Local Metalsmiths Ply Their Trade

The Northwest chapter of the Florida Society of Goldsmiths gets medieval –
and teaches you how.Precious MettleArmed with Torches and Crock Pots, Local Metalsmiths Ply Their Trade

By Robert Zerbe

The metalsmith holds the piece of copper under the intense heat of the flame for a few minutes, then drops it into a bowl of water to cool. After retrieving the bronze piece of metal from the bowl, the smith inspects the copper fragment and returns it to its place on the anvil to bang out a new shape with a hammer.

This may sound as though it happened centuries ago in a fiery workshop somewhere in medieval Europe, but in reality, this metal crafting happened quite recently – and right here in town.

Florida has an organization devoted to the craft of goldsmithing and metal working – the Florida Society of Goldsmiths – with a Northwest chapter located here in Tallahassee. Formed in 1996, the chapter draws members from Panama City to Madison County. The group acquired its first studio space in 1998 and now includes more than 40 paying members.

“It feeds my need for a creative outlet,” said Starr Payne, president of FSG Northwest. “I like working with the metal because I like seeing something turn into something else.” An art major in college, Payne became interested in beading, moved to Tallahassee and began to take metalsmithing classes at Florida State University.

Page Rozelle, current vice president, and Zee Galliano, past vice president and current assistant teacher, talked about their backgrounds and demonstrated different techniques in the FSG Northwest Studio, located at 110 N. Monroe St.

“Never throw anything away,” Galliano said as she pulled a container of scrap silver out of her bag. After working in pottery, photography and weaving, Galliano joined FSG after taking a class two years ago.

“For me, metalworking combines aspects of lots of different crafts that I’ve worked in,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands. I went through a long period where I wasn’t doing anything creative, and I was very depressed. If I’m not creating something, it does really affect me.”

After preparing her scrap silver, Galliano next pulled out an ingot mold, a narrow metal block about a foot long with a long indentation. After heating the silver, Galliano poured the liquefied material into the mold to dry into a particular shape – in this case, wire. (But metalworkers aren’t restricted to using molds. At a recent gathering, one artisan created a free-form pendant by pouring molten silver into a mold made of cuttlebones.) As Galliano prepped the ingot mold, she was surrounded by an assortment of tools on the cluttered workspace, including an acetylene torch, a hydraulic press, an exhaust hood (a special device used to suck up harmful fumes) and . . . a crock pot?

The slow-cooking device is used for cleaning silver.

“When you work with silver, among other things that happens to it, it oxidizes,” Rozelle said. The metal workers use crock pots to hold and heat a “pickle solution,” a type of acid that can clean their silver.

“We use the stuff that you acidify your swimming pool with, only we do it really strong,” Rozelle said. The reason for the crock pot, she explained, is that the acid works best when heated. “You can have a really ugly-looking piece of silver after your soldering, throw it in the crock pot, and it’ll come out nice and pretty and silver again.”

After prepping the ingot mold, Galliano fired up the acetylene torch and prepared to melt the scrap silver. Galliano explained how the torch worked while she coated a bowl-like tool called a crucible with soot from the torch.

“This is acetylene air . . . the air is sucked in through these little holes, so if you block that off, that’s just pure acetylene and it’s really dirty,” she said, covering the intake holes on the torch and sending a black puff of acetylene fumes into the air.

After Galliano covered the crucible with soot, she placed some silver into it and began to torch the entire thing, holding the crucible by its handle over a baking pan filled with inexpensive kitty litter – a material that absorbs the heat from the torch, as well as any spills that occur.

It wasn’t long before the silver began to melt and glow inside the crucible.

“Two years ago, I would have been very intimidated by the whole idea of handling liquid metal and all that stuff,” Rozelle said.

After Galliano had poured the silver into the ingot mold, Rozelle offered to demonstrate hammering on a small, folded piece of copper.

“One of the things they teach you when you’re learning to work with metal is, ‘Don’t hold the piece where you’re going to hammer,’” Rozelle said, drawing a laugh from Galliano. “There’s a lot of common sense involved,” Galliano added.

Like Galliano, Rozelle joined the society after taking a class two years ago. Before that, Rozelle had tried basket weaving, ceramic beading and jewelry making, which led to her work with precious metal clay and onto her interest in metals.

“There’s something about moving metal and the physical process of it,” she said. “It’s because the medium is so versatile and so exciting to work with.

Admitting that she’s “interested in history,” Rozelle noted that Paul Revere was a silversmith and talked about other aspects of the history of metalsmithing.

“The first metal (that metalsmithers) learned to use was bronze,” she said. Metals have really been a huge part of the development of human beings.”

After hammering, snipping and annealing (heating the metal to keep it from becoming brittle and damaged) the copper, Rozelle opened it again to reveal its finished leaf shape.

The FSG Northwest studio and its instructors offer classes on forging, metal folding techniques and low-tech casting. They don’t just teach, however. Like a piece of copper pounded by a thumb-shaped hammer, the Northwest chapter is spreading out.

Twelve members have joined together to open a gallery in Railroad Square that also could become the studio’s new home in the near future.

“It would make more sense for us,” Rozelle said. “We’d have more of a connection between classes and what we do.”

Opened in October, the gallery showcases a variety of FSG members’ finished work – all one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry with prices ranging from $10 to $250. All member-made work, the metal jewelry also can include gemstones and enamel beads.

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