A History of How I Got Started Making Jewelry

I have a BS in Education and a MS in Vocational Education. I tell you this only because all this means little to what I am going to attempt to teach you about Silversmithing. My major was in Graphic Arts, but really just called it “printing” back then. I loved printing and taught it for four years in Wisconsin. Two things changed that! One was my wife, Kay, and I hated the weather in Wisconsin, and everything that I learned about printing changed dramatically during my last year or so in school, and during those four years. The industry made giant leaps from “letterpress” printing to “offset” printing. It was the most amazing advance in the whole printing industry since Gutenberg invented his printing press.

I decided to quit teaching printing, because the schools could not keep up with this technology change, and I did not want to teach “the history of printing”, I wanted to teach kids how to print. Anyway, I quite my teaching job, and several other part time jobs and we also moved to Boulder, Colorado to get out of Wisconsin.

I took a position at Platt Junior High School in Boulder teaching just about everything in the Industrial Arts Department. For nine years I taught everything from metals, welding, power mechanics, sand casting, woodworking, crafts, drafting, electricity, and eventually art. I had one problem: Money! I was used to making a lot of money doing part time jobs. I was making less than 10 grand a year, with a Master’s Degree! I needed to make more money. So I was always looking for ways to make this extra money in fun different ways.

When I took the teach job in Boulder, I found a machine in the corner. No one knew what it was for, or cared. I was going to throw it out or find out how to teach the kids how to use it. It was a centrifugal caster. So I read everything I could find out about it. I went to the High School and talked to the jewelry teacher about it. He told me to throw it away. I should not mess with it, especially in Junior High. I realized that he just did not want me to “trespass” on his jewelry making teaching. He was very protective of what he taught to the point of keeping “secrets” from his students and other teachers.

I also found out that with this machine and kiln, I could have the students burn up and cast anything that would burn! Great for Junior High! At about the same time I was hiking by stream and found some Mountain Alder trees with tiny “pine cones” on them. They really are not “pine” cones, because it is a broad leaf tree, not a pine tree. They are perfect little, ½ inch pine cones, though, and I decided I could cast them and make a lot of money.

So for a year I tried to cast 100 to 200 everyday. At first I only got less than 10% to cast good enough to sell as jewelry. I wanted 100%. So everyday, I cast 10 flasks with 20 pine cones in each flask, and only changed one thing in about 30 steps that I had written out on a “spread sheet”. There were no computers then. Calculators were just coming out. If I changed the temperature of the kiln, I did not change, the amount of water I used to mix the mold material, called investment.

Silver was $0.75 per ounce and I could get 5 to 10 pine cones out of an ounce. I was selling these to all the shops in Colorado for $10.00 each. A lot of profit and I was selling them as fast as I could make them. Most months, I made more than I was making in teaching. I tell you this because, during this time I was buying a lot of silver and supplies from a jewelry supply company in Denver: Maroon Bells. For nearly three years I would go in once or twice a week and buy supplies and silver. I did not realize it, but they thought I new a lot about Silversmithing and jewelry making. Because I was buying more Silver than just about any of their customers they took it for granted that I was making a lot of jewelry and was a silversmith. I was not either in my mind. I did not even look at the solid silver pine cones as “jewelry”. I was making “$10.00” not jewelry! Never looked at is as jewelry, just a way to make $10.00, and a small fortune.

They were friendly there, this whole Silversmithing business was booming because of the “Indian Jewelry” craze, so I answer their questions and the questions of their customers when I went to buy supplies. Because casting natural objects was consider difficult to do, especially objects of wood, they thought I was very good at making jewelry. Again, all I knew how to do was cast solid silver pine cones, and bugs for the Junior High students.

This went on for a couple of years. Just about every time I went in they would tell me that I should meet a man named “Earl”. He had helped them when they first opened and would hang around, talk to customers, and answer questions. He was around 80 years old, and a real character. They thought we should meet, because we were both a little crazy, spoke our minds, and “talked” metals and jewelry making. For two years I went in there and never met him. I felt like I knew him because of all the descriptions that they had given me. He was very intelligent, a genius in fact, tall, six foot two or so, full head of pure white hair, usually longer than short, a large, big, huge nose, and a real character, some times confrontational quirky guy. They would say we were a lot alike. Actually got tired of hearing about him, I didn‘t have white hair, I am only about six feet tall, but the rest was pretty true. He was a Silversmith for about 30 years, and I was just casting pine cones for the money.

That’s how I got started making Sterling Silver jewelry: casting solid silver pine cones. I still do! Visit http://silverpinecones.homestead.com/PineCones.html to see what they look like, and buy some of them!!

Lesson Two

This is the weird part!

My wife’s grandparents, Cecil and “grandma Bailey”, came to visit us for a week or so. I really do not remember her name, but they raised my wife after her mother died around age 3. Oh, it was Lorisa. When they arrived I asked them: “What would you like to do while in Colorado?” I had taken off some time, and planned a few things I thought they would like to see and do. They wanted to do everything that I had planned, but they also wanted to go visit a part of the family they had not seen in years, twenty to forty years! Not really a blood relative, but part of my wife’s granddad’s family. Back around the turn of the century, in Oklahoma, there were two families living in dug out homes. Homes dug out of the side of a hill, and a roof put over it. One winter, my wife’s granddad’s mother died, and the father of the other family died. The two families moved in together to survive.

Well, Cecil’s dad was mean to one of the boys from the other family, so at around the age of 13, or 14 he split and ran away. Boys could do that then, my youngest son was 22 before he finally ran, walked, away. He was a farmer boy, and got jobs on farms, ranches and oil fields. Anyway, Cecil and Lorisa, wanted to go visit this guy and his wife. Oh, his name happened to be: Earl Boyd.

We went to visit them one evening, and so I took a pine cone necklace to give to the lady. I don’t remember her name now. It is a good thing I am writing this down, heh. When they answered the door, I noticed he was tall, white haired, and had a large nose. I knew he would be around 80 because he was the same age as Cecil and Lorisa. No big deal. As we walked in, I handed the jewelry box with the pine cone necklace in it to, oh, her name was Martha. He looked at me and asked, “You’re not that Don that casts all the pine cones are you?”. “Yes I am, you’re not that Earl that does Silversmithing, are you?”, I replied. Of course the answer was, “Yes.”. Very strange!

We did not talk a lot about Maroon Bells and Silver Casting and Silversmithing that night. They all talked about Oklahoma and old times. My wife and I agreed to visit them every Tuesday night and take them out to dinner to get them out of their apartment/retirement living complex. So we did that for nearly a year or so. They had lived fascinating lives. Lived in Chicago when there were no cars, just horses. I can not even imagine that. Remembered hearing about an airplane and then seeing one!

Ok, I have to tell one story he told me about when he was about 16 and a cowboy in Oklahoma. He and another cowboy friend heard about a motel somewhere that had electricity. They rode over to that town to stay in that motel and see electricity. They paid for their room and the owner took them up to their room, where he showed these two tough cowboys how to turn on the light bulb. He pulled the chain, and the light came ON! Then he left. The two cowboys were amazed, but they slept all night long with the light on, because neither one wanted to pull the chain! They were afraid of it!

Too make a long story very short, Earl was a master of metals, and I was fortunate enough that he chose me to teach. I owe all my success as a silversmith to Earl. He had worked with several other craftsmen, metal smiths, and tool makers to make the first Greyhound Bus. They did not make the drive train, just the bus itself. He was very proud of this and kept one of the pieces from it. A metal box that housed a tail light. He then worked for Boeing Aircraft in there experimental division. One of his jobs was to make metal models that were tested in wind tunnels. So he worked with a lot of different metal in a lot of different ways. During that time he became interested in Silversmithing and making jewelry.

After several months he asked me if he could teach me Silversmithing. At first, I resisted because I was just too busy. I had no interest in making jewelry, just the income off of solid silver pine cones. A couple of things changed all that. First, some jerk invented a way to silver and gold plate natural objects. Earl's wife, also passed away, and I continued to visit Earl on a weekly basis, but my wife quit going every week. My pine cone business died with in two or three months. Plated pine cones were being sold all of Colorado for less than $2.00. I could not, or at least did not want to, compete with that, so I quit casting them. To replace that income I set up a classroom and started to teach Silver casting. For years customers of Maroon Bells and another shop that I assisted in getting started wanted me to teach it. I did not want to. I was making enough money casting the pine cones, and I was still teaching during the day. Now I had to, so I started teaching night and weekend casting classes in my own classroom in my basement. I had a large shop that could hold 12 or so students.

I also kept visiting Earl every week. One night after hearing the same story for about the fifth time, (I do not know if I was telling the same story or Earl was!), I asked Earl to teach me silversmithing for something to do each week. With in a few minutes, I knew I better listen to him. He really had some thing to teach. His silversmithing projects were not that good at that time, because his hands shook badly. His knowledge was incredible, however. I realized that his extensive metals background gave Earl an insight to working with silver. I made my first ring that night. I got home around 3 am and went to bed.

The next morning I went into Maroon Bells to buy Silversmithing tools and supplies. They were shocked that I had started to do Silversmithing. The owner’s daughter, Cathy, (we are the same age, and have a son the same age) asked me if I would teach people what Earl was teaching me. I replied that I would when I learned enough, and practice enough to be good at it. That was Wednesday morning. Saturday, she called me and informed me that she had set up a class. “No way, I am not teaching this until I know what I am doing.”, I replied. She said, “Oh you have been doing this for years and I have 11 students that have paid $300.00 for a five week class, one night each week.”. I repeated, “Ok then, I will be glad to teach it, when should we start!”. She informed me that it was starting that Wednesday.

I called Earl, and asked him if that would be “OK”. He let me know it was alright and that he had set the class up. His plan was to get these people off his back, because he did not want to teach a class. He would have shot a student or two. But, by me teaching it, he could shut them up. So the plan was that he would teach me what I needed to know, Tuesday night, so that I could teach it on Wednesday.

The very next week I began to teach a private class 11 students. Each week, Earl would teach me on Tuesday and I would teach what I learned on Wednesday! I did tell them that I was learning everything that I was teaching them from Earl. The second, one of the students asked me how long I had been doing Silversmithing. I asked him if I could count this week, if so, two weeks! After we quit laughing, I offered his money back. He refused saying that just one of the techniques that Earl had taught him through me was worth the price of the class already. I asked them how long they had been Silversmithing. The average was about 5 years. One had been making jewelry for 15 years. Everyone had three years more experience than I did.

I made them a deal. I would extend the class to ten weeks, if they would agree to a couple of things. I decided to teach the methods that Earl was teaching me, then we went around the table and each person would teach the rest of us how they were doing it. Then we agreed to try each method in class and during the week. The next week we would discuss these methods and decide on the best method. I was learning and did not care if Earl’s methods were the “best” methods.

I was fortunate that I started teaching silversmithing right away. Every student has taught me something. That means that I have had hundreds of teachers over the past thirty years. I feel very good about the fact that, as I learn from all the other "teachers", that I was able to teach Earl some new techniques too. New ways of doing things that would allow him to do very good silversmithing again, in spite of the fact that his hands shook so badly.

Lesson 3

Why My Way?

Why do I believe my way is the best way. I teach the methods that I use and I use these methods because of the following reasons.

1. I have studied and read every book and article on silversmithing that I have found over the past 25 years. THEN, I tried every method that the authors were using. If these methods improved the finished product, or made it easier to do something , or made things safer, or was quicker, I adopted it! Over that period of time, I have read so many things written by people who either are simply repeating the way they were taught, or the ways that they have read about and now are just repeating the same methods. I can tell that in many cases they have never done silversmithing in any other way. Sometimes, I really believe they may have never done either! Some are authors not craftsmen.

2. I was teaching metals and then became a silversmith. I was then taught my a metals expert. I later taught art. Too many people are taught by artists that have no background in metals. They are more interested in the "art" than they are the materials used to produce the art. I believe that you can not produce good art in any field, if you do not have a thorough knowledge to the materials that you are using. I believe this is why my weekend classes have been compared to all four years of jewelry making class a several universities and a well know jewelry school.

3. I teach silversmithing and silver casting from the viewpoint that everyone that I am teaching will want to become a professional silversmith or silver caster. Why, because, I believe that if you make something good enough to sell, it is good, not just pretty, not just unusual, but good enough that some one will give us some of their hard earned money!

4. I taught junior high students for 13 years! They taught me that if, I said that you must do something one way, they would prove to me that you could do it 10 different ways. Many times I found that their way, even though they were doing it just to anger me, was a better way! I found out that if I read something that I believed was written by someone that really knew what they were writing, the kids would do it the opposite way and would get better results!

As soon as I would say something like: "You must burn out your flasks at these temperatures to slowly bring up the kilns temperature.", they would turn the kiln on high and an hour later would cast. The first time, I laughed and told the student he just wasted a week of carving his wax because he did not follow my instructions. He pulled out a perfect casting and laughed at me. Saying something like, "Too bad you don't know what your talking about.".

5. I have taught adults in private classes for 25 years. They were worse than the junior high kids. Many of them would do it just the opposite of the way that I taught it, or try to find a better way on their own. If they found a better way, I adopted it and began to teach it that way.!

6. I have tried to learn something from every student that takes my private classes. Each one brings his, or her, unique background that I can tap and learn from. I will never forget one night I was teaching a beginning class about making jump rings and half round design elements from half round wire, when an elderly lady proved that you can learn something from every one. This lady had a habit of talking a lot during the class. Some students had even complained about the excessive chatter. I was showing the class how to wrap wire around a dowel to make half jump rings for decorations, when she began to interrupt. I was just explaining that you have to be careful not to loose these little half round pieces and she said "Excuse me, I have a suggestion." I was going to ask her to keep quite, but a little voice told me to hold off and listen. Then she said, "Why don't you wrap the coil with masking tape, and it will keep all the little pieces from flying all over the place.". I did and have every since. This has saved me many hours of searching for small pieces.

7. Over the past 25 years, I have been asked several thousand questions that I did not have the answer to. I am still asked questions that I do not have the answer to. I write the question down, ask the student to give me a week, and I would get them an answer. I would then research the materials, try the different methods, ask other professionals and bring back the best answer or answers for the questions. It has forced me to continue to study, question, and learn new materials, products, and methods.


So, I am not saying that I am the best silversmith that has ever lived or even the best teacher of Silversmithing (Although, I work very hard and try to be the best teacher!). I do not know EVERYTHING. I am still learning and adapting. I still try to learn from everyone, every new book, every new article. I use to say that I have never read a book or article on silversmithing that I liked. Every book or article that I have read taught me something. Some times it has taught me how not to do something! I would ask myself if these authors ever picked up a torch. I did not want to write a book or articles, because I did not want to join this list of people that I laughed at. I certainly did not want my readers laughing at me.


Now I feel that I am ready to defend "MY WAY". I am not a goldsmith, but I will discuss my silversmithing techniques and methods, and how they apply or do not apply to goldsmithing. I will answer questions and criticism that people have from the previous articles. will take all criticism as constructive and use it to inform my students of the very best way of silversmithing. If I offend anyone, I will apologize. All I want to do is teach anyone that is interested the very best way to do Silversmithing and silver casting. Not the only way, just "MY WAY!"


My way is a very specific way. I have very specific reasons for doing it my way. If I say that you should place a piece of solder in a specific place, I will have a specific reason for placing it there. That reason will not be that I was taught that way. If I fail to give that specific reason, please call me on it. I will correct it the next month. The first few articles are about background information about tools, supplies, and metals that you need to become a good silversmith..

I teach with the following mission statements.

I know that every one can learn silversmithing, and I will do my best to insure that every person that wants to learn, will!

I do not believe in a lot of equipment and tools. It should not cost more than $200.00 to begin silversmithing and make thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. Every one can afford to begin silversmithing. I will teach you how to start with almost no money! Of course, I have almost every tool that you have ever seen in any catalog. I was an industrial arts teacher, I am a "man". I have never seen a tool that I did not like! So when I say to start silversmithing with a $10.00 torch from Ace Hardware, or that I do not use a burnisher to set stones. Please do not assume that I do not have every kind of torch on the market. I have just about every kind of torch, I have every type of burnisher made. I simply do not use them! I get a kick out of people that write articles as if every one can purchase a $1,000.00 of tools and equipment, I will teach you that you do not have to spend all this money to get started.!

I teach a very simple, fast way to do everything. I believe that the fastest way to do something is the best way, if you get the same results! AND, you end up with a quality piece of jewelry that is salable! I am not Rube Goldberg. I do not need to complicate everything. I am interested in making and finishing jewelry, not the tools and equipment to get the job done.

I teach as if you want to sell every piece that you make. I am no longer making jewelry and sculptures to try to win art shows. I am no longer making jewelry that wins a ribbon, but no one would ever wear, let alone buy. The supreme compliment is that someone will work hard to make money and then pay me that money for my jewelry. Blue ribbons, trophies and certificates don't cost much and don't pay my family's bills. So when I say that "Every time you pick up a jeweler's saw, you are losing money." Don't get mad if you like to use the jeweler's saw, just read on and make a good decision to use it or not to use it.

I teach to do silversmithing in a safe and ergonomically safe way. I will show you specific ways to hold a torch, tweezers and all the other tools, so that you can do it for hours on end without getting hurt. I teach you how I do silversmithing everyday, or at least my wife thinks it is everyday! I won't teach you to do it one way and then do it another. I have no secrets, no hidden agendas, just MY WAY of doing everything. (Of course, I stole these ways and methods from everyone and everywhere possible! They may even be your way!)

Lesson 4

All I Ask, Try It My Way Once!

Give my way a chance. Try it once. If it is not a better way than the way you are now doing it, go back to your way. Then please contact me, and I will try it your way and pass on the results to my students. If you are a beginner, try my way at least once. If you find a better way, or one that you like better, use it and let me know why. I must know the reasons, however. Please do not just flame me with out having very specific reasons. Please do not email me with, "This is the way to do this, because this is the way I have always done and it works fine!" I want to know why it is the best way for you. Some things that I do that may seem strange to you are listed below and will be explained in detail in their perspective articles.

I use nothing but hard silver solder, I never use medium and only use easy for repairs.

I use nothing but sheet solder and I use a lot of it, by using large pieces. I do not use tiny snippets.

I spray on a liquid flux.

I teach students to use a $20.00 propane torch from Ace Hardware. It is the worst torch to use for silversmithing, but it is the best torch to learn how to solder.

You will be amazed at the simple technique I teach to make a bezel.

I teach that you really only need two files for silversmithing: a 6 inch Bastard file and a 1/2 round jeweler's file.
I teach that you can use an inexpensive grinder to make a great buffer (you do need to control the dust, and I will show you how.

I do not heat my pickle and I will tell you why. I will tell you about experiments with a steel bolt left in the pickle, silver left in pickle, and copper left in pickle for very long periods of time.

I do not use liver of sulfur.

I do not worry at all about fire scale (or fire coat).

I never use rouge to polish silver jewelry, only white diamond and Zam. I will tell you why!

I will tell you why I took of the switch off my kiln and just heat it up a fast as I can.

I teach that sterling silver is not only the cheapest metal that you can use for jewelry, but it is usually the cheapest part of any piece of jewelry.

I will teach you the best way I know how, MY WAY!

Prior to Februay 15, 2004.
After Februay 15, 2004.
January 1, 2005
After February 19, 2005
After September 20, 2005.
After December 8, 2005
After January 1, 2006
Why Do I Teach Silversmithing the Way I Do?

It boils down to: I want my students to be successfull,
and, it builds the one thing that I can not teach: confidence!

This “class” answers the “whys” of how I teach Silversmithing and cover the way that I do Silversmithing. Of course, I think it is the best way to teach it and to do it. I have been a professional silversmith and have taught private classes for over 30 years. I found during that the one thing that I can not teach in a short period of time is “confidence”. There really is only two ways for you to gain confidence in working with silver: one, is to practice making a lot of jewelry, do a lot of soldering, making some mistakes and learning from them; two, is to really believe in what the teacher is teaching, and have confidence in that teacher and what is being taught.

I was wasting a lot of time building up this trust and confidence with in my students during my classes in person. During this two to three hours of building confidence in what I was teaching, I would give you my background and how I began teaching private classes in Silversmithing. It also answered a lot of questions that I seemed to always get in every class about how I got started, who taught me, and why I use the methods that I now use for making Sterling Silver jewelry. This was some times boring and “off” subject. So I will keep this short and “on” subject. I do want you to have total confidence in the methods I teach. It will say you time. You can just “turn up your torch” and start making jewel

Click here to read the rest of my biography and history of the Acadamy of Silvermithing!
Academy of Silversmithing and Art Metal
dnorris@frii.com                                  Don Norris                                  303-517-1068
World Renowned Educator and Author
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