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Embrace the Unexpected

When I was rather unexpectedly laid off from the day job at the magazine at the end of August, I decided to look on the upside of things — all of a sudden I have lots of time on my hands to spend in my studio without being mentally distracted by the daily demands of a job. Sure, there is anxiety associated with being unemployed, but if you treat the job hunt part of your day like a temp job and just blitz through the finding leads, sending out and following up on stuff to efficiently get it over with, all of a sudden you have hours and hours of unencumbered time at your disposal. It’s actually really awesome. I’ve been sleeping like a rock, eating so healthy it’s scary, suddenly have lots of energy, and strangely, no more acid reflux. I haven’t left the house for weeks except to take a daily walk around my local lake, or to visit the mailbox or work in my garden.

All this positive force means I’ve been making work like a fiend, sending out class proposals, applying for residencies, shaking up some freelance work and teaching workshops, organizing my paperwork, cleaning up my digital assets, mastering some code, getting the book idea that’s been dancing in my head for about 8 months committed to a worddoc, and generally investing 100% of my creative energy into ProjectHelen instead of ProjectElsewhere. Hate to sound selfish, but ProjectHelen is so rewarding because there are actually tangible rewards when you invest in yourself. I could really get used to this…

Anyway, quick word of reassurance — I promise will still be writing about Tools and Bench Tips here on a regular basis. My last formal column will run in the November 2016 issue. For the past few weeks, I gave myself permission for an essential and very healing mental break after what went down at the magazine. I just had to allow the trauma to sink in and process itself down and out of me. I am happy to say I am cool with it now, doo-doo happens and, it was a great gig while I had it. Oh, and good luck…

So. Over, next. If you follow me on FB or Instagram, you’ll see I’ve been toying with some video, taking loads of step shots, and creating some new classes for Tucson and BeadFest, plus some other places I hope to reveal soon. Keep an eye on my class descriptions for updates. And now, I can be here more often, too.

Change, they say, is as good as a rest. Um, yep!



Busy is an Understatement

Feast or Famine. This is the way of life for most creative people. Every artist that I know in every discipline constantly copes with waves of too much/not enough over the course of their career. This applies to everything: work, money, time, inspiration, sleep, raw materials, you name it. If you aren’t used to that too much/not enough rhythm, the artist’s lifestyle is bound to be too stressful for you.
I think it’s crucially important to find whatever balance you can and establish a boundary system of sorts — despite the fact that being undisciplined is more common to us creative types than the opposite.

Since the last time I posted here, I have fabricated 9 objects, taken a master class, tech edited 4 issues of the magazine and done the never ending onslaught of day job stuff, produced a series of set designs and illustrations for an immersive theater performance, pitched 9 newly created classes and created sample objects for them, packed kits for 3 Tucson classes, taken inventory for the 6 others and formulated a 2016 student needs shopping list for Tucson, traveled to the home office and back, oh, and also dealt with the normal life stuff: house, family, pets, laundry, garden, gym, etc.

Most of this recent wave of stuff has reached the finish line, and I can see an open space on the horizon. Yahoo!

Bring on some famine, because I sure need it now. I look forward to my famine times — however brief they may be — because those are the places of possibility. Where I think, dream, begin and push. I start to build an energy bank for the next wave. Having those calm, empty, famine spaces is essential for me, so I have disciplined myself to black out sections of my calendar specifically for the purpose of having open space. I may or may not go anywhere or do anything particular during those times, but if I don’t create that space and protect it from intruders, I know I will self destruct.

So here is a trick for you — if you are also a member of the feast or famine crowd. Trust me and try this. The crazy holidays are coming. Don’t feel guilty, just do it. Block off three days of your choosing and then don’t let anybody schedule you for anything. Except you. Guard those three days and see what happens to your head when you know they are there to depend on and that you can trust yourself not to surrender them to anything or anyone. And then, once you have spent those three days doing exactly what you felt like, take a look at how proud of yourself you are for defending your right to open space.

Then, make a habit of it.

See you next time!

Metal Stamping Part Two

Sorry for the delay on this one, folks. I am a real fan of the phrase “Life Got in the Way of Art” and that applies here… So, hmmm…where were we? Oh yes, Vertical Spacing. Let’s start small and work up.

When it comes to readability, vertical spacing in lettering (including stamped lettering) can make or break you. It’s amazing how a teeny sliver of extra space can make the difference between seeing a word as one recognizable word, or two shorter, somewhat confusing words that were supposed to be one word. Again, this is not too critical for one, single, short, word, because your brain has the ability to process typography and put two and two together, so to speak. For sentences or phrases, clarity is important, so it helps when you are metal stamping to be intentional about spacing between individual letters and also the words. Let’s recall the glossary from part one of this topic: letter spacing is the space between individual letters of a font. Word spacing is the space between words. There are nuances to both.

When you look at the business end of a metal stamp, you’ll notice the raised letter sits relatively in the middle of a big square slug of tool steel — called the shaft of the stamp. Because all metal stamps are manufactured from stock-sized tool steel, a skinny letter i will sit in the middle of the same size steel shaft as a wide letter w. Here is where the smallest unit of vertical spacing comes in.

Here are an a and an i when spaced mechanically and visually.

Here you can see what happens when an a and an i when spaced mechanically vs visually.

There are two choices when using square letter stamps: mechanical positioning or visual positioning. What’s the difference? Mechanical spacing means you use the width of the tool shaft to determine the space of the individual letters. For example, 2mm stamps would be lined up along a base line with 2mm marks. Each letter would sit in a 2mm x 2mm cell. Think graph paper.

Visual spacing means you take the width of the individual letter form into account. An a occupies more space than a thin i, so you scootch the i a little closer to its neighbor before you stamp it. As you can see, that i can be moved over to the left almost half the width of the tool shaft. The point of this is readability. Trust me, you want to go for readability.
Another consideration when you look at letters is that you’ll notice some are friendly neighbors — like w with z, or m with n — they want to be close to each other, and it makes sense to take the extra time to decrease the space between them because it just looks better. Unlike graph paper.

Letter out your phrase. CHECK YOUR SPELLING. Find the center character -- spaces count as one. Circle them.

Letter out your phrase. CHECK YOUR SPELLING. Find the center character — spaces count as one. Circle them.

Now, lets look at vertical spacing blocks of text. Centering is a difficult thing to do for most people, despite the fact that it’s the most common type of text alignment used on jewelry objects. Centered type looks great on round things like pendants or charms. Here’s a handy method for getting well-spaced, centered text.

First, take a scrap of paper and write out your phrase. Then, count the number of letters and spaces in each line. Write them down. With a different color marker or pencil, circle the character that occupies the center of each line. In this example, you’ll see four lines of text. Line one has 9 characters and the k is in the middle at position 5. Next line, 5 characters; e is the center. Next, the space between the two words is in the center, and so on.

Once you have found the center of your text, its a good idea to test-stamp the phrase with the actual stamps you want to use before you go to your real jewelry object. Chill your jets and test it. I promise it will be worth the effort, because any little quirks about your particular stamps will be discovered in the test run, rather than on your sterling. Here’s how to layout your test. Cut a piece of scrap metal roughly the size of your finished object.
Clean it well, sand out the surface, dry it.

Here is a sketch of how I would letter this particular example phrase.

Here is a sketch of how I would letter this particular example phrase.

Use a Sharpie to draw a center line. Then, measure and draw the number of baselines you need for your phrase (If you forgot what baselines are, go back to part one). Start with the first line, using the middle letter. Make sure the stamp is not upside down. Position it on the center of the center line with the baseline at the bottom of the letter. Whack it like you mean it. Once. Take a peek.
Then, finish the rest of the characters on the right side of that letter from the center out. After that, finish all the letters on the left side of the line from the center out. Once you have the entire line stamped, follow the same process with the next line. And so on.

If you want ragged right type, no center line is needed. Start the lines of text at the left, stamp to the right. If you want ragged left, do the opposite. You can also letter on curved baselines, by following the same layout guidelines.

So, that’s the rudimentary lesson on vertical spacing for metal stamping. When you get really good with your particular stamps, you will anticipate where to make letters close to each other (called kerning) when to make letter forms closer to each other in general (called tracking) and when to space words closer together or further apart because of the shapes of the letters in your particular font. Have fun stamping… and check out my Twitter Facebook and Instagram feeds for more metal mayhem.

Twitter: @fabricationista
Instagram: HDriggs_Fabricationista
Facebook: Helen Driggs

I’m watching you…

This is a test. I have decided to experiment with Google Analytics, just to see what kind of traffic my blog generates in relation to: projects I have participated in creating, classes I am teaching, books I have written and other things…

So, if you’d like to play, and perhaps earn me a bonus at work, check out these links:

My Metalsmith Essentials Basic Fabrication DVD can be found here:

My Metalsmith Essentials Riveting and Cold Connections DVD can be found here:

My Jewelry Maker’s Field Guide Book:

Thanks for playing…

Tips for Tucson

One of my students is headed to Tucson for the first time this winter, so she asked me for some advice. What a loaded question. Tucson (otherwise known as the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral, Bead, Jewelry, etc. Shows) is such a vast topic, it’s really hard to explain the concept to the uninitiated. Here is a feeble start if you don’t know about it at all:

Every year, beginning around the last week of January, the city of Tucson in Arizona becomes the epicenter for anything and everything that is directly or even remotely connected in some way to minerals, gemstones, jewelry, jewelry making, embellished or decorated apparel, and accessories. For about three and a half weeks, you’ll find retail and wholesale beads, cut stones, tools, supplies, materials, stone, objects, finished goods, findings, display, ephemera, vintage stock, precious and non-precious material and new, unusual, and unexpected objects of delight in the hotels, public spaces, convention center, and seemingly every vacant lot capable of hosting one of those big, white epic tents they put up for events. In short, Tucson is heaven on earth for the jewelry minded. On the downside, it can also be exhausting, expensive and confusing if you haven’t got a plan. I’ve been there for 7 years running, and consider myself pretty efficient on navigation concerning Tucson, so here are my top ten tips for going:

Need a bracelet? There are thousands of tables just like this all over the city

Need a bracelet? There are thousands of tables just like this all over the city

1. Set a strict daily budget and adhere to it. It’s easy to blow the bankroll there, because there is so much good stuff. Self control is critical — unless of course, you are on an unlimited budget, in which case, call me and I will be willing to be your companion personal shopper for a mere 2% commission. All kidding aside, I discipline myself with a cash economy when I am there. Each day, I make an ATM withdraw of my daily budget and tuck the cash in the wallet. The plastic remains in the hotel safe to avoid temptation. When the cash is gone, I am done for the day.

2. Determine need vs. want — before you leave home. Make sure you get what you need first, then spend the rest of your cash on what you want. It’s easy to get swept away by the great deals and seduction of cool stuff, however if you miss getting what you went for, you’ll hate yourself when you get home.

African Masks

I always visit the African Art Village. It’s a photographer’s dream.

3. Travel light. You will need room in your suitcase. I choose a color scheme and bring clothes I can layer, mix, and match. The temperature can fluctuate 30 degrees from morning to night, and the city is ringed with mountains — you never know what the desert will do. Comfy shoes are a must. There are stores in Tucson if you forget something.

4. Don’t forget to drink water and eat regular meals. Ditto on the desert here. Dehydration can really ruin your day. And lack of food will give you stupid-head and make you susceptible to overspending. Been there, done that.

5. Flat Rate Priority Mail. I bring one medium box for each day of my trip and two rolls of reinforced packing tape, some bubble wrap and a thick black sharpie. Don’t rely on the post office to have these things, bring them to be sure. Each evening, I put all the catalogs, cards, notes and purchases into the boxes, pad it with dirty socks in plastic bags, and take it to the all-night self-service post office. Insure it, track it, stick on the label and drop it in the bin. You sure don’t want the weight in your suitcase going home.

Ocean Jasper

I adore the mustard yellow Ocean Jasper. If you know color, you’ll realize how useful this hue is…

6. Register in advance for credentialed shows. Visit the Tucson Show Guide website to figure out what you’ll see when. If a show is Wholesale only, see if you can fill out the Buyer’s Badge credential form online.
Then you can usually jump the line at the show and hit “Will Call” to pick up your badge, saving 20-40 minutes of line waiting. But bring your wholesale credentials (and several photocopies) with you, because you’ll need them constantly in the wholesale shows as you purchase.

7. Plan your attack before you leave home. I look at the date range for my selected shows, and try to visit them in logical order. I do the most critical things first, while I am sharp, awake, and still have money. The first thing I always conquer is my student kit needs for the coming teaching season. Then, I conquer replenishing my personal stash. After that, I am open to seduction. I always carry my credentials, business cards, shopping list, notebook and pen and camera to take notes. If you have time, scout first, make notes, then go back to buy after you’ve comparison-shopped.

Bucketloads of turquoise rough from every locality. Yum.

Bucket loads of turquoise rough from every locality. Yum.

8. Try one show per promoter to get a feel for what you like. There are several promoters with several locations each. Many of the vendors set up tables in each location a promoter has, so you’ll find the same stuff at different places. That’s a time-waster if you don’t have much time to spare, so pick one location per promoter and commit. You’ll never see everything anyway, so accept it and move along.

9. Collect business cards and booth numbers if you plan on continuing to do business with a particular vendor. I usually use my cell phone camera to record info I want to get back to — I will shoot the show banner at the start of the day, then as I find stuff I am intrigued by, I shoot booth numbers/names and then the actual stuff I am interested in. That evening, while it’s fresh in my head, I look at the photos, write out some notes in the notebook and tape the business card next to the notes to refresh the old gray matter when I get home.


Yes, that’s a $45K aquamarine specimen. Uncut. Just the way nature intended.

10. Have some fun. It’s so easy to get sucked into the exhausting feeding frenzy of consumption when you get to Tucson, but remember to look up and out once in a while. The city is beautiful, and if like me, you are coming from somewhere cold, gray, and dreary, it will be a delight to stand in the golden sunshine and look at the rosy sunset every evening. Especially if you are holding a cold Margarita and eating al fresca at the same time.

So, that’s it. In case you are interested, my must-hit shows are Tucson Electric Park (Kino Sports complex), The Pueblo Show, The African Art Village, The 22nd Street Show, Gem Mall, and the “Strip” along I-10. Every year, I try to add a “Wildcard” and see something I have never been to. I typically buy cutting rough, tools, things for my students, some finished goods and vintage components, particularly the old, dusty or unusual.

As for other human needs, I always try to eat at the Tucson Tamale Company, The Old Pueblo Grille and Sushi Cho. Lunch is typically a grab and go affair, so I make it a point to sit down for a meal and unwind at the end of the day with friends. Margaritas are, of course, a given.

Pssst: To those intrepid souls who really looked and are following me on Instagram, thanks! It’s super-fun playing with you.
Here is the weekly recap: Welcome. To. My. Studio. Are. You. Ready. To See. What.

PS: If this is a mystery to you, click on the photo under the photo of my book at upper right of this blog. It will get you there, lol.

Problem Solving at the Bench

Brooke's bracelet after patination in Liver of Sulfur

Brooke’s bracelet after patination in Liver of Sulfur

Recently, I got an email from Brooke Graybill, a former student who took my Flex Shafts Only! class at Bead Fest Spring. She’s been busy working on some interesting etched bracelets, and wanted to experiment with patination, but hit a wall.
Of course, she emailed me just as I was packing for Bead Fest Philly, so it has taken me some time to answer her here. Luckily, Brooke was tenacious, and hunted me down there, so we did catch up with each other, I told her what I came up with to help her (I hope) and I also hope she is moving forward on that bracelet now.

In any case, my mind has continued to work on solving her problem since the day she emailed, and as soon as I clear a half finished project from my bench, I plan to do some scientific research — to see if I can solve her problem without doubt. In the meantime, what I have here are the several suggestions I came up with. But first, here’s her email:

Hi Helen,
I recently took a Flex Shaft course from you, however, my question is about patina, I hope you can help me. I etched some copper for a bracelets. My plan was to use liver of sulfur and darken the etched copper as dark as possible and then buff off the patina on the raised areas.
The one picture I’ve included shows my problem . . . I had trouble removing the dark patina only on the raised areas . . . hence I had to remove all of it.  Is there something I could have put on the raised areas to resist the liver of sulfur?  I would appreciate any suggestions you may have. Thanks – Brooke Graybill

Brooke's bracelet after finishing.

Brooke’s bracelet after finishing.

I love the challenge of solving problems, and in doing so, I first analyze Pros and Cons of the situation. In this particular case, all the pros are about the metal Brooke chose: copper. She got a deep and clear etch, copper forms easily, and there isn’t a more patina-friendly metal. Sadly, some of the cons are also about the metal: the copper will continue to darken over time (unless it is sealed) and eventually obscure the stark contrast between the red metal raised areas and the black patinated recesses. The other con has to do with the design she etched — those raised areas are little isolated copper islands in an ocean of black. This isn’t bad design, mind you, it’s just difficult to deal with technically — as Brooke discovered.

So here’s what I came up with. To help you wrap your brain around it, I will call the raised areas of the design the “islands” and the etched out areas the “ocean”.

Option 1: The hand finishing method. If Brooke had left the bracelet flat after patination and then very carefully used a scotch stone, burnisher, triangle scraper, or a bit of steel wool or abrasive paper to very patiently remove the patina from the surfaces of the islands, she would have had more control and been able to preserve the black ocean. Then she could have very carefully formed the bracelet around the mandrel with a clean rawhide mallet while protecting the delicate surface with a piece of cloth, chamois or leather.

Option 2: The patient patinatation method. This option is also best for a flat cuff, and I would use a weak liver of sulfur liquid solution or the gel for this process. Get a fine-tipped sable watercolor brush — not a cheap, crappy, 50-cent dime store brush that flops around when its wet — and carefully paint the patina into the oceans. You can only do this with a decent brush. Since you want black, black, black, work on a paper towel and let the patina solution evaporate off the metal. Then, form as above.

Steel Wool QTip

Use a chopstick, dowel or round toothpick and some 28 ga. wire to attach the steel wool.

Either of these options requires patience and an unformed bracelet. In Brooke’s case, the bracelet is already formed. So, if it were me, I would throw it in the pickle to remove all traces of former patina, rinse and dry it, and then blacken it again. Then I would make a steel wool Q-tip (photo at left) and very patiently burnish that patina off the islands. After I have what I want, I’d seal that copper with wax, matte varnish or Krylon immediately! Because copper is so patina-friendly, it will turn chocolate brown on you almost immediately, especially here on the uber-humid eastern seaboard.

So, Good Luck Brooke! I hope these suggestions help, and I will do some experimenting myself soon to see if I can  come up with another solution.

Pssst: It might possibly be entertaining and interesting in the very near future for you readers and subscribers to start following my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds soon … Just sayin’

Twitter: @fabricationista
Instagram: HDriggs_Fabricationista
Facebook: Helen Driggs

Life’s good when you get to run it

Bob Ebendorf, Fred Gall, CoMA Conference 2014 Salida, Colorado

Sculptor Ted Gall (left) and Bob Ebendorf share a quiet moment at the podium.

I truly love metalsmithing and I’m reminded of that pure and simple fact every time I get away from the daily grind and into a group of like-minded friends. Despite what it may appear to be, very often a job can be a job, and once you discover its the things you make time and space to do on your own clock that feed your mind and your heart, life becomes so much more rewarding.

Such is the case for me now, and I have gotten to a place where I truly understand how the “important stuff” happens when you get to run it. This year, I made a pact with artist Helen to go to the annual CoMA Conference on my own time and my own dime. If you love metalsmithing and you’ve never been, I heartily recommend it — so, mark your calendar now for the third weekend of July and join.

The last time I attended CoMA was a few years ago, and I was distracted by exterior unpleasantries, the job and the duties — and as a result I was unable to experience it on my own terms as artist Helen. This time, I had to run it, because I needed this one like a desert needs rain. When you are running on empty, you’ve just got to add fuel to the tank. And even with my excellent planning, I wound up being in recovery during the conference from a somewhat unexpected major surgery, and just a bit worried about being far from home. However, courage is essential when you decide to run it, so I trusted Doc, packed my meds and braved the pain and the flight. It was so, so worth it.

pinswap, helen driggs jewelry, CoMA conference 2014, fibula

Here are my 20 pin swap pins ready to trade. Wire fibulas were about all I could produce while laying on the couch drugged and in pain as I recovered from surgery.

Headliners this year were Andy Cooperman, Barbara Heinrich, Ford + Forlano, Ted Gall, and one of my “jewelry heroes” the incredible educator/artist Bob Ebendorf. Every presenter demonstrated a signature technique, and there were additional demos, including using Delft Clay by Alex Boyd, images and videos galore, the pin swap, lunches with friends, dinners with more friends, the silent auction (I scored a sweet strand of chunky, awesome stone beads for a song), the Arkansas River kayakers, “S” Mountain, Big blue sky, Culture Clash Gallery, cold adult beverages, a fantastic and like-minded roommate, glorious sunsets, tales of rocks and cutting rough, the vendor room, and a sweet, singing canary in the breakfast room of my hotel. I also took a two-day workshop with Bob Ebendorf after the conference which totally blew off my doors.

I came home energized and excited about making work again, which is a feeling I haven’t experienced in a while because my gauge was on empty. I have been very busy and life’s been full, but I have been making and doing lots of stuff for the job, plus curriculum pieces and demos for teaching. Important, yes. But, I remembered that its also  important to make space and time for the pure and simple work you make just for the love of making it. It is essential to do that to remain whole, and CoMA helped me remember. I was also very lucky to have an excellent drive featuring a very good mentor/student exchange with Bob Ebendorf all the way to the airport. Having an exchange with someone like Bob is a blessing. Wisdom is everything. And I know now it is critical to keep my sanity by establishing crystal clear boundaries between my own personal time and artwork and the time I have sold to others.

Bob Ebendorf necklace, CoMA 2014 Post Conference Workshop

Bob Ebendorf has used every imaginable material in his work. I have never seen such an inventive use of tabs and cold connections. He is an amazing educator and I have tremendous respect for him.

The more I spend time doing what I love on my own time and dime, the more I remember how important it is to me and how much I love metalsmithing. It makes me strong to have those boundaries in play because they protect artist Helen from the big time and energy drains that can suck the life from you.

The takeaway is this: here are five things I am going to try this summer as a result of what I observed at CoMA. These were my “Ah Ha” moments and I’ll do a show and tell later on as I progress. And, I am still working on the movie in a blog thing, guys/gals, so don’t give up on me yet. I am just busy, but I will deliver, I promise. So anyway, check this:

1. Weld sterling to sterling with sterling wire, instead of using solder — courtesy of Andy Cooperman

2.  Roll print my dried oak leaf hydrangea blossoms between 2 sheets of annealed gold — Courtesy of Barbara Heinrich

3. Make a hand fabricated chain out of iron tie wire or recycled coat hangers — Courtesy of Bob Ebendorf

4. Cast something using Delft Clay — Courtesy of Alex Boyd

5. Revisit polymer clay as a jewelry medium, but wearing a ‘barrier film’ on my hands to prevent a recurrence of serious allergic dermatitis — Courtesy of Steven Ford of Ford + Forlano.

So, that’s all folks. I have a busy remainder of the summer to go, and I’ll see you at BeadFest Philadelphia if you are there.  There are some spots open in some of my classes, so check out my Teaching Dates above if you are free.

Ciao! And, enjoy the rest of the photos…


Bob Ebendorf is free and open with his demo and sample pieces. He encouraged us to shoot as many photos as we needed to take notes. He is truly an educator at heart.

bob ebendorf teaching at CoMA 2014

This is the best part of the workshop experience. I always learn best by watching a master at work. Bob Ebendorf is a wealth of information and a truly fun teacher.