Bench Tool Junkies

What you should be is excited to read this article and see what others just like you have to say about their favorite bench tools. So you have a passion for hardware - loving tools is not a crime!

17 Minute Read

By Tina Wojtkielo SnyderMore from this author

What you should be is excited to read this article and see what others just like you have to say about their favorite bench tools. So you have a passion for hardware-loving tools is not a crime!

  • Do you feel your pulse start to quicken when a new tools catalog arrives in your mailbox? Do you find yourself modifying existing tools to suit your needs?
  • Has a social evening with friends ever turned into a tool debate?
  • Do you flip to the New Products section in AJM before reading anything else? Do you disregard back and shoulder pain to lug home a 50-pound bag of brochures and catalogs that you picked up at a trade show? Do you use the word "love" when describing your bench tools?

If you answered yes to all of the above, your photo belongs on this page with the others. You, my dear reader, are a tool junkie.

If you answered yes to three or more of the above, consider yourself on the brink of joining this unofficial industry subgroup. Should you be worried about it? Of course not.

Mark Maxwell
CMBJ, Jewelry Manufacturing Arts instructor
GIA, Carlsbad , California

GRS Benchmate. The GRS Benchmate work-holding system is the best tool I've ever purchased. I really don't know how I made jewelry before I owned one. It comes with a mounting plate that attaches to the front of your bench and accommodates various stone setting, soldering, and repair aids. All of these holding tools allow you to work with both hands free. The main component of the system, the Benchmate work holder, is great for stone setting. You can move it around in every axis until you have the jewelry piece in the perfect position. This makes stone setting more efficient because you can clamp a ring down, cut the seat, and set the stone in the same tool. When you want to check if the table of the stone is level, all you have to do is rotate the holder to view the piece from a few different angles. With other tools, you have to move the piece or your body to check your work.

In addition to making setting more efficient, the Benchmate offers ergonomic benefits. It allows you to pivot the work piece to a position that makes your whole body comfortable. Sometimes when working at the bench, you force your body to move in strange ways because of the angle of your work. This is not only bad for your muscles and bones, but it prevents you from cutting or filing as smoothly as you would if you were comfortable.

The Benchmate is also useful when hammering and chasing, which require the use of both hands: one to hold the punch, and one to hold the hammer. You can use the standard clamp that comes with the system to hold a ring while hammering, but I prefer the inside-ring holder. When inserted into a ring, the holder enables you to work on the entire ring perimeter. With the standard clamp, which just pinches the ring, you risk the chance of the ring distorting or sliding down while you're working. The inside-ring holder absorbs the hammer blows and doesn't allow the ring to slide. It comes with a number of collets to fit common ring sizes. The collets, as well as the inserts in the clamp jaws, are made from a high density plastic that won't mark rings when you clamp them down.

You can also use the Benchmate for soldering (a third hand, soldering station, and solder clamp are optional accessories), engraving, and more. And it's not only versatile, it's durable. I've owned my Benchmate for 15 years and I've had to replace only a few plastic collets and inserts.

Quick-change handpieces. Quick-change handpieces save me lots of time at the bench by allowing me to switch out burs with ease. My favorite handpiece is the Technique, which has an easy-to-use switch that rotates 90° to lock and release tools.

The main benefit of this tool is that the locking mechanism tends to stay tight. For example, if you grind hard, the tool doesn't start spinning inside the handpiece, wearing it away and impeding your cutting ability. The Technique's design prevents this from happening better than any other handpiece I've used.

Furthermore, the locking mechanism doesn't allow for accidental release of the tool. Some handpieces have a push-button lock to hold the tool in place. If you accidentally hit the button, it starts to release the tool while you're working, which can be detrimental to the work-in-progress.

In addition to its solid mechanical qualities, the Technique has a wonderful, lightweight design-especially beneficial for someone like me who has chronic hand pain. This aluminum handpiece is larger in diameter than many on the market. Its larger size eases hand stress because you don't have to squeeze it very tightly. (I like to wrap padded moleskin around the handpiece to give it even more diameter and padding.)

Gravers. In my opinion, gravers are underused tools. I use them for everything from wax carving to textural engraving on enamel pieces. After studying in Europe , I fell in love with European-style gravers, which have a much larger heel and smaller face than American-style gravers. This shape has enabled me to better control my graver cuts. By lifting the graver out of the way of the working surface, the heel reduces the occurence of drag lines on your work.

Karen Christians
Owner of Cleverwerx, Waltham , Massachusetts

My art background is reflected in my jewelry, which consists mainly of sculptural, fabricated work. Although my approach to metalsmithing differs from that of a jeweler who specializes in classical techniques or stone setting, we use many of the same tools. I just use mine in different ways.

What makes the jewelry and metalsmithing field so diverse is thinking outside the box when it comes to tools and their uses. Even the standard tools we have around our benches-files, flex-shafts, wire cutters-open the door to invention and creativity. The following are three of my favorite tools, and how I've used them to better my craft.

Flex-shaft. Because I do a lot of surface texturing and etching, I look to my tool base to create new textures. The flex-shaft is tops on the list. Here are just a few of the ways I've taken advantage of this versatile tool:

  • To save time while sanding, I use a split mandrel wrapped in sandpaper in my flex-shaft. This cuts down tremendously on the time required to do the same task by hand. To create fine matte finishes, I also use the split mandrel, but I wrap it with a small bit of 3M Scotchbrite. The degree of coarseness affects the type of finish I can acheive, offering multiple options.
  • Another way to create a fine matte finish is by winding a large drill bit with steel wool and using it as a polishing tool in my flex-shaft. This is the perfect tool for highlighting segments on oxidized silver pieces. It creates a lovely effect.
  • A wooden stem Q-tip with a hint of rouge makes a nice polishing wheel for small spaces.
  • 3M radial bristle discs are ideal for polishing those sniggly hard-to-reach places. Before these tools came to market, it was almost impossible to polish in tight spots using the flex-shaft.
  • Steel carbide burs or rotary files are great for chewing metal down to a flat area. Rotary tools are essential for small hollowware work. Using these tools in a flex-shaft takes half the time and energy it would if using them by hand.

Half-round file. There's nothing new or innovative here. The half-round file is just a simple tool that works-and I love it. It allows me to perform a variety of tasks: I can file inside curves so they're nice and neat. I can use the flat side to file a nice, flat bevel. I can activate the edge of a bevel, shining it just right so the corners pop. And the list goes on.

This file actually helps bring my designs to life. If I'm making a leaf, for example, I can use a half-round needle file in the V-sections and make the leaf look three-dimensional. Basically, I am creating a bevel, but my little half-round file gives me perfect control. Often, I don't even need to polish the edges, all because of this handy tool.

Homemade riveting tool. I do a lot of cold connection in my work and I've always had a hard time using a riveting hammer. I just can't seem to strike the end of the rivet precisely enough without marring the surface.

Instead of grumbling about it, I took it upon myself to fabricate my own riveting tool. I used a broken graver and ground one end of it to simulate the end of a riveting hammer. I polished the other end so it resembles a mini planishing hammer. To finish, I heat-treated it and brought both ends to a high polish.

To use the tool, I hold it in my left hand, place the end that looks like a riveting hammer onto the rivet ends, and hammer it with my right hand. This allows me to spread the rivets precisely because I have more control of the tool's position.

I can also rotate the tool at 90° to upset the rivet head, making a tight seal. As a final touch, I finish it up with a ball bur or cup bur. Then, by simply flipping the tool over, I can planish the ends of the rivets flat. All that is left is to add a simple decorative touch, such as filing the rivet head to simulate the top of a screw.

Charles Lewton-Brain
Goldsmith, author, educatorCalgary , Alberta , Canada

Before I tell you about my favorite tools, I can't stress enough the importance of proper tool storage and organization. The bench itself is a tool, and if it's disorganized or poorly designed, it can negatively affect your work experience. That said, when you have an organized workspace environment you can maximize the benefit of all the tools on your bench. A few of my top tool picks are.

Flex-shaft. I have three flex-shafts in my shop so I don't have to waste time changing out the bits. I use one with a separating disc and one with an emery split mandrel (my two favorites), and one with other tools. Using the emery split mandrel in the flex-shaft speeds up sanding and filing operations otherwise done by hand. The separating disc, which is also a time-saving tool, is great for cutting, scoring, and bending.

A testament to the separating disc's efficiency comes from my experience building box catches for bracelets when I worked in a factory. When we were constructing box catches by hand, using saws and files, it took about two hours to build one. By using separating discs for cutting, we were able to shave down the construction time per catch to about an hour. In addition, hinges that took about 45 minutes to construct and install by hand took only 15 minutes with the separating disc.

Mini-mite cordless rotary tools. Think of these as the poor man's flex-shafts. They work like flex-shafts, but are battery-powered and quite inexpensive. (You can purchase one for about $35.) Boasting high speed and lightweight construction, these tools are great for applications where you don't want a cord getting in the way, such as carving wax or carving the end of a steel tool blank for stamping.

Drill bit. This tool falls under the "taken for granted" category. You may not even think of a drill bit as a favorite tool, but with a little innovation, it's very versatile. For example, if you grind the end of a drill bit flush, it becomes a wax carving tool that's perfect for carving channels and bezels. If you tip it, it sinks into the wax block, removing wax. And if you hold it vertically, it can only carve sideways, creating straight channel and bezel walls.

Burnisher. Another tool we take for granted that merits mention is the burnisher. Almost everything I make comes into contact with this tool. I finish most pieces by touching up certain areas with a burnisher, adding light streaks to the metal edges-an easy but effective design detail.

Jeweler's saw. The third tool that we may not think much about is a jeweler's saw. Consider how many times you pick up your saw each day to cut wire or sheet, or saw a piece of wax. And the list doesn't end with ordinary tasks. Your saw can be used in stone setting for notching prongs or cutting sloping azure holes behind settings. It can sharpen up a notch or spot between forked ring shanks beautifully. When threaded upside-down in a saw frame and held against a spinning rod in a flex-shaft, it carves as quickly as a lathe, and costs far less.

In addition, you can do amazing carving with a saw. I've heard stories about old goldsmiths from Greece and Turkey who use saws to carve basket rings. What the modern jeweler would construct by soldering together interlocking pieces of sheet metal and wire, these traditional goldsmiths carve from a block of gold. Using only a saw, drill bit, and files, they produce a perfect model that is stronger than one constructed with solder.

Dividers. This is an essential fitting tool. Every jeweler who wants to make accurate, quality work should employ dividers in the construction of each piece they make. Plotting distances with dividers lessens your chances of making mistakes, and makes most projects move a lot faster. I suggest owning at least three pairs of dividers and setting them to your most used distances. Then you don't have to waste time changing the dividers too often.

GRS Benchmate. This holding system is a must for every bench jeweler, and it pays for itself quickly. (For details, see page 14.) It comes with the best third hands I've seen: They stay put once you've clamped in your work piece. Others I've used tend to feather when you let go of them, requiring you to position the piece all over again.

In addition to their commendable stability, these third hands have replaceable holding clamps. If you're working on platinum, you can use tungsten tips. Titanium tips, which solder will not stick to, are also available.

My only caution to jewelers who plan to purchase a Benchmate is to ask about the support plate when ordering. The system comes with a support plate upon which you can rest your hand when working. Oddly enough, if you order the system designed for the right-handed jeweler, you get a right-hand support plate. Well, if you're right-handed, you're right hand won't be doing much resting. So be sure to ask for the left-hand support plate if you're right-handed, and vice versa.

Zeiss magnifying glasses. When I first looked into these magnifying glasses, they cost about $1,200. Fortunate-ly, they've since come down in price (Krüss in Hamburg , Germany , has them for $500), and they're well worth it. These glasses are lightweight and feature high quality optics. I use them for wax carving and stone setting, and they have definitely increased the quality of my work.

Blaine Lewis
Stone setter, bench jeweler, educator
New Approach School for Jewelers, Virginia Beach , Virginia

Bergeon goldsmithing pliers. I worked without these for 10 years and I can honestly say I don't know how I got along. These parallel pliers act as a hand-held vice. They are ideal for holding sheet metal for filing or forging. Unlike typical chain-nose pliers, which open up to the shape of a V, the Bergeon goldsmithing pliers have parallel jaws that act as vice grips.

If you put a square piece of metal in typical pliers and squeeze down, you're only holding part of the two edges. But if you hold the same piece in these pliers, it's basically like using a mini press-you have a secure grip on both edges. And since these pliers are locking, the metal is held in place securely once you clamp the jaws down. You don't have to squeeze because the pliers provide tension: All you have to do is hold them lightly while you work on the metal-a treat for your hard-working hands. (Note: To keep the jaws from marring metal, I wrap them in copper sheet.)

Miter-Cutting vise/jig.

This is an indispensable tool for accurate fabrication. It's a holding device that allows you to cut or score 90° and 45° angles in sheet, wire, or tubing. For ex-ample, if you want to make a square bezel, you can use the Miter jig to hold a piece of flat stock at 45°. After cutting four matching angles, you simply solder them together to create a bezel with perfect joints.

Jett Sett fixturing compound. I'd have a hard time living without Jett Sett. It's the perfect fixturing material (and a definite improvement over old-fashioned shellac) for holding items in place that are difficult to secure conventionally, such as bracelets and pendants.

In addition to holding components in place while you're working, this thermoplastic/ceramic material is great for customizing tools. You can use it to make ergonomic handles for files and gravers. And it's reusable: You can re-heat Jett Sett and use it over and over again.

NSK E-Max micro-motor. High-end micro-motors are important to me because of the precision they lend to the setting process. There are many micro-motors on the market that boast high speeds, up to 35,000 rpm. How-ever, the NSK E-Max is the only one I know of that offers a reduction gear in the handpiece. In my opinion, that's what really makes it shine.

By offering a four-to-one reduction, the NSK allows you to have lots of torque at low speeds. This is essential for cutting seats when stone setting, which requires much less speed than other bench operations, such as polishing. When cutting seats, speed kills. If you are using a handpiece that doesn't have a reduction gear, you have to run the bur fast to compensate for the lack of torque. If you get out of control, you'll do a lot more damage than if you were operating at a lower speed. In the end, this greater degree of control over your tools results in better quality bench work.

Brad Simon
Owner of B.W. Simon, publisher of Bench Magazine
Spartanburg , South Carolina

Quick-change handpiece. It took me a long time to convince myself to purchase a quick-change handpiece for my flex-shaft, but when I finally bought one about 15 years ago, I swore I'd never go back. The ability to change out tools quickly is a huge time saver for me. Considering efficiency alone, this tool pays for itself in less than a month.

Some jewelers complain that not every shank is the right size (3/32 inch) to fit a quick-change handpiece, but there are ways around that. If you search hard enough, you'll find that most tools are available with 3/32 inch shanks. But if you can find only a 1/8 inch shank, you can chuck it up on a lathe and cut it down yourself.

Bur-Life lubricant. This tool lubricant comes in a container that you can mount on your bench. I mounted mine on the side of my bench pin for easy access. I can run a saw blade, file, drill bit, or bur through it without hunting for it and wasting precious bench time. I'm a firm believer in lubricating cutting tools about once a minute. Lubricant helps keep the teeth in files, saw blades, and burs from clogging. This prevents the tools from overheating, which prolongs tool life and results in better quality work.

Mark-A-Size. Jewelers who do a lot of sizing should definitely invest in this tool for reducing or enlarging rings. It costs under $30 and pays for itself after about 90 ring sizings. The Mark-A-Size has hardened steel blades with machined points in 1/4 size increments up to three full sizes. You choose the correct size and mark the width of the shank to be removed, or the amount of stock needed to size a ring up. It makes sizing easier, faster, and more accurate.

Krause burs. I prefer to use burs rather than gravers for cutting. The Krause burs are one of my favorites. These long, pointed cylinder burs come in only 1 mm and 1.2 mm diameters. I use them to get into hard-to-reach areas for clean up, as well as for notching a piece of jewelry where I want to solder a wire. Since the burs are tapered, you can make various size notches with the same tool.

Long-nose vice-grip pliers. I bought these 4-inch pliers at a hardware store when I was searching for a tool to hold small parts that are too tiny to be held in a ring clamp. As far as I know, no jewelry supplier has a tool for this purpose, so I searched outside of the industry and found a small pair of long-nose vice-grip pliers. I ground off the teeth inside the jaws to prevent marring.

Now, if I need to file the base of a crown to fit onto a piece of jewelry, I just grab onto a prong with these pliers and file away. It's also great for gripping a little piece of stock that needs to be cut, filed, or drilled.

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Tina Wojtkielo Snyder

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