12 October 2018

A Basic Bezel

Happy Friday, y'all!  This week has been full of firsts for us: David's first IG giveaway, our first collaboration with the stellar Metalsmith Society, and on the home front, a sudden and terrible smell coming from seemingly nowhere... let's pray nothing got stuck in the wall and died.  NOT what I need at the moment.

This is also my first online tutorial!  Though I've been teaching in person for over six years now, I honestly am nervous about this.  Probably a good thing, but it's funny how new business moves always leave me slightly wondering, "What do I know about it?  Who am I to write this?"

But here goes nothing!  I want to offer up a sheepish qualifier, though, and tell you that this is how I learned, it's how I do things, and it works for me.  There are tons of other ways for going about this basic process, so take what you need and leave the rest.  I hope you find a tidbit helpful, insightful, or at least entertaining!  Don't hesitate to leave a comment if you have questions; I'll do my best to answer in a timely manner.


|| Instructions ||


While it's true that there is no universal way or formula for measuring exactly how tall a bezel needs to be, a few things to consider are as follows:

a. The height of the stone's edge.  Many stones are not cut as slabs, meaning the center of the stone is frequently thicker than the edges.  You'll want to measure the latter, as this is the key element that determines the minimum bezel height required to securely hold your stone in place.

b.  The curvature of the stone.  Stones that have gradually sloping edges will require less metal be pushed over during the setting process.  Deeper stones with steep edges or slabs that are cut perfectly perpendicular to the face of the stone will require a greater bezel height.

c. I highly recommend a digital caliper as shown in the photo above.  These are available both from Rio Grande as well as numerous other vendors, including Amazon and Harbor Freight.  You needn't buy an expensive one.

THIS one works well.



There are dozens, if not more, varieties of bezel wire commercially available.  If you're just starting out, I'd recommend a fine silver basic strip.  Fine silver is very soft and much easier to push over than sterling, especially if the gauge is thin and the metal hasn't been overly work hardened.

Some Thoughts:

a. I recommend choosing a bezel wire that is no more than 1mm wider than the height of your stone's edge.  Use the measurement you gleaned above as a platform for making the decision of what wire to choose here.  Too tall a bezel wire will likely crimp and look unattractive as you set the stone, or otherwise will cover so much of the stone's face that it detracts from the beauty you're trying to showcase.

b.  Bezel wire comes in multiple heights and gauges.  Generally, the thinner the gauge, the easier it will be to push over the cabochon.  That being said, extremely thin gauges are best used for very tiny and/or thin stones, as the ease of manipulation requires less pressure during setting- making it less likely you'll crack your stone.  Stones that are thicker and taller will handle a thicker gauge more easily.  For most bezels, a good go-to gauge is 28.

Shop Rio's selection of fine silver bezel strip HERE.

c.  If you cannot find a commercially available bezel wire that suites your stone's measurements, you can use a bench shear to custom cut your own.  (Or hand shears, if necessary... this will require more clean up later on, but is nevertheless an alternative solution.)  Here again, I'd generally recommend 28g fine silver sheet metal, trimmed to a strip that is the width you need in order to be approximately 1mm taller than the edge of your stone.  

d.  Alterations.  If you have a thin stone but want it to appear thicker; or, if you have a thinner stone and do not want to or cannot trim your own bezel strip, you can "build up" the stone within the bezel so that it's an appropriate height. (This will happen much later, after the bezel is made and soldered to a back plate and right before setting the stone in place).  Traditional Native American practices employ using a cushion of sawdust or sand beneath a cab in order to raise it within the bezel.  Many modern jewelry designers will use bits of urethane, expired credit cards or old hotel room keys- anything that can be cut to fit within the bezel that supports the stone and provides the needed height.  The added benefits of these latter materials include the inability to absorb moisture and harbor bacteria, the employment of recycling, and extreme durability over the years.



Once you've selected the bezel height and gauge you need, check to make sure it will capture your stone.  This is best done on a perfectly flat surface, such as your bench block.  (Ignore the fact that I'm using a post-it notepad in the picture above!)  Set your stone on the bench block and rest the bezel wire alongside the cabochon, stooping down to get a head-on view of the relationship between the height of the bezel wire and the edge of the stone.  The bezel wire should be slightly taller.  It should not, however, when dealing with sloped stones (higher center than edges), be as tall as the center of the cabochon- this implies too much metal which will, as stated above, likely crimp when being pushed inward or overly conceal your stone.



This is simple, but not always easy.  Especially for those of us with huge hands capable of palming a basketball (ahem), wrapping a delicate wire around a small stone can be troublesome.  While I wish I had some key secret for making this process easier, the truth is that fumbling your way through dozens of bezels is the best way to learn.  That being the case, there are still a few things to keep in mind that will help ensure the best fit possible, and less headache later on...

a. Always begin with a straight edge.  Even the most flushity-flush of all flush cutters will leave a small pinch, or bur, on the edge of your bezel wire.  Getting the best solder join possible with the cleanest seam means this seemingly minor issue is really a big deal.  Take the time to file the end of your bezel wire perfectly flat.  The best way to do this, in my humble opinion (because I can't file straight to save my life), is to use a miter jig.  The miter jig is my best friend.  It took us a few years to find each other, but now that she's in my life, I'll never let her go.  As with the digital calipers, you needn't invest in a super expensive one, but I firmly believe this tool will be huge asset to you in numerous applications throughout the duration of your metalsmithing journey.  (Maybe there's potential for another tutorial here?) 

THIS is a great economy version to get you started.

b.  Begin wrapping your perfectly filed bezel wire around the stone, starting at the longest, flattest, or least curved side of the cabochon.  Why there?  It's easier to hold as you get started, and having your seam location away from tight curves means less chance of your solder flowing and building up in tight corners- which can affect the fit of your stone within the walls.  

c.  As you wrap, two things to be aware of:

1.) Keep your bezel wire flush against the stone AND flush against your bench block!  Generally speaking, the bottom of the stone is the widest part of the stone.  Keeping your wire directly on the bench block as you wrap ensures you're measuring accurately.  A gap between the top of the bezel wire and top of the cabochon (as the cabochon gently slopes away from the bezel) is normal and not to be worried over; a gap between the wire and the bench block or the wire and the base of your stone however, is not optimal.  

2.) It's easy for us large-fingered folks to inadvertently begin pushing the bezel over the stone as we wrap.  Be mindful of this common mistake and take care to avoid it.  When you start to push the wire inward during wrapping, you're effectively shrinking the size of the bezel from the top side.  This means that later on, while you may think your bezel fits perfectly because you can pop the bezel down over the stone, you won't be able to do the reverse when it comes time to do the final setting.  Remember: stones have to placed into the bezel from the top.  If your bezel walls are diagonal, it doesn't matter how well you measured the wire at the bottom... you're never going to get your stone in there once the bezel is soldered down.


5. MARK and CUT

As you bring your wire around the stone, allow it to overlap itself so that your wrap remains snug.  In the photo above, I'm using a sharpie to make the point where I need to cut the end of my bezel. I did this for the sake of visibility, but I really recommend using a scribe instead of a marker.  The reason for this is because even a fine point sharpie leaves a thick enough line to leave room for error when cutting.  Scribes are more precise, and every little bit helps.  

a.  Where the tail end of the bezel comes around to meet/overlap itself, scribe a line down the outside of the wire.  Use a pair of flush cutters to snip off the excess wire- just beyond the scribe mark (meaning you're actually cutting the bezel just slightly long).

b.  Now we have that pinched end issue again.  Gently unwrap your bezel enough that you can fit the newly cut end into your miter jig.  Bring just enough of the bezel wire up over the filing surface so that you can just see your scribe line.  File down the pinched side until you have a perfectly flat, smooth, perpendicular edge that ends where your scribe line was.  Remove from the jig and inspect to make sure that your ends match up well.

c.  Bring your edges together for soldering.  The key here is perfect alignment in all directions.  Your edges should be flush together on a straight plane, meaning they shouldn't jut outwards into a peak or dip inwards to form a valley.  Likewise, they should be centered against each other so that the width remains constant across the seam.  Use flat-nose pliers if necessary to do any gentle skooshing (technical term) in order to get your seam perfectly flat and close any gaps.  You should not see light peeking through the edges.



6.  Solder your seam with hard solder.  Hard solder will hold up to additional soldering applications (attaching the bezel to a base plate, adding embellishments, securing a bail or ring band, etc.) Hard solder is also the best color match for sterling silver.  Over time, the rates of oxidation for sterling silver sheet and silver solder vary respectively.  Easy and medium solder contain less silver, and will therefore oxidize at a faster rate.  Ever buy silver ring and notice months later that you can suddenly see the solder seam?  This is why.  The seam tarnished before the ring itself- hard solder will prevent this, or at least take much longer to turn on you.

7.  Place your soldered bezel around the stone.  This may require a bit of shaping as getting perfectly aligned seams almost always alters the silhouette of the bezel.  You want the stone to go in easily enough that it doesn't risk cracking, but not so easily that it can fall out without a problem.

If you find your bezel is too big, you'll need to cut it open, trim, file and solder again.
If you find your bezel is too tight, a relatively easy and quick fix is to stretch it:

a.  Invest in a pair of half-round/flat pliers.  THESE work well- I have several pair on hand.  These pliers are also great for consistently bending earwires, helping to shape ring shanks, and probably lots of other applications I haven't considered.

b. Placing the curved jaw on the inside of your bezel, slowly work your way around the wall while squeezing gently as you go.  The curvature of the inner jaw prevents marring or misshaping your metal, while the narrow point of impact works effectively to gently stretch the metal while you squeeze.  Be sure to test your fit often, as despite not seeing much difference in your bezel by looking at it, you're moving more metal than you think!  Continue this process evenly around the wire until your stone fits cleanly inside.



Okay, so I don't really sand.  I don't use sand paper at all as it shreds too easily for my taste and doesn't hold up over long periods of time.  I prefer emory cloth, which is actually a woven fabric with an abrasive surface.  This isn't commonly found at big box stores such as Lowes or Home Depot, but can sometimes be found at small, independently owned hardware stores and paint shops.  I buy mine on Amazon.  It's more expensive than sand paper, but it lasts 10x as long- I bought 50 sheets years ago and have not reordered since, even though I use it in my classes!  (It's also great cut into strips and used with a split mandrel on your flex shaft.)  

Check it out HERE.

a.) Sanding ensures a perfectly flat and clean base for achieving the best possible solder join to your base plate.  Using a circular motion, "scrub" the bezel over a flat sheet of emory cloth until the underside is level, shiny and sits perfectly flat on your bench block.  You shouldn't be able to see any light between the block and the wire!  

b.) While I do use a fine file to clean up my solder seam, I really don't bother cleaning the rest of my bezel after it's soldered.  Allowing the silver to remain dirty will discourage solder from flowing up the bezel walls, preventing more clean up later on.  As long as the bottom edge is clean and level, soldering should go smoothly despite the rest of the bezel being flux-crusted and maaaaybe just a little ugly.  (Great tip I learned from Richard Salley).



It may sound obvious, but take the time to keep checking the fit of your bezel as you clean up that lower edge.  Sanding (emory clothing) can warp the shape of the bezel, especially if you're using a coarse grit.  (I'm a 280 girl, myself.)  After step 8, just give your stone one more test fit in your bezel to make sure that nothing has gone wonky.  Adjust as needed.


10.  MARK IT

I cannot tell you how many times I've accidentally soldered a bezel to my baseplate upside down.  Especially if you're using an irregular shaped stone, it can be extremely helpful to somehow mark which side of your bezel is up.  As much fun as it is to totally remove a bezel from a base plate and rework everything, this simple step will save you a lot of time and grief.  You're now ready to solder to the base plate and carry on with your epic design.  (Another thanks to Richard for this little morsel of smithing common sense.)


WELL!  Did I throw enough at you?  I left out all the soldering steps as this tutorial seems long winded already!  Bezel making can be really rewarding.  There was a time early on in my jewelry making journey that found me swearing up and down that I'd NEVER solder and I'd NEVER set stones because I was just too afraid: afraid of a torch, afraid of messing up, of wasting metal, of breaking gems, of failing.  The important thing to remember, though, is that every pro once began as a novice.  The only way to learn is through trial and yes, often failure.  Try gathering up a stack of stones- maybe a dozen or so- and just work on creating bezels for them.  Don't even worry about base plates or any plans for what they will become down the road.  Just practice.  Give yourself lots of patience, lots of grace, and dig in.  

I have no doubt in my mind: YOU CAN DO THIS.

With all my encouragement and faith.