How I Made A Jewelry Studio In My Apartment And Started My Own Line
For many years I wanted to learn silversmithing but the lack of a space to work kept me from really pursuing it. I tried paying an hourly fee to work in a shared open studio space but the only spaces available involved about 3 hours on the subway round trip. While working a full time job, I had very few hours to commit to making jewelry and losing 3 hours commuting was not as option.
I did not think making jewelry in my tiny New York City apartment was even an option. I had a very healthy fear of keeping a blow torch and large tanks of flammable gas in my living space. It was not until I discovered micro torches that I began to see silversmithing at home as a real possibility.
Below I have listed what tools and supplies I like to use and how I like to set up my workspace. I am not saying everyone needs to have everything I will be explaining. I am simply creating this guide to layout what I used as starting set up. I have purchased more tools than I will be going into. I feel the below are the basics needed to begin. Now here is my warning: You are still using fire so if you burn your house down it is not my fault! Hahah. Ok….Safety first!
I may be a bit of a safety freak but I care about my eyes and my lungs and you should too. I am a lot more strict about these things than many other jewelry artists I have seen but as I said my eyes and my lungs are important to me.
Protect your eyes!
Buy yourself a pair of safety glasses and wear them any time you pick up your torch or your rotary tool. You do not want metal shards or molten metal to end up in your eyes!
Protect your lungs!
Many, many metalsmiths I know do not wear any type of dust mask or respirator. I am going to advocate that you really should wear some type of mask. It is not good for your lungs to be breathing all that metal dust. You may not notice as you are breathing or you may think masks are uncomfortable but you will be glad you wore them later on in life. You should at the very least always wear a mask when using a rotary tool. Rotary tools kick a lot of small metal particles into the air that you should not be breathing. (A “grinding box” can help prevent this, more on this later)
I am going to recommend a respirator with an N95 filter as opposed to a disposable dust mask. They are even more effective than dust masks. I actually wear one all the time when I am working. The second I start to file, cut or sand ANYTHING, I put on a mask.
Protect your stuff!
Invest in a fire extinguisher. I am going to explain everything I can to help you have a safer studio but accidents DO happen and god forbid you light something on fire. You NEED to have a fire extinguisher RIGHT NEXT TO YOU when you are working at all times. Yes, micro torches are way less dangerous and easier to use than a large jewelers torch but they are still fire so get a fire extinguisher.
Ok, enough of my safety nagging. On to the fun stuff.
Enter the Butane Micro Torch
Micro torches are basically fancy kitchen/Crème Brûlée torches. They come in various sizes and powers and are manufactured by many different companies. Most projects can be done with two torches. It is a good idea to get one larger torch (like the picture of above) for larger pieces and one smaller torch for delicate smaller work (as shown in the image below)
Micro torches are less intimidating for beginners than a standard torch. They take less time to learn to operate, are less expensive and are easier to control. There is usually only one dial that will adjust the size of the flame plus some torches have a safety button.
Fuel is easier to acquire for micro torches. They use triple refined butane fuel which can be found at most smoke shops. It is the same fuel used for higher quality butane lighters. This type of butane fuel comes in small cans (about the size of a can of hairspray). The cans do not need to be refilled. Once empty, the cans can be thrown in the standard trash (This is true at least where I live. Be sure to check if the same is true for your locations)
A Work Table/Bench
Perhaps even more important than a torch, I needed a surface to work on. Do not work on your nice kitchen table. Do not work on anything that you will care if you scratch, gouge, burn or damage in any way. I did not want to go out and spend a fortune on a fancy jewelers table. Any table can be used any as long as it is sturdy and strong. It needs to withstand hammering, sawing and many forms of abuse. I did not want a table that would collapse mid project.
I have seen many jewelers online using butcher block kitchen carts from IKEA.
I think that is an amazing idea. They are relatively inexpensive, sturdy and will take a lot of abuse.
I am lucky enough to have a father who is a retired contractor so I enlisted his help to build my work tables. My tables are not fancy or complicated. They are built from 2x4's and 1.5” planks. They were not expensive to build and very sturdy. Another nice thing about building my own tables was building them to my desired height. I am rather tall and I wanted tables that I could work either sitting or standing without hurting my back
A Soldering Station
For the base of my soldering station I used a metal rectangle cake pan. This gave me a good solid fireproof place to begin my set up
To protect the area surrounding my pan I added a folding heat shield designed for camping stoves. I used strong magnets to attach to the shield sides of the pan.
In the cake pan I placed a spinning solder pan filled with gravel. The spinning pan enables me to turn my piece while I solder in such a small space.
On the spinning pan I placed a solder block for my solder surface. This one looks particularly terrible. They do not look like this when you buy them.
This all created a very nice compact system that could also be folded flat and put in a drawer when I was not using it. When in use, this station is set up on my desk away from any curtains right next to an open window
An Exhaust Fan
Soldering WILL create some toxic fumes. This is unavoidable. I was able to diminish the toxicity of the fumes by using a less toxic flux. I work next to a window which is ideal but I still needed a way to suck the fumes out the window. I saw a lot of different ideas, models and ways of achieving this. Prices for fume extraction devices varied widely. As with much of my studio, I went for something more DIY and inexpensive. I made a compact extractor using a small exhaust fan attached to a dryer tube with a hose clamp and duct tape. The dryer hose then goes out the window. This contraption is set right next to my solder station. It is very low tech but works well.
A Pickle Pot
To clean the metal after soldering it needs to be “pickled.” There are many over the counter pickle mixtures sold that involve various types of chemicals with varying levels of toxicity. The most common pickle used by jewelers is called Sparex. I cannot use Sparex. The smell bothers me and I would prefer a nontoxic alternative in my home. For my nontoxic pickle solution I use citric acid dissolved in water. This solution goes into a small crockpot to be kept warm. I know “Citric Acid” sounds bad but it actually isn’t. It is used for making jelly or candies.
If you have ever had sour candy you have eaten citric acid. It is what makes the candy taste sour. It can be bought at many grocery stores or online and has a nice lemony smell. As a side note, even though I used a non toxic pickle once the pickle needs to be replaced it still cannot be poured down the drain. Old pickle solution is saturated with copper and is poisonous to fish. Please dispose of spent pickle following the directions for the area you live in.
Numerous types of flux can be bought commercially and some artists even have recipes to make their own. Fluxes can be liquids, pastes and various consistencies in between. Many of these fluxes contain toxic chemicals that release into the air when heated or burned. Because I am trying to make my studio as safe as possible, I use a borax cone and dish. (They look much nicer when you first buy them. Mine is a little dirty and beat up)
Borax cones have been used by silversmithers for ages and are more common in Europe. I actually order mine from the UK. They are simple to use. Water is added to the rough ceramic dish then the cone is ground until a paste is formed. This paste is then be brushed on the metal before soldering.
In order to sand, polish, drill and grind metal I needed some type of rotary tool. In the beginning I did not want to invest a lot of money in a large pendent motor and flex shaft. For the first year or so I used a much cheaper hand held Dremel.
Most things I needed to do COULD be done with the handheld Dremel. It is not a bad way to start off but it does have its limitations and drawbacks. Dremels have less and the motor can burn out with overuse. Also, they run very fast which made it difficult for me to use it for more precise work. The better tool for silversmithing is the pendent motor with a flex shaft. I prefer the Foredom brand. Flex shafts are much more powerful and the speed can be controlled with a foot pedal. There are many accessories and hand pieces that can be bought to go with a flex shaft. All in all they are a much more versatile tool that will last a lot longer but they are not cheap and might be a better investment later on.
Rotary Tool Stand
Once I was ready to upgrade to my Foredom rotary tool with flex shaft I needed a stand. Foredom motors need to be hung two to three feet above your workstation. These motors are very heavy and vibrate while running. I did not like any of the stands I saw available online. The less expensive models were not sturdy at all. The last thing I wanted was for this very heavy motor to come crashing into my hardwood floor. So, I turned to my go-to building material: steel pipe. I build everything out of steel pipe. I have built tables, bars, clothing racks, shelves.... you get the idea. Steel pipe is easy to assemble. It comes in pre-cut sizes and is very strong and relatively inexpensive. In the image below you can see the VERY STRONG steel pipe stand I constructed. After screwing this stand straight into my workstation, I no longer worry about my flex shaft crashing to the floor mid project.
I have had some people point out that bolting the stand to my desk is not the best idea because then I cannot move it. At this point I do not have anywhere else to actually move it to so this is not an issue for me. These same people who have more space to run around have recommend using an IV pole with wheels.
An IV pole gives them the advantage of being able to roll their flex shaft to wherever they are working in their shop. I may do this at some point once I actually I have somewhere to roll my flex shaft to.
A Grinding Box
This is not something that most people have but I find it invaluable. They can get expensive but a smaller one is large enough for pretty much any jewelry project I have done. They can be found on Rio Grande for a little under $100.
Metal dust is not the best thing to breath and since I am also living where I am working I did not want metal particles spread around my home. Whenever I use my rotary tool/flex shaft I insert my hands, along with the tool and jewelry piece, into the holes in the sides of the box. While grinding and working, all the dust stays in the box instead of spreading around my home in the air.
Below I have listed various other tools that I use regularly and were a good starting point for me along with sand paper and polishing papers.
A Saw and Bench Pin
A Small Vice
A Steel Block with Rawhide Sandbag
A Rubber Block
A Third Hand
A Solder Pick, Copper Tongs, and Tweezers with Insulated Handles
A Set of Metal Files
Round Nose Pliers, Smooth Needle Nose Pliers, Wire Cutters, French Sheers, and Flush Cutters
Raw Hide Mallet and Planishing Hammer
A Ring Mandrel
A Ring Clamp, Burnishers, Rocker, Prong Pushers