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Finger protection

I often handle tiny bits of metal in ways that will get them very warm indeed – especially when I’m drilling, grinding or polishing. I’ve tried using pliers, clothespins, tweezers and other tools to hold parts, but nothing compares to the speed, strength and dexterity of my fingers. I’ve only got one set though, so here are my favourite solutions for making sure they last.

Neoprene skins

When I’m polishing, I use a set of four neoprene wee finger-gloves, which are secure, comfortable and let me grip most castings pretty firmly. They’ve saved me from bumps with the grinding disc or buffer multiple times, protect me from the majority of the heat, and give me time to let go if something does get hot enough to overwhelm them.

Some well-used Rhino finger protection skins from Cookson Gold. They come as two fingers and two thumbs

The stretchy fit makes them very secure and comfortable, a considerable improvement over my home-made leather finger-bags. The stitching is strong, and I find the neoprene stiffens less with gunk than leather, and while it’s not as tough it’s thicker, and sacrificially tears rather than grabbing during accidental contact. When these are sorry enough to replace I’ll try making my own, but I will definitely do heat tests first to make sure my material handles heat well and won’t, say, melt and weld to my skin…

Alligator tape

Another finger protection tool I really love, though rarely remember to use, is alligator tape. It’s a green-coated, non-stretch woven tape which sticks very emphatically to itself. I love it for protecting my fingers from abrasion, particularly when I’m using my Wolf wax carving tools with their ridged handles, or my small paring knife which has a sharp back. The tape doesn’t stretch but it conforms well, making it ideal for protecting your fingertips – just be careful you don’t wind it on too tight!

I wish I’d used it when sanding recently – holding tiny pieces of wood up to the disc sander I slipped and took rather more than the edge off my index fingernails. This is exactly the kind of injury alligator tape is great at preventing due to its abrasion resistance. Luckily I only took a small amount off and it’s grown out now, but the sensation of exposed nail beds isn’t one I’ll forget in a hurry.

I was going to take a picture to show you it in action, but the I just discovered that the roll I bought three months ago has welded itself into a single solid, rubbery mass! Not sure what happened there – I kept it in a plastic bag because the previous one had dried out. So, with the caveat that it might have a really short shelf life or be tricky to store: great stuff!

Alligator tape + cork

I think this particular hack came about because I wanted to hold one end of a piece of silver wire while I melted the other, many, many times over. I didn’t have the right kind of tweezers, so here’s how I dressed my fingers up for the job.

I cut thin slices from a cork, trimmed them to size and wrapped them between layers of alligator tape to make solid, heatproof, reinforced fingertips. The tape holds its shape enough that I can slip them on and off to reuse, and the slightly forgiving cork and rubbery tape gives me a really good grip. This is especially useful for jobs like drilling holes into tiny parts which heat up quickly.

Got any questions, or other useful solutions for protecting your hands? I’d love to hear about ’em!

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Lateral thinking – Chopsticks and crisps

It’s always a bit disconcerting when someone sees what I’m doing, stops dead, then says wonderingly “it* makes perfect sense, but still…” and wanders off shaking their head.

Just me?

* I was on the market stall, and needed a snack but wanted to keep my hands clean for dealing with customers, so I was eating my Monster Munch with chopsticks. It worked perfectly!

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Making of… hinged dragonfly pendant

Paul came to me looking for a dragonfly-themed piece, as an extra-special gift for his wife’s significant birthday.  It seemed the perfect excuse to revisit my hinged dragonfly pendant concept from 2008, but in my now favourite medium – wax carving and casting.  As discussing various design options, we chose a theme of stylised realism, with moving, articulated wings and with the dragonfly’s body itself as the clasp pin.

I hybridised these two designs

I began as usual by researching the subject, including looking at close-up images of dragonfly wings.  I simplified the body plan, omitting the deep keel and legs to streamline the design and ensure the piece would sit well against the wearer’s body.  I planned for it to be 80mm (3”) wide – not quite matching the largest I’ve seen in the wild, but certainly substantial enough to be a statement piece without overwhelming the wearer.

I started construction with the head and body, by threading thin slices of wax onto a drill bit and carving, filing and sanding them as a single piece.  I use a ‘wax pen’ – a small battery powered hot wire – to melt and weld wax scraps together.  This allowed me to build up the shape of the head for sculpting.

Testing the body against
paper wings

I glued design printouts onto slabs of wax, cut the wings out roughly then carved them down to the final size.  Continuing to work in 2D I thinned the wings down to about 3mm overall, then welded them onto the wax body. 

At this point I began sculpting the wings to be 3D.  I wanted to echo the independent, twisting movement of a dragonfly’s wings, without compromising the structurally important overlap.  I got the wings down to 1mm thick, with a 2mm ridge at the leading edge for stiffening and to reinforce the overlap. 

I held the wax up to the light frequently as I worked – you can see by the tone how the thickness varies, and if different parts match.  It is also very helpful for spotting stress cracks in time to patch them with a tiny weld. 

Checking wing thickness and spotting a crack at the junction between the right side wings

Once I had the weight and shape of the wings refined, I worked on the body.  I drilled out the core to its final size, and used a brass test pin to ensure the proportions were pleasing. 

I rounded the individual knuckles of the hinge, reducing friction and creating a stylised, segmented look.  I extended the final segment to better mimic a real dragonfly, with the added benefit of extra stability for the hinge. 

Refining and extending the body shape

Now for the fun part – detail!  As the dragonfly was near life-sized, I had the room to replicate the pattern at life-size.  I used techniques I’d honed carving scales onto some of my dragon pieces, which looks especially good when highlighted with a dark patina against a bright polish. I copied the wing’s main structural lines onto the wax with a fine marker, then VERY CAREFULLY scribed the vein lines with a pointed tool. 

Detail, done!

I welded on very fine loops for attaching the chain to the back of the wings, and that was the piece ready to send to the caster.

Testing the action of the hinge with a temporary brass pin

I was delighted with the parts when they came back, requiring minimal clean-up to get the hinge fitting and working.  The fabrication was largely routine, except for shaping the pin.  I wanted to add some textural detail to the tail, help sell the illusion and integrating it with the body portion.  Dragonfly bodies are quite varied, so I selected elements that would work within the constraints, and took a few liberties.  I used my drill as a lathe, supporting the piece with a (well protected) finger or two as I filed and sanded it to shape.  Once complete, I soldered it into a socket in the cast head. 

The finished piece

Oxidising the piece brought out all the details just as I hoped, and it’s ended up a really eye-catching piece.  At the commissioner’s request I added a card with a sketch, to make sure that the recipient knew he’d had it especially made. 

I’m happy to say she was delighted with her new piece!  I’d love to do more dragonfly-textured pieces in future.

Thanks to Paul’s patronage, I’m delighted to offer this piece for general sale and shipping worldwide.

It’s available to pre-order in my shop now, shipping in time for Christmas – for more info and photos of the finished piece, visit the shop page here:

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The Hinged Dragonfly… 11 years in the making!

If there’s something that really characterises my making, it’s that my reach exceeds my grasp: I’m always striving to realise a new ideas that’re beyond the limits of my experience to date.

This tends to result in what, to the casual observer, might look like a trail of abandoned projects… For me though, it’s a flock of carefully tended treasures. If after throwing all available knowledge, cunning, mad ideas and R&D time at a problem I can’t find a solution, the project gets shelved. In some cases this means literally, as a labelled box of prototypes, or others might be just a few sketches tucked neatly away in my filing cabinet. Years might go by before I come back to a project, but I gather ideas like the box gathers dust, and one day I’ll find just the right one.

The Hinged Dragonfly design is the latest idea that’s come together, and I’m delighted to share it with you.

Back in 2008 I was playing with the theme of butterflies in jewellery. After making some pierced designs (positive and negative shapes cut from silver sheet), I started wondering about articulation.

Articulation… joints… hinges… hinge pins… captive hinge pins… removable hinge pins! The pendant IS the clasp! DRAGONFLIES!

After some prototyping I developed my original hinged dragonfly pendant. The chain is attached to the back of either wing. Each wing has protruding tabs which wrap around to form the knuckles of a hinge. When they are meshed together, a pin slipped through the hinge holds the two wings together. The head of the pin becomes the dragonfly’s head, the length of the ‘body’ pin ensures it can’t slip out by accident.

It was a lovely idea and I am still so, so proud of it. Alas, it was fiddly and frustrating to make, and I wasn’t keen on the abstract look.

By 2013 my saw technique had improved, and I was enjoying jewellery making even more. I designed a more realistic wing profile and created a few more dragonfly pendants, with chains, strings of stones or beads, and with beautiful cabochon gemstones set into the pin heads. I loved the addition of colour, but sawing the wings and hinges from silver sheet and bending them consistently into sheet was still too time-consuming and fiddly. The design went back on the shelf.

After that, I took my jewellery design work in other directions. I wanted to return to my roots and get sculptural, and things really changed when I started to explore wax carving.

I absolutely love wax as medium: its flexibility, its versatility, and the opportunity to replicate a design. It makes it feasible to invest 17 hours in carving a new design, as I can reproduce it and sell it for a sane amount. My Etsy store is full of jewellery designed and produced using wax carving techniques, you’ll probably see how my work has evolved with time.

Suffice to say, with all that practice: I’ve levelled up. I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience… And then when a visitor to my stall this summer said he liked my dragons but did I have any dragonflies, I knew* it was time to tackle the idea again.

It was such a fun project, and I really enjoyed the challenge of carving it. Best of all, it was a hit with the recipient!

” …just to say the necklace went down very well. Nicky says its one of the most beautiful pieces she’s seen. The movement while wearing really adds to the whole effect.”

– Paul, dragonfly commissioner

I think the 11 year dormancy period paid off.

If you’re interested in buying a hinged dragonfly, please check out the listing in my shop here, which includes an animation of the hinge mechanism in action.

Next up – the making process!

*OK, full disclosure, I was in market mode and completely forgot about the hinged dragonfly concept until my partner reminded me

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Another 3 things about me

To follow the first 4 things about me, here are another few:

1. Materials and techniques are my special interest

I interrogate every material that’s fallen into my hands. How malleable are you? Brittle? Springy? Can I carve, melt, sand, glue, weld you? How about colour, frost or polish?

When faced with a new problem to solve or solution to build, I love going through my mental index of materials to find just the right thing for the job. Often what’s an excruciating problem in one medium will be trivial in another, but best of all is combining materials to create something really new.

2. I love solving problems by making things

There is a saying when you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail… but I have a lot more tools than just hammers! My home is full of small DIY creations that make life easier or a little bit more beautiful. If you want to make me really happy, bring me a small, self-contained problem that I can solve by making something!

It’s also why I love to take commissioned work, be it jewellery, sculpture or fabrication. Every commission is a self-contained project with its own brief, constraints and wonderful conclusion – delivering something I made into a happy customer’s hands.

3. I don’t “see” pictures in my head

I’m never more than a pace or two from a sketchbook (I built one into my wallet) because I need paper to think. Imagination for me is like running my hands over something in the dark – I’m aware of the bits I’m touching for moment, but when I move on they’re gone… so I pin them down with a pen.

It really comes in handy when I’m trying to work things out with someone – being able to sketch what I think they mean lets us figure out where confusions and ambiguities lie, and build a picture together.

I plan to write more about my projects than myself on this blog, but feel free to ask me anything in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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4 things about me

I’d like to kick-start this blog with an introduction, but didn’t feel like a CV or mission statement, so here are 7 things about me:

1. I’m strongly attracted to bodies of water

As soon as I sight waves I’m off, making a beeline for the breakers. On hot days it’s shoes off and feet in, even if I wasn’t planning on it. The compulsion is less strong in fresh water, but I have paddled in some wonderfully icy glacier lakes.

It’s so typical to find me standing in the waves that my ankle is tattooed with barnacles, and you might see a few (very subtle) signs in my jewellery designs…

2. My hands are always busy

I make things! A lot! Often in situations where it’s not expected, like standing on a crowded commuter train or at a wedding reception. It’s started some lovely conversations, and seeded lasting friendships.

I might work in wax, silver or perspex for the ‘day job’, but I always have myriad other projects on the go. I especially enjoy making things in the midst of a sociable evening of conversation. At home I might pick up anything from sewing to wood carving, but my current travel projects are making iron chainmail, and folding strips of paper into tiny puffy stars!

3. I’m a craft enabler

Would you like to try knitting? Lino-cuts? Inlay? Bookmaking? Spoon carving? Wax casting? Let me know, I will be enthusiastic with you! If I’ve tried it I can usually help you get started, and if I haven’t, I’ll probably be right there with you giving it a go. I can recommend a really good place to try blacksmithing…

4. My first medium was wood

I’ve had the busy-hands thing for as long as I can remember, but the first medium I remember loving was when I started carving wood. I whittled away at driftwood or scraps from the wood store as a teen, sitting in the brightest spot in the house – on the floor next to the glass kitchen door – in a steadily growing mountain of wood shavings.

I have a few small pieces I made in that era, and I’m still proud of the form and finish I achieved. Mostly they’re made from yew harvested from a feral hedge. Yew is very beautiful and takes a lovely polish, but it’s incredibly hard (especially once it’s seasoned), and it has long, stubborn fibres that laugh at blunt knives. I think I gained a lot of hand strength wrestling with it, and learned a lot of patience with splitting and tearing grain, and about working with your material.

It was really good experience, and taught me a lot about wood as a medium, but most of all it made me really, truly appreciate how straightforward wax is to carve!

That’s it for now, hope you enjoyed!