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Making holes other than round

We all know “the round hole is a cheap hole”, but how do you make a
square, oval, marquis, rectangle, etc. shaped hole to set stones in

I suppose you could attempt it by grinding it out by hand, but I can
imagine many mistakes and destroyed pieces.

Is anyone familiar with a system that could accomplish the process
accurately with out too great of an expense and without casting the
"hole" in place.

Thanks for your thoughts,



I am not sure what too great of an expense would be, but if I want
to do precise removal of metal I would use either a pantograph
engraving machine or a CNC milling machine.

Ken Gastineau
Gastineau Studio
Berea, Kentucky

 I am not sure what too great of an expense would be, but if I
want to do precise removal of metal I would use either a pantograph
engraving machine or a CNC milling machine. 

I am probably not the best choice to address this, but since no one
else has said it –

You don’t really need a machine to do holes other than round. Once
you sit down and try, you can cut a hole whatever shape you need with
a combination of steel burs and/or gravers. It isn’t actually all
that hard. Mostly, it is just hard to realize you can do it that way
if you haven’t seen somebody do it. I took stone setting at New
Approach, with Blaine Lewis, and it raised (lowered?) my
consciousness to a whole new level of detail. It was very empowering.


I am not sure what too great of an expense would be, but if I want
to do precise removal of metal I would use either a pantograph
engraving machine or a CNC milling machine. 


These new fangled machines are fine if you want holes with rounded
corners but they don’t cut the mustard for any holes with sharp
corners. Ever wonder how the old time pocket knife makers used to
inlay the fancy little nickel shields into the knife handles? They
used the simplest of tools but the only one I know which will drill
a hole of any shape - this tool was a ‘two legged parser’ (or
’parsey’ in our local dialect). It is made from a length of round
spring steel which is folded in half and has the fold welded into a
point. The ends are then made level and are forged out flat so that,
as you look at the ‘vee’ you see the flat faces. These flat ends are
then filed so that the inner edges are untouched but the outer edges
have a step filed into them of a certain depth which I’ll describe
later. The ends of the legs and the outer edges below the step are
then filed to sharp knife edges. To complete the tool, the legs are
sprung apart and hardened and tempered and a wooden bobbin is pushed
onto the folded part. To use this tool, a steel template is first
made with a hole cut in it of the exact size and shape required and
it is hardened. The step I mentioned on the ends of the parser’s
legs needs to be the depth of the inlay or hole required plus the
thickness of this template. To inlay a shield into a knife handle,
the blank ‘scale’ (handle side piece) and the template would be
fixed vertically in a vice and the worker would strap an oval steel
’breastplate’ around his midriff. The pointed end of the parser
would be placed in a dimple in the centre of the breastplate with
the ‘prongs’ or legs squeezed together within the hole in the
template and the cord of a bow would be wrapped once around the
wooden bobbin (the bow was traditionally made of an old wooden
umbrella handle with a twisted leather thong as the cord). With just
a few rotations backwards and forwards the hole would magically
appear exactly the same shape and size as the template. The nickel
shields were punched out of sheet and were used just as they came
from the punch - so, they were slightly domed and had a sharp edge.
they were placed in the hole dome uppermost and, by giving them a
quick nip in a press, they were flattened and, at the same time, the
sharp edges bit into the bottom sides of the hole so fixing them
firmly in place - no glue, rivets or whatever. I have a couple of
these tools in my collection which I still use occasionally. I’ll
put a couple of pictures up on my website later today if I get time
and I’ll post the URL to the list.

Best Wishes
Ian W. Wright
Sheffield UK

Alas, no, there is no such animal as a “Marquis shaped drill bit”.
One reply suggested using CNC - that’s swatting flies with a shotgun,
except then you have CNC. The industrial way to do it is to use
broaches, which are rods with teeth cut on them - they vaguely look
like a square file - and an arbor press, and they are pushed through
a pilot hole, making the shape. But those are standard shapes -
square, hex, etc. I show a HSS 1/2" square broach at $150, plus a
bushing, plus a press - and that’s only one size. Don’t take this
badly, but it seems many modern day craftspeople want a “Magic
Bullet”. Me, I just sit down with a saw, some files, and a flex
shaft. If there are many jobs, and yes, it is “only” silver
(economics), perhaps rethinking the project is in order. If you bend
two wires into arcs, and solder the points, you have a marquis shape

  • solder it down as a very low bezel and then you can punch it out
    with no need for great precision - or just plain old settings. That’s
    about 1/2 the time of filing out a real marquis shape that needs to
    be precise. Otherwise, I’m afraid it’s just drill, saw, file.

I have just uploaded a new web page to

which shows the two-legged parsers I described in my earlier email.
You can also get to this page from my main webpage by following the
link at the bottom right.

Best Wishes
Ian W. Wright
Sheffield UK

“Other than round” covers a lot of territory. But if you are thinking
of more or less regular shapes like squares, triangles etc, or holes
that can be made up of such basic shapes, you might take a look at
the cutting tool used by machinists - called a “broach” or “broaching

It requires a small starting hole - which can be round (the easiest
kind to make) and then that hole can be enlarged and changed to the
shape of the broach. You can think of it as analogous to a reamer
that works by pushing through the hole rather than by rotating
within it. Depending on your material and its thickness you might
need a press or press-like way of pushing the tool through (A drill
press might be sufficient in most cases) and a solid support for the
work so that the metal does not get bent back around the edges of
the hole. A square broach can be used in overlapping cuts to produce
various rectangular shapes as well as square holes. As with any
hardened steel tool, broaches are brittle and care must be taken to
avoid bending stresses on the tool or it may snap - but clever jigs
and fixtures can be improvised to solve this.

Marty in Victoria - whose holes-in-the-head are of all shapes.


I am intrigued by this tool, but I can’t seem to visualize it. Being
a bit of an “old school” goldsmith myself, I still have a bow drill
and pump drill that I use on occasion. I also have several micromotor
handpieces, and a laser welder… As an apprentice (back in the
day), I had to learn how to drill using a pump drill, and solder
using a blow pipe, before I was allowed to use the flex shaft or
torch. I didn’t understand the logic of this until much later, when I
was training my own apprentice. It’s about understanding the basic
fundamental process of drilling, or the torch flame. If you
understand any technique at it’s most basic level, it is easy to
build upon it.

I bought an old bow drill once, too big for jewelry work so I tried
it out on a piece of oak. It drilled a beautiful square hole, about
10mm across. I had no idea what it could have been used for until a
friend of mine, a boat builder, saw it. He explained that in the time
when nails were an expensive commodity and everything was held
together by pegs, the shipbuilder would drill the center of each
round peg and pound in a square peg to lock it in place. Makes sense.
And it held a ship together in rough seas half way around the

Please let me know when you are able to put a photo of this on your
web site.


Douglas Zaruba
33 N. Market St.
Frederick, MD 21701
301 695-1107


Thanks for the post. It’s a very medieval looking device. I haven’t
as yet gotten my head around your description of how it works; but
I’m going to reread.

I’m one of those who feel if I just had the right tool… Then I
remind myself that things are first made by hand.

Thanks again for the wonderful history.


Thanks Ian for posting your excellent description of the two legged
parsers used to cut out unusual shapes in metal. This is the kind of
commonsense technical solution that makes learning about metalworking

David Luck
627 Center Street
Iowa City, IA 52245-3008


Thanks for the history lesson. I am always fascinated by the way
craftsmen have come up with simple affordable ways to do first class
work quick and easy. I never would have thought of a gizmo like the
Two-Legged Parser in a million years.

I’m still not giving up my pantograph and CNC mill though! My
pantograph is over 60 years old so I wouldn’t necessarily call it
new-fangled. Perhaps compared to the Two-Legged Parser it is. My
pantograph is an old Gorton. I see many of these old machines going
on E-bay for scrap prices. These are great old tools that can do all
kinds of work for the jewelry shop. If nothing else they can be used
as a small milling machine. However, at 800 lbs it is not a casual
purchase. Even though I have a small CNC milling machine, I still use
the old pantograph for some things because it is faster and easier.

As far as CNC, it is also just a new twist on a very old theme. In
other words the cutting edge has not changed, just what is driving

Ken Gastineau
Gastineau Studio
Berea, Kentucky

I have just uploaded a new web page to


That is a totally great tool. Do you know if it ever used with soft
metals like jewelry alloys?


Hi Ian,

You got me with the statement “With just a few rotations backwards
and forwards the hole would magically appear exactly the same shape
and size as the template.”

Any chance of a picture of someone using this tool? Fascinating
stuff. I certainly am going to make a set for myself.Thank for

Hans Meevis

I just had an article published in Make magazine about making square
holes in sheet metal (somewhat related to the subject at hand)

The jewelers saw & files still works the best for most holes unless
the tolerances are really tight.

@Felice_Luftschein_an is Felice Luftschein and Nicholas Carter.

Thanks Ian for posting your excellent description of the two legged
parsers used to cut out unusual shapes in metal. This is the kind of
commonsense technical solution that makes learning about
metalworking interesting. 

Hello David,

I too enjoyed Ian’s post, especially since in introduced me to a
concept I had never seen before, or at least don’t remember seeing.

However I’m not at all clear as to how this tool is going to cut
patterns in metal. Ian mentions the scales that are used in knife
handles and I can certainly see how it would work there because that
material is usually wood, bone or horn. In other words we have the
hardened points of the parser cutting away the much softer materials
as those points are rotated in the pattern.

How this would work on metals, silver for instance, is a bit of a
puzzle to me. I would thing that at the very least the points would
need some fairly carefully finishing in terms of cutting angles and
edges but once I start thinking about that I get the strong feeling
that I’m barking up the wrong tree. My guess is that they’re NOT
intended for cutting metal at all.

So Ian, if we may impose upon you for more info, what say you? Is
this a tool for cutting shapes in all types of materials, including
metals, or is it pretty much limited to the softer, non-metallic
materials mentioned above?

Trevor F.
in The City of Light

Hi Trevor,

The two-legged parser certainly will work on metal, provided it is
hardened and tempered OK. The ones I have are not really very hard
(they may not be hardened at all as I can easily file the tips to
resharpen them) as they were only ever used on wood and ivory but
they were commonly used on brass and silver also (brass scaled
knives would have a silver shield and silver ones a gold shield). I
have attached a picture of a very brief attempt I had this morning at
cutting a shield shape in hard engraving brass and, as you can see,
even the relatively soft parser I was using was making a valiant
effort. I didn’t take it too far as I didn’t want to ruin the
historic tool. If you want to use one on silver or brass the cutting
tips, at least, should be hardened and tempered to a straw colour.
The cutting edge - just the end of the tips is sharpened to a
symmetrical knife edge with about a 45 degree included angle (not
really important as to exact angle) and the outer edges of the tips
are filed to a blunt point so that they will go into the sharp
corners of the template. The inner edges of the tips and for some
way up the legs of the tool are usually also filed to a narrower
curve so that the legs pass each other easily as they clatter around
the template. So, effectively, if you looked at the tips end on you
would see something approaching a lozenge shape. One other thing that
is noticeable on the picture is that I was using a parser with tips
which were too narrow and so the centre wasn’t getting cut as deeply
as the edges. In normal use, the tips would be just over half as
wide as the hole in the template although this wasn’t essential as
the worker guided the legs around the template by loosely encircling
them with his fingers as they turned and gently pushing them around.
This takes a lot of the strain off the cutting makeing it easier to
work the bow and making the parser last longer. The cutting is a
scraping action - just like the spearpoint drills that have been used
for centuries in jewellery and other metalworking. If you want to
make one for use on metal the design considerations should be that

  1. the tips can be hardened to a mid straw colour,

  2. the legs are tempered to a pale blue - they don’t need a lot of
    spring, just enough to ensure that they will keep to the sides of
    the template, any more will just wear out the template and the outer
    edges of the tips and

  3. that the legs are long enough to flex easily - the parsers I have
    vary from about 12" to 18" in length.

Go on, have a go at making one , use a couple of lengths of
silver steel (drill rod) about 1/8" diameter - silver solder one end
together for about 1" and file a point on it then bash the other ends
flat and file them to shape. Harden and temper the tips - don’t
bother to harden the legs - and bend the legs apart so that there is
about 1 1/2" between the tips and fit some kind of bobbin as on the
ones on my website. I think you will be surprised by the results.
The method may not be ideal for setting 1/4 carat stones but I’m sure
it could be made to work (I have a picture in my head of a tiny
version whirling around in the end of a flex shatf!!!) and it would
certainly have application in inlaying on larger pieces like silver
boxes etc. Let me know if you do decide to try it.

Best Wishes

Ian W. Wright
Sheffield UK

I agree with a couple of replies - cool tool. As a point of
interest, also, I’ll point out that a similar gizmo is used to cut
the insides of stone vessels, like perfume bottles. A wire type piece
is inserted into a hole and a drill press or similar with grit, and
then as it cuts it expands outwards, cutting the inside to
a profile.

Ian Wright’s article on the two legged parser is a wonderful
illustration of the traditional and historical tools which are all
too often absent from the arsenal of the contemporary goldsmith. What
a fantastically simple and effective device this appears to be. I’d
certainly love to have one, even if I seldom actually used it, just
to admire.

Thanks Ian, this was an enlightening contribution!

Michael David Sturlin

Actually, there’s a very easy way to make holes other than round in
metal. You roll out some metal clay, make little template, cut out
the shape with a tissue blade, and fire it. Voila! Even easier–you
use a sheet of metal clay paper and those tiny hole punches from a
toy store.

(Maybe I shouldn’t sign this…)