Cutting designs in metal has always been a popular form of creating simple yet elegant jewelry pieces. People often cut the shapes of countries, states, animals, and other items that have personal meaning. An area that many metalworkers ignore is the metal behind stone settings, but this area is perfect for cutouts. Some stones are quite large and provide a large canvas for creative cutout designs.
One of the signature elements of my metalwork is that I create abstract cutouts behind stone settings. My first cutouts included circles and other basic shapes. As I got better at sawing, the cutouts became more complex and now many people enjoy the cutout side as much as the front side of the stone. I have even started making pieces that are just cutouts with no stones. For example, I am currently working on a large cuff, 6 by 2 inches in 18-gauge silver, that is completely cutouts.
There are many reasons an artist should include cutouts behind stones. First, it is an easy way to save silver. The silver sitting behind a stone is essentially wasted. If you remove some of the silver, you can use that silver in other pieces. I use the scrap silver from cutouts for cuttlebone casting. This is especially important in the current economy because industrial demand for silver has gone up, resulting in very high silver prices.
Second, cutouts are a great way to practice sawing. Sawing is one of the most important skills a metalworker needs. If you compare metalworking to playing a musical instrument, sawing is like playing scales over and over again. It is one of those basic skills that can always get better. If you make the cutouts complex enough, this is a great way to fine-tune your sawing skills.
Finally, cutouts add another dimension to the piece. This is especially true if the cutout is hidden under a stone or another piece of silver, such as the underside of a hollow form. The wearer of the piece will know she has something special and hidden that she can choose to share or not. I have made many art fair sales by telling the casual observer to look at the underside of a pendant or bracelet.
When I first started creating cutouts, I would just take a sharpie and draw the design for the cutout directly on the silver. This approach caused several problems. First, as I was sawing the silver, the metal would get hot and my hand would rub against the design slowing erasing it. Second, I didn’t get the benefit of sketching multiple drafts. The cutout design would be the first idea that popped into my mind, which rarely is the best one.
I later started sketching the cutout designs with paper and pencil. I would then glue the paper onto the silver with a glue stick. I preferred this approach because the pencil didn’t rub off as easily and the pencil had a finer point, allowing for more complex designs. However, these cutout sketches were still little more than rough drafts. Furthermore, I destroyed my sketches in the process of making the cutouts, so if I wanted to recreate a finished piece, I had to redraw the original design based on photos of the cutout. This happened to me once when a pendant got lost in the mail.
I have now fine-tuned my sketching process. First, I make 5 to 15 sketches of the general design of the jewelry piece, not including cutouts. After choosing a final design, I make 10 copies of the design on the same page. Then, I fill each one with sketches for cutouts. Finally, I choose the best cutout sketch, photocopy it, and glue the photocopy onto the silver. At the end, I still have all the original sketches for the piece and the cutouts.
The first step in the sawing process involves getting the saw blade into the metal. I use a center punch to punch a little dimple inside each future cutout. Then, I use the flex shaft to drill a hole into each dimple at a medium pace. Finally, I feed the saw blade into the hole and tighten it.
The second step requires deciding the order in which to saw the cutouts. Remember that sawing heats the metal and thin pieces of metal can easily bend when heated. Once the stone is in place, this isn’t a problem because the stone provides additional support.
I have played with sawing the largest cutouts first and with sawing the smallest cutouts first. Neither approach works particularly well. The best approach is to consider the structural integrity of the entire piece and room for the bezel. I try to start in one area of a piece and work outward from there. This is easy when your cutouts don’t cover a large area, but as you develop more complex cutouts, you will face more structural challenges. As you create more cutouts, you will develop a sixth sense about how to take advantage of the structure of the piece.
As you saw, always remember to leave enough metal for the bezel to rest properly. In addition, you must leave enough metal to avoid goobers on the exterior of the piece. Goobers are globs of solder left over after the solder runs. It’s fine if goobers are left under a stone because no one will see them, but they should never appear on the outside of a piece. Finally, place all of the scraps from the cutouts into a clean scrap bag (clean scrap is scrap without any solder on it).
After sawing, you must complete the finishing process. First, wet the piece in the sink. This will remove any remaining paper and glue. Then, get out your needle files and take a close look at the piece. Start filing the edges to the smoothness that you need. Sometimes you have to get a bit creative at this part because getting the files into small spaces can be difficult. I most often use a half round and circular file.
After the filing is done, the next step depends on the piece. If it is just a cutout, then file the outside edges smooth, solder on a finding and tumble or polish the piece. If you intend to set a stone, you will need to solder the bezel on the piece. Remember when soldering to heat very carefully because it is easy to melt the narrow pieces of silver separating the cutouts. You must apply heat evenly across the entire piece. Do not just heat one area.
I originally started creating cutouts as a way to practice my sawing. I quickly realized that cutouts are also a great way to save silver and they provide an additional artistic element to my pieces. Remember the thicker the gauge the easier to saw more complex the cutout. Finally, I have a lot of fun designing and sawing cutouts!
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