Silversmithing With Impression Dies (Advanced)

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About: I'm a Designer, Creator, Inventor. #1 Hobby - brainstorming. I invented the Unicorn Poop cookie, as published here on instructables. And now I am a metalsmith. <3

Hey guys, this is a very long instructable lol. I wanted to just give an overview of these kinds of dies, but then I got carried away. If you just want to see how it works, skip to the middle, because the first steps are about the history/the dies, where they come from, etc.

Important: this is not a sponsored write-up, I am just sincerely in love with these tools, they bring me serious joy, and they help me to get out of a creative slump. So this is just about sharing my love of them. <3

Side note: I made all these pieces and I encourage you to explore and make designs that come from your heart! Feel free to use my jewelry as inspiration, but try not to reproduce it "detail for detail", because your true and beautiful creations are what emanate from you! <3

Supplies:

Step 1: What Is an Impression Die?

An Impression die is basically a die/metal form/mold that one presses metal into, in order to create an impression. Example/typical metals include Sterling, Fine Silver, Gold, Brass, Copper, Bronze. The idea is to use metals that are weaker than the steel used to make the die, so as not to damage the tool. The die itself is a steel puck, with a depression of the chosen design.

How do you operate an impression die? Typically, people use a Hydraulic Press. This could be the famed PotterUSA press, a modded Harbor Freight press, something from etsy, or an idea off pinterest under "jewelry press".

Do you need to use a hydraulic press? Nope. A press is a hefty investment that will make your money back, as long as you sell your jewelry...but if you don't have the need to produce pieces, it may be impractical. Kevin Potter, the guy behind PotterUSA , he put up a video about how to use his dies without a press! Here are his videos, PART 1 and PART 2. Now I am going to be honest, I haven't used that method, and I don't want to...LOL Because I have a Potter press. For the sake of experimentation, I thought about it, but it's a lot of work. hahaha Sorry <3 .

So now you know what a die is, and how it's used in function.

Now for application...once you have this impression -- what do you do with it? Do you have to solder, do you have to be a jewelry maker? Nope. You just have to be creative. Perhaps you want to make little deer barettes out of copper. (Then all you need is the die, those youtube videos, some barettes and glue.) Maybe you just want to make Christmas ornaments, sculptures, etc. Limitless opportunities.

The most common application is metalsmithing. You can solder, set or rivet these impressions to anything you're creating and you can alter the impression to fit your needs. It's a brilliant system, put in use hundreds of years back. Next up, let's look at the history of these magical dies!

Step 2: History of Impression Dies or Jewelry Dies

I am not an authority on this, whatsoever...I am just severely addicted to these dies. With that in mind, I will just share the knowledge that I've picked up. hahaha. :D

During the second industrial revolution there was a general emphasis put on production, the need for ease of creation and the ability to be differentiated from your competition. Because of the growth of the machine industry and the more prolific use of iron and steel, there were new opportunities to apply these exciting advancements to the jewelry trade.

Master artisans were hired by big jewelry manufacturers to create jewelry hobs. A jewelry hob/hub is a piece of steel that was hand shaped, carved and polished to a professional finish, into a specific design. Once the artist was done, the steel die went through heat treatment to make it extremely hard/tough, and able to be pressed thousands of times with huge machinery. That original, artisan-carved male die was very forcefully sunken into blocks of steel, creating the first impressions. That newly impressed block of steel, became the tool to be used by jewelers. It was the impression die.

From what I've learned by reading Kevin Potter's posts on their facebook community - these artisans were not paid royally for their craftsmanship. The people who slaved hours carving steel and pouring their souls into these timeless works of art, were hourly factory workers. Granted, better than working with some of the machinery at that time (1800-1900s). But carving steel STILL has it's dangers, I am sure those guys had impaled and gouged their hands and fingers a number of times with their sharp carving tools.

I have to guess that there were some artisans that may have been contracted to create some of the dies that were in circulation. If you look at old jewelry of the Art Nouveau period, sometimes there is a tiny signature on there, within the design of the die. This also translated to each piece that was struck with those dies. Therefore, the attribution survived, credit for craftsmanship!

Other than jewelry, these dies were put to use for buttons, Victorian chatelaines, pill boxes, matchstick boxes, compacts, mirrors, hair accessories, silverware and even brushes.

Fast forward to current times, these huge jewelry companies have long gone out of business with the overseas production, the die makers haven't trained new generations in their craft, and buildings are closing. Literal tonnes of steel are sitting in warehouses. All those antique, exquisite dies. Well, someone told Kevin Potter about a collection that would be up for negotiation or it would be forfeited for SCRAP. Yep, wiped off the face of the Earth. So, the Potter People community banded together and we tried to help the Potter crew to rescue these dies. Alas, they are home safe, in what probably looks like a jewelry museum in his warehouse. Preserved and put into rotation for today's bench jewelers. What a freakin treasure. You can hit up the facebook group to see the hoards of thousands of dies he's adopted, and you can see what has come and gone, as most of them are limited production due to the mass of dies that they have to cycle through. Basically, the team over there is extremely outnumbered for the vastness of dies that haven't seen the light of day in over a hundred years.

Photographs: I have one original carving, the queen, and next photo is how she was used as a ring, vintage. :) Then the big metal blocks in the photos are my antique impression dies that were struck a long-long time ago. Then you can see some more recent dies, and then the shiny new ones that PotterUSA sells. The same antique originals, pressed into modern-day steel, for us to create with.

Step 3: Where to Start!??!?!

You need to be inspired. That's where it all begins. I find myself browsing their website like a pinterest for jewelers. lol. I see the dies, I think about the ones that capture my attention. "I can hang a stone right there", "how big is that, let me check my ruler", "oh wow, a stone would look awesome in that blank space!" or "that flower could use a tiny faceted stone right in the middle!" . Then I add a gajillion things to my cart, and then wittle it down to what I can actually afford LOL. Secondly, what I see myself committing to, using, the versatility of the die, how many applications can I use it for? Etc.

Example : A small round die could be used to make stud earrings, a hanging point for dangle earrings, a stacker ring, links in a bracelet, links in a necklace, cut it in half and put a stone between for a pendant, etc. If you choose a lion, well, you better be #TeamLannister to get your use out of it. :D Or do Renn Faires. hahaha.

So, go to the site when you know you want to make victorian things, deco things, nouveau things, or when you need staples for your collections, or when you are lacking inspiration. There is a lot of power in browsing things that are old, special and available to you. On top of that, being able to utilize it as a design library that you can refer back to when you think "oh man, I need an arrowhead shape, let's see what they have..." You basically press your metal, saw it out, then design with it. Kinda like the steps in these photos. Even though they aren't really related hahah.

Once you have your ideas, designs, you understand the scale of the die, etc...take a look at the details in the die...is it super TALL? DEEP? SHALLOW? Those will determine the usability of the die. I have a few treasures that are deep and detailed, so it takes me up to an hour or more just to get one impression. (Because you have to re-anneal the metal between pressing attempts, and repeat, and repeat, until your detail comes out.) Then there are those staple-dies that are like "one-press-wonders" that you can just bang out left and right without having to re-anneal the metal. Plus, there are different techniques for each of those types of dies, and depths and details. All of that stuff is in the group! Too much to talk about here lol.

If you're just starting out, I recommend shallow dies because you will have instant gratification. That's what I am going to use for the *eventual* tutorial. A shallow, easy, staple that can be used in every possible way. So let's finally get to that... lol.

Step 4: Basic Concho

MATERIALS

  1. silver/copper/etc
  2. shears/titanium fiskars
  3. saw lubricant/grease
  4. tape
  5. a die of your choice/this one is simple!
  6. understanding of silversmithing
  7. hydraulic press or Kevin Potter's hammer method

I have chosen to share a new love, I call it a perfect concho. I needed something to hang my earrings from, that I could also get extra uses out of in other projects. So I literally searched through all of their dies 4-5 times before I found this one. :) Hidden Gem! haha :D It's called the Kings Flower.

What I did first, was scratch an outline onto the face of my die. I used a scribe. This square around it is how big the minimum piece of silver is that I should use. If I cut the metal to the size of the design, the press will put it in the die. Forever. lol. So you need enough overhang to release it from the die, safely.

Lubricant , I just squished a tiny bit of my saw lube into the die and wiped it out. Just so the pores were greased up enough to release the metal. It's like non-stick spray hahaha.

Anneal your metal. I used 22 gauge.

Tape it securely into the right position. If you tape it badly, it can slip!

Step 5: Time to Press!

I chose this die to show you, because it's clean cut. You can use "urethane" and one good hard press.

(Other "pushers" for these dies can be leather, cardboard, and lead.) They all have their places and purposes in these dies, but this guy did singingly with just a bit of urethane. (Which is a very HARD rubber.)

After you've used the urethane it will break down, from all the pressure. But as you can see, as long as it's not in particles, I still use it hahah. You want to put urethane the SIZE OF THE DESIGN, within the middle of it. If you put a sheet of urethane over the top of the die, you're only causing resistance when you're pressing it. If you have enough JUST to fit into the design, it's going to take the path of least resistance and sink right there, where you want it to. :)

Make yourself a sandwich. Bottom slice is your die, the meat is your metal (annealed), then the toppings are your urethane (which they sell on the site too), and then your top slice is a "die pusher" or ... I just use a smaller die that I have lol.

Make sure your die "sandwich" is CENTERED, BALANCED and EVEN. If it's not, it's dangerous. You don't want to press steel unevenly like a teeter-totter. You're gonna get hurt when it tries to run off, cuz it's done playing with you.

The urethane is going to blob out, squish out of control and get kinda gnarly. But that's okay. Release your pressure and then pull out your new little treasure!!

Step 6: Release Your Stamping/Pressing/Metal

Now that you need to get your metal out, it's time to find an edge. I use a dental tool to catch a corner and pop it out of the die. The fourth pic shows the corner of the metal folded up, because it didn't just "pop out". So I used pliers to pull it out. And sometimes if the pliers don't pop it out, you have to hold the grip and "roll" back over the die so it will peel the metal out of the die.

If your metal gets stuck, lube it with that grease stuff, but I like to wipe out the excess so that it doesn't disturb or deter any of my details coming out in the future.

Step 7: Finishing Your Stamping!

Now that you have your impression, you choose how to finish, or where to take it next.

I choose to saw it out and file the edges. One tip is that you can use a triangle file to get between those scallops but you have to be careful to not ruin the shape. :D I think I used a flat file, with the short cutting edge.

Step 8: Design Time!

Now that you have your stamping, you may want to make multiple and play with them to have your inspiration sparked. I just took a bunch of photos that demonstrate that you can half it, quarter it, layer it, do whatever you want.

Try with different stones and see how the metal bonds with each one. Then when you know what you want to make, go at it!

The next steps will be of my first trial with the "kings flower" die. I wanted those earrings!

Step 9: Drop Earrings

I just cared to have a round, decorative top stud to hang an earring from/dangle.

Using my titanium fiskars, I cut the concho out close to the scallops. Then I filed it to make sure it was smooth and free of sharp edges.

Next was design, layout, etc. Solder your bezels, hallmark your sheet metal and then put it all together. :)

Step 10: Finish Them Up!

Once I had an idea of the design, I soldered everything in place, cut to the shape I was happy with, polished everything. All the yucky flux went away during the picking process, don't worry hahah. Then I cleaned the metal, added patina, polished off some highlights and shined them up!

I found out that I really love this die, it's perfect, they feel good while wearing them, it's the best size, a versatile design and works! So, there you have it, the King's Flower. :) lol.

Hopefully this tutorial / lesson on jewelry dies (lol), has inspired you, or helped encourage you to learn new techniques and reinvent the way these old tools were used, in your own modern and creative way. <3

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    7 Discussions

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    Ham-made

    21 days ago

    Wealth of knowledge and a good read!
    Thanks for sharing!
    Mr. Ham

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    kimberlysrb

    24 days ago

    Oh my word!!! An absolutely wonderful and detailed description of all the very hard work you do for each piece. I actually inherited an old wooden box of silversmith tools from the early 1900's and had no idea what to do with everything! Thank you so much :))

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    Penolopy Bulnick

    25 days ago

    I had no idea that was how these things were made! Thanks so much for sharing :D

    1 reply
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    kristylynn84Penolopy Bulnick

    Reply 25 days ago

    antique jewelry is almost a lost art! i really wish i could have spoken with those metalsmiths to see how they did the things they did. :o :D <3

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    dessabailey

    26 days ago on Step 10

    This is an amazing piece of work! Thank you so much for sharing your talents with everyone, the amount of information and detail is just fabulous:-) You have such an eye for beauty Kristy. I love your work!

    1 reply
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    kristylynn84dessabailey

    Reply 25 days ago

    thank you so very much!!! <3 i really appreciate you stopping by to leave your love <3 <3 <3 :D