which is where I think think this class will take me. And I begin to really understand that an original jeweler has original tools, customized for particular needs. Tom can make a punch in 10 minutes. I’m much slower, but even so the idea that I just make the tool I need on the spot is revolutionary to my thinking.