Is It Time to Upgrade Your Bench?

When jewelers have the right bench tools, they can finish their work quickly and precisely. That saves your store time and money. A well-stocked bench builds customer satisfaction and loyalty. Of course, the jeweler down the street also knows this is true. So, in order to be competitive, you should stock your bench with the latest in tools and gadgets. Here are some suggested upgrades as well as some old standbys.

Ergonomics, organization. To optimize productivity a jeweler must be well-organized and comfortable at the bench, with adequate work surfaces and easy access to tools and supplies. The following items serve these aims.

  • Jeweler’s bench chair ($379). Since bench work is a sedentary job, it’s important to have the right chair.

Multiple adjustments and sufficient cushioning are the key features of a good bench chair. The chair’s wheels should roll easily yet should remain steady while you work. This isn’t something you can pick up at your local Office Depot. Check out jewelers’ supply-house and office-furniture catalogs for a chair that suits your needs. These catalogs offer more choices than the limited supply carried by the superstores.

  • Armrest ($75). A benchworker is an artist and therefore requires a steady hand. Attaching an armrest to the bench adds support during soldering, fusion welding, carving, setting, and engraving. An armrest is a simple and inexpensive upgrade, yet most bench jewelers don’t have one. Contact your local supplier and rest easy.

  • Bench-tool organizer ($125). An uncluttered bench makes for better efficiency. Some easy additions to the bench can help jewelers finish projects on time and with less stress. Organizers are an obvious solution. Use peg boards, add-on bins, drawers, and magnetic tool strips to get the mess up and out of the way but still within easy reach. Bench organizers can mount right onto the back of your bench or, if space is available, on a wall. Jewelry suppliers and your local Home Depot are great places to look for them.

  • Micro Slide ($365). Now that you’ve cleared your bench, consider adding surface to your work area with a Micro Slide from Rio Grande Tools & Equipment, Albuquerque, N.M. This is a portable platform to which you can attach hand tools such as third hands, a chain holder, and your torch. A unique feature of the Micro Slide is that it provides an additional third hand, offering more mobility. Mounted on a dual track, the third hand can slide from front to back and up and down, as well as rotate a full 360 degrees. That makes it ideal for precise soldering.

  • Roto Bench ($850). The Roto Bench, also from Rio Grande, is one more step toward making your bench fully adjustable. The system, which sits on a pivoting swivel, mounts directly to the top of your current bench. You can attach everything to it, including a Micro Slide, bench pin, and ring clamp.

  • Bench pin (up to $30). If you don’t want to go with a complete bench makeover, then at least change the bench pin. It’s inexpensive, and there are several types from which to choose. A somewhat complicated device is the Piercers Pleasure Spring-Loaded Bench Pin from Rio Grande. It’s a rubber-lined jaw and high-tension spring clamp that you can use to firmly grip sheet metal for intricate piercing and sawing.

  • Portable bench pin ($35). If you have limited space and need to do a quick repair, a portable bench pin comes in handy. It clamps onto any table and is great for those times when your bench is full and something has to be repaired in a hurry. Several manufacturers offer this device.

  • Burr racks ($25). One of the most frustrating activities at the bench is trying to locate a setting burr that was used earlier in the day. Jewelers can avoid that problem by racking their burrs and “blanking off” the spaces they don’t use. This way, the rack has room only for the burr that’s currently in use. You then replace it to the only open spot. By blanking off your burr rack, you also know when there’s one missing. The burrs will never be out of order, and you won’t waste time looking for ones you don’t have. Burr racks are available from a number of companies.

  • Lights ($160). Halogen and incandescent lights are inappropriate for the bench, according to specialists in jewelers’ workbench lighting. Any kind of incandescent source is going to be hard on your eyes.

Replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent fixtures using standard “cool white” lights, available from any hardware store. This will reduce eye strain and increase contrast, helping you scrutinize surface scratches and abrasions, soldering joints, and finish quality. Omni-directional fluorescent lights are good for this purpose.

Try using a 4100K color temperature rated fluorescent tube in a circular ring or double-line bench light from your local home-improvement center or jewelry-supply house. For little money (less than $20) and effort, you can light up your shop the right way.

  • Video system ($700). A relatively inexpensive close-up video system can be a great help with exacting jobs such as engraving and pavé work. The jeweler can view important work on the monitor without the restriction of an Optivisor with magnifiers. A conventional system available at consumer electronics stores will do the trick.

  • New hand tools. A number of new files, saws, pliers, knives, and other hand tools are available to help the jeweler tackle jobs more efficiently.

  • Grobet ValTitan files ($30 or less). Grobet ValTitan files, the latest in specially treated files for the platinum jeweler, are reportedly harder than standard gold-working files. They also are said to resist metal accumulation, making them tougher and longer-lasting. They’re made by Grobet USA, Carlstadt, N.J.

  • Fingernail files ($1.25). If it’s convenience you want, try fingernail files. That’s right, fingernail files. The files you buy at the drug store, especially those made for acrylic fingernails, have two to four different polishing grits on the same file. They work so well that you can take an unfinished piece all the way up to a finish polish using a single file.

  • Wax-working files ($70/set). State-of-the-art wax workers, available from many sources, have dental-tool knurled handles and variously shaped heads, allowing a better grip and functional versatility.

  • Titanium saw frames ($25). The new titanium saw frames, available from Progress Machine & Tool Corp. in Los Angeles, are more rigid than hardened-steel frames. Titanium allows for lighter weight and maximum strength.

  • Ring saw ($395). A ring saw contains a closed-loop wire blade, which can cut intricate shapes out of sheet metal as well as slabs of gem materials. It’s also useful for cutting stained glass. Found at numerous stained-glass supply houses, it’s easy to use and a terrific time saver.

  • Beeswax ($5). One of the simpler tools of the trade is beeswax, which is used as a lubricant on saw blades, drill bits, and gravers. The jeweler can keep this widely available product in the corner of the bench and bench pin for easy access.

  • Ring “spreader” ($45). Ring cutters are standard tools on most jewelers’ benches for those rare moments when a ring gets stuck on a swollen finger and has to be removed right away. If it’s a plain band, two opposing cuts can be made, and the ring simply pops off. For stone-set rings, only one area can be cut. In that case, cutting a wide gap allows room for a ring spreader. Using reverse pliers action, the spreader widens the gap, allowing the ring easily to slip off. Many supply houses carry it.

  • Nylon jaws ($5). Flat-nose nylon-jaw inserts, available from numerous sources, help to keep a firm grip on jewelry and prevent the jeweler from marring the metal.

  • Doming pliers ($25). These tools, found in jewelry supply houses, can help the jeweler create curved and hollow necklaces, bracelets, and rings with little effort.

  • Comfort Mold Knife ($25). Most tools today feature an ergonomic design, and mold-cutting knives are no exception. The Comfort Mold Knife, a new product from Rio Grande, has a soft, coated handle that allows for an easy, firm grip and helps reduce tendinitis.

  • Graver sharpener ($280). The graver sharpener, found in jewelry supply houses, is a small stone turntable that maintains the proper angle and gives you razor-sharp edges in just seconds. You may think it’s more automation than is necessary for a small shop. And technically there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned graver stone.

  • Foredom AllSet ($399). The AllSet, from Foredom Electric Co. in Bethel, Conn., is a non-rotating metal guide that lets you control the depth and angle of your seat. You avoid the guesswork of doing it freehand. The AllSet is useful for cutting seats for prong, bezel, channel, pavé, and basket settings.

  • 3M Trizact ($3). Thanks to their uniform grit, Trizact sanding belts, cylinders, and cone shapes – from the venerable company that brought you Post-It Notes – can dramatically reduce buffing and tumbling times to get to a fine polish. They’re available through jewelry supply houses and are excellent for lapidary as well as metal work.

  • Advantedge ($89 a set, $10-15 each). These miniature diamond polishers from Rio Grande likewise can reduce the time it takes to get to a high polish, especially when working with platinum, stone, and ceramic. Other models are available at a number of supply houses.

  • Quick-change handpiece ($140). The word from the bench pros is that if you’re not using a quick-change handpiece, you’d better get one. After all, time is money. Contact Foredom or your local supply house to see the many different styles.

Soldering tools. Various devices help make soldering work quicker, easier, and safer.

  • Solder joint detector ($15). With this gadget, available at jewelry supply houses, you can quickly locate previous solder joints and thus take the guesswork out of solder repairs.

  • Water torch ($975). Water torches, also found at your local supply house, use hydrogen and oxygen extracted from water. That eliminates the need for pressurized tanks containing flammable gases such as hydrogen, oxygen, or acetylene. The flame of a water torch gets hotter than conventional torches (up to 6,000 degrees), so it can be used for platinum. Mall stores might have no choice but to use water torches, since many are not permitted to use flammable tanks.

  • Place-It ($15). This soldering fixture paste from Frei & Borel of Oakland, Calif., is useful for platinum work. Available in a syringe, this gooey substance will hold together all the pieces that you’re soldering. It hardens as you put the flame to your work. This allows you to get to work right away without having to wait for it to harden.

  • Platinum soldering station ($140). Bench-top soldering stations for platinum include a high-temperature soldering board and a pair of 360-degree rotating third-hand tweezer jaws. The tweezer jaws are specially made of replaceable tungsten carbide tips that can withstand high temperatures.

  • Impression board ($30). Impression boards are soft, foam-like slabs used to embed multiple items ready to be soldered, such as bails onto a solitaire for a pendant. They’re reusable if you keep them moist. Many supply houses carry them.

  • Natural pressed charcoal block ($7). Similar to standard hardwood blocks, natural pressed charcoal – found in jewelry supply houses – has the benefit of not fracturing or falling apart. Charcoal doesn’t allow you to press jewelry into the block, as hardwood does. But it gives you the advantage of a reduction atmosphere along with greater durability and a solid soldering surface.

Here’s a handy tip. When you’re setting pieces in place for soldering, it helps to use a small extension arm to hold your soldering platform. The small arm attachment can be fixed directly to the bench, complete with a small dish to hold a charcoal block or an aluminum silica plate with a small pocket for corundum. This set-up allows you to solder “off bench”; it keeps the work surface clear for other jobs so you don’t have to set up and tear down every time you solder. Once you’re finished, the arm slides back and out of the way.

Finishing tools. Devices for split lapping and sand blasting give the jeweler new options for finishing jewelry.

  • Split laps ($325). Split lapping is a new and increasingly popular way to finish jewelry. Split laps, found in any supply house, are hard felt wheels containing a small number of slits. While the split lap is in motion, you can look through the slits to scrutinize your work as you’re polishing. That’s a terrific advantage. The polishing wheel is mounted horizontally, and the piece of jewelry is placed on the underside of the rotating lap. Individual lapping wheels cost about $35.

  • Sand-blasting units ($235). Sand blasting is a great way to achieve a different look and create a niche for your designs and repairs. The added value to your bench will be well worth the cost. You can use these self-contained units, found in jewelry supply houses, not only for texturing items but also for roughing up something you’re going to weld or solder, or even for cleaning up castings.

Et cetera. Here’s a grab bag of other useful items for the bench.

  • Mark-a-Size ($25). The new Mark-a-Size, made in Taiwan and found in most local supply houses, makes ring sizing easy. It’s a scribing gauge that marks ring-size differences directly onto the shank, instead of the usual educated guess as to how much metal to remove.

  • Plastic shellac ($18/lb.). Shellac is a messy substance. But plastic shellac is a wonderful time-saver because it’s easy to get jewelry in and out without it sticking to your work. It softens under hot water or the heat of a hair dryer, allowing you to press in your work fairly quickly. You can carve in it, and you can burn it out. Use it like you would leather or brass to protect tools. It’s reusable, so you need to buy it only once. Your local jewelry supply house carries it.

  • The Coiling Gizmo ($180). Unusual effects with silver, gold, and platinum wire can be a trademark of your design and repair shop. The Coiling Gizmo, from The Refiner’s Fire, Portland, Ore., takes wire and transforms it into coiled hooks, beads, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and even handles for purses. It allows you to perform an unusual technique with little expense.

Thanks to Foredom, Frei & Borel, Gemological Lighting Concepts, Michael Bondanza, Rio Grande, and The Urban Mining Company for information on new products and ideas.

For More Information

Foredom Electric Co. 16 Stony Hill Rd. Bethel, CT 06801-1031 (203) 792-8622 Fax (203) 790-9832

Frei & Borel P.O. Box 796 126 Second St. Oakland, CA 94604 (800) 772-3456 or (510) 832-0355 Fax (510) 834-6217

Grobet USA 750 Washington Ave. Carlstadt, NJ 07072 (800) 847-4188 or (201) 939-6700 Fax (800) 243-2432

Progress Machine & Tool Corp. 645 S. Olive St. Los Angeles, CA 90014 (800) 841-8665 or (213) 489-7262 Fax (213) 489-2140

The Refiner’s Fire P.O. Box 66612 Portland, OR 97290 (800) 790-6869

Rio Grande Tools & Equipment 7500 Bluewater Rd., N.W. Albuquerque, NM 87121-1962 (800) 545-6566 or (505) 839-3000 Fax (800) 648-3499

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