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Metalsmithing 101: Bench pin basics

Bench pin basics

For those of us who make jewelry-scale work, the bench pin is the center of our world. My colleagues in the UK and Europe often call it a “bench peg,” but we know what they mean. The bench pin (or peg) is a small block of wood that is affixed front and center to our primary work station. Although it’s one of our least-expensive accoutrements, it’s probably the most valuable piece of real estate in the jewelry artisan’s studio.

Since this is where we spend the majority of our time and invest much of our focus, here are some helpful tips and tricks to get the most out of this seemingly modest scrap of wood.

Getting started 

Any piece of wood can be used as a bench pin, but the traditional model has a few specific features. One face is flat, and the other is angled; which face is oriented upward depends a lot on the activity being undertaken. Despite the photos in most tool catalogs, the flat face is the most commonly used face, and is considered the “top” of the pin. The flat face is an appropriate surface for layout, measuring, marking, sawing, and piercing. We also do a lot of final steps on the flat side of the pin that involve connecting  and assembly. 

The angled face is designed at a slant for a reason: An angled surface is well suited for holding and securing objects for activities with an inclined approach, such as filing and carving. When using a tool, like a file or burnisher, with a forward-and-backward stroke, it’s more natural to work against an inclined plane rather than on a horizontal surface.

The most common feature of a traditional pin is a V-notch cut into the leading edge. This notch provides an opening over which to position work for sawing. 

Another common bench pin style, usually called a “saw block,” is just a flat piece of wood, with no angled sides. A saw block can be easily modified to make it just as user friendly for the same tasks done at a traditional pin.

Placement and use

The proper working height for the top of a standard jeweler’s or goldsmith’s bench is at the same elevation as your armpit when seated. At most benches, the pin attaches at or just below this height. A good way to approximate this height is to sit upright in your chair, with the soles of both feet flat on the floor. Press your elbows against your ribcage and bring your hands upward with the palms together in front of your chest. This is the approximate location for most of the work done at the pin.

Make it your own

While a new jewelry maker might use his pin “as is” straight out of the box, initiated novices and seasoned veterans alike treat it as a highly customized and modified work station. In her opening statement to her new students, my friend Julie Sanford, of Studio JSD in Grand Haven, Mich., says: “A bench pin is meant to be used. It becomes one of your most personalized tools.” Each of us has our own preferred functions and features for the pin. If you’re tempted to cut a notch or saw a groove in your pin — go ahead! Make your pin work for you. 

It only takes a couple minutes to prepare a new bench pin for use. If a student exclaims, “Oh no! My bench pin doesn’t have a V!” I can reassure them with a simple sentence: “That’s okay, we have a saw!” Just a couple saw lines and a few well-placed cuts and, voilà! we’re ready to make jewelry.

In addition to a center V, many practitioners cut additional features into their pin. There are several modifications I make to a fresh-out-of-the-box bench pin that I’ll use for everyday tasks (See “Michael’s Modifications,” below).

Bench pin basics Michaels modifications
Bench pin basics V notch
Bench pin basics Secure wire

Front and center

The center V-notch has other beneficial functions. It’s a useful angle support for bracing a ring mandrel when forging rings up to size. I also use it as a grip lock when bending and forming heavy-gauge wire or work-hardened metal. By positioning the pliers in the notch, with its jaws pointing upward, I can securely grasp a wire and exert enough force to bend it around the tool without worrying about slippage and damage to my hands or jewelry. By bending the wire around the tool instead of using the tool to bend the wire, I produce a much smoother curve without leaving tool marks.

For bending and forming curves and loops in stout or stiff wire, I secure the wire in my pliers, then roll it against the top of the bench pin while pressing down. Using the bench pin as a stable platform lets me work with confidence and security.

Keep in contact
 
Our relationship with the pin is extremely hands-on. Something must connect us with the pin at all times. Christine Dhein, Assistant Director of the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, says: “Air jewelry is not allowed! If you are familiar with air guitar, air jewelry is the same concept. It’s crucial to have something in contact with the bench pin at all times: a tool, the metal, your hand or fingers.”
 
I would add that holding an object and file together braced on the bench pin is jewelry making. Holding a file and an object together in midair, unsupported, is cosmetology. Cosmetology is not jewelry making. Both are creative, yes, but only one is appropriate at the jeweler’s bench!
 
Most frequently, when I am working with pliers, a scribe, dividers, or a burnisher, my thumbs are positioned against the sides of the pin. When I saw, the thumb of my holding hand is below the pin pressing upwards, making a C-clamp to keep the piece stable.
Bench pin basics Using Thumb

I also use my thumb below the pin and under the notch when I am using a needle or escapement file. 

I contact the pin just as much with other parts of my hand and fingers; base of the thumb, heel of the palm, first knuckle and side of index finger, and several fingertips of either or both hands to hold the work on the pin or provide stability for the tool. 

Out with the old

The traditional jewelry maker’s bench pin is usually a sadly-worn and stubby piece of wood. The front edges are mostly filed away, and there are so many drill holes it often resembles a piece of Swiss cheese. Goldsmiths as a group tend to be a rather frugal lot, but I say, when the old one gets too worn away, just buy a new pin! No one gets a prize for having the smallest, most-used bench pin. It costs less than $5 to buy a brand new one, and the old ones are completely biodegradable.

Good relationships involve reliability, security, safety, stability, and respect. That is precisely what we’d like to cultivate in our involvement with our bench pin. It’s hard to find a better partner than that!

If we rely on the pin for support in the appropriate way, we can use confident movements of both the tool and the material. We can depend on the stability the pin provides as an immobile platform on which to work, and we can be assured of the safety it provides.

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