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Repousse pitch and alternatives

hi all

just wanted to ask what is the better choice for forming silver on to
make it more 3D like, from what i have seen so far and please correct
me if i am wrong, i have seen people talk about pitch (black and
red), giacomo said one time about a lead block he has by his bench, i
think when he made a heart pendant (correct me again if i am wrong)
what about sandbags. so my question is which is the best choice to
use, i guess pitch, lead blocks and sandbags all have there good and
bad points what other things can be used i guess you need something
that is clean or easy to clean off, gives you plenty of support but
is also flexible. after spendin a small fortune on dapping and
forming tools i want to be able to get the maximum use out of them so
i would be very greaful for any advise

many thanks

Jason -

This is my experience, so take it with a grain of NaCl:

I learned on pitch. Red pitch, not black. I avoid lead like it was
poison. It may have the most fabulous properties for repuosse, but as
an environmental engineer I can not justify its use. The sandbag may
work great but I do not have personal experience with it.

Here is the text from a post in February 2008:

"Red pitch and a bowl"

Wrap pitch in a sheet of newsprint, and wrap again in an old towel.
Take a mallet or hammer (not a good one!) and smack the heck out of
it. Check periodically for size of the resulting pieces; take out
those that are 1-1/2" overall or less. When done, set the pitch aside
in a sealed container - I use an old coffee can.

Though a purist would fill the bowl with pitch, I elected to fill
2/3 of the bowl with plaster of paris. If you do this, wait several
days for it to completely dry! It takes time, but saves on pitch.
When you are ready to put pitch in bowl, turn the oven on to 300
degrees F.

Make sure you have SPOUSAL UNIT APPROVAL before this next step!

Put some, but not all, pitch in the bowl…use less than you think
you will need. Better to build up slowly than to have a spill in the
oven! Your aim is to fill the bowl to within 1/8" of the rim. You
will find as the pitchgets closer to the top that the finer chunks
are better than the bigger chunks.

Check about every 10 minutes. Your oven may run hotter or coooler
than mine - adjust accordingly. You definitely don’t want the pitch
to be smoking! Some bubbling will occur, but it should not look like
it’s boiling.

When you have the pitch to the level you want, remove the bowl
carefully to a heat-resistant, flat surface. I would not leave it in
the oven to cool. Give it plenty of time before you use it! A hot
pitch bowl looks just like a cold pitch bowl.

Before you use your first time (I’m assuming you are going to be
chasing & repousse), gather these things:

old rags
denatured alcohol (not isopropyl)
wooden paint stirrer
jar of water for the paint stirrer
heat gun
old needle nose pliers

the chapstick is for coating the back of your metal before putting
it in warm pitch. If you don’t do it, a lot of pitch will come up
with the metal when you are ready to remove it.

Rags & alcohol for cleaning off the metal. When you get really good,
you won’t pull any pitch away with the metal when you release it. But
until then, you will need to be prepared to clean up.

Use the heat gun to melt the pitch slightly. don’t be in a hurry -
you don’t want the pitch to smoke or bubble. When putting the metal
in the pitch, use the heat gun on the pitch. When it’s soft enough,
just push the metal down into the pitch, and use the paint stirrer to
push the edges of the pitchover the edges of the metal. Wait until
the pitch is as hard as a cold tootsie roll before chasing or

ALWAYS assume the pitch is hot enough to burn your fingers.

To remove the metal, heat the metal, not the pitch with the heat
gun. Grab a corner of the metal with the needle nose pliers and pull
’up’ as much as possible. Don’t drag the metal through the pitch, or
too much will stick.

To flatten the pitch, prepare the surface, scoop up pitch to put on
metal for chasing support, use the paint stirrer. It must be kept
wet! If it dries out (& that happens faster than you’d think), then
the pitch will stick to it & make a mess. I’ll bet you were wondering
where that jar of water comes into play - that’s where the paint
stirrer lives when waiting to be used. Dip it frequently when moving
pitch around.

I know there’s stuff I left out, but in the interest of sending it
in a timely manner, I’ll quit now. Good luck with whatever your
project is.

giacomo said one time about a lead block he has by his bench, i
think when he made a heart pendant (correct me again if i am
wrong) what about sandbags. 

All of the above, Jason. I don’t use lead much, though I have a lead
block. If you’re doing true repousse - say a bunch of grapes or a
portrait (whatever), then you need the whole pitch routine because
you need the support as you punch. If I did a heart shape and just
wanted to bump it up I’d probably use wood end-grain, which is an
alternative to lead. If you want to just curl or bump something up
you can sometimes just do it on a bench top in your fingers with a
ball-pein or the pein end of a chasing hammer. It all depends on how
much detail you need. If you try to repousse grapes on a lead block
the whole surface is going to move without that pitch behind it to
hold it in place. Using pitch when a dapping die will do is
way-overkill. Truly a case of whatever it takes to get the job done.

In addition to pitch and shellac I also use thermoplastic for some
things… it is sold as jett-sett or other trade names and holds work
quite stable. It is great if the piece is rectangular or long and
the work- say a border or repetitive pattern is to be raised as the
jett-sett forms to the piece and the flexible and not-as flexible
types both have enough give so as not to shatter when raising your
design (If you are copying a pattern to raise it also works
adequately for a rigid mould) I have a couple of chunky leather
circles about 2 inches thick and 6 inches in diameter that are great
for repousse - mine came off of old window weights, and I have a
square one I removed from a mallet. they work quite well as is. I
have attached fine silver and gold sheet to the circular one by
creating a rim of setters cement (a combination of flake shellac,
plaster and wax- much like the green sealing wax blocks that can be
found at jewelers suppliers, stationers and hardware stores) all
around the edge. It bonds enough to hold anything in place for work-
then if too large an area to hold smaller discs it will come off in
a ring by placing it in the freezer for a few minutes and removing
with a sharp rap on the bench edge-I can then remelt it and pour it
where i need it to hold any smaller disc as opposed to covering the
entire top with cement which is an option but I use a pitch bowl for
that very reason as sometimes I like the give of the leather when
doing finer work than, for instance, a bunch of peined depressions
like grapes or all over hammering before pressing a piece of
holloware. As for lead- I have a few cakes of it around, but they are
best for casting anthill sculptures (each one is unique-though the
killing of the ants is a karmicly questionable practise) as opposed
to using it in jewelry making !! Pitch or setters cement is far safer
to use for raising/repousse. If using lead to make a mould for
customised stakes, hammers, tools, etc, I melt and pour it
outdoors…If you do use it for operations in the shop wrapping and
storing the cakes in glove or kid leather is best…it is dangerous
stuff left over from earlier times when we did not know what we know
today about how easily it is absorbed through the skin…rer


Just to add my advice to the other suggestions posted, I use a lead
block for shaping my flower heads and leaves and I also use a pitch
bowl for deeper repousse chasing, but my main shaping base tool is a
hardwood block, used with hammers. When I was trained as an
apprentice we had silversmiths in our workshop and they always
started their shapes with what was called a blocking hammer and a
blocking block. The blocking block was a three feet tall piece of
tree trunk, cut from a hardwood tree, this tree trunk had various
shaped hollows cut into it’s surface and these hollows would be used
as the die that the metals were hammered into when the silversmith
started raising a piece. In my workshop I have a selection of close
grain hardwood wood blocks which each have various shaped hollows in
their surfaces and edges, I cut and shape them to suit each job. I
also have a collection of various shaped hammers, most of which are
standard hammers which I have shaped myself on the grindstone, I find
small jewellers hammers that have their heads shaped like my chasing
punches very useful tools when shaping metals as a hammer leaves one
hand free to hold the metal when you are shaping. I have a collection
of over forty hammers but find that I can make most shapes with just
a few of them. You can see the results of my metal shaping methods of
flower blooms and leaves, on my Orchid Exhibition pages. Please
contact me if I can be of any assistance.

Peace and good health to all.
James Miller FIPG

Hi Jason,

I used to do alot of repousse’ until I developed alot of arthrites
in my hands, now I find I can achieve very similiar results using
precious metal clay. I roll a thick piece, let it dry to a greenware
hard leather state and than use carving tools, sanding papers fitted
onto things like dapping blocks. While I’m doing this I support the
piece on a large rubber block. You should try it, its very rewarding
and so much easier to form. Hope this helps,just a suggestion. I
being interested in knowing if you tried it and what thoughts and
results you found. If you need more info on precious metal clay you
can contact me offline.

hope this helps,
Linda Reboh

Jason, I use plasticine (non hardening modeling clay) on top of a
steel bench block to support the sheet when hammering from the back
and red pitch when hammering from the front. This is part of the way
I achieve high relief (of course the tool shapes and technique are
critical as well).

To avoid the mess, I spray the piece with Pam cooking spray before
putting it on the pitch. (Any flavor will do!) It’s not so toxic to
burn off, and leaves only a slight oily scum on the metal, most of
which can be burned off quickly or wiped off with a rag.

For those in the U.S., Northwest Pitchworks’ green pitch works as
well as red pitch. I taught a High Relief Eastern Repouss e workshop
in Seattle last year, and the studio’s shipment of red pitch didn’t
arrive in time. Northwest Pitchworks saved the class! I used to use
it until the red pitch became available in the U.S., but trying it
again, I have to say they are equally effective. The only advantage I
can find in the red is that it seems to become soft at a slightly
lower temperature. I definitely stay away from the black pitch!

I was taught to hammer from the front on lead. Fabulous stuff to work
on. You can hammer the metal into any shape at all, however(!)
getting it in and out of a chalice cup is some kind of nightmare. I
might be whacky enough without adding lead poisoning to the equation.
No way would I do it now.

A note to the Technique Police: Yes, traditionally, hammering from
the back is the definition of repousse, and hammering from the
front is the definition of chasing. Sometimes I do both techniques on
both sides of the metal such as when creating relief on both the
inside and the outside of a bowl, so I didn’t stick to these terms.
Such bending of things fits well with my warped sense of humor.

Best wishes,
Victoria Lansford

Hello All

I have been following this thread, with interest, as metal smiths we
all use some sort of repouse or chasing technique, I don’t want to
add much to what is being written, I do quite a bit of repouse and
chasing work, to all those people who love lead, I do too, it is a
great tool on the bench, decades ago when I found out about it’s
toxic properties, I had accidently turned to another material on my
bench, Pewter (tin and copper), it works just as good as lead, it
comes in ingot form that you can cast in any shape to suite your
need of form, and it is not toxic like lead. it is not as cheap as
lead. other materials I do use Pine 2x4 either on end grain or
straight will do, I learned that from Heiki Seppa’s work shop. the
latest I tried is shag carpeting, which is suggested in the forming
metal book

Moving Metal, by Adolf Steinuss.

I used the book as cylibus for my forming classes. I highly suggest
this book for good basic info. Sandbags are great, if you are
working large enough as in feet and not inches, you can use straight
sand in a large container (box) to keep it from spreading everywhere.
lastly I came up with another material for use in chasing and not as
much in repouse is plastic blocks, Delran, it works extremly well on
holding smaller peices, the definition on this is a little long, so
if interested zap me an email off list. hope this adds to the info

H Hratch Babikian

I keep a half inch thick sheet of rubber on my bench to use as a
backup for repousse. I made a Orchid post about this back in 2000.
Here is the link to my original post if you would like details:

I will say that before I found my rubber sheet I used lead blocks
which I made by pouring molten into cardboard check boxes that were
reinforced with masking tape. Of course, I did this outside in good
ventilation. I used the lead blocks inside a zip lock plastic bag so
that my metal and my hands never touched the lead. The plastic bags
also contained the lead dust that spalls off during use. There was
always a lot of lead residue coating the inside of the zip lock bag
when I changed to a new one so it was probably good for my safety
that I found the rubber backing that I now use.

There are several examples of my repousse metalwork on my blogspot

David Luck

Hi Hratch,

Thanks for sharing your experience about using pewter as a bench
block for repousse instead of lead. I have to admit it was one of
those “Why didn’t I think of that?” experiences when I read your
post. However, it’s a great idea and I am going to try it. I do miss
my old lead block. David

David Luck