Sunday, February 17, 2013

Labeling Your Jewelry with Class: A Mini Stamping Tutorial

I've been trying to come up with a classy way of including my business name on my jewelry.  I didn't want anything oafish or flashy, just a little inconspicuous label to mark it as handmade and remind people where they got it.  I needed something tasteful that would blend in with my designs.  After attending a friend's stamping party, the idea came to me - why not stamp my name on little charms to add to my designs?

My 1st jewelry tag!  It's hard to tell how big it is in this photo, but it's under 1/2 inch, or smaller than a dime.
I didn't know it at the time, but these are called "jewelry tags" - and I love mine!  I want to upgrade my stamps eventually, maybe even invest in a custom made stamp if I can settle on a logo, but these make me happy for now and I think they add a little something to the design as well!

One problem I'm still having is finding a way of labeling ALL of my jewelry. I still haven't come up with a good way to label earrings.  Earrings are usually rather small, fully on display, and most people want light weight.  So I'll keep working on that problem, but in the mean time, I have cute little tags for my necklaces, bracelets, brooches.....and some stamps for my cuffs, rings, charms and bead caps!

TUTORIAL:  How to Make Your Own Jewelry Tags  
                 and/or Stamped Charms

My 1st successful jewelry tag - I got the smallest metal blanks I could find at just under 1/2 inch (12mm).  With my disc cutter set, I can make them even smaller and less conspicuous!

Required (images below):
  • Brass Mallet (1-2lb) 
    • weight - what you can comfortable hold and control
    • brass mallets have more give than steel hammers and prevent damage to stamps
      • applying masking tape layers (6+) to a steel hammer can work temporarily
  • Stamping surface
    • Steel block/anvil with rubber block of same or greater size - best choice
      • rubber block protects the steel block and work surface from damage
      • rubber substitutescork tile, masonite, thin wood board
    • Steel hammer head - 2nd choice (works in a pinch)
      • use the flat, wide side surface (not the hammering surface)
      • handle will "jump" when stamping so clamp it down if it's still attached
    • Hardwood block - 3rd choice
  • Steel Hand Stamps 
    • letters, numbers, designs - up to you!
  • Metal Blanks/Drops/Discs
    • variety of shapes, sizes, finishes and gauges available - also up to you!
    • unless you have a hole punch pliers or drill, purchase blanks with holes
 Optional (some shown below):
  •  Hole punch pliers/Power punch or Drill press/Hand drill
    • useful if you buy blanks without a hole or need more holes
    • TIP:  clamp the discs before drilling and wear safety glasses!
  • Dapping Block Set
    • comes in wood or steel variations
      • I suggest steel because it will last longer and you can work with harder metals
    • for doming metal discs
      • you can dome any shape, but circles work the best
  • Disc Cutter Set
    • make your own circle blanks in a variety of sizes and gauges from sheet metal
    • do not use with plated metal - the center metal will be visible on the cut edges
  • Metal sheet
    • Copper is a good option for beginners, purchase in 12"x12" sheets (or larger) for the best price
  • Jewelers saw, saw blades, and small/fine files
    • make your own metal blanks in unique/custom shapes and sizes
    • this is beyond jewelry tags and into fine jewelry charms 

TECHNIQUE:  Step-by-Step

I should note before you start stamping - if this is your first time, PRACTICE ON SCRAP METAL.  Do not expect perfect results the first time, or even the second or third times.  The right tools are important, but so is good technique which you can only get by practicing!

Practice on some scrap metal - it takes patience and good technique to get straight lines and even depth.
1) Place steel block on top of rubber block preferably on something level and sturdy.  I place mine on the cement floor of my garage or basement.  A table or bench is okay, but the more give and wobble you have in your setup, the harder it is to make a clean stamp impression (more on this later).

TOP:  Basic setup includes steel block, rubber block, hammer/mallet, metal blanks (12mm), and steel stamps
BOTTOM:  Some additional tools include a dapping set, disc cutter set, center punch, and scrap or sheet metal

2) Choose a metal blank and plan your stamped design.  I like stamping the name of my shop around the edge with a design stamp in the middle.  However, the simpler the design (ie, the fewer number of stamps used) the easier it is to keep it looking nice, even on your first tries - especially with letter stamps.

Some of my first attempts - they don't look too bad because I only had to line up a couple letters.
TIP:  If you want straight, even words, draw a line with permanent marker to follow while stamping.  It'll polish right off when you are done.  Since I'm stamping around the edge, I follow the edge of the blank instead.

3)  Before you place your stamp on your blank, consider the size, the design, and the letter.  Larger stamps and detailed stamps have more surface area touching your blank and therefore have more resistance to being pressed into metal.  Basically, it is more difficult to get a clean, deep impression with larger and/or more complex design stamps.  Letter stamps are the easiest to use, but there are even differences between letters from the same stamp set - the letter "I" is easier to use than the letter "W", for example.

Different stamps will require different amounts of force to leave the same impression in metal.

Why is this important?  Different stamps will require different amounts of pressure to make the same impression.  You will need to hit the stamp harder or softer depending on the design for a consistent depth throughout.  The letter "I" requires a relatively soft hit, while the letter "W" requires a harder one, and a design stamp may require multiple strikes for a good impression.

TIP:  Look at the stamping end of your stamp.  Make sure the design is OPPOSITE or REVERSE of what you want to stamp, then flip it over onto the blank without twisting itThe impression will be a mirror image of the raised stamp.  This is really important for letters - the letter "D" and "E," for example, can be rotated to look correct to your eye, but if you stamp in that orientation, the impression will be backwards.

 Make sure the stamps are in the correct orientation prior to stamping or your letters will be backwards!

4) Where you start stamping is really up to you.  You can start at one side and go across/around or you can start in the middle and work outwards - whichever is easiest for you to keep your words/design centered.  What is more important is stamp placement on the blank prior to hitting the stamp with a mallet.  You want to make sure the stamps are held level/flat to the blank.  If they are held at a slant/angle, the impression will be deeper on one side than the other.  Since the stamps are small, it can be hard to feel if they are level so double check, don't just assume.  For the same reason, the mallet blow should be straight down on the stamp as well or the blow could press one side of the stamp down harder than the other.

 Hold stamps level for a clean, even impression.   
Stamps held at a slant will cut deeper into one side of the design than the other.

TIP:  With larger or more complex design stamps, expect to strike the stamp more than once.  This is where the sturdy stamping surface comes in (ie, a solid floor) - if your setup "jumps" when you stamp, then it's very difficult to hold the stamp steady for a second or third blow.  You'll get a ghosting imprint instead of a clean one if the stamp moves between mallet strikes and though it's possible to reposition the stamp, it's very difficult and not always successful.

 Ghosting - when your stamp moves between mallet blows.   
Having a very solid work surface helps prevent "jumping" while stamping.

5)  If you are stamping only 1 stamp on your blank - go for it!  You are ready!

If you are stamping out a word, make sure to place each successive stamp along your line or your edge the same distance apart.  The actual stamp takes up a small portion of the stamp head - it might look like you are overlapping your previous letter when you stamp the next letter, but you won't be.  To get evenly spaced letters - I can't stress this enough - PRACTICE ON SCRAP METAL!

When you have the spacing down (really, it's just practice to get this right because each stamp head is a little different.  The letter "I" is narrow, the letter "W" is wide so even measuring out exact stamp placement won't work without practice first) then STAMP!  STAMP!  STAMP!  Keep going until your design is complete, but take your time.  It really bites to be almost done, and then mess it up....

 That's right - I mess up too....but it's good practice!

If you mess up, keep going anyway - it's good practice!  I suggest practicing a little before each stamping session (unless you stamp several times a week) to remind yourself how the tools feel.

6) You skip this step if you want to dome the tag/charm as I have done with a dapping set (come back after dapping).

Place your completed tag/charm on the steel block, face down, and tap gently with your mallet to flatten the tag/charm back out.  If you have a rawhide mallet or plastic hammer, use that instead so you don't mark up the tag/charm - plus you can hit the charm harder which can be cathartic.....

 Finished flat jewelry tags - just words and with a design stamp in the center.   
And cheer up!  Even with regular practice my stamping isn't perfect.  That's part of the charm of handmade!

Polish them up if necessary and your tags are ready to go!  Just add a jump ring or other attachment and add to your finished piece of jewelry. You can also add a patina or other surface technique at this time, including adding hammered texture.  ALWAYS STAMP BEFORE ADDING TEXTURE - texturing work hardens metal and will make it very difficult to stamp unless you anneal the metal between steps.

TIP: If you don't have a patina, you can marker in the stamped lines to make them stand out, then polish off the extra marker.  This isn't as permanent, but it works! 

7)  Dapping Block and Disc Cutter Tutorials Coming!

A dapping set is used to dome metal discs - I like the dimensional aspect of these jewelry tags!
A disc cutter is useful if you want a variety of sizes of discs, including really small or fairly large ones!
If you just can't wait for my tutorials, check out these two posts on disc cutters and dapping blocks:  Kelsi's Closet: Disc Cutter Review & Rings & Things: Dapping.

TOOLS and TIME:  Is the Initial Start-Up Cost Worth It?

One of the reasons I didn't start labeling my jewelry earlier was because stamping and dapping techniques required a few tools I didn't yet have.  I had to decide how many tools I was going to purchase right away, and what I would eventually upgrade to.

Basic Tools and Average Prices:
Letter Stamp Set                 $25-40 
Design Stamp - single          $8-15
Metal Blanks w/holes           $0.12 - $2.00/blank (often sold in sets, $6 and up)
Brass Mallet                        $20-30
Steel Block                         $15-60
Rubber Block                      $10-15
TOTAL (w/o blanks)            $70 and up

These are just average prices - sometimes you find a great deal!  You can purchase a basic letter and number stamp set for under $10.00 at Contenti, for example.  But most letter stamps are either lowercase or uppercase - that's $80 for the entire set and more for the numbers.  There is also the option of getting a custom stamp made.  The upshot is that you only need 1 stamp for you entire jewelry tag - the downside is that the smallest, simplest custom stamps start at $80 for 1 stamp. 

Optional Tools:
Disc Cutter Set              $30 and up
Metal sheet (12"x12")     $11 and up

Hole punch pliers            $10
Dapping Block Set          $35 and up
TOTAL                          $96 and up

These prices are the very low end, too.  An economy disc cutter and dapping set are fine for hobby jewelers, but if you are serious about making jewelry and/or move a lot of inventory, then the economy options will cost you money in the long run.  Professional quality sets are over $100 easy.  Thicker gauge copper will double the sheet price, and sterling silver cost $6 or more per square inch!

So is the initial start-up costs worth it?  It depends.  You can pick and choose which tools are going to be the most useful to you - you certainly don't need to get them all!  If you are just looking for nice jewelry tags, I have to say the cost and learning curve probably aren't worth it.  Emily Dewees Jewelry is a shop on Etsy that makes custom jewelry tags.  She has a lovely selection of fonts, designs, and blanks to choose from and comes with a 100% satisfied rating.  If you are looking for something even more custom, try Infinity Stamps.  They will create a custom stamp for your shop (I believe you need to provide the logo, though), and they will stamp your tags for you.  If the price seems high, think of the time that is going into making all of these tags!  Your time is worth something, and so is theirs.

If you are looking for more ways to use the tools you have, or to expand your skill as a metalsmith, or are just curious and have the money, then the start up costs maybe be worth it to you.  For me, as a part time jeweler who works more for fun than for money and as a metalsmith who misses having a full studio of tools to work in, yes, the start up cost was worth it.  I LOVE sawing, filing, stamping, hammering and making a general mess while being loud and working with metal!  I don't mind puttering around making my own jewelry tags because I only need a few a week and I like the practice, the learning, and the expansion to my tool collection.  I also use these tools for other jewelry applications, not just making tags.

Resources I Have Used:
Contenti - tools and supplies (best price on economy tools)
Rio Grande - tools and supplies (large selection - need an account)
Fire Mountain Gems - supplies, some tools (good price on basic metal blanks - search for metal drops)

Etsy Resources (Support Handmade!):
TDS TOOLS ONLINE - stamping tools, including individual design stamps (nice prices)
Emily Dewees Jewelry - custom jewelry tags (nice range of options - great price for hand stamped tags)
Sparklies by Julie - custom stamped jewelry charms (nice range of fonts and designs, quality charms)

Stamping Resources:
Buckeye Engraving - custom marking stamps (not just for metal)
Infinity Stamps - tools, supplies, custom stamps, jewelry tag services (high initial cost)
I-Mark - custom stamping tools (best price I found)