31 January 2015

My Bench, (episode 1)

This project began as an ordinary, stock jeweler's workbench. With additions, modifications and the occasional major makeover over a period of years, I have transformed it into the single most vital jewelry-making tool I own. To call it a workbench doesn't do it justice: It's far more than that: it's a cockpit. Together with a few other pieces of workshop furniture which were or modified or built from scratch, this suite forms the heart of my metal arts studio.

My bench was a years-long exploration into how to create the most effective user-interface (UI) for this jeweler and his tools. While at the bench, I was continually fascinated -- and often distracted by -- traditional bench features that inhibited my creative flow and hindered greater productivity. So I made change after change, sometimes undoing modifications that did not work, always in search of a better bench.

My bench features:

  • vertical slide-out panels promote efficient tool storage and retrieval. 
  • a unique "drain" system for sweeps.
  • a customized, positionable ventilation system to remove lung-damaging particulates.
  • a fold-away rack for pliers - accessible when needed, out of the way when not.
  • a unique, magnetically actuated saw blade dispenser
  • a finger-friendly "points down" needle file storage rack
  • elimination of the customary sweeps tray, which too often serves as a bottomless junk drawer for tools.
  • under-bench lighting, which opened up under-bench real estate for productive development.
  • high-capacity, low-profile drawers on slides replaced the bulky, space-wasting OEM offering
  • a European-style leather "bag" catches stray sweeps or roll-offs and doubles as a protective at-bench apron.
  • fully outfitted with industry-standard GRS Benchmate tooling.
  • quick-release latches for securing saw frames, arranged by blade size.
  • unique, fit-to-the-tool holders and mounts to secure my most frequently used tools in easy-to-reach, easy-to-return locations.

My workbench has been prominently featured in jewelry industry press:

  • The Jeweler's Bench Book, By Charles Lewton-Brain - 2007 MJSA Press
  • Ever A Work In Progress, By Gerry Davies - MJSA Journal, April 2008
  • Rack 'Em: Building an efficient pliers rack for your bench, by John de Rosier, MJSA Journal, October 2010
  • This Bench Sucks (about ventilation), by John de Rosier, MJSA Journal, April 2013

I have also featured it on my website and blog:


Overview of the workbench. 1.) Dust removal system removes harmful particles. 2.) Phone mount allows me to stay connected while working. 3.) GRS Benchmate system installed. 4.) Under-bench real estate fully utilized with shelving, etc. 5.) Original, space-wasting drawers replaced with custom-made space-economizing alternatives. 6-7.) Custom-built vertical sliding drawers and shelves. 8.) Unique under-bench receptacle serves as "drain" for sweeps (metal dust, scraps).
9.) Custom-made swing-out plier rack makes efficient use of space - swings out when needed, folds away when not in use. 10.) European-style "bag" catches wayward bits and can double as an apron when called for. 11.) More slide-out storage. 12.) Rail-mounted carriage for wax pen system. 13.) Custom-made bur storage system.

24 January 2015

Running Leaf Band

Here are a few shots of a ring I engraved with a running leaf pattern over the top. Lovely, to my eye at least, and very sparkly, though the photos don't seem to do the sparkle justice. These were shot at the bench. May try a more formal photo session later. Sterling silver, size 7.75, +/_ 3mm wide.

With a U.S. penny for scale. Band just over 3mm across, approximately 2mm deep. Size 7.75.

19 January 2015

Diamond Wheel Storage

Here's another tip/trick/hack or whatever.

After a couple of months of having the diamond discs for my hone scattered about like neglected CDs, I finally had an "enough!" moment. The discs -- coated with graded industrial diamond -- are abrasive to anything they touch, so proper storage makes sense.

There are commercially available options, yes. Some are even quite economical. But, I make things. So the idea of paying for a simple storage rack, well, that's an idea that's too abrasive for me to tolerate. So I created my own.

The build is simple enough. I cut several sections of thin lumber to identical length. Then, using a drill press and a drilling jig to ensure proper hole placement, I bored two holes in each wood section. The entire assembly is held in place with two carriage bolts. Spacing between wood sections was achieved with garden-variety steel washers for the thin discs and rubber/plastic plumbing gaskets for the slots for the ceramic wheel and the aluminum baseplate wheel (I wanted good spacing, plus the rubber gaskets will prevent damage to those wheels. Then, a couple of nuts and washers tighten everything down.

Verdict? I really like it. It's compact but stable, and retrieval and return of the discs is intuitive and easy, with the satisfying fit that only a custom job would deliver.

I do intend to make one further alteration though. Next time I pull out the saw, I will cut two short sections of lumber to cap the slot ends. They're not really needed for security - the discs sit nicely between the bolts. But the addition will sturdy everything up. I don't want to accidentally break one of the wood sections, which might be easy to do since they are unsupported at the top and only anchored by the bolts near the bottom -- and along the wood grain, too.

One final note. Should you decide to make one of your own, whatever the design, build it with the dimension of your laps in mind. Mine is built for laps for the TW Designs Power Hone, not the GRS. Alternatively, you could just make really wide slots that will accommodate anything.

16 January 2015

Three Months in Antwerp

Yes, I'm overdue for an update!

Where have I been? What have I been up to? (Echoes of "Who am I, why am I here?")...

I have been intentionally lurking under the radar for awhile, undergoing a bit of metamorphosis, laying foundation.

In May of 2014, I travelled to Antwerp, Belgium, where I spent three months studying diamond setting under Alexander Sidorov. Alexander is known around the world for his masterful diamond setting, and students travel from across the globe to train with him. To say the course was rigorous is an understatement. It was painfully hard. Six, sometimes seven days a week, under the microscope - literally and figuratively, setting impossibly tiny stones, learning different styles of setting and all the rules and applications for each one, the standards and tolerances of excellence (Alexander's are very high), and the tips and tricks that make the magic happen.

Sample practice pieces. 

Aside from immersion in stone setting and a bit of engraving, I learned about myself and about the nature of learning and acquiring demanding skills. I came to understand that at that moment when you've had it and you're ready to take everything and hurl it out the window in frustration, that moment is (perhaps after a short break) when you must continue. Persevering through that frustration catalyzes true learning, and with repetition, skill.

It sounds easy enough. But it's not. It sucks. It really does. Yes, it's worth it in the end, but there's no sugarcoating the process. Enduring the process day after day illuminated what was really happening. Profound frustration answered with perseverance was the only place where the good learning -- the real growth -- was happening. It didn't happen naturally by just being there sitting in my chair, going through the motions. That growth only happened when I pushed myself well out of my comfort zone, time after time. Now I remind myself of that when I'm up against a wall, feeling the frustration and that urge to flee.  It is precisely then that I need to accept the discomfort of that wall and march into it enough times that I figure out how to climb it. That's hard to do, but it's the only way.

And speaking of walls, I have this memento on mine now as a reminder of not just what I have learned, but how to go about mastering those many things I still have not.

I am the 78th graduate of Alexander's three-month Professional Stone Setter program. Count me as a proud member of a small class that spans years, and the globe.

15 January 2015

Engraving Practice

This work was done on cold-rolled steel plate with an air-assist engraving tool. The engraving is a running leaf pattern. These cuts were done using 90° and 116° graver angles. These are for practice only - I still need more practice, but I thought I'd share.

24 September 2013

My Favorite Engraving Vise

Maybe someone can help me identify this vise. I acquired it several years ago on eBay. When I placed my bid, I thought this was some version of a Stehman vise, because the profile is similar. But it's not the same vise at all.

It wasn't until I had it in my hands that I realized just what a special vise this is. I have taken a series of photos so you can check it out. I would love to know who built it, but there are no maker's marks of any kind anywhere, in or out, that would identify it. I don't know how old it is, though there are clues that might help date it.

In these photos, I disassemble the base to give a sense of how beautifully overbuilt this vise is. The precision of the machining is instrument-like. Yet it has the character and subtle flaws of a one-off piece. As I said, it is a lovely tool.

My only complaint is a practical one: it doesn't have a drag adjustment. Since the top spins on ball bearings - and very smoothly at that - a light touch is all that is needed to rotate the work. To resolve the drag issue when the job calls for it, I wrap an elastic/fabric band around the waist to brake the pedestal.

The narrow light band around the waist is not a seam. It's just a reflection. The machining tolerances are so tight that the seams are nearly invisible.

Here the seam between the base and the spindle is somewhat visible, about 2/3 up the waist. It's so tight that it's work to get a piece of paper into the seam. Note the knurled pattern on the spindle edge. The exterior plating is still beautiful.
A view of the top. The jaws are hand scraped! Unfortunately, a bit of rust accumulated on the exterior edges of the jaws (under someone else's watch...). But it's fairly minor. Note the machine screws in the brass crown beneath the jaws.
Closeup of the jaws. The scraped texture is more evident in this shot (as is the tragic staining, alas...).
A truly beautiful jaw screw.
The wrench/key, which is mostly nickel-plated brass, with a steel business end. Beautifully made, heavy, a delight to use.
Now it's time to take this baby apart and see some of why it's such a special tool. It took me a long time to figure out how to disassemble this vise because the assembly is inscrutable. There is no hole or screw at the bottom of the ball end as with other vises, so for a long time I was perplexed about how it was built. It was clear to me that as smooth as this vise was, it had to be running on ball bearings. Turned out I was right, but I didn't have proof until after it had sat in my shop for months.

So one day, holding the base, I gave the waist a hard twist, and it gave way, but not where I thought it would. It was like leaning on a bookcase in an old haunted house - a total surprise! In the photo - this is what it looks like as the top is unscrewed from the base.

Top: the top part of the vise, resting upside down. Bottom: the bottom half of the vise, resting right side up. The four screw holes are threaded but serve no purpose. I assume their job was to secure the base when it was turned on a lathe.
Unscrewing the four screws to remove the base plate from the top portion of the vise. The imperfections are probably gaps created during casting. None of this shows on the exterior. Probably the biggest "flaw" in the vise.
I unscrew the four anchor screws. The only mark on the vise is in the lower left hand side of the photo: a red "K" marked with a grease pencil or crayon.
Another view of the underside of the top plate.

The top side of the top plate. The four screw heads visible here anchor the large center screw shown in the photo above this one.
With the top plate removed, here's what's left of the pedestal or spindle.
Removing the lock nut.

Taking off the cover yields more screws. They're brass, so I'll be gentle.
Brass screws removed, and I pull out the spindle/bearing assembly.

That's why it runs so smoothly! A ball bearing cassette.
Spindle top, showing knurled pattern, brass crown and vise jaws.
There it is. It's a remarkable vise, precision made (and I didn't even take apart the top, but I did it once, and don't want to mess with it again!), built so that it could be serviced and even repaired. It's no cliche to say that they don't make them like this anymore. Hope you enjoyed the tour. If you can tell me anything about my vise, I'd love to hear from you.