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Advice from an ageing English goldsmith

I read with interest the digest every day, and I am puzzeled by the
interest in available electric machinery, soldering torches and
other wonder goods that supposedly make our trade easy. First the
interest in electric scroll saws, the only reason I can see for
having one of these is for mass production of flat pierced articles,
What is wrong with a standard hand held piercing saw frame? I have
been using these quite successfully for the past 44 years and the
cost is minimal, what is the benefit of an electric scroll saw. Can
you pierce hollow shapes, like the egg shells on my Easter eggs,(see
my orchid gallery) where there are over a thousand holes to pierce,
I can imagine the time to undo and redo the saw blades at each hole
on the scroll machine mind blowing.

It is the same with engraving, I would strongly recommend that
anyone wanting to engrave or carve, first learn with a graver or
scorper in a handle. The gravermax is a fine piece of kit when you
need to engrave steel, but for the ordinary graftsman who only
occasionally engraves or textures soft metals, the hand gravers or
scorpers are more than adequate. I can recommend a book on hand
engraving which was a great help to me it is called “Engraving on Precious Metals” by A.Brittain, S.Wolpert and P. Morton, I have seen
it advertised on Amazon so it is still available. I think we should
strive to keep our hand crafts alive, otherwise we will soon loose
any individuallity in skills, with the age of computer aided
manufacture, there will soon be no need for hand made skills, and I
dread that day coming. I see it happening already to our trade over
here in the UK with 99% of our jewellery shops selling items that
have never been touched by a craftsman’s hand and are totally
machine made, and the sad thing is that the younger generation are
thinking that there are no alternatives available and the general
buying public get used to the cheap, hollow imported, mass produced
jewellery as the norm.

I am glad that I am it the twilight of my career, as I don,t think I
would enjoy the machine age of my trade if I was just starting out.
One last thing, when we had power strikes over here in the UK back
in the 60s, most of our industries shut down and only worked limited
days when the power was on, our workshop in the centre of London,
worked full time, weeks, because we used no electricity and could
manage with only gas light, as all of our craftsmen were hand
workers at the bench, using piercing saws, hammers and files.

Now I will get off my soapbox, although I hope I have made you think
a little!

Peace to all orchidians, James Miller FIPG.

59 years old and looking forward to retirement, but will still be
making things of beauty until my body gives out, as I love what I


I read your posts with interest, because I know when I look at the
photos of your work I am looking at a true master’s works. The first
time your photos were posted here, they left me speechless. And the
second group of your photos posted here didn’t leave me any less
dumbstruck. Your work is incredible.

Take heart, James. I do believe there are still many artisans who
agree with you. I have what amounts to spit in a bucket of knowledge
and skill compared to many here, and certainly you, with
metalsmithing. But I am learning. And creating with my hands is what
drives me to keep learning more. Even something as simple as cutting
jumprings can teach so much about the use of a jeweler’s saw. When
beginners skip doing things the old fashioned way, they lose
valuable lessons, and skill sets, that are not learned using power

But I know there are plenty of beginners, young and old, who do
indeed enjoy learning those skills, and plenty of experienced
metalsmiths who continue to use the old ways.

And in fact, it’s the overwhelming glut of cheap imports that is
causing what I am discovering to be a revival of the appreciation of
craftsmanship, and of consumers who prefer to buy hand crafted work.
It really is turning back around.

All the best,

Your work is stunning!

I work in wire, mostly, am learning lost wax casting, and do
appreciate using just my hands and simple tools to create my

I appreciate your opinions. While using electric tools can save
time, some of the beauty of the craft is lost when using these

I applaud your timely posting, and your efforts to keep valuable
skills alive. Your words will surely make someone think twice about
what one can and should learn. Perhaps this is not a valid
comparison, but when my son was learning to drive, I insisted that he
learn on a standard shift, not just because I knew this knowlege
would be useful (and since he has lived in India, Brazil, and now
Portugal, it has) but because I believed that there was a closer
relationship between the driver and the car and his/her ability to
handle it in many situations skillfully. I really think this applies
to many tools used in design also.

Cluny Grey


I use a gravermax and have found that it works much faster than I
could ever accomplish by hand. When it comes to the final work,
Always use hand tools. the time saved hogging out material is well
worth it.


Well said James, machinery is all well and good in its place but it
is no substitute for craftsmanship and ingenuity. It is a real shame
that children these days are no longer taught to make joints in wood
or file metal straight - actually using hand tools seems to be
considered too dangerous for the poor dears so they sit them in
front of computer screens and cut their designs into bits of foam on
a machine in a different room. They can still ruin their eyesight
but they never feel what it is like to cut metal. When this
’revolution’ began to gather speed a few years ago a wise friend
said to me that the only jobs which would really pay big money in
the future would be machine setters and repairers as none of the
kids coming out of school would know how to actually make or set up
the machines! I think he was maybe correct. I still use hand tools
to a very great extent, even down to turning many of the watch parts
I make on hand-powered bow lathes. I do have ‘normal’ electrically
driven engineering and watchmakers lathes but I only consider these
capable of ‘rough work’ as you have so little control over the way
they cut the metal. Unless you can actually feel how the metal and
the cutting tool are interacting, you have no real control over the
process. This may not mean much to many people so let me explain a
little. When you cut metal on a lathe, say, the tool doesn’t just
cut automatically. It pushes away the metal you want to cut and
deforms it until a point is reached when the cutter has enough
pressure to ‘pierce the skin’ of the metal and begin to cut it. This
deflection is normally only very slight but it still introduces an
uncertainty about when and how deep the cutter will cut and, because
the metal ‘rebounds’ the cut will probably start off deeper than
intended. In a lot of cases this won’t really matter but, for
instance, where I am turning 0.1mm (4 thou) pivots on the end of
piece of steel maybe 0.4mm (16 thou) diameter, this effect can be
serious. When you carry out the turning process by hand using a
graver in one hand and a bow to turn the work in the other, you can
feel just how the steel reacts to the cutter and can, almost
subliminally, adjust the pressure and speed to ensure a clean
accurate cut with minimal deformation and no chatter.

I wonder what will happen in 20 or 30 years time when the world’s
stocks of fossil fuels are so depleted that electrical power is not
so readily available?

Best Wishes

Ian W. Wright
Sheffield UK

Dear James,

   I read with interest the digest every day, and I am puzzeled by
the interest in available electric machinery, soldering torches and
other wonder goods that supposedly make our trade easy. First the
interest in electric scroll saws, the only reason I can see for
having one of these is for mass production of flat pierced

I am truly impressed with pictures of your work. Working in the
heart of London and having a clientele that can purchase such pieces
must also be a great pleasure. I would say that you working for or
own one of premiere shops in London. Going to work must be joy for

In my own work I use a combination of the new and the traditional
methods. I use a graver max but not for everything. There are
something it does quite well like long lines in 18k white gold that
can be as tough as steel, if not tougher, but in a different way.
Some lines though in 18k yellow deserve and demand that you use your
own hand power. The bright cuts look like mirrors and there is a
great satisfaction in doing it well.

When I’m setting bezels I will use a power hammer at time to move the
metal quickly. In my work the final stokes are always done by hand
with chisels. Each stroke and tap are at the exact angle and power
require to move the metal just a fraction. In my way of thinking
there is no other way to set fragile colour.

We all have to try to compete and do the best job possible with what
we have in the shop. It’s not necessarily the tooling but the way in
which a jeweller understands

and uses the methods of making jewellery that count more. Finally
the design and the understanding of proportion and balance that make
a piece gold in breathtaking piece of jewellery.

Jim Zimmerman
Alpine Custom Jewellers & Repair

Hi James,

Does you shop have a spinning lathe, a Holtzapffel lathe for
decorative turning, and a enameling shop all on premises? Or do you
send this work out? I would think that most of metal work is done in
house. Hand raising of none standard shapes, chasing work to form
leaf elements, casting for solid objects, engraving, and setting. Do
you oversee all this in the metal forming department? I would assume
that these are your designs and concepts for these center pieces.

What stores in England are these items for sale in? I would think
you could export these items also. A lot of question, I know. I for
one would like to know.

Jim Zimmerman
Alpine Custom Jewellers & Repair

Dear James Miller,

Around six months ago I opened my first Goldsmith’s work shop in
Sussex, so not far from you. The first thing people say when they
walk through my door is ‘It’s nice to know people like you still
exist’. I am steadily striping the surrounding Jewellery chain
stores of their clients and a fair proportion of my work is making
Bespoke wedding rings and other jewellery for people of around my
own age.

The point I am trying to make is; as long we don’t give up and hand
our trade over to chain stores peddling junk made by robots or worse
still, the trendy idiots selling ‘designer hand crafted Jewellery’,
actually made by children in the third world, there will still be a
demand for our work.

Unfortunately I was never able complete my indentured
apprenticeship, but in a few years I will be eligible for freedom of
the Goldsmiths company by redemption. After that I fully intend to
take on my own apprentice and I know of other young Goldsmiths who
are also eager to become Masters, so I honestly believe the
traditional skills won’t be lost in the U.K.

I hope this has made you feel a bit more optimistic. Please come to
visit me if you are ever in Arundel and if you do retire may be you
could recommend me to your clients.



While I love working with my hands I can hardly wait until I get my
new saw from Lee Marshall. The ‘automation’ of the sawing motion will
help preserve what’s left of the cartilage at the base of my right
thumb. I have found several ways to ‘accommodate’ my arthritis in
other areas of jewelry fabrication, but there’s no getting around the
sawing bit - especially when the shop elves are on holiday!


bravo, true words of reason.

i read orchid often and am puzzled by the facination with the
machines. often i’ve found that knowledge of your hand tools and
what they can do makes for a faster job than involving machines in
work that delicate. my two cents


I know this is not a timely reply. To the question by an English
goldsmith on electric band saw/scroll saw interest. I cut; therefore
I have a different view.

 I am puzzeled by the interest in available electric machinery .
First the interest in electric scroll saws.

I should explain the interest in those saws, and why the attraction
to this. The most widespread use in what was discussed would be
lapidary, hence my interest in the topic. With this you can cut out
cabs that only need to be domed with but little trimming to size.
Saving wear of wheels and it should save time as well, also since
this can cut curves etc. this will save slab material as you won’t
have nearly the wasted space between cuts. That is, a trim saw can
only cut straight lines and no matter how a set of cab shapes are
laid out there are wasted areas. You can see for yourself on a piece
of paper, use a ruler (straight edge) to mark out how to get them
out. If you had a saw (or something to do it with the paper) that can
cut curves then you can get more of those out of that sheet of paper,
or a slab of rock.

What is wrong with a standard hand held piercing saw frame?

The answer is nothing. However, I would like to mention a neglected
tool, what is called a backsaw or razor saw. I make things, cut
stone, and use silver. In a book of Southwestern Indian Jewelry
there was a picture of a well-stocked bench from what they called the
acetylene age that began roughly in the 1930s. On the bench was a
backsaw. I believe Swest used to carry one with large handle in 42
teeth per inch, anyway finer than the standard fixed blade model.
(You could probably get that configuration if you ordered several
thousands at a time.) I settled on the deluxe model with
interchangeable blades from Zona (owned by the same company that owns
Foredom, Blackstone). This has that comfortable large handle. The
advantage is, say you have a cast ring or such. With it, with a few
pulls you can cut the spur off flush and usually without the need of
using a vice or such. In fact this can take care of most sawing
needs. I say a neglected tool, as for decades this was standard
equipment in a rather large circle. Would I still want to use a
jeweler’s saw or need to? The answer is yes, but life is short and
if you can make it easier, why not, this is the better tool a lot of
the time, you will of course sometimes need the other saw.

Most of the band/scroll saws mentioned are for suitable thanks to a
wet trey to cutting glass, tile, marble and (note) stone. This is the
main thing that attracted all the attention. (Shown by part of the
discussion, “There is an inexpensive lapidary bandsaw sold by Harbor
Freight for about $150 that comes with variable speed.”) As to Harbor
Freight, some of it is worthwhile: some is not. Despite misgivings as
it has been a source of jokes a goldsmith said I might want to look,
at least on some things, he showed me two mallets, one was nicer, but
he said this will not work any better than that. I have an advantage
in that they have a store up the road, and I plan to take a look and
perhaps wait on a sale, as I have a few times. Some of their stuff is
good, some you should save your money.

In any event at the Ogden show in March, sponsored in largest part
by my club, I bought several small slabs of charolte. I had wanted
some, having seen it, Deloris’ son works for Mike’s custom jewelry. I
could hardly believe the price, expensive. I think I want to put off
cutting it until I have the use of a saw like this to get all I can
out of it. Hence (and with other materials) my interest.

When I wrote my piece advising the promotion of learning to use
hand tools before investing in machine tools, I was aiming the
advice at beginers to this glorious trade. I do appreciate that
many people have disabilities and need power tools to perform some
tasks, so I appologise to anyone who took my message the wrong way.
I speak as someone who has earned a living from my skills as a
goldsmith for the past 44 years, and in this trade you will soon
learn that time is money and when making unique one off pieces, the
quickest way to work is with your hands. To try and explain I have
done an experiment for you. I took one of my designs to a company
that uses a top of the range Schmalz computer operated engraving,
routing and piercing machine (this machine cost about $300,000 ) The
job I showed the was an Easter egg which is the first one shown on
my orchid gallery. I told them that I would give them the design
and the two egg shells and base cone, with a task of cutting out
the pierced sections as required. I asked for an estimate of the
man hours to complete this job. I was told that the machine would
only take about 6 hours to cut out the necessary 3 sections, but to
program the machine would take 30 hours per section, as there were
three sections, top shell, bottom shell and base cone, this would
take 90 hours so we have a total time of 96 hours. When I made this
egg it took me 14 hours to draw and engrave the design on the 3
sections then it took me 28 hours to hand pierce the three
sections, a total work time of 42 hours, that is 54 hours quicker
than the machining time estimates. I agree that if I was making a
number of identical eggs then the machine would win easily. But the
items I make are unique and that means there is only one! Please
don’t get me wrong, I am not against power tools, my advice is to
learn how to use hand tools first, then when you need to make your
life easier invest in power tools by all means, but please don’t
forget that your hands (when healthy) are the greatest machines in
the world.

So endeth the lesson.

Peace and good health to all
James Miller

Machines, no machines, isn’t the end product what is important? This
argument is like to do math longhand and not use a computer, or use a
computer (or calculator). Sometimes machines make sense.


 i read orchid often and am puzzled by the facination with the
machines. often i've found that knowledge of your hand tools and
what they can do makes for a faster job 

True, but most of us on Orchid are just tool heads. We like cool
tools. Also, depending on how one is trying to make one’s living,
machines may be needed to have reasonable speed of production.


Elaine Luther
Metalsmith, Certified PMC Instructor
Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay


I had been thinking of contacting you directly. Your message allows
me to speak on list.

Jewelry is only one of the hand arts that is seemingly passing on.
Yours was not a message to apologize for, it is something of a wake

Hand work, hand arbeiten (sp), call it what you may, but realize it
needs a revival. A young lady was not considered “finished” until
she could Embroider, Knit, Crochet, Stitch a Fine Seam. A young man
was expected to use his hands productively. What was not taught at
home, was taught in public schools, shop for boys and home economics
for girls.

Hand work has fallen out of favor. Mechanical methods are expected.
This is all ever so sad.

I feel very lucky to be taking the jewelry class taught by Jay
Whaley. He honestly believes a student best benefits by knowing how
to make his materials. A new class began last week, before the
lesson was over, everyone had melted their silver, made an ingot and
were rolling, anealing, twisting and pulling their metal.

Today, the enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment was very obvious.
One fellow completed his own wedding band, another was carving his
band. They were happily helping one another. Others were changing
rolling machine wheels for each other.

He told them “in the future you may find this too time consuming and
decide to buy sheet, wire or stock, but for now, you know how to do
it for yourself.”

This was a very positive atmosphere. We all learn from it.

Are there any grandparents to pass along these skills? I know my own
son only recently became involved in hand work in preparing his home
for sale. He feels far more a part of it all than just hiring out
all the work.

No James never apologize for your comments, they are a lament of
things lost.


I would like to put in my 2 cents on this one.

My wife is the real gold/silversmith/artist, I am the husband who is
a dentist who has had advanced training in prosthodontics(crowns
bridges dentures implants). My training has exposed me to many
different materials and processes. By learning about materials and
methods and by having “hands on” experience in these things I have a
better mastery of them. I do not just have a theoretical knowledge.
The actual hands on experience allows me to be more creative under
practical conditions. Many things sound good from a theoretical
perspective, but in the real world they will not fly.

I am also involved in teaching dentistry at the USC school here in
Los Angeles. The students do not get to learn how to do much
laboratory work and I believe they are at a disadvantage on the
learning curve because of this.

When you are forced to do the dirty work, you appreciate the
intricacies and the requirements of the materials and the techniques.

Once having learned this, I have no problem with the use of
technology and assistance with doing the work. In dentistry it would
be impossible to get anything done without the support of excellent
laboratory technicians. They probably know more than I do about the
things they do all the time. I am the director, but I am aware that
it is impossible to be perfect or know everything.

By having this familiarity with materials and methods one can
calculate the best method for carrying out a design: whether it be
manual or automated or a combination. In dentistry there are
numerous advanced CAD/CAM options, some of which actually make sense.

Striving for excellence may require much “quiet time” for developing
and executing the creative idea. Few of us create using a gasoline
chain saw. Sometimes using exotic materials requires new and advanced
techniques. The ability to change gears and forge ahead is easier
when you have a good understanding of the materials. Sorry for the
long monologue.

Charles Friedman DDS, Prosthodontist,Metal Spinner,CNC Engraver,
Wanabee Artist!


There is at least one hand tool that I would like to aquire. I want
a pump drill, I think that they are also called archimedes drills. I
don’t want the kind that uses a spring. I want the kind that has the
small flywheel and is pumped with a handle attached by string to the
spindle. (Sorta looks like a large spinning top.) I’ve googled but
could only find some plans. (I don’t have the link with me now. I
think it was on one of those old ways of living web sites, Native
Ways, maybe.) I’ve seen pictures of this item in some jewelry
technique books that were written by english authors. I saw one at a
flint knapping show, it had a flint arrow head attached as a drill
bit. I just don’t like power drills. And beyond the fact that some
hand tools are easier to use than power tools I also feel somehow
connected to the past when using a tool or method that may have been
used for thousands of years. However, no feeling would stop me from
using a power saw to cut up stone.

Ardetta Bronson


    Hand work has fallen out of favor. Mechanical methods are
expected. This is all ever so sad. 

I was pleased to hear your comments regarding the class you have
taken regarding the fabrication of your own metals and tools.

I too teach and I teach the importance of learning how to alloy your
own gold and silver, melt it, roll it out, for sheet, wire (drawing)
etc. Also, I find that having the knowledge to do, when at times you
don’t have the $$ to do is very helpful. Also, we produce scrap and
often times the scrap and dust just isn’t enough to send out to a
refiner, so of course you don’t toss it, you re alloy it and re use

I also either make my own hand tools or redefine those I purchase to
meet my specific needs. I have yet to find the perfect hammer and
stake for raising that are perfectly free of any surface defects.
So, you have to know how to file, sand, and polish. And of course if
you create your own “dings” you have to know how to get rid of them.

Jennifer Friedman

enamelist, jewelry artisan, ceremonial silver hollow ware instructor
Ventura, CA where paradise has gotten warm, I think we hit 80 deg.
but never humid like the south.

The July, 2004 issue of Lapidary Journal has an article with
instructions for building a pump drill. You can order article
reprints on their web site

Hope this helps,
Daniela Muhling