Tonight is the Winter Solstice and an (almost) full moon, so it feels like a good time to send this annotated list out to keep you busy on the longest night of the year :). I wrote this months ago, and have been wanting to post it in the form of a FAQ with pictures and links, but a FAQ is not an option on this free site, and the pictures and links take a ton of time, so it never happened.
Instead of letting my deathless prose languish unread even longer, I’m heeding the pleas of numerous students (thank you for asking and then for waiting SOOOOOO patiently) to list just what is in the shoebox of basic tools that I think no jeweler should be without. I named this site Shoebox Studio because I believe that you can make professional quality jewelry with only the tools that will fit in a large shoebox.
Finally, here is an idea what those might be!
You will notice that this list has some things on it that definitely won’t fit in a shoebox. So you will see some items marked as OS = Outside Shoebox, i.e. important, but won’t actually fit in a shoebox… There are other items marked “optional” and “consumables”. You can manage without the former, but you’ll need a steady supply of the latter. At the end of the list is a “wish list” of larger or more expensive items. Your own wish list will vary with your particular focus – aspiring enamelists will need a kiln, holloware enthusiasts will need an anvil and stakes and many many many hammers ;).
So, yeah, this list is really just a place to start.
I mention Alan Revere’s opinion several times. He’s a master craftsman and a master teacher. His numerous books are all fabulous. I also mention Charles Lewton-Brain and Brian Meek. In addition to excellent books of his own, Charles did the brilliant and meticulous translation of Brepohl’s magnificent Theory and Practice of Goldsmithing, and Brian Meek owns and runs Knew Concepts, where he makes my favorite saw frame. All these men are gifts to our field and our craft. Support them. Buy their books or wares.
- OS – Bench & Chair – The traditional jeweler’s bench is higher than the usual table, in order to put the top of the bench pin at about armpit height (usually 92-94cm or 36-37” above the floor(Revere,Prof.Goldsmithing p 17)). You don’t need a full-on jeweler’s bench, but you do need a flat surface to work at and something to sit on, and the arrangement of these needs to put your armpit about level with your bench pin. So, the seat can go down (sit on a milk crate or upturned bucket at a regular table), or the surface can go up (lift a table up on cinder blocks, or extend the legs). A 3rd option is to lift just the bench pin up somehow.
- OS – Bench skin/Sweeps drawer – For portability and packability, a bench skin will beat out a drawer”(Charles Lewton-Brain suggests using re-purposed leather clothing from thrift store). On the other hand, if you use a half-sheet commercial type baking sheet on your lap as a “drawer”, it can double as a soldering surface…
- OS – Light – New light technology means daylight bulbs are easy and relatively inexpensive to find. Put one in a swing-arm lamp or similar. Most important is to have a LOT of light on your bench pin and work area, like 10 times more than ambient overhead room light provides. You need to see what you are doing, and see colors accurately (hence daylight bulbs).
- OS – Ventilation – You must have this to solder. A box fan facing out a window will work. Test by lighting a twist of paper, blowing it out so it’s just smoking, and bringing the smoking paper gradually closer to your ventilation. The safe zone for soldering is the area where the smoke moves horizontally towards the fan.
- Bench brush – large cheap clean paint brush works well to sweep up bench top. Old toothbrush or shaving brush is good for dusting lemel off work in progress.
- Bench pin – gotta have one, no lie. I like the bench pin & anvil combo (roughly $15). It’s a lot of tool for the money. I love that the long tang of the wooden bench pin goes all the way back under the anvil, so it is gripped firmly to a surface by the clamp. The pin is narrower than most other pins, so I can circle it with my hand, which is nice. If the anvil part were my only bench block, I would probably spend some time with sandpaper and polishing compounds to put a mirror finish on it and radius at least one edge.
- Saw frame – can’t live without one, no lie – again. A simple one under $20 will work just fine. Get one that is made of steel, not aluminum, and get one with a small throat, like 2.5”- 3”. Maybe upgrade the bolts and thumbscrews right off the bat, since the pot metal bolts tend to strip out, and bigger thumb screws are more comfortable. (thank you, Brian Meek, for that suggestion) I used an inexpensive cam lock type for my piercing work and loved it, since it was more comfortable to loosen and tighten than the most basic frame. I also love my Knew Concepts cam lever saw frame, again, especially for piercing.
- Saw blades (consumables) – Sold by the dozen (12) or the gross (a dozen dozen, or 144) – 2/0 or 3/0 are the ones most used. If you want to work with a lot of thin metal (like 24-28ga), you’ll need 6/0-8/0. I like to do fine piercing so I always have 8/0’s for that. Nice to have a pack of size 2’s for thick stuff like rod, but you don’t need a full set of every size, and you can easily cut rod with a 2/0 blade, it will just take a little longer than cutting with a coarser blade. When you open a bundle of new blades, just loosen the wire wrapped around it enough to pull out one blade, and leave the rest of the blades wrapped up, so you’ll know which ones are still new.
- Pliers – Chain-nose, flat-nose, round-nose. Box joints are more stable and less prone to twisting than lap joints. Some people hate springs, some love them (I make a lot of chain, so I’m in the latter category). Some people hate plastic covered or padded handles, some love them. Whatever you use, you’ll get used to how much pressure is required to do the job. The naked plier lovers say that if you have springs and padding you can’t feel the changes you are making in the metal as clearly because you are feeling the resistance of the springs and the padding. As a chain maker, I like having the springs in the pliers do some of the work, and open the tool back up for me. I have to admit, though, that the plastic handles on some very expensive pliers have begun to break down and fail, and there is no way to have those replaced, so I may be a convert to the naked pliers camp – still love springs, though!
- Parallel Jaw Pliers – My fave pliers are probably my urethane-lined flat-nose parallel jaw pliers. I like the Maun and Sargent brands because the jaws are longer and the opening between them runs all the way back through the handles.
- Forming/Ring Bending Pliers – One flat jaw and one round jaw, or one flat jaw and one half-round jaw. Both are infinitely useful.
- Ring Clamp – One that screws closed is nice – stays tighter – but the classic wooden one with a wedge works great, and the wooden ones can be “circumcised” with a cheap coarse round file (like for sharpening chain saws) which allows them to be held firmly in the V notch of the bench pin. Jaws are lined with leather or plastic to prevent marring your metal.
- Bench Block – A small 3″x3” block is all you need for many jobs. The big deal is that it should be polished smooth and shiny and kept that way (don’t hit it with steel hammers, or slam center punches so hard into your metal that you punch through and mar the steel block below!). Having one edge be rounded (“radiused” is the formal term) is useful. It will stay smoother if the block is at least partially hardened.
- Center Punch – An inexpensive one works fine. I don’t like the automatic ones, as they pack too much of a punch for fine or thin metals.
- Scribe – A sewing needle held in a pin vise can do this job, though it’s nice to have a hard sharp point, like a carbide scribe (or even tungsten carbide, ooooooo tooooools…).
- Pin Vise – The simplest one with a collet at each end works great. Each collet has TWO ends (you can screw off both ends of the vise and reverse the collets), so there are actually FOUR collet sizes in one pin vise. You can drill small holes with a drill bit held in such a vise. Or smooth or chamfer the edges of a drilled hole with a larger bit held in the vise.
- (Optional) Tube Cutting Jig – handy, and indispensable if you need to cut a lot of short sections all the same length.
- (Optional) Hand vise – (Alan Revere rec… can hold two pieces and file to exactly same shape)
- Brass Sliding Gauge – Make sure to get one that has a Vernier scale engraved on the bottom section. Pull these apart, and the center section becomes a tiny square.
- Needle Files – Measured from the end of knurled handle to the tip of the file. Cut #2 is a good work horse. Buying a set is a false economy. Even in the sets of only 6 files there is at least one, and probably two, that you will rarely if ever use. In the larger sets, this number goes way up. A wiser expenditure would be to buy really good quality files (Vallorbe, Friedrich Dick) in only the most useful shapes- round (tapered, also called “rat tail”), triangular (called “3-square” in the trade), half-round, and flat (squared off at the end, with one “safe” edge that has no teeth), barrette (no teeth on the back of a flat file that comes to a point). Cut #6 is nice to have for finishing and smoothing, so maybe have a half-round in cut #6 in addition to all the others in cut #2.
- Hand Files – measured by the length of the portion with the teeth ONLY! This means a 6” (15cm) hand file (a good standard size) is going to be about 10” (25cm) long including the tang (the part that sticks into a handle). Handles don’t come with these files. Again, cut #2 is a good work horse, and you’ll need a few basic shapes for sure – round (rat tail), triangular (3-square), half-round (the slim, inside-ring version will probably be the most useful), flat.
- File Handles – I like unvarnished wood, which won’t slip in your hand, and a metal ferrule around the end of the handle that’s drilled to receive the tang of the file. You’ll probably need to drill out the hole a bit, or grind down the file tang a bit to get a tight fit. Put the file in a vise with the tang pointing up. Protect the teeth of the file with a layer of copper between the file and the steel vise jaws. Heat the tang with a torch until it’s red hot, use a mallet to bang the handle down onto the hot tang. The tang should be sunk completely into the handle, so that the shoulders of the file touch the ferrule.
- File storage – don’t let files rub against each other in storage, as this dulls them. Buy or make a rack, or a pouch with pockets to protect your files.
- Goldsmith hammer – round slightly domed face about 15mm diameter + cross-peen face, both faces mirror polished.
- (Optional) Riveting hammer – Smaller, lighter version of a goldsmith hammer. If you do a lot of small riveting, you might find the larger hammer tiring and be glad of a lighter option.
- (Optional) Planishing hammer – 2 round faces, both polished, one slightly domed, one flat. Used for planishing (smoothing) forged metal. Useful if your goldsmith hammer is too small to do the planishing you need to do.
- Chasing hammer – round slightly domed face about 25mm diameter, for striking steel tools + mirror polished ball-peen end for embossing, flaring tubing, etc.
- Ball peen hammer – used for general work where a chasing hammer would have been used, not a good replacement for actual chasing, though… (if you have a chasing hammer, it’s nice to have a cheap ball peen hammer, too, as it’s always good to have a cheap hammer that you don’t care about around the place…)
- Rawhide mallet – Alan Revere prefers a14-oz. bounceless dead blow mallet (filled with steel shot), claiming more accuracy. Bounceless or regular, you definitely need a non-metal mallet of some sort. A plastic mallet works fine.
- Sanding sticks/boards – (various grits, 220-800, sandpaper is a consumable) I find paint sticks are too thin and flexible for a good sanding stick, and prefer bullnose molding (see my very first blog post!). I also have sandpaper glued down to sections of melamine coated shelf (because it’s perfectly flat and smooth), as well as mini sanding sticks made with popsicle sticks.
- Polishing sticks – Cover foot long lengths of lath with suede (buy an old suede garment at a thrift store, and cut it up for this purpose) glued down with E6000 glue. Make a stick for each different type of polishing compound and keep the sticks in separate bags to keep them clean and uncontaminated. Charge the suede by rubbing the polishing compound on the stick, then rub the charged section of the stick on your piece. Polishing this way by hand takes longer than polishing by machine, of course, but the sticks are much more portable, and the results more controllable for beginners, who can ruin a piece pretty quickly with a polishing machine.
- Shears – Scissors for metal. A relatively inexpensive pair of tin-snips will work fine, and simple shears with all metal handles can be used to cut even quite thick sheet by securing the bottom handle in a bench vise, and pushing down the top handle to cut – the power of leverage at work!
- Solder scissors – Joyce Chen kitchen shears work beautifully for cutting sheet solder, and are also good shears for metal up to about 22ga.
- Side-cutters – I personally prefer side cutters to end nippers, probably because I can more easily see what I’m cutting.
- Dividers – Indispensable for layout. Scribe a line parallel to a straight edge, transfer lengths, mark equal segments, etc. etc.
- Metal ruler – must have both metric & Imperial scales – ottofrei “Jeweler’s Rule” (135.511) has ring/bracelet measures on back.
- (Optional) Wire & Sheet gauge – B&S (Browne & Sharp) American Wire Gauge (for USA), or Standard Wire Gauge (for Canada) – these are very convenient tools, but good ones tend to be a bit spendy – and you definitely want a good one, since this is a precision measuring instrument. You can measure down to 10th of a millimeter with a brass sliding gauge, as long as it has a Vernier scale, so you could skip the Wire & Sheet gauge and buy another file…
- (Optional) Spring gauge – to measure thickness, especially useful for checking etch depth, and area where normal calipers can’t reach
- Drill bits (HSS twist – consumables) – You’ll need a range of sizes from around 0.5mm (#76) to 4mm (#21 or 5/32”). You can get a little set of one of each of a sample of the really small sizes [#61– #80 (.039″–.0135″)], and then see what sizes you use most and buy more of just those sizes.
- Lubricant (consumable) – beeswax, candle wax, and commercial cutting lubricants all work. You MUST use some sort of lubricant when drilling holes in metal with a power drill. I don’t use lubricant for sawing or piercing, but some people swear by it.
- Drill – You can drill holes by hand with twist drill bits held in a pin-vise. It’s slow but effective, super portable (i.e. small), and requires no power. A pump type hand drill also requires no power and can be operated with one hand. An egg-beater type hand drill will require you to clamp the work down so you can use two hands to drill. Any electric drill will drill holes, provided you use the right drill bits for the material you are drilling. For the greatest usefulness, an electric drill needs to be variable speed, and a foot pedal to operate it would be pretty nice, too. A flex shaft will drill holes for you, and do so very much more as well.
- Bench vise – A small portable clamp-on one with jaws about 3” wide will handle many tasks. You can make a couple of jaw liners with copper sheet to protect the tools held in the vise.
- Vise jaws – with horizontal and vertical “V” grooves (Lisle 48000 aluminum vise jaw pad). I love these for holding things firmly and straight.
- Ring mandrel – The most useful shape is round and marked with ring sizes. Start with that, and acquire other shapes (square, grooved) as need dictates.
- (Optional) Oval bracelet mandrel – You can bend bracelets around a number of different metal objects, like the horn of an anvil, a ring mandrel, or even a pair of short lengths of galvanized metal pipe. A bracelet mandrel is nice, but not essential, so be sure you really need one before you add a big heavy piece of steel to your shoebox.
- Dapping block – One with hemispherical depressions will allow you the most options. You can use a metal dapping block with either metal or wooden dapping punches. Wooden punches are easy to make and less expensive than a full set of metal ones.
- Wood dapping block – Use a wooden dapping block to form textured metal. Forming textured metal in a metal dapping block can damage the texture.
- Wood dapping punches – (see blog post on how to make these…) Especially useful when dealing with textured metal, to avoid damaging the textured surface.
- Safety glasses – An absolute must for drilling and sawing, and generally a good idea for all bench work. You can get ones with a 2x reader bifocal section already built in – I
LOVE my bifocal safety glasses :)!
- Optivisor or other magnification – It’s essential to see clearly what you are doing, so use magnification if needed.
- Loupe – A 10X loupe is important for checking fine details, solder seams, stone seats, etc. Bring the loupe up close to one eye – almost touching your lashes – then bring the object you want to inspect up to the loupe until it’s in sharp focus. Keep your other eye open.
- (Optional) digital scale – Essential for casting and alloying, and very nice to have to figure out the weight of materials in your pieces. Pocket ones are available for under $20. Be sure to buy an appropriate calibration weight at the same time you buy your scale. ALL sensors experience drift, and the only way to keep your scale accurate is to re-calibrate it with the right weight from time to time.
- (Optional) Sandbag – make one from a rubber hot water bottle filled with clean play sand… You can rest bench blocks and mandrels on the sandbag to deaden the bounce and noise of forming and forging work.
- Bench knife – a short blade fixed in a wooden handle is useful for prying and cutting.
- Exacto knife – replaces scraper for de-burring bezels, and can be used to scratch clean lines for solder to follow…
- Scraper – Used to remove burs created when sawing/filing/drilling. Can also be used to countersink rivet holes, though I prefer using a large drill bit for this last purpose.
- Burnisher – Curved and straight ones, narrow and fat ones, they all work. Most important is a super shiny polished surface with only rounded corners (no sharp edges to dig in…).
- Torch – A $25 plumber’s torch from Home Depot will get you started, and makes a good portable option (many come with a tank of gas, too). Be sure to get one with a regulator in the handle, which allows it to be operated at any angle. The simplest little brass plumbers torch only works if the tank is held upright, and that won’t work for jewelry making.
- OS – Fuel gas– I like propane. Disposable sized tanks of which are allowed to be kept inside the home and will not void your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Any larger tanks of compressed gas would need to be cleared with your insurance company before bringing them inside…
- Striker – If your torch doesn’t have a striker built in, you’ll need one. DO NOT use a cigarette lighter that contains its own fuel gas (like disposable lighters, and wand lighters – these are very hazardous around open flames, which you’ll definitely have nearby!)
- Solder pick – Make one from an old coat hanger (bend a spiral for a handle, and sharpen the point), or buy a fancy one.
- Fine point tweezers – For positioning solder chips and generally moving small metal parts. Size AA is good. Do NOT touch hot metal with these! It will anneal the fine tips and make them much less useful for the precise positioning work that you acquired them for.
- Tweezers – Large ones with serrated jaws are used for picking up hot metal to quench it.
- Cross-lock tweezers – Very useful for holding parts while soldering. The ones with heat-resistant fiber grips are my favorites. Bent and straight jaws both work fine. They aren’t ridiculously expensive, so you could get one of each and see which jaw shape you prefer.
- (Optional) Third hand – A handy little tool. You can cobble together an approximation with a pair of cross-lock tweezers – locking them together perpendicular to each other, so that one supports the other.
- Binding wire – stainless steel binding wire is nice, since it won’t contaminate the pickle if it gets in there by mistake. Less expensive iron binding wire is perfectly fine, too. For the fine gauges, like 26ga, double the wire and twist it to make it both stronger and a bit stretchy. It’s nice to have some thin stuff, like 26ga, for binding parts together, and some thicker stuff, like 16-14ga, for making supports and pins.
- Soldering surface – soldering boards, charcoal blocks, honeycomb boards, and firebricks all work well. Firebricks are inexpensive and easy to shape to the needs of most any soldering project. You want the soft K-23 firebricks, the ones you can mark with a fingernail. You can cut these with a hacksaw into smaller pieces, and use your bench knife to dig lines and depressions in them.
- (Optional) Turntable – The mechanism for a small lazy susan works beautifully as a portable turntable. It’s just a couple of sheets of metal with a ring of ball bearings between them. Set your firebrick, or soldering board, on top.
- Solder (consumable) – Sheet and wire solder are both useful. You’ll probably want Hard, Medium, and Easy. I don’t use Extra-Easy silver solder, as it has a noticeable yellow color.
- Flux brush – Use a small one (#4 or smaller) with natural bristles. If you burn a brush with synthetic bristles, you’ll get plastic stuck to your piece. Burnt natural bristles just produce carbon.
- Flux (consumable) – You have to have this or your solder won’t run. Debates rage on what kind is best :). I use white paste flux. Most fluxes don’t have free fluorides in them anymore, but some do, so read the descriptions carefully. All of them have some type of fluoride compounds, so the fumes of even the ones without free fluorides are not good to breathe.
- OS – Pickle – I use Sodium Bisulfate, readily available at pool supply stores and large hardware stores as white granules for the purpose of lowering the pH of hot tubs, pools, and spas. I find that a concentration of 2 ounces to a quart (liter) of water is enough.
- OS – Bon Ami (consumable) – Abrasive powder used in conjunction with oil-free dish soap like Dawn™ to clean metal. Pumice powder works great, too, but Bon Ami is usually easier to find. Most US supermarkets carry it. Barkeeper’s Friend also works. Do NOT use Comet or any powder cleanser with bleach in it.
- Old toothbrush – for getting the Bon Ami + Dawn™ onto your metal.
- Plastic abrasive pad – for cleaning metal of oxides and grease. I like the Maroon 3M pads designed for metal finishing. They seem to last longer than the green ones for dishes, but the green ones work just fine too!
- Brass brush (consumable) – For polishing. You MUST use it wet with dish soap lubricant, or you’ll transfer brass to your piece.
- Bronze wool (fine grade) – For cleaning metal and giving a soft finish. Use in place of steel wool to prevent accidentally contaminating pickle.
- Copper tongs – You MUST have some NON-steel tongs/tweezers for fishing things out of the pickle. Copper tongs are the industry standard, but you can use plastic, or wood. A pair of chopsticks bound together with a rubber band will totally work.
- OS – Pickle pot/jar – A glass jar with a plastic lid combined with a mug warmer works well as a simple pickle pot. A small crock pot (set on low) also works.
- OS – Metal quench bowl – For quenching hot metal, an unbreakable metal bowl is best.
- OS – Plastic rinse bowl – Don’t use metal for your rinse bowl. The small amount of pickle on the pieces you are rising will make the rinse water acidic and that will corrode the bowl.
- Small old hand towel – Better for your hands than paper towels.
- Dental floss – for testing cabochons in settings.
- OS – Sink drain screen – Whatever sink you are using to rinse work in, get (or make) a fine mesh screen to cover the drain. Save yourself the headaches of opening the P trap…
- Sharpie(™) Markers!!! – fine and ultra fine tips – lots :). I couldn’t live without these.
- Flex shaft + chuck key
- Disc cutters
- Dapping punch set (metal)
- Drawplate + drawtongs
- Digital calipers
- Engraving block
- Rolling mill
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This is awesome for you to share. I wish I had taken your first Shoebox course before the others I have taken from you, then I would have had all the best tools needed. I just want to say that your class was one of my best ever and I cant wait to get to more. Hurry back to Canada.. Merry Christmas
Hi Roslyn, I’m so glad you enjoyed your class with me, and I look forward to seeing you again, maybe at MISSA in 2020?!
great article, thanks.