Basic Principles for Tools and Equipment

Saving some dollars on equipment can be really helpful to a shop's bottom line. Often tools and equipment from other industries prove useful, and are sometimes cheaper than regular tool suppliers. I think this behavior used to be called 'scrounging'.

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By Charles Lewton-BrainMore from this author

There are some basic principles tools and equipment to use when looking or "scrounging" outside the jewelry world. This article will describe the similarities of tools and equipment from other industries.

I've been doing a lot of electroforming in the last year, and my naturally skinflint ways came to the fore as I looked for the power supply. The approach works like this: first of all describe the problem. In this case, I needed a regulated rectifier (a direct current source). Then: What fits the bill? I set aside the kid's model racing car and train transformer I used to use for plating ($5.00 at a flea market) in favor of something a little more heavy duty - a battery charger ($10.00 at a flea market).

After eight months I've upgraded to a really good plater: a used high tech regulated power supply from ebay ($65.00). This is normally used for electronics applications. In the same way a superb high quality rectifier for anodizing titanium (new it is $250.00+) can be had used from ham radio buffs for as cheaply as $15.00.

Saving some dollars on equipment can be really helpful to a shop's bottom line. Often tools and equipment from other industries prove useful, and are sometimes cheaper than regular tool suppliers. I think this behavior used to be called 'scrounging'.

When looking outside the jewelry world for tools and equipment there are a number of basic principles to use. Describe the problem you want to solve and then look for industries that have the same problem. Use contrast and comparison to understand a system faster and deeper. Look for the patterns, if something looks like something else there is probably a relationship. An example is Aquaplast, a wonderful plastic material that turns into soft putty in hot water and hardens stiffly at room temperature - just like pitch. It replaces pitch and shellac in stone setting, can be used to make handles, soft jaws for pliers and so on. Do you remember 'Friendly Plastic'? It is the same material, and works the same way. And so does the sheet material used to make lightweight casts for broken limbs. This means you can obtain aquaplast cheaply as scrap Friendly plastic (and your aunt thought that those balled up reject jewelry pieces were wasted), and if you are willing to leave a used and cut off plastic cast on an anthill for cleaning (ooh that skin gunge) then you may be able to get some from a hospital worker friend….

It is important to 'shift categories', that is to look at how you (and other people) class things in your mind and see if you can break out of that 'putting things into mental boxes' behavior. An example is chasing tools which sell as high as $40.00 for 5 on Ebay while wooden boxes of 80-100 watchmakers staking tools (the same hardened and tempered steel, same thing as chasing tools, and easily altered to suit ones purpose) sell for $20.00. Watchmakers tools are classed as 'obsolete' and 'only for fixing watches' but shift mental categories and that box is worth a pile.

A vital principle is looking for someone (or some industry) who uses so much of something they do not value it. There are numerous examples of this.

  • The flint wheel from an older style disposable lighter is a great carbide steel burr that jewelers can otherwise pay several dollars for. It is made of in such quantities that they can be produced incredibly cheaply. When the lighter is empty the top can be knocked and pried apart and the flint wheel placed on a standard screw mandrel for the flexible shaft to obtain a carbide burr. It works like a rotary file for filing edges and coarse metal removal.
  • Dry pickling acid (you know the ubiquitous brand I mean). is almost the same as sodium bisulfate which is commonly sold as 'swimming pool acid' and is used to change the pH of swimming pools and hot tubs. It is far less expensive there than at the jewelry suppliers ($1.50 for the same amount you would normally pay $6.00 for). It is also the main ingredient in most toilet bowl cleaners (this may say something about disposal) and can be bought very cheaply in drums as an industrial toilet bowl cleaner
  • If you know someone who works in an institution (jail, school, factory, etc) they have large floor polishing machines with giant scotch brite pads on the bottom. When they think the pads are worn out they are still good for our use, but even better are the round discs they punch out and throw away from the middles of the pad when they are mounted on the machine. Stiffen up the center with a little epoxy and they are essentially the same scotch brite discs for the polishing machine that jewelers pay up to eight dollars each for.
  • We can find vibratory tumblers cheaper at gun shops than jewelry suppliers (there are lots more gunners than jewelers). Generally about 30% cheaper.
  • Another auto example is waxes and transparent paints to protect metal surfaces, designed for expansion and contraction, extremes of temperature, acidic rain, ultraviolet light, in short an ideal long lasting finish for certain metal objects. In the same way, Nicholas Lacquer, beloved by people who use patinas and metal coloring, is found most easily in music stores as it is used universally on high school marching band instruments as the longest lasting finish - a brutal testing ground for a product. Must be good.
  • Garden potassium sulfur solutions (sometimes called 'lime sulfur spray') can be used to oxidize silver surfaces much like liver of sulfur does, as can photographers selenium print toner solution (contains selenic acid-basically the same as most gun-bluing and 'brass black' type solutions).
  • A source for titanium wire for making great soldering picks with is your local high tech bike shop-they use titanium spokes and usually have bent ones for free.
  • One can buy round leather dog chews in different diameters at the pet store, cut them in half, drill through them and mount an appropriate sized hammer handle in them to make very inexpensive good quality leather mallets, particularly in the small sizes. Look for a chew that is solid all the way through as some will have cavities in them. $2.00 gets you three small mallets.
  • Use a 50 mm camera lens as a giant high quality loupe for working with. You can pick one up for free or cheaply from a camera shop if the iris diaphragm inside is broken. The optics are great on such a lens, and the field of view is large.

So, providing you take care not to endanger yourself by substituting one thing for another, scrounging can be really helpful in dropping that overhead over the long haul.

Charles Lewton-Brain is a goldsmith, author, and educator. He invented fold-forming, a completely new way of working sheet metals, and is the author of several jewelry books including one on bench tricks called "Cheap Thrills in the Tool Shop". If you have any favorite tricks to suggest he is always collecting new ones. You can contact him at

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Charles Lewton-Brain

Master goldsmith Charles Lewton-Brain trained, studied and worked in Germany, Canada and the United States to learn the skills he uses. Charles Lewton-Brain is one of the original creators of Ganoksin.

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