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1. LapDigest News for Issue No. 150 - Sat 6/27/98
2. NEW: How To Make Channel Work Jewelry
Subject: LapDigest News for Issue No. 150 -
I am pleased to present a 'how-to' paper on channel work
jewelry, written by my friend Edwin Elam, of Brent, AL. Ed
taught me (or tried to!) and I have had the pleasure of
assisting him in his class at Wildacres several times.
Ed will be teaching Channel Work at Wildacres near Little
Switzerland, NC for the Eastern Federation of Mineralogical
and Lapidary Societies September 21 - 27, 1998. All members
of EFMLS Clubs are eligible to attend.
He will also teach a four day course at John C. Campbell Folk
School, Brasstown, NC September 27 - Oct. 2. Call 1-800 FOLK
SCHOOL or see their web page at:
<http//www.grove.net/~jccfs> for details.
I am working on putting up channel work patterns on a web
page, and hope to have some available for you soon.
SUBJECT: NEW: How To Make Channel Work Jewelry
The bracelet on the April 1998 Lapidary Journal cover is one
of the most unique and beautifully designed and executed
pieces of channel work I have ever seen and it well deserves
a cover on the Journal. If you haven't seen this and other
pieces shown in that issue, I strongly recommend that you
search it out. When I asked my good friend and sometime
assistant Channel Work Jewelry instructor Hale Sweeny, if he
had seen the Channel Work bracelet on the cover of the
Journal, he reminded me that I had promised that I would take
the instruction sheet that we use in our channel work classes
and adapt it for publication in the Lapidary Digest.
I have procrastinated doing this because in our instructions
and in our class, we use a number of pictures, examples, and
other visual aids in teaching the class. I am unsure of my
ability to put these visual aids into words, but I will give
it my best effort and hope that the results meets your needs.
Jewelry which has sections divided by flat metal and those
sections filled with stone are known as channel work jewelry.
This is a type of inlay. Many Zuni and Navaho craftsmen made
channel work jewelry. The method that I use and teach depends
on some modern materials and processes that were developed by
Stanley Tims of Tucson, AZ and others. Any craftsperson who
has some experience in silversmithing and lapidary work
should be able to do channel work jewelry.
Standard silver tools including:
..a jewelers saw with 2/0 or 3/0 blades,
..a bench pin,
..smooth jawed pliers: chain nose, round nose and flat nose,
..a torch with a fine flame tip and a wide flame tip,
..fine cut flat file,
..soldering pick. This can be made from any hard steel wire
with a 2" to 2-1/2" piece of wood dowel for a handle.
Drill a hole in the end of the dowel, insert the wire and
sharpen the pick. The pick should finish up about 6 "
long. I use bicycle spokes for the wire but a readily
available suitable wire is clothes hanger wire. Soldering
picks made of titanium or alloys are available from
suppliers such as Rio Grande.
..soft fire brick, variously described as K-20, #1620,
magnesia, or soft refractory brick. I buy these brick in
bulk from a distributor who supplies fire brick to reline
industrial kilns. They can also be obtained from pottery
supply houses. I have been told that you can do channel
work on a magnesia block but I have not tried it.
..Steel dress maker pins. Stainless steel are best if you
can find them. I use to buy them at Wal-Mart but the pins
there now are coated steel, which will work. Avoid brass
or coated brass pins! Best lengths are 1-1/8" or 1-1/4".
..Channel wire: I use 24 ga. x 1/8" sterling silver strip
wire. (Indian Jewelry Supply stock ST24X18P or Rio Grande,
# 100-291.) This wire can also be made by rolling 14 ga.
round wire down to 24 ga. and annealing.
Indian Jewelry 1-800-545-6540
Rio Grande 1-800-545-6566
..24 gauge sheet sterling silver,
..appropriate findings for pins, pendants, bolas, etc.
..flux (preferably Handy Flux), easy solder, sparex,
polishing buffs, tripoli & rouge etc, alcohol, boric acid,
small #3 brush for applying flux, masking tape to cover
..clear 5-minute epoxy, toothpicks, something to mix epoxy
on, acetone to clean up
For your first piece, select a simple pattern. My first piece
was a rectangle divided in 6 equal squares. Using contrasting
colored stones made an effective piece. Some type of
geometric design works well for a beginner. Two things to
avoid in selecting a pattern are tight inside curves, which
are hard to cut in stone, and elements which have a long,
thin point; the stone point breaks off.
Also when choosing your pattern, consider the lapidary
equipment you will be using to grind this piece when it is
finished. If you are grinding on a 1-1/2" wide wheels, one
dimension of your piece should be slightly less than 1-1/2
inches. As you gain experience, you will be able to handle
larger pieces on the same equipment but start smaller and
You need a pattern drawn on onion skin or tracing paper plus
several copies of the pattern to make your channel work
piece. The copies of the onion skin original may be made on a
copier, which is also handy for reducing or enlarging a
Once you have your pattern on onion skin or tracing paper
plus a couple of extra copies, take 4 straight pins and pin
your onion skin pattern down to your fire brick, pushing the
pins in straight down until the heads are flush with the
fire brick. Remember, you are going to form your channel
work by pinning the channel wires down on the pattern,
forming the wires to match your pattern and pinning them in
place perpendicular to your fire brick.
Now is the time to prepare the pins for pinning the channel
wire to the brick. Doing this properly will save a lot of
grief later on. For a small pattern, prepare about 20 pins by
first clipping the heads off the pins. Take your chain nose
pliers and bend a hook on the top of the pins. Insert the top
of the pin into the jaws of the pliers about 3mm (or 1/4")
below the top. The pin should be perpendicular to the jaws of
the pliers. Holding the pliers in your dominant hand, use the
index finger of the other hand as an anvil to bend the pin up
to 90 degrees. Reverse the pliers and bend the hook down a
bit more. You should end up with a pin with a hook on top bent
at a sharp angle and the hook should be about 50 to 60 degrees
in relation to the shaft of the pin. A pin formed this way
will hold your channel wire in place firmly and save trouble
in the soldering process. The shaft should be straight, up to
the point of the sharp bend.
Select and measure the first wire of your piece. In most
cases, this will be the outside wire, which should be, if
possible, one continuous strip enclosing the whole design.
File the ends of your outside wire square and form it to the
pattern by bending with fingers and, if needed, by pliers,
checking its shape by continual comparison with the pattern.
Then pin the outside wire in place on the pattern, making
sure the joint of the exterior wire is tight. When you have
finished pinning up all wires to complete your pattern, you
want the wires to be level across the top of the piece so be
careful at this stage not to push the wires down into the
brick. A general rule is to place pins 3/8" to 1/2" apart.
The joints in the wire must be tight but at the same time you
do not want your pins too close to the joint. A pin 1/8" or
closer to the joint is likely to be soldered to the channel
Bend the remaining wires to the pattern and pin in place.
Always cut them a little long and file to fit. ALWAYS file
the ends of the wire square. Use your chain nose pliers to
push the pins into the brick. This will give you better
control than trying to do it with your fingers. As you are
forming the channel wire to fit the pattern, strive for
smooth curves and straight lines. Little extra bends will
detract from the finished piece because it will leave a gap
between the silver channel and the stone.
When you have completed the pattern and have the channel
wires securely pinned to the brick, check to see that all
your joints are tight.
Make up a concentrated solution of boric acid in denatured
alcohol. Pour this solution over your piece, just enough to
wet the paper of the pattern completely. Set the alcohol on
fire. Allow the fire to burn the paper completely. If the
fire goes our before the paper is burned, help it a bit with
your soldering torch. Two goals here are to get rid of the
pattern so it will not interfere with the soldering of the
channel wires and to clean the channel wire of any oil from
your hands and help prepare it for soldering.
Methods of soldering the joints in the channel wire vary
according to the instructor. Tims teaches a method whereby
you flux each joint, place a snippet of solder at each joint,
slowly heat the whole piece with the wide-flame torch until
the solder melts. I find that the pick soldering method works
best for me. All joints are fluxed, using either the brush or
toothpicks to apply the flux, and the piece is heated only
until the flux liquefies. Place enough snippets of easy
solder off to one side on your fire brick for each joint in
your piece plus a few extra for those you will drop in the
(Snippet of Easy Solder: approximately a 2 x 2 mm piece of
sheet solder described as having 65 % silver and melting at
With the fine flame tip on your torch, heat one snippet of
solder on the side of your firebrick until it forms a ball.
The trick here is that as the solder snippet begins to turn
red, slowly move your flame down on the solder. While the
solder is still shiny, touch it with the tip of your
soldering pick and it will adhere to the pick. Move it to a
joint on your channel wire and place it on top of the joint.
Heat it again until it turns loose from the pick. Continue to
heat the joint, moving the flame in a circular motion until
the solder runs. I know this is going to sound like an
awkward method to some people who have had some silver
smithing experience. It works and it works well. If you have
a shaky hand and cannot control a soldering pick, try placing
the snippets on one joint at a time and heating each joint
separately. My problem with the Tims method is that the
wires are different lengths and expand at different rates
causing joints to pull apart as you heat the whole thing.
Applying heat to only one joint at the time seems to lessen
When all joints are soldered and the piece cooled, remove all
pins with pliers, clean the piece by pickling in Sparex.
Pins which have been soldered to a wire may be released by
placing and pinning the framework to the brick, upside down,
so that the soldered pin is over the edge of the firebrick
and sticking up. Then slowly heat the pin and gently push on
the shank of the pin with the pick. As soon as the solder
loosens, the pin will drop free.
Cut your backing plate from 24 ga. sterling sheet. Place the
framework of channel wire on the sheet and mark just outside
the outline of the channel wire. Saw out the backing plate.
Stamp plate with "Sterling" stamp if desired.
The back of the channel wire must be filed so that it sits
perfectly flat on the backing plate. This can be done with a
fine flat file or by lapping it on the side of a 220 silicon
carbide grinding wheel or on fine sandpaper attached to a
SOLDER CHANNEL WIRE FRAME ONTO BACK PLATE
Once again the method described differs from usual silver
smithing practice but experience has taught me that this is
the best method. This process is based on using Handy flux;
other fluxes may work, but this has always worked for me.
Clean the channel wire and back plate by pickling. Coat the
back plate all over with flux. Position channel wire on back
plate and "stick" in place by gently heating the flux. Place
snippets of Easy solder in the pockets of the channel wire.
Snippets should be flat on the back plate but must touch the
channel wire. Strictly as an estimate, a 2mm snippet of
solder for every 1 linear inch of channel wire should suffice.
Once again gently heat the flux to "stick" the solder in
Use wide flame tip on your torch. Put your piece in the
center of your fire brick. You may wish to stick two pins at
the back of the piece to keep the framework from slipping.
Use your solder pick to lift the front edge of your piece
about 1 inch off the fire brick. Direct the flame of the
torch under the piece but pointed at the brick. Move the
flame in a circular motion, heating the brick under your
piece. Watch the solder on your piece. When it begins to
flow, drop your piece on to the brick and gently play the
flame over the top of your piece until the solder has flowed
completely under the edge of all the channel wires
Most students and many experienced silversmiths are amazed
the first time this process is demonstrated for them.
Clean your piece in Sparex. Using a jeweler's saw, trim off
excess back plate and finish up with needle files and
sandpaper. Work carefully so as not to scratch the side of
the channel wire in the process. Solder on appropriate
finding. Sand out scratches in silver and polish. Cover
polished silver with masking tape since you will be
handling the piece during the stone fitting operation.
We cut slabs 3 to 4 mm thick for channel work. One of the
good things about channel work is that it does not require a
lot of stone. A nodule the size of a egg will yield enough
material for 2 or 3 average pieces of channel work. The small
quantity of stone required permits us to move quickly to
higher quality stones such as turquoise, lapis, sugilite etc.
If you cannot find slabs the right thickness, you can slab
small pieces on a trim saw by hand.
The next job is to cut the stones to exactly fit into the
individual silver cells in the frame work. You can use one
copy of the paper pattern to cut apart into individual piece
patterns. Then glue the individual pattern pieces onto the
slabs to mark your stones to size. You may use clear acrylic
spray to water proof the pattern. At this point, the actual
framework may not be exactly as you had originally planned,
due to small variations in making the framework. To get an
exact pattern of your actual frame, press the framework into
an ink pad and stamp this onto paper to make exact patterns
for each element of the channel work, then cut and glue these
onto the slabs.
With the stones marked, use a trim saw to cut each stone as
close as possible, and then grind to fit in the pocket. Now
the process is one of grinding a little and checking fit
often. Each stone needs to fit as closely as you can make it.
Do not force the stones into the channels. You should be able
to lift the stone back out without using force, possibly by
using 'duck tape' or other adhesive tape as a 'dop stick'.
When all the stones are fitted, clean the stones and the
piece with alcohol and epoxy the stones in place with clear
epoxy. If the stones have been carefully cut and fitted,
there is no reason you will need more than 5 minutes to epoxy
and insert the stone. Thus I suggest you use clear 5-minute
epoxy for all blueing. A longer curing time is not needed.
Almost any kind of cabbing outfit will work for the stone
work in channel work. The first piece of channel work that I
did independently was a "rose pendant" done in red jasper,
chrysoprase for the leaves and a petrified palm wood stem.
The smallest stone in the flower was about 2 x 3 mm and it
was cut "freehand" on an 8" silicon carbide wheel. If you
feel it necessary, you can dop your stones. I never dop but
admit I lose some fingernail and some skin occasionally! I
later discovered a little machine called a "Glastar". This
machine has two vertical diamond wheels, one is 3/4" or 1'
and the other is 1/4". It was designed for stained glass
workers to dress the curves in glass. It is the best machine
I have seen for fitting the stones in channel work.
When all the stones are fitted, clean the silver framework
and the stones in denatured alcohol. When the stones are
dry, epoxy the stones in place with clear epoxy. Your object
is to set the stone so that it just a 1/2mm above the top of
the channel wire. Thicker means longer grinding but doesn't
hurt anything. If the stone does not come up to the top of
the channel, your piece may end up thinner than is desirable.
I use the flat plastic lids off certain food containers such
as ice cream or margarine to make shims to put under the
stone where necessary.
GRINDING AND POLISHING THE TOP OF YOUR PIECE
When the epoxy has set, it is time to finish up you piece.
Any cabbing outfit or the all purpose flat lapping machines
will work for this. Some people think you are going to
contaminate a machine with the silver. I have never had a
problem with silicon carbide wheels, sand paper, or any of
the diamond wheels and I have used all of these, both for
channel work and cutting cabs.
On the coarse wheel, the objective is to grind until you have
touched all the tops of the channel wire. After that, it is
just sanding and polishing as if you were cutting a flat
cabochon. A slight doming of the piece may help in the
polishing but work carefully. You will have to remove a fine
wire of silver turned down by the grinding process around the
edge of the piece and you may lightly touch up the polish on
For beginners and for those who do not have access to cabbing
equipment, I recommend hand lapping your piece using a piece
of glass as a lap and grits and polish such as might be found
in a rock tumbler kit.
Start with about 1/4 teaspoon of coarse grit in the middle of
your glass. Add a few drops of water and place your piece on
the grit and begin lapping by moving the piece in a circular
pattern. You may have to replenish your grit but keep lapping
until you have begun to touch the top of all the channel
Clean your piece and your glass carefully and go to the
medium grit until you have eliminated all scratches made by
the coarse grit. Follow a similar process for the fine grit.
The lapping action will reduce the size of the grit particles
of the fine grit until you begin to obtain a semi-polish on
A piece of leather or denim cloth stretched over a small
block of wood will serve as a polishing lap. Place a small
amount of polishing compound on the lap and moisten it. Lap
as before until you obtain a satisfactory polish on your
piece. I use tin oxide polishing compound but other polishing
compounds such as cerium oxide or chrome oxide may work.
Touch up the silver polish and wear with pride!
Alabama Mineral and Lapidary Society
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