Basic Tool Recommendations
This is a list of tools that you might find helpful for a basic jewelry class, or basic work, broken out into a series of tabs, depending on technique, or level of seriousness.
Jewelry making can be expensive, so I've tried to keep things as simple as possible, and explain my reasoning about the situations where these tools will be useful.
Where I can, I'll provide hotlinks to various suppliers pages for the items in question. This is not to imply that these are the only suppliers for these items, just that they're larger suppliers who I can be confident will not change their catalog links frequently. For my thoughts on, and recommendations of the national jewelry suppliers click here.
Very Basic Tools
Tim McCreight's The Complete Metalsmith.
Now in its fourth or fifth edition, it has split into three incarnations: the student book, the pro book, and the pro-plus book. The difference between them being that the student edition is a smaller toolbox friendly size, and contains an edited subset of the pages, while the Pro and Pro+ editions are larger and contain everything. The Pro+ has a CD with the whole book as printable PDF's. The PDF's are useful for me for printing things for class, but otherwise, I'd just get the pro edition, and save the money. The various editions of this book have been the texbook since I was in school. Every technique clearly illustrated with step-by-step drawings, and a vast range of techniques. There's a reason this has been the standard textbook for 20+ years. This should definitely be your first book.
Available from just about every supplier, and in a multitude of forms, from a simple wooden board with cheap “C” clamp, to several hundred dollar machined steel “work holding systems”. The best choice for basic use is the combination “bench pin & anvil” gizmo. It has a largish cast iron clamp into which a wooden pin is inserted, and then the whole thing is clamped onto the edge of any likely table. (Rio Grande, Otto Frei)
This bench pin system is one of the few things that I’d make sure you get this particular type. Most of the other things out there on the cheaper end of the scale just aren't up for any serious use.
Full disclosure: I'm about to recommend one of the Knew Concepts jewelers' saws. I'm also involved in designing and making the KC saws, so I'm hardly impartial. That said, I wouldn't be as involved as I am in the saws if I didn't think they were the best saw available anywhere.
Knew Concepts 5" saw.
Comes in three sizes, and three styles, for a total of nine possible configurations. The good news is that for beginners, only two of the versions make sense.
The middle size, 5 inch works best for beginners. So then the choice becomes tensioning method: the less expensive saw uses a screw knob to tension the blade. (Rather than the 'lean on it and dent your sternum' method used by all other saws.) while the more expensive version adds a cam lever for quick blade tensioning. If you expect to be doing a lot of intricate piercing, with lots of blade changes, you want the lever.
The reason why I recommend the KC saws over more traditional designs: (besides the fact that I help make them) The KC saws are both more rigid (stiff) and much lighter than traditional saw designs. They also have mechanisms that make it much easier to get a consistent, repeatable level of tension on the blade. All of which makes them cut much more accurately, and break fewer blades than any other saw out there. This means that while you're learning to saw, you spend less time fighting the limitations of the saw itself, and more time concentrating on actually learning to saw.
Knew Concepts 5" sawframe with screw tensioning: (Knew Concepts, Otto Frei, Rio Grande)
Knew Concepts 5" sawframe with cam lever tensioning: (Knew Concepts, Rio Grande, Otto Frei)
Saw blades: Once you've got a saw, you need blades.
Jeweler's saw blades are sized in a system that centers at zero, with larger sizes getting further away from zero on the plus side, and smaller sizes getting further away on the negative side. So a large sawblade is a #4, with a #8 larger still, while a 2/0 ("Two Aught") is much smaller. A 10/0 is roughly like hair, with teeth.
For beginning, I'd get 6 dozen #2 blades, and 6 dozen #2/0 blades. That gives you fine and coarse blades, depending on the nature of what you're cutting. Thicker blades for thicker material, finer blades for finer detail, or thinner material.
#2 blades: (Rio, Otto Frei)
#2/0 Blades: (Otto Frei, Rio)
Blade Lubricant: Waxy stuff used to lubricate the sawblade as you're sawing. Helps blades last longer and cut more accurately. Also handy for working with flex shaft burrs. (Helps keep them sharp longer.) Traditionally, jewelers used hunks of beeswax, but having used both, the modern stuff really does work better. (Rio, Otto Frei)
Rio makes it in a liquid as well, which is quite useful for drilling, and drawing wire. (under link above)
To buy files, there are several things you must keep in mind:
Cut: American cuts such as “Mill” or “Bastard” don’t apply to jeweler’s files. Jeweler’s files are usually (but not always) graded by the Swiss system, which is a numeric system ranging from 00 (“double ought”) to #8. 00 is the coarsest Swiss cut, and is about equal to an American bastard file, and is too coarse for most work. 0 is good for a roughing file, followed by refinement with a #2 file, and final clean up with a #4, or possibly a #6 if you want to get really absurd.
After “cut” then you need to determine type and length. As a basic starting place, there are two types of file you want to look at: Half Round files, and Half Round Ring files. These are essentially the same file, except that the ring files are narrower, and designed for filing out the inside of ring shanks. (thus the “ring”...) Standard half round files are the basic work horse files, but are too wide to get into most rings. If you plan on doing lots of rings, get the ring files. Most suppliers only offer “large” jeweler’s files in 6” lengths. This is fine for most basic work, but is too small for serious silversmithing. (Gesswein has 8” files for silversmithing.) You also need to buy handles when you buy files. (They don’t come with them.) You can make your own out of bits of dowel rod and wire, but personally, I just order handles: it’s easier. After the files show up, you then drive the wooden handles on by clamping the file in a vise, (with copper sheet between the file and the vise!! Protects that nice expensive file you just bought.) and then drive the handle on with a mallet. (Remember to keep the grain of the handle parallel to the flat of the file.)
A good basic set would be one each of a half round (or HR ring) in 0, 2, (and 4, eventually) cut. They may cost as much as $40 each.
(No links because there are too many choices.) Add a #2 Barrette file as soon as you can afford it. (Barrette files have no teeth on the back or edge, which lets you get right up to a corner without worrying about the file cutting anything other than the face you're working on.)
After (or maybe before) the large files, you need needle files.
Absolutely not the time to cheap out.
These are small little files that you use to clean up inside of rings or other detail work. They tend to be about 6” long in total, with half of that length being a round steel handle. They come in the same Swiss cut system as the larger files.
The easiest way to buy them is to get them in sets, either of 6 or 12. That way you get a nice fitted case that protects them from wear. The downside of this approach is the cost. A set of 12 Grobet needle files is listed by Rio for about $100. You can probably find them for less if you look a little, but they still won’t be cheap.
You will be tempted to go for the cheap Chinese import needle files for $3.99. This is a case of getting exactly what you pay for. The Chinese files are marginally better than no files at all, but only just. They’re rough, and leave absolutely awful surfaces behind. If you can find any way to afford good needle files, they will repay the investment in much saved cleanup time. You can buy them separately. I would get #2 cut files to start out, with a basic kit being 1 each of half round, round, flat, knife edged, triangle, barrette and square. A very nice addition is a pair of half round needle files in #4 and #6 cut for delicate cleanup in places where the buffer won’t reach, or for cleaning up
around stones and bezels.
Once you get your files, the quickest and easiest way to destroy them is to leave them rattling around in your tool box to bang into each other. (They’ll
try to “file” each other as they rattle, and thereby become very dull.) The best solution to this is to sew yourself a “tool roll” which is nothing more than a strip of heavy cloth, doubled over, with pockets sewn into it into which the files are inserted, so that the teeth of the file are in the pocket, and covered. I made a perfectly fine tool roll out of the legs of an old pair of jeans. Once you have the pockets sewn in, sew a string to one end, and use that to tie the thing once you roll it up. (also keeps the files from tearing up the other contents of your toolbox.)
Again, not cheap. Expect to pay $20-$30 each for professional grade pliers, although cheaper ones can provide acceptable service. (Unlike files.) The big thing to look for,rather than any particular manufacturer, is a “box hinge”. Some pliers are put together like scissors: with two identical parts face to face, pivoting around a pin. There is one manufacturer to my knowledge that makes pliers in this style that are durable. The rest are just cheap. The best pliers use a “box hinge” where instead of using two identical pieces, one side of the pliers has *both* sides of the joint, with the other side of the pliers going through the middle of this “box”, and pivoting on a pin through the middle of the box. The advantage of this is that when you clamp down, there’s no torque on the plier pivot, so there’s less chance of the joint breaking or working loose.
Of course, they’re much harder to make....so....
You can get away with scissor hinged pliers, but don’t expect to hand them on to your grandkids.
With any pliers, the real concern is the part of the plier that touches the work: the jaws. Jeweler’s pliers should NOT have serrated jaws like utility pliers. Any mark on the jaws will be transferred to the work, every time you squeeze. Think about it. At minimum, jeweler’s pliers should have a smooth satin (fine sandpaper) finish. Some people polish theirs with a buffer, but I’ve always found that makes it easier to slip. Also, when you get them, you’ll need to “break” the edges of the jaws. On most pliers except the “round nose” ones, the jaws will have a very sharp side edge. If left untreated, this will cause marking of any metal you bend in them. The solution is to take medium sandpaper on a stick, and sand away at the edges of the jaw, to soften the line. (not much, just 1/32” or so, just enough to get rid of the hard edge.) Don’t use a file: good pliers are hard enough to wreck a file. Pliers come in kits too.
A good basic setup is one each of “round nose” (both sides round), “flat” (flat straight jaws) and “chain nose”. (flat jaws, but tapered, like needle nose pliers.) A good nipper is also a useful thing. A basic nipper is all that you need for simple work, but a set of flush cutters is a nice extra.
#4 Optivisor (2X lens): (Rio, Otto Frei)
6b) Optivisor Headlights: Really. Headlights. Actually, a little battery powered set of LED lights that clip around the front of your Optivisor lenses. I thought they were pretty silly the first time I saw them. Then I tried them. Since they're mounted on all sides of your lenses, you get bright, shadow free illumination, right where you're looking. They cost about $30, and are well worth the money, especially if you're working in a school studio without individual lighting on each bench. (Rio, Otto Frei)
Other Useful Tools
Other Useful Stuff
This is a catchall for other useful small things for hand work. Not the first things I'd buy, but far from the last.
Layout & Measurement
Figuring out how big things are, or marking off a design are critical and normal tasks in jewelry making. Here are a selection of tools to make that easier.
Also essential is some sort of measuring device. I depend on a set of digital calipers to measure things. The advantage to digital calipers (as opposed to dial calipers) is that the digitals can handle both inch and metric at the push of a button. This ability is invaluable for jewelry work, as measurements are frequently given in either system.
The drawback is that good digitals are expensive. The Japanese calipers that I depend on tend to run $130+, on sale. There are Chinese import versions that can be had for much less, down in the $30 range. I hate saying this, but for beginners, I'd probably look at the knockoffs. They're generally good enough.
If you think you're going to make a living at this, get the real thing.
Mitutoyo 6" digital caliper: (Enco, Rio, Otto Frei)
Chinese 6" digital caliper: (Enco, Otto Frei, Rio)
Things for Rings
Tools that are used mostly for making rings.