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The TAO of Bur

A legendary bench jeweler shows how sometimes a tool isn't just a tool

by John Shanahan - © MJSA Journal - 2005
"Can't stand bright cuttin'," Bur Goodtip says to me, apropos of nothing. We're taking a break on the back porch of his home/studio, a weathered shack perched somewhat uncertainly on a cliff overlooking the craggy coast of Maine . I've spent the last five days up here with Bur, one of the great-but-largely-unknown repositories of bench jeweler arcana, and in that time I've found that Bur takes upward of a dozen breaks during his six-hour daily work routine. Typically, said breaks coincide with a need to refill the old meerschaum pipe he keeps clenched between his teeth whether he's smoking or not.

"A-yuh, it hurts my hands," he continues, as if I'd asked. "Thought about givin' it up. Then one day I'm on the phone with James Cantrell."

"The Certified Master Bench Jeweler in Coffeyville , Kansas?"

"Same one. And I says to him, 'Jim, this bright cuttin's killin' me.' He understands, you see, because he had himself some tendonitis. Hurt him something bad when he tried cuttin' around diamonds he'd set flat."

"So what did he do?" I ask.

"He's no dummy, that Jim. He takes himself a 90° hart bur and removes the bottom V portion of it real slow-like with a cuttin' disc."

"So he's got a flat-bottomed bur now?"

"A-yuh, with sharp, angled sides," Bur says with a pleased nod. "He puts it in his flex-shaft and - now listen good here, this is what counts - turns it sideways. That lets him dig out the long V area next to where the diamonds'll go. That was what was hurtin' him. It takes some effort. You ever try that?"

"No," I admit. "I just write about jewelry. I don't make it."

Bur shakes his head like I've confessed a venal sin. "Anyhoo," he says after a moment. "Once he's got that burred out, he can refine and shape out the groove with one o'them small, pointy gravers."

"An onglette graver?" I offer.

Bur squints at me through one eye. Then he grins. "You ain't so dim for a writer," he says.

And the waves crash against the Maine coast below us.

Later, we're back inside where Bur is working on what is meant to be a lobster-claw-shaped pendant. Truth be told, Bur's getting a little shaky these days, and his eyes aren't what they used to be, so the piece is looking less like a lobster claw than a cartoon kitten with an amusing glandular disorder.

At one point Bur leans over to grab something and I notice an odd tool resting across his bench pin. It's about as wide as the pin itself, with a wooden handle and a metal top. Part of the pendant he's working on appears wedged into the top somehow.

"What's that?" I ask.

He looks over the bench like he's trying to figure out what I'm asking about. "Oh," he says at last. "That? That's a little something my pal Gerry Lewy told me 'bout. He's from up near Toronto , you know. That's in Canada."

"You don't say."

He picks up the tool. "Don't know what to call it," he says. "But it's made out of an old pin vise I got at the hardware store one Saturday and the leg off my third ex-wife's bed. Sawed it off m'self," he adds with a wink.

"So what does it do?"

"It's for holdin' small parts like pendants or earrings," he says. "See, I took the old pin vise and removed the handle. It was thin and metal and it didn't make for good holdin'. Not for a couple hours at a time, anyhow. Drilled a hole at the bottom of it and attached it to the wooden part."

"Why?"

"I got sweaty hands. Metal don't take to sweat. The wood absorbs it better."

I do what I can to erase the image of Bur's sweaty palms from my mind.

"Plus, the handle's tapered," he tells me. "Fits good in my grip. Any piece of tapered wood will do. So now I got me this pin-vise head on an old wooden handle, and what the hell good is that for? Nothin'. Not until, like Gerry told me, I drill a pair of holes in the top of the jaws, one on each side, and I fit a pair of soft steel nails in the holes. Soldered 'em in there with brass solder so they stay put. Now I'm gettin' somewhere."

"Why brass?"

"Lasts longer," he snorts. "Gerry, he tried silver solder and it was comin' loose in no time."

He picks up the tool and holds it up in front of my face. "Look close, now. You see how I carved notches in those nails, about halfway through? That's what does the holdin'. And I sanded 'em down nice and smooth with a sanding disc and a #180 pumice wheel so they wouldn't leave marks on the jewelry piece when I tighten it up. Now I just put a pendant or whatever between the nails, turn the screw here on the vise, and it gets held in there good. Don't need shellac or nothin' like that to keep it in place. Pretty nice, ain't it?"

"A-yuh," is all I can think to say.

The next morning, I get to Bur's studio a little before 9 a.m. That's when he gets started, he says, having had time to prep for the day's work. From what I've seen over the last few days, "prep" means hash and eggs at Krudd's Diner, an hour or so of 'round-town gossip with his cronies, and at least one pipeful out on the deck.

Walking into the house, I hear an odd tink tink tink sound - metal on metal - coming from the studio. And there's Bur, at the bench, hammering away. I lean in to see what he's working on, and I'm surprised to find that it's another hammer.

"Fella wants a ring looks like mesh or like it's woven," he says. "Now, I could spend some time goin' at the gold itself with a tool and texture it bit by bit, but I learned a little somethin' one time when I heard Charles Lewton-Brain give a talk." He chuckles and shakes his head. "Let me tell you, when he talks, a smart fella listens up. Another o'them Canadians. From Calgary . Teaches, too. And writes books. Anywhat, he says that what you do is you take a hammer, like this old ball peen - better if it's old so you don't go wreckin' a good hammer - and with a center punch you make a bunch of dents in the face of it. Cover it good. Then, when you hit a hunk o'gold with it, it's like a big stampin' tool on a stick. It leaves an impression looks like mesh or scaling."

He reaches up over the bench and pulls down another hammer, one that looks like it was found at an archaeological dig. He shows me its face; a floral design is delicately carved into it. "That's another thing you can do," he says. "Take yourself a separatin' disc - a good one, one o'them silicone carbide doohickeys - or a diamond bur, and cut yourself a design. One good wallop and you got a nice stamping of a flower. Lewton-Brain showed me that, too."

Bur gets this smile on his face that scares me a bit. He pulls another old hammer off a shelf and thrusts it at me. "Your turn," he says. Over the next hour or so I take various tools Bur hands me and I scratch a pattern into the hammer face. When I'm finished, I take a crack at a strip of silver with it, and it leaves a clear impression of my design - which ironically resembles a cartoon kitten.

"Maybe you got a little jeweler in you after all, writer," Bur says.

Maybe I do.

Gonna need your help today," Bur says. "Think you can handle it?" Without waiting for an answer - which likely would have been "Umm" - he waves me toward the studio. Apparently my recent victory on the hammer-modifying forefront has gone a long way toward impressing him. "Got a buncha jump rings to make today, and they've all got to be the same size."

"Couldn't you just order them?" I ask, and the temperature in the room immediately plummets 10 degrees.

"Gonna pretend I ain't heard that," he says. Bur hands me a set of pliers - but they're different. Near the handle, where the two jaws meet, there's a screw that goes through the top jaw, topped with a wing nut. Bur catches me examining it.

"Dave Arens showed me this one," he says. "Dave's from Tucson . See, with this contraption, the pliers stay set where ya want 'em. What Dave done is to take a pair of parallel-jaw pliers and scribe a line on the side of the top jaw where it meets the handle. Then he took that jaw off and scribed another line, 'bout 5 mm above the first line. That showed him where to drill, right in the middle of the jaw."

"How big is the hole?"

"I'm using an 8/32 1.5 inch long thumb screw here, so I drilled a #28 hole. You can do it with a 10/32 screw, but then you need a #19 hole. Got that? And the metal's hard, so I annealed it before drillin'. Save on drill bits that way."

Yankee frugality, I tell myself.

"After it was drilled," Bur continues, "I tapped out the hole, then smoothed it to remove any burrs. Then I topped the screw with a wing nut and put it through the hole. Now them pliers is going to close only as far as the wing nut'll let 'em. That way, every one o'them jump rings is bound to be the same size. You see?"

Bur squints at me for a moment, sizing me up. Then, with speed belying his age, he snatches the pliers from my hand.

"Maybe I ought to do the first dozen or so," he says. "You might catch on by then."

Bur gets off a phone call and comes back into the studio, chuckling and shaking his head. "Some folks just don't know how to handle a challenge," he says, then saunters out to the deck, waving at me to follow.

"That was a guy up in Bangor callin' for help," he says. "Get a lot of those calls, y'know. Got himself a customer wants some small diamonds set in little rondelles. You know what those are, don't ya?"

I nod and hope it looks convincing. I don't want to interrupt while he's on a roll.

"They're small, these rondelles. Four millimeters diameter, maybe five or six mil long. And he's all worried about how he's supposed to hold 'em while he drills seats for the stones."

"What did you tell him?"

"Told him about a tool my friend Larry Seiger down in Cary , North Carolina , made for a job just like it," he says. "What Larry done is to take three flex-shaft mandrels - you know, the kind for holdin' separatin' disks. He cuts the heads off two of the screws, then he solders them two onto the third uncut screw to make one big screw and fits it back in the flared-out end o'the mandrel. Ya follow?"

Again, he's on a roll.

"Now he's got himself somethin' he can thread those rondelles on to hold 'em in place while he drills. But," Bur says, emphatically spitting over the side of the deck, "they roll around a lot on that screw. It's too narrow, y'see. So Larry takes himself a piece of brass tubing just a hair wider than the screw and just a wee bit smaller across than the holes on the rondelles and he squares it in his rolling mill. He sets that over the screw, fits the screw into the mandrel, and slides the rondelles down over it. Now they're snug as a bug."

"So he puts a round hole on a square peg?" I joke.

Bur cocks an eye at me. "About as sharp as a turnip, ain't ya, son?"

I return to silence.

"Next Larry puts the whole thingamajig into a pin vise to hold it in place, and away he goes, drillin' seats in them rondelles without a care in the world. Quite a tool, indeed."

The sun's going down over the harbor. It's high tide, and the waves are awesome. We're done for the day, and I'm leaving tomorrow. We're sitting out back with cold drinks. Bur's omnipresent pipe tints the air with the flavor of apple smoke.

"Here's the thing I don't get," I say. "There's all these tools out there made for jewelers to use, but so many of you guys just grab whatever's handy and make do. Why bother with the commercial tools at all?"

"Define 'tool,'" Bur says, watching a gull dive toward the spray.

"You know, like flex-shafts and diamond-tipped burs, the stuff in the catalogs. Not old pin vises and used hammers."

"Mm-hmm." Bur pauses, takes a long draw on the pipe, then turns and looks at me. And he says, "Benefit comes from what is there; usefulness, from what is not there."

"Excuse me?"

"Tao Te Ching," he says, as if I ought to already know. "Old book o'Chinese wisdom. Y'oughta read it sometime. See, a tool's what you use to do the job - whatever it is that does the job. A pin vise is only a pin vise until you use it to hold rondelles. Then it's a rondelle holder, isn't it?"

He turns back to watch the waves roll in and out, slowly wearing away at the coast like a persistent, watery bur on nature's own flex-shaft.

"Jewelers," he says in a voice as soft and distant as the far horizon over the Atlantic . "Jewelers understand that."

Bright Cutting Tool
  • Using a cutting disc, cut the tip off a 90° hart bur.
  • Insert it into a flex-shaft and turn it sideways.
  • Dig out a long V area near the diamond seats.
  • Refine the groove with an onglette graver.

Pin Vise Holder for Small Parts
  • Remove the handle from a hardware store pin vise.
  • Drill a hole in the bottom of the vise, then attach it to a tapered wooden handle.
  • Drill holes in the tops of the vise jaws.
  • Solder steel nails into the holes using brass solder.
  • Notch the nails and sand.

Texture Hammers
  • Using a center punch, make dents in the face of an old ball peen hammer.
  • The dent pattern leaves an impression that looks like meshwhen it hits gold.
  • Carve any pattern desired into the faces of hammers for decorative stamping.

Rondelle Holder
  • Cut the heads off the threaded screws of two flex-shaft mandrels.
  • Solder the screws together, then solder them to an uncut third screw, creating one long screw.
  • Select brass tubing that is slightly wider than the screw and slightly smaller than the holes in the rondelles.
  • Put the brass tube over the screw and fit the long screw into the flared-out end of the mandrel.
  • Put the holder into a pin vise.


MJSA Journal Originaly published at MJSA's award-winning flagship publication, MJSA Journal.

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