Saturday, 9 December 2017

Smells Like Christmas

Baking Nana's Scottish Shortbread 

I got my shortbread recipe from my mother, who got it from her mother (who may have had it from hers). I have no idea how old this recipe might be but it could have come over from Scotland about 1912. One thing is certain: it would not be Christmas without it. Come and join me in the kitchen while I make this year's batch. Would you like a cup of coffee?

Tools, Ingredients and Oven Are Ready

Every shortbread recipe is pretty much the same, of course: butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, pinch of baking soda and flour. In this photo, I have everything assembled and the oven is preheating.

The method is important: you make this entirely by hand. As you can see, my treasured mixer is parked under its dust cover today. It will come into play for other cookies but shortbread must be made by hand. At first, I use a sturdy spoon but, when adding the last of the flour, I blend it in with my hands. I have tried using a mixer for the initial creaming of butter and sugar but it kinda ruins the texture. Maybe it's a Scottish things? You have to work to get a worthwhile reward? That's true of more than shortbread, of course.

A Spoonful of Sugar (at a Time)

The most observant among you will notice that the top photo shows a metal kitchen spoon while this one is very clearly a wooden spoon. Simple reason – the metal spoon is fine for adding the sugar and/or flour to the bowl but your hand will hate you if you do not use a sturdy, round handled wooden spoon for mixing. This is work! I love that old bowl. I bought it the year we got married and it is a vital part of Christmas cooking. I simply could not make shortbread, Christmas pudding, or enough stuffing for a large turkey without it. (I think I've had that spoon almost as long!).  In this photo, I have finished the creaming and am beginning to add the flour. Before I get to plunging both hands in, would you like some more coffee?

Ready for the Oven

One traditional approach to shortbread is to pat and roll the dough into a circle (or two, depending how much you are making) and cut it into wedges. I inherited my mother's rectangular, serrated edge metal cookie cutter (wonder how old that is) and always use it. Place the cookies on baking pans, prick each a couple of times with a fork and put into the oven. They take 18 to 20 minutes and should be golden on the bottom and barely colored on top when ready.

Now, while these are baking, I will have my cup of coffee. Sorry you can't smell them here.

Let the Festivities Commence 

Above: cooling them on racks. When utterly cold, they go into an air-tight container to wait for the first of the Christmas parties. Glad you could join me. 

P.S. If you actually crave my grandmother's recipe, just send me a note at <> Nana would be happy to have me share it. Nana was the queen of Christmas in my family and I will never stop missing her.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Copper for a Test

Custom Ring Design Underway

A family friend wants a custom ring to hold two oval stones she inherited so I did up a few sketches to see what she might like. From these, she selected the one upper left with tapered shank and overlapped front.

Only Fools Rush In

I have never made a ring from a design like this one before, so I knew I would need to experiment. Specifically, I would have to figure out the length for the ring blank as usual plus the amount to add for that overlap.

There was also the question of how much  to offset the ends. If I just cut the flared ends on a straight axis, much of the effect of the overlap would be lost. After some work on paper, I came up with a likely pattern (which I copied so I couple reuse it as often as needed).

Copper to the Rescue

I work in copper from time to time so I always have some on hand. With silver currently priced at Canadian $21.65 per Troy ounce and copper at $4.01 per pound, the advantage in using copper to test designs is obvious.

Photo right is the newly cut test piece. I burned off the paper and glue while annealing the metal, then shaped it and soldered the overlapping ends in position. Photo left.

Just for fun, I got the piece red hot and tossed it into a pot of pine needles. Love those colors. You just have to imagine this it in silver with a stone on each side of that line to get an idea of the final product.

Monday, 27 November 2017

New Ring Design

A Perfect Index Finger Ring

I have been thinking about ring designs a lot lately, partly because of a couple of bespoke projects, and I came up with this one awhile ago. It won't work for my client, but it demanded to be made.

Start by Building the Setting

I had a really pretty pink garnet in my wee box of stones and thought tube setting it would be perfect. The first photo shows a piece of sterling silver tubing clamped in the rubber covered jaws of a vise. I used a setting bur in my rotary tool to ream out a seat for the stone. That reduced the thickness of the wall by about 50 percent.

Nest step: here is my cutting jig, clamped in a smaller bench vise, holding the length of tubing so I can cut it. I used to make these cuts on the bench pin but it did not take long — at all — to see how useful the jig would be. It makes cutting so much more precise. That's vital because getting both ends squared is essential to the final look of this type of setting. If you want to try tube setting and don't own one of these jigs yet, buy one. You will not regret it.

Assemble the Ring Parts

To create the ring itself, I cut a length of 18 gauge sterling sheet to length and width for the ring shank, then soldered the ends together and used my ring mandrel to shape it. Next, I cut a strip for the table, filing the edges smooth and hammering it for texture.

This picture shows my third hand soldering tweezers steadying the assembly on a soldering pad. I used exactly the same setup to solder the tube in place. The complete assembly is shown below. As you can see, I chose to set that table and the stone projecting above the shank, with a lesser projection to the bottom (or top, depending on your preference). I really picture this on an index finger and think it's a great configuration for that.

Finally, on to Setting the Garnet

Well, of course I did a bunch of polishing first ;-) 

Finally, I mounted the finished ring in the rubber protected jaws of my bench vise, letting the setting part rest on the rubber. That way, I felt I could use as much pressure as I might need to burnish the tube down onto the stone. 

This is the setup, with a bezel rocker and a steel burnisher in the background. I can't imagine setting a stone without that painters' tape to protect the silver.

Hot off the bench and ready for listing at SterlingByDix on ArtYah.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Cyber Week Sale

Attention Holiday Shoppers

DixSterling on etsy is offering 20% off any purchase over $30 all this week. Buy something beautiful for someone special. Checkout code is CYBERWK2017

Rings and things, all handcrafted with love.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

November Already?

Cooking Up More Copper

I quite love the whole process of coloring copper and, with holiday shopping on the horizon, it occurred to me that there will be people looking for affordable gifts. What do you give to that coworker, the niece you seldom see, or your kid's teacher? Because colored copper earrings can be a great answer, I thought I'd get busy and turn out a few pairs. So pour yourself a cup of tea, coffee, or mulled wine and follow along.

Time To Shape Up

The first thing I did was cut a bunch of 1/2 inch squares from 24 gauge copper sheet and file the edges and corners to smooth them.

Flat squares are not all that interesting, so I got out my dapping tools and gently dapped the squares to lightly dish them. I put one corner of each into the drill press to create a hole for an ear wire. Next, I scrubbed them thoroughly and cooked them up (see how in my last post).

Waxed & Wired

Once the colors were set, I treated the squares with archival wax, opened the loops on a couple of copper ear wires and threaded the squares onto them.

A quick twist with chain nose pliers and the squares were secured to the ear wires.

That was pretty easy, wasn't it? Bet you haven't even finished that tea yet. Because there are no solder joints or stones to set, these fun, colorful dangles can be affordably priced.

Before & After

Some pretty stunning colors turn up after that hot bath in pine and cedar, don't they?

Monday, 23 October 2017

Colors of Fall, Part 2

Turning Cooked Copper into Autumn Leaf Earrings

In this post, I will finish making that pair of earrings.

This is Not What's For Dinner Tonight

First, I am posting a photo of the pot in which I cook copper sheet to create those lovely colors. It sure doesn't look very appetizing and, having cooked up quite a few copper projects, it doesn't smell all that great, either. A touch of Eau de Old Campfire.

What is does do is produce wonderful shades of red, green and gold on super clear pieces of copper. If this is something you are anxious to try, load the pot with the most resinous plant material you can get your hands on. The resins make the colors.

Bending the Metal For Strength

I do not want these long dangles to bend across their width while someone is putting them on or taking them off. Of course no jewelry item will last long if you step on it or mash it under the door to the bathroom (my grandmother did that to an amethyst earring once).

To add some stability to these leaves, I positioned each one along its center, lengthwise, in my bench vise and gently hammered a vertical bend. This vise has a pair of removable rubber jaw covers. It is a super useful tool and let's me manipulate metal without marring the surface. Of course, if I was really smart, I would have forged the bend before I cooked the copper but, you know....

If I was really smart, I probably wouldn't have cut my finger with my saw today, either.

Another Terrific Tool

For years, I struggled to drill holes with precision. I had a Dremel tool which would accept the tiny bits I use but trying to hold it steady enough to drill a hole exactly where I wanted it was a challenge. To be honest, I had to scrap and replace more than one item when my hand slipped. ARGH.

A couple of years ago, I finally treated myself to the drill press version of the Dremel. It has made life much easier. Here, I am preparing to drill one of the leaves to accept the shepherd hook. Quick note: I keep an old drill bit somewhat larger than any I use for drilling on my bench. Somewhere I learned the trick of hand twisting it a few turns to ream out the rough edges of freshly drilled holes. Way quicker than trying to smooth with a tiny round file.

One Finished, One to Go

When this one was finished, I hung it on the vise while I added the shepherd hook to its mate. Both are now in my ArtYah shop: SterlingByDix.

Friday, 20 October 2017

The Colors of Fall

Copper Earrings Underway

I have started working on some autumn inspired earrings, shaped like willow leaves and glowing with fall colors. Today, I am posting the first steps here.

Making a Pattern

I want to make more than one pair of these, incorporating some variations and experimenting with the coloring process. I could just hand draw the leaf shapes each time but decided it would simplify things if I created patterns. In this photo, you see one sketched pattern, partly cut out. I plan to make these forms in two sizes. The larger one is just about two inches long.

Material for Patterns

To be sure the pattern pieces will be durable, I cut them from 18 gauge nickel silver (also known as German silver). It is pretty cheap ;-) so I don't feel bad using it!

Here, I am cutting the second, smaller version. It only looks about the same size because it is closer to the camera.

Time to Trace

Here are the two patterns on my copper sheet. I decided to try 24 gauge for the first run because I want to keep these as light as possible (they are rather large!). At least, now that I have the patterns, I can try as many as I like on various grades of both silver and copper sheet.

I must say, cutting this 24 gauge was a whole lot less work than that 18 gauge nickel silver!

Cleanliness Counts!

I cut out two of the larger leaf forms, then took them into the house for a good scrubbing at the laundry sink. The process of coloring will not work if the metal is not super clean. I use a plastic scrubby pad and an abrasive household cleaner and clean until water sheets on the metal.

Once the cleaning is done, you have to remember to handle the pieces by the edges so you d not get any oils from your hands on the surfaces.

What You Don't See

I did not take photos of the coloring process itself because it requires a kind of a hairy juggling act involving 1) a pot full of dried pine needles and cedar bits, 2) the pieces you want to color held in jewelers' pliers, and 3) a flaming torch. Basically, you put the torch flame to your metal until it is red hot. At that point, you drop the piece (pieces in this case) into the pot and put the lid on ASAP. Wait a few minutes before peeking to let the reaction happen and, voila, colored copper.

These have been treated with a thin coat of archival wax to preserve the colors. The are pretty pliable, so I will try forging a central vertical bend to stabilize them. Obviously, I also need to drill holes to add copper ear wires.

Come back soon. I will be posting more on this project.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Only 118 Days Until . . .

Scary But True

Although I hate seeing Christmas decorations in stores right after (or even before) Halloween, I know it is not too early to start preparing for Christmas sales on etsy and ArtYah. Maybe it is never too early! I have many listings that I want Christmas themed photos for and, living in Vancouver, I need to take those photos while there is still lots of natural light. We've been having a long, hot (for here) summer but our rainy season is coming.

My Photo "Studio"

Okay, it is not a studio. It's our dining room — but it has a great big window with wide slat blinds that let me control the light.

The table is a pretty good height (I do not have to endure too much back strain to use this setup). I use a piece of art card as a backdrop and a near-white tile to put items on. It provides a slightly reflective surface that seems to work well. A tripod for my trusty Canon G12 is essential. I covered a piece of a cardboard box with foil to use as a reflector — not fancy but functional. Lastly, while I often use a spray of white flowers as a year-round prop, I keep this artificial poinsettia bloom to use for my Christmas photos.

Here Comes Santa Claus!

It's a start. I think I only have about 80-85 shots left to take and edit!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Reluctant Gardener,

Or "I'd Rather Pound Silver Than Pull Weeds"

Once upon a time, as a young couple raising two children, we wanted to give them a rural environment. We succeeded: two acres of land, a Victorian farmhouse, horses, chickens, dogs, cats — the whole deal.

"The Farm"

Of course, the rural lifestyle included a big vegetable garden. I grew tons of vegetables and froze or canned a lot. I even owned a book titled "Putting Food By" which included a ton of information. Heck, if the property had included a root cellar, I had instructions on how to put it to use!

At the time, I loved it. Then kids grew up and left home. I "went back to work" and tending to 13 rooms plus lawns, swimming pool, and a garden lost its appeal. We parted with that "the farm" and built a floating home. I was delighted to reduce my gardening to a couple of planters, two potted tomato plants and a few hanging baskets. Freedom. I found I did not miss the garden —at all.

More years and more changing circumstances forced us to abandon ship so to speak. We bought a pleasant, one story home. Only five steps to reach the porch (great for my darling's bad knees), a covered carport (great for auto finishes), and a good size workshop (great for my jewelry bench). The small bit of lawn is easy to mow and I still have just a couple of hanging baskets. But there is one problem. This home came with a 9 by 10 foot vegetable garden. If I just ignore it (as I am tempted to do) we — and our neighbours — have a great view of a weed patch.

For the first couple of summers, lured by the promise of fresh veggies, I went at it with a fair amount of enthusiasm. This summer, I no longer feel so gung-ho. Here are some photos of Dix's garden 2017. About half is just bare dirt (bare dirt is at least easy to weed).

 Herbs are wonderful to have (although they were much easier to grow in a pot by the boat deck).

This year's weird weather has been troublesome. My thyme survived a very cold (for here) winter but is a bit straggly. The basil, planted in June, is flourishing but the rosemary and parsley are, at best, reluctant.

Last year's beefsteak tomatoes were not all that satisfactory. This time, in light of our very cool, wet spring, I had to plant late, so opted for three kinds of cherry tomatoes. The plants were only about six inches when they went in in mid-June.

They are growing pretty well but, as of August 6, our total harvest has been about eight! I see number nine just ripening in the center of this photo. There are lots on the plants so, unless it gets too cool too soon in September, there is hope.

Mrs. McGregor and the Rabbits

We live in one of those neighbourhoods where unwanted pet rabbits have been set free. There are a lot of bunnies around here. They are very cute but they sure mow a garden. They have an unexpected passion for green onions. Apparently, rabbits do not mind bad breath. I tried fencing one year but it seemed to mostly give protection to weeds around the edge without totally banning bunnies. Blessings upon the internet. Last year, I found this solution posted somewhere. Yes, those are plastic forks. Now my garden looks very odd but the beets and carrots have a fighting chance!

Glorious Glads Gone Wild

Several years ago, I planted a dozen gladiola corms so I would have cut flowers for the house. I neglected to pull and store them over the winters (as recommended). Every year, more and more come up. I now have three to four dozen along one side of the veggie garden. Secretly, I have my fingers crossed that they will take over the whole garden one day so all I will have to do it pick blossoms and make jewelry.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Malachite Ring DONE

A Very Patient Customer 

I'm stunned to see how long ago I first sketched up ideas for our friend's oval malachite. Seems many things got in the way, not least of all the experiments to see if I could make the setting work as she and I wanted it.

Her are some of the photos I took as work progressed. My blog of June 16 shows much of the process as I worked with an agate as a "stand-in". I didn't want to be playing much with the malachite because it is such a very soft stone.

Measuring Matters

A good, super accurate ruler and a variety of calipers are essential tools. I use this divider caliper to transfer measurements from the ruler to a sheet of silver (or a length of silver wire). I also have a digital caliper to measure things like stones — you can't create a setting unless you have a very accurate measurement of the stone in question.

Circles Are Easy, Ovals Are Tough

When you make a bezel for a round stone, the process is pretty easy. Shape your fine silver strip around the stone, mark the point of overlap, cut it clean up ends, solder shut and round up on a bezel mandrel. For this oval, it's the same but you can't round it up at the end. I used this small anvil and a brass hammer to carefully shape the ends of the oval until the bezel was a good fit for the stone.

Once that was done, I soldered the bezel to a back plate.

File to Fit

Here I have the stone in place to be sure everything fits before using that file to carefully remove excess material from the outside of the bezel's backplate.

I also opened up that plate by sawing an oval that came close to the inside edges of the bezel. This unusual stone is slightly domed on both sides and I wanted it to settle smoothly into the plate. Details, details. ;-)

A Ring of Many Parts — Four Parts, To Be Precise

This ring (like the agate I posted earlier) is made in two layers. Here you see the outer one ready to be soldered to the finished inner one. For the details on how those parts are assembled, see my June 16 post below.

Here, beside the parts for the ring shank are the completed bezel and the bright green star of the show. A note about malachite; it is not only soft, it is also loaded with traces of copper (hence that bright green). Copper dust is toxic. Lacking professional lapidary equipment, I could not really polish it so I used the less scratched side of the stone as the top. A piece of soft leather allowed for a gentle buffing.

Whew - It Fits

First, I finished soldering the two layers of the ring, leaving only the ends of the outer layer free to help capture the malachite. Next, I soldered the finished setting into place. It was sure nice to see that stone slip into the setting after I pulled it out of the pickle.

Polish First, Set Last

You never want to do the serious polishing with a stone in place (what it a tool slips?????).

I used a series of 3M polishing discs on my rotary tool to polish the shank and setting. You need at least five discs, of decreasing grit size, to make a good job of it.

You can also see my steel burnisher and a small bit of leather standing by. The stone is still waiting patiently for its starring moment.

Protect It to Set It

After using the burnisher to shape the bezel on to and over the stone. I had to hammer set the side pieces. To protect the finish on the silver — and the stone — I used a piece of leather between the hammer and the item.

It took a bit of time. Lots of tap, tap, tap, first on one side, then on the other. I held the ring in one of my bench vices — the one with the rubber jaw covers. I'm sure glad I bought that long ago as I haven't seen one like it for years.

The End of the Story

Today, my very patient friend came to pick up her ring. All was well until she tried it on. Oh, oh, a touch too tight. No problem, we took it out to the shop where I put it on the steel mandrel and tapped it with my rawhide hammer until it stretched just that little bit she needed.

To see the finished ring, go to <dixsterling> on Instagram. I know, why didn't I take a photo for here? I will just plead heat stroke ;-)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Custom Ring Build

Bench Work in July Heat

My usual habit is to do household chores — shopping, gardening etc. — in the morning and get to the bench after lunch. I feel I am at my most creative in the afternoon. Vancouver's lovely summer weather has produced one notable downside; the shop tends to heat up and the temperature can hit 80°F  — and climbing —in the early afternoon. That's a bit toasty for firing up a torch!

Recently, someone asked me to create a garnet ring. I worked on the design at my desk over a couple of afternoons, got it approved, then headed to the bench in the morning hours for a few days to create the ring.

Building the Shank

I began by measuring a sterling strip for the ring shank (see last post), then rounded it up using a steel mandrel and a rawhide hammer.

It's an almost hypnotic chore as you tap on the ring for awhile, take it off the mandrel, turn it over, put it back on and tap some more (this flipping keeps the ring even as you work). You also keep an eye on the size markings on your mandrel to be sure you are not stretching it beyond the desired size. The final step, if you want a texture, it to take a jeweler's steel hammer to the shank. For this ring, I used my riveting hammer.  Lots of sanding, inside and out, follows to get it ready for the stone on its mount.

Creating the Bezel

With the shank complete, I started work on a bezel setting for the garnet. These stepped round pliers are a wonderful tool for shaping bezels. Pick a size slightly smaller than your stone and wrap fine silver bezel wire around to start the process.

The next step is to lay the cabochon on the bench and slip the round loop over it. Use a fine tip marker to mark the spot where the wire begins to overlap. Gently free the stone and use flush cutters to cut the wire. I use fine grit sandpaper to smooth and clean the ends, add flux and use a tiny piece of solder to close the bezel.

Adding a Custom Touch

The client liked the look of a scalloped bezel I had purchased and used on a ring in my etsy shop <> so I used a very small file to create the same pattern on this bezel. I also cut a silver square, matched to the width of the ring shank, to complete the garnet setting.

Assembled, Polished & Ready to Ship

As I write this, the ring should be showing up at the client's door. I sure hope she will be well pleased.