Learning Metalsmithing Process

An art school is in some ways a difficult place to learn to be a metalsmith. Traditional systems of industry education took from 3 to 7 years of concentrated time to educate a goldsmith. This is because metals, as Jamie Bennett puts it, are a ‘process oriented media’.

By this is meant there that there are often many more ways of working and manipulating the material than in other media, partly because metal is harder than other media and there are therefore numerous tools necessary which function as extensions of the metalsmith’s fingers to manipulate the material and it’s surface. Jewellery objects are often small, intimate and concerned with surface detail decisions that are made literally millimeter by millimeter unlike some media like ceramics where external factors may decide the minute details of a surface.

A traditional jewellers shop will contain thousands of tools of various kinds used to manipulate the material. There are few other media which use as many tools and deal with surface on as intimate a scale.There is a lot to learn, and a lot of control factors to deal with. As industry from it’s viewpoint has long commented most art school graduates are unable to work to industry standards in techniques as basic as filing, sawing, soldering and fitting. There is however in the context of an art school and the other courses a student participates in simply not enough time to teach people great technical skill in the traditional manner of repetition of procedures until perfection is achieved. Philosophically also there may be problems in that the function of an art school is in many ways to teach free thinking and alternate ways of viewing the world as well as technical skill, though this last has to my mind been very neglected in the last decade or so in art schools.

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As the average art school student majoring in metal spends in reality only about one half of his/her time in the studio during the four years of study, with less time in the studio at the beginning of their education there is a limited amount of studio contact time before they graduate. Most art school graduates are unable to express their ideas freely in metal because of a lack of technique or find the free realization of the intent of their work hampered by technical problems. Their aesthetic choices are then limited by their technical skill. I believe it is possible to increase the technical skill levels and thinking capabilities of the student faster than current art school or industry educational systems allow by teaching skills in a process oriented approach.

As I deal with students primarily in an art school context I will here be mostly concerned with metals education in the art school system. However with my experience of teaching working professionals in the field I believe many of the same comments hold true for the industrial context also. The object of education in art school should be for the student to be free aesthetically in the medium as soon as possible. As mentioned above this object is not always achieved because of a lack of technical skill.. I believe it is possible to move closer to this goal partly by learning in terms of working processes which provide one with ‘graphic’ marks (marks of the working process that are chosen as compositional elements) with which to work and partly by being able to successfully solve and avoid technical problems in the work by an increased understanding of the material and the processes that affect it.

The deep understanding of the material and it’s nature was not part of my North American art school education and as far as I can tell from my contacts across North America is still relatively neglected in the US and Canada. Students tend to be taught by procedure rather than process, by recipe rather than through understanding their material. A procedure is a way of doing something and a process is the underlying action upon the material. In metalsmithing there will often be many techniques (procedures) for achieving the same or similar end result but there will only be a few processes occurring which effect change in the form or shape of the material.

This short essay advocates an approach to teaching metalsmithing that I believe considerably reduces the amount of time that a student requires to master metalsmithing skills. It builds up an understanding of process (what actually occurs when one works the material) and procedural options (techniques to effect a given process) and fosters a much faster understanding and control of the material than is available with traditional industry or Art school educational models. The approach allows students early free compositional choice without technical skill limiting their composition or design options. The premise is that if the student in an art school context is given the technical tools with which to easily exercise free compositional choices early in their education they will learn more complex technique as required to expand their creative vocabulary and yet not be hampered by a lack of technique limiting their design choices.

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The traditional metals education concentrates often on static ‘control’ over the material, by which is meant the ability to shape and fit the material into predetermined volumes and sizes and shapes; to coerce it into the requirements of the design. There is nothing wrong with this approach, after all metal is resistant to movement compared to some other media. The ‘faster’ media like clay and glass, where decisions may be instant and feedback from the work is constant and swift accept process mark use as ‘graphic’ compositional elements. In Metal the choice of surfaces and shapes taught was in the main restricted to heavily manipulated and worked types where little of the nature of the material showed.

Metalsmiths would traditionally work to ‘blueprint’ drawings of their piece and force the material into the shapes and forms dictated by the drawing. The early techniques taught in a traditional system such as sawing and soldering are often very difficult to control and master and at times prove a source of frustration to the student in their attempts to control the material. These techniques should still be taught but alongside the use of process marks as compositional elements.

Unlike other media like glass or clay metal has historically ignored the use of process marks as compositional elements. By actively choosing and using process marks as easily controllable compositional elements the student is freed to investigate the intent and concept of their work and the initial technical wall which many of us experience for the first few years of metalsmithing is lowered to some extent. There is more fun and more freedom earlier in the metals educational process.

It may be of value to first teach people easily learned and controlled techniques in a metals education so that they may better exercise their aesthetic decision making without being hampered by a low level of technical skill. By this I mean teaching them in terms of using process working marks as compositional elements with which they can ‘design’ and ‘draw’ with the material to make design rather in the way that a printmaker affects their metal surface in order to create a picture plane. All the marks of working the material may be used in this approach, whether hammer blow shapes or filed textures as long as they are controlled in the service of the intent of the piece. The student metalsmith can easily learn systems of process oriented mark making such as ‘gold painting’, patination, anodizing, various texturing approaches and fold-forming which they can use to express themselves artistically without the frustration of a lack of technical skill. Then with time the more difficult techniques and skills are learned as needed and as the ‘easy’ (less skill dependant) techniques are mastered then the more ‘difficult’ (skill dependant) techniques are learned in order to fill a need for greater control possibilities. It is important too to continually teach every procedure in terms of what is happening to the material and why. A little basic metallurgy doesn’t hurt understanding either.

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This approach to metals education concentrates on teaching an understanding of the underlying processes of metalworking so that alternate technical solutions to aesthetic problems may be synthesized. The teaching approach emphasizes critical thinking and uses contrast and comparison to teach the student how to solve their own technical dilemmas. It is material oriented, that is that the more one understands of the material and it’s characteristics the greater is one’s freedom in aesthetic and technical choice. For the teacher the approach means constantly getting the students to brainstorm technical answers in an effort to see the process by contrast and comparison and also to give them descriptions of process to allow their understanding to grow. It is important to know how and why things occur with the material one uses. One does not kill the magic of a material by understanding it, if anything one’s respect and appreciation for it is increased.

In the last few years I have been able to put some of these ideas into practice and the results seem to be very good, with students able to handle more complex technical problems earlier and yet developing their individual styles and concerns of work in some cases successfully within the first year.

Some background thoughts to Process oriented teaching:

There is a fundamental difference between process and procedure. Process is what really goes on, what actually happens when one effects changes in the surface or form of the metal. Process can be described to create an easily understood mental model of what is occurring which then allows the user to control and guide the process and procedures used, to develop free creative control of technique. A procedure is a way of performing a process; it is a recipe, a technique.

In metalsmithing there may be dozens of procedures which result in a similar end effect but there will be only one process or series of processes occurring which cause the end effect. If one thinks in terms of and knows only recipes and procedures then one can be stopped by a technical problem. If on the other hand one looks to the process and analyzes what is occurring on the material level one can then solve any technical problem relatively easily. Engineers, doctors and scientists are taught in terms of process so as to be able to solve technical problems but our educational system for metal seems to be full of procedures that are taught as the ‘right way’ to obtain a form or surface rather than as being part of a spectrum of technical approaches which lead to an end result.

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By examining the working process and the nature of the material one discovers unlimited procedural options. Some will not be appropriate for one reason or another and it is the maker’s responsibility to make the appropriate decision on technical choice. However by thinking of solutions and attempting to understand the nature of the material one’s learning about the material is easier and often faster than when traditional metal educational approaches are used.

As we know there is no ‘right’ way to do things, merely variations of more or less appropriateness to the technical problem in hand. By attempting to always determine the process and then reviewing technical options for creating the conditions required by the process new and different solutions to technical problems can be found. At some point or another some or all of even the apparently ridiculous answers thought of in a brainstorming session may prove to be the correct solution under a different set of conditions.

An example of this might be that heat is required for melting metal. How that heat is obtained is immaterial. The metal could be bonded to thermite to melt it or heated by other chemical reactions, struck by lasers, heated by electricity, friction, flames, radiation etc. All the possibilities are run through mentally, even the ones that seem ridiculous. In a classroom situation this is accomplished by brainstorming, by free associating techniques to perform a process. If one is working by oneself then it is more difficult to do this and some reading in basic materials technology texts may be of help. It sometimes surprizes metalsmiths what procedures are used in industry to obtain results,as when for example friction is used to heat metal for both brazing (what we call soldering) and welding or when explosives are used for single step metal forming.

An example of how this approach can be applied in a classroom might be in a basic class where the jewellers saw frame is introduced to students. At first the difference between process and procedure is discussed.and then the concept of ‘separating sheet and solid material’ is introduced.. Every possible way of doing this is evoked from the class from using lasers to gnawing through with ones teeth (this latter is not particularly efficient). Then the options are evaluated in the light of the varying functional requirements of the piece and the material strength and hardness of the metal used for it. Finally the nature of the sawblade is examined; that it is a chip forming tool like a chisel or a file. In fact a sawblade and a file are the identical tool it is just that a blade is a thin slice of a file. Still other comparisons and examples of chip forming tools, blades and wedges are described and drawn from the class. In this way by using contrast and comparison an understanding of process is built up and whenever possible all techniques are discussed in the light of this.

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By looking at things from a number of different angles a deeper understanding of them is achieved. I think that in this way people are not trapped by technique or problems with lack of skill. It seems that even people with limited skill levels when taught this way are able to begin to solve their technical problems well and far more rapidly than in my previous experience.

Of great importance to metalsmiths is tradition

Tradition is at once a great strength for the goldsmith and a terrible trap. A tradition is a way of doing something whether it be brushing your teeth or soldering in a certain way. Traditions always exist for a reason and the original reason is always a good one. Unfortunately conditions change and the reason may no longer hold good yet we often continue to blindly use the same procedure or technique without examining it’s sense relative to the procedure being performed. Any learned procedure for doing something is a ‘tradition’

In order to be able to work in freedom one must examine technical problems and procedures in the light of knowledge of process. This includes applying the same test of sense against one’s own working procedures and traditions that were unknowingly learnt as one went through one’s education. I do not mean by this that one should throw out all one’s habits but that one merely evaluate them. It is important to examine traditions or procedures and evaluate them in the knowledge of process and material. This is part of the critical thinking necessary to this approach of teaching. One will find oneself working faster and more efficiently as a result.

Preciousness

Another issue of some importance to metalsmiths is preciousness. In the educational process we are taught to value the object highly. While this is at heart material value the amount of work involved in many pieces as well as the material cost imbue the finished object with a high value in the mind. I believe this interferes with free aesthetic choice (or at least risk taking aesthetic decisions) to some degree when working in precious materials. Jewellers tend to be very object oriented and tied up in the piece that is made. A potter may smash many pieces in a kiln load to avoid having ‘bad pieces’ live on in their history (a policy I find vaguely suspect, as if those ‘bad’ pieces weren’t part of you as well). Jewellers would have difficulty in doing that with many of their pieces, at least if the decision is based solely on design or compositional considerations. We tie ourselves up somewhere in the knowledge of the cost of the materials and of the time involved in making the piece, or at least in it’s ‘value’. I notice that when working in copper I work freely and surely while even when trying to be free in silver and gold I find myself somewhat hampered, usually reflected in a reduced scale of the piece. Therefore copper and other ‘throwaway’ non-precious metals are exceptionally useful for working out artistic ideas which may then be translated back into precious metals. Various people working in the field (David LaPlantz for example) have noticed that it is much easier to make risky artistic and compositional decisions when working in non-precious materials.

Preciousness is also a saving grace which forms a special characteristic of metalsmithing. It forces us to choose serendipity. Serendipity may be defined as ‘lucky accident’ or ‘golden chance’. Almost every metalsmith can identify with the situation of having an accident change one’s piece unexpectedly and then choosing the accident as a design element (this is also an example of a process element used as a compositional element). This choice may be epitomized by the situation of having a piece finished which one has labored untold hours over, of taking it to the rouge buff one last time and having the thing caroom about the inside of the polishing machine. This has happened to everyone at least once. Presented with a gouge across the top surface one realizes that an attempted repair would be extremely difficult.

Usually one then looks at it again, says ‘Nice Gouge’ and proceeds to gouge up the surrounding surface to match. We then wipe our brows and think ‘Saved that one’ and continue to work. By making the accidental moment intentional, by choosing it and altering the piece to match the accident we bring the work into some kind of balance again. We usually do not stop and realize that we now have a nice gouging tool; a new technique to texture metal that is extremely fast if in fact also too hazardous to use (litigation alert). This unwillingness to scrap a piece is influenced by the precious aspect of the materials we use. This is our advantage; that preciousness forces us to choose serendipity. Teaching students to be open to serendipity, to using mistakes to find coherent solutions to aesthetic problems is also part of this approach to educating metalsmiths.

Serendipity is, I believe, the driving force behind most innovations in the arts, science, and every field of human endeavor. What is of interest is that ‘serendipity’ really means not the event itself but the perception of it. Someone must choose the serendipitous moment for it to exist as a serendipitous event. If the same circumstances occur but no one notices and makes the serendipitous connection then it does not exist as such. Serendipitous (recognition, synthesizing) moments then can tell us things that may be useful in our work. Being open to observe what is happening and comparing it and contrasting it to other apparently related events or phenomenon will help one to be more likely to use these moments. By working with the process and using process marks as compositional elements the student is naturally more open to serendipity. Openness to serendipity is an important part of this approach as well.

There are a number of teachers in North America using similar approaches to teaching including John Cogswell, Tim Mcreight, David LaPlantz and others. During the 1970’s there were few teaching positions open in the US.yet numerous students graduated with their masters degrees from art schools. A number of them survived by working with or in industry where they learnt a healthy respect for technique. Some kept their artistic aspirations alive and have begun to reenter the academic system as retirements and replacements occur more often in North America. This change will hopefully result in a higher degree of technical skill being taught in art schools in the service of the student’s artistic vision.

To review I think that there is a better way of teaching than is often standard in art school systems. By orienting education towards understanding the material early and determining technical answers by looking at the process the time at which a student in metal is technically free to compose occurs earlier than would otherwise be the case. Marks derived from process offer the student an easy way to begin to compose with the material in both two and three dimensions.

Notes

An excellent basic general industrial metal forming book is Forming Alcoa Aluminum, a hardback book available free from the Alcoa Corporation salesman nearest you. The information holds good for numerous metals other than aluminum.

Other useful texts for better understanding metal include:
  • Grimwade, Mark, Introduction to Precious Metals, Newnes Technical Books, Butterworth and Company, London, 1985
  • DeGarmo, Paul, Materials and Processes in Manufacturing, 4th Edition, MacMillan Publishing, New York, 1974
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