I've been making handcrafted jewelry and fantasy artifacts for quite a while now, and I'd like to use this blog to describe some of what goes into the work I do. I'm also hoping that I can teach some of the techniques I've been using to others who might be interested in learning them.

If you like what you see here, please visit my personal webpages. I have several dispay galleries, loads of strange tales to tell, fun stuff, and free art to give away.

Splendid Fish Studio - Objects from the Dream World

They come from the water and they bring strange dreams.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Preparing The Lyre of Hermes or, How to Tune a Jeweler’s Saw

Hermes sez: Tis true without lying, certain most true.

I’m going to break my promise not to get all scholarly on you for just this once. The above quote is actually the first point in The Emerald Tablet, as translated by Sir Isaac Newton. The Emerald Tablet is the legendary beginning of Alchemical knowledge, which, according to legend was written by Hermes the Thrice-Great (Hermes Trismegistus). There are only about 12 or 14 points in The Emerald Tablet (depending on the translation you are using), and they are supposed to present the foundations of all the arts and sciences, so there’s not a lot of room to spare in those 12 or 14 points.

However, it seems that people have a tendency to breeze over this particular point, treating it more as a formalistic address than as a meaningful point. And there is, I suppose, a good reason for this. You will find statements like this in an awful lot of Alchemy texts. For instance, in The Golden Testament of Hermes, you will find this:

“He therefore, who now hears my words, let him search into them; I have discovered all things that before were hidden concerning this knowledge, and disclosed the greatest of all secrets.”

There’s a good reason why the writers of these texts needed to tell their readers that they were telling the truth, that there is something to what they say. The reason is this - until you are competent to judge for yourself, you’d never believe it. As soon as you come to something like this (also from The Golden Testament): “…the vulture standing upon the mountain crieth out with a loud voice, I am the White of the Black, and the Red of the White and the Citrine of the Red; and I speak the very truth.,” you’re going to think that you’re reading the random ravings of a disordered mind. But you’re not. Until you understand what you are being taught, you have to have trust in the teacher.

I bring this up because I am, by profession, a teacher. One of the things I teach is metalsmithing, in a high school. And I’ve taught hundreds of students how to use a jeweler’s saw, so I know just about everything a person will do wrong with one. And I’m going to tell you exactly how to use one so that it will work perfectly, and you’ll be able to cut straight lines or graceful curves through metal with - literally - no effort at all.

But if you’re like most of my students, you won’t believe what I tell you. You’ll try to do everything I tell you not to do, and not do everything I tell you to do. And nothing will work right until you resign yourself to doing it the way I tell you to do it. Save yourself some time and just begin by trusting me. Or learn the hard way, then come back and see that I speak truth.

There’s an interesting philosophical issue here. Every good teacher desires that his or her students will, one day, surpass him/her. And it is the job of every good student to go beyond the master’s teaching. This means that, sooner or later, you’ll end up doing things differently from the way I tell you to do them. This is entirely appropriate - BUT not until you understand WHY I tell you to do them in one way, and not to do them in another. To surpass a master, one must first master what the master has mastered, then master more (feel free to quote me on this any time you want to annoy somebody). You can only learn this by following my lead at first. So trust me for now. Tis most certain true.

I’m also going to do something very irritating. I’m going to give LONG explanations. There are thousands and thousands of books where you can get short explanations, and if this is what you want, try them. However, to understand the philosophy of a thing, you need the long explanation.

You should know that there are two ways to go through life - one is by following simple directions, in which case the one directing you will always be your master, or by learning philosophy (the art of careful and clear thinking), in which case you can become your own master. I prefer the latter, but it’s really up to you… Personally, I don’t want to be nobody’s master no longer than I needs to be…

So… on with the show…

Here is a jeweler’s saw, and some saw blades:

Notice how delicate and fragile it looks, and how thin and tiny the blades are. This is one of the first places you have to forget what you think you know. Go to black before proceeding.

You think that metal is hard, that you need some kind of power tools to cut it, and that cutting it is going to require a great deal of force. Please forget that.

The jeweler’s saw, with it’s thin, fragile blades, will cut through pretty much any metal you want to throw at it. It does this with grace and elegance, and without the use of force on your part. In fact, one of the biggest problems that beginners have is that they try to use force, and then nothing works right. The jeweler’s saw uses the magic of nature and of nature’s laws to cut - all you have to do is steer it (Hermes sez: Nothing can be accomplished unless it be in accord with nature).

If you look closely at a saw blade, you will see hundreds of little teeth. Each little tooth, as it glides over the metal being cut, takes a tiny sliver of metal off. Multiply one sliver by the number of teeth on the blade, and you get a lot of slivers. Then multiply that by the number of saw strokes per minute, and you get about two inches of metal removal per minute - or, as you gain experience, more. So, once you learn to use this saw, you can cut a five inch diameter circle out of copper, brass, silver, gold - or even steel - in about two or three minutes.

In order to cut metal, the saw blade has to be harder than the metal being cut. The blades are made of a steel alloy, and hardened until they are very, very hard - hard enough to cut steel which has not been hardened. The problem with this is that there is a trade off. The harder a material is, the more easily it fractures because “hard” makes things “stiff,” and “stiff” doesn’t bend well (in Alchemy, this is called “calcification,” which means, literally, “turning into stone”). If a stiff thing bends too much, it breaks (think of a sheet of glass. Glass is very hard - you need a diamond to scratch it - but a stone tossed at it by a child will cause it to fracture into a million pieces).

This means that the very, very hard saw blades will break very, very easily if they bend. That’s why tuning the saw frame is so important (think of the saw frame as the body of a stringed musical instrument - the Lyre of Hermes - and the blade as the string. To get it to work properly, you have to make sure the string is tight enough). The saw frame - if you work with it and not against it - will hold the blade in such a way that it doesn’t bend. But it can only do this with your help.

Check the orientation of the blade in the saw before you go any further! The teeth MUST point away from the saw frame, and be angled downward, toward the saw handle. If the blade is in backward - with the teeth pointing toward the inside of the saw frame - you will know as soon as you try to cut something because you will saw and saw and nothing will happen.

If the blade is in upside down, with the teeth pointing away from the handle, you will be able to cut, but you will also spend a lot of time cursing. With the blade in correctly, the motion of cutting pushes the metal down against the v-block (which I’ll explain later) and all the energy you expend in moving the saw goes directly into making a smooth cut. If the teeth point upward, the action of cutting lifts the metal up, wasting your energy, and the jittering metal ends up with a raged edge that looks like it was chewed on by psychotic beavers.

If your eyes are as bad as mine, you can easily check for correct blade orientation by running your finger - very gently - along the front of the blade. The teeth will catch on your fingerprints as you move away from the handle if the blade is in correctly.

I will sometimes run into people who insist that they can cut with the blade placed incorrectly. If you run into somebody who tells you to use some kind of eccentric cutting method, check the quality of their work before you accept their teaching. I’ve never met anybody who does quality work with a badly placed saw blade. Generally these people treat cutting metal as if it is some kind of divine penance they have to put up with instead of the gentle meditative pleasure it actually is. And they’re right. If you try to work against nature, you will pay for it.

Once you have the blade clamped in, you will need to tighten the saw. To do this, first make sure that the length adjusting thumbscrew is loosened. While standing (and it really works much, much better if you stand), place the butt of the saw on a firm surface, like a table top (NOTE: This will leave a dimple on a wooden surface. You may want to put down a small piece of pine board so you don’t mess up the table). With the butt on a board, and the handle hanging over the edge of the table, grab the crossbar (between the lower clamp and the length adjusting screw), and push down. If you are on the small side, lean your body over the saw as you push to get a bit of leverage.

When the blade tightens up, tighten up the length adjusting screw. Hold the saw frame with the mounted blade up in front of your face, and pluck the saw blade like a guitar string. You should get a nice tone out of it. Enjoy the musical sound of success! - recite a brief poem of praise to Hermes.

If you don’t get a musical tone, or the blade feels soft instead of tight, try again. You can’t cut with a limp, unmusical blade…

Before you begin cutting, there is one more thing you need to consider - and this is often overlooked, much to the sadness of the metalsmith.

Blades come in different degrees of coarseness (the number and size of the teeth). The size breakdown goes about like this - starting with the coarsest blades and getting finer: …5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, 00, 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0, 5/0, …

Now, the coarsest blades are thick and heavy, while the finest ones look like hairs, so the beginner is often tempted to try using the coarser blades, thinking that thick is more sturdy and less likely to break. Then, after trying to saw for ten minutes, the saw ends up in the garbage, and the aspiring metal smith ends up going into accounting, or advertising, or something else unfun.

The problem is that the blade has to be correctly matched to the THICKNESS of the metal being cut, not the QUALMS of the one doing the cutting. Attempting to use a blade which is too coarse for the thickness of the metal makes sawing nearly impossible - and entirely impossible to do well (thickness of metal is generally identified by “gauge” - the higher the number, the thinner the metal. For instance, 14 gauge is quite thick for jewelry work, 18 gauge is somewhat thinner and fairly common, 24 gauge is quite thin, but useful for lightweight earrings and such).

Ideally, you want about three or four teeth resting on the face of the metal you are cutting as you cut. If you look at a nickel from the side, picture how small the teeth would have to be in order to get 3 - 4 of them on there. Then look at a dime, and imagine the same thing. To understand why you need 3 - 4 teeth on the metal while you cut, take a look at this picture:

When three or four teeth ride on the edge of the metal, they scrape small slivers off like they are supposed to, and they also guide the teeth above them, keeping them from hooking the edge. However, when there are fewer than three teeth, the teeth above the metal tend to hook over the edge and get stuck. When this happens the metal smith tries to use force to get the saw moving and the saw blade either breaks or tears a ragged chunk out of the metal - or both.

Here is a link to Contenti, a supplier I use frequently. This chart shows which blade size to use with what metal gauge. There are some funky varieties of blades - spiral blades and skip tooth blades, for instance. Don't bother with these until you've learned what a regular blade will do. Also, the better blades are German, Swiss, or American - avoid the cheaper blades from India, unless you are cutting steel - the Indian blades are somewhat thicker, which makes them harder to steer, and they tend to dull faster.

In the next article I’ll explain how to actually use the saw to cut something. Until then, browse around at the Contenti website, look over the saws and saw blades, and think about this:

According to legend, on the night of his birth, Hermes stole the cattle which belonged to his half brother, Apollo, which explains why Hermes is not only the messenger of the Gods, but also the god of thieves. He is also the protector of prostitutes, if that kind of thing matters to you.

Anyway, While taking the stolen cattle back home, Hermes found a turtle, a couple of horns, and some leather strips. He put them all together and made the first musical instrument - the Lyre, kind of a harp-like thing.

When he got home he ended up in big trouble because Apollo didn’t much like having his cattle stolen. However, Hermes started to play his lyre, and Apollo was so entranced by the music that he traded his entire herd for that lyre.

In Alchemy, Hermes represents the “force/power/energy” which causes things to happen (the carier of action/intermediary between the Gods and humans), while Apollo represents intellectual thought (the active principle/the Sun). What, then, do the cattle represent, and what about that lyre?

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