Making of Pile

I didn’t take many pictures while making this one, but here’s what I got.

The piece sawn out from the blank. The steel stock is the same 2 mm steel plate, that I used for the Whiskers.

I wanted the silhouette of the cats’ ears, feet and tails to be the main focus along with the silver eyes, of course, but a completely flat base seemed to be lacking something. So I decided to hammer a slight dome in the blank before sawing out the shape to give it a bit more depth.

After sawing, the dome looked like it could have been a little deeper. By cutting out the ”not sculpture” areas I also cut away some of the overall effect of the dome. The shape is there, but could have been a bit more pronounced. I guess you’re not supposed to point out your flaws, though? Oops. Wait, that makes for two flaws in a row!

Instead of keeping with strict traditionalism, I applied some improvised ghetto jewellery techniques. I glued some rough sandpaper on the flat ends of 10 mm diameter wooden dowels to make sanding bits. I figured that they would wear out fast on steel, so I made a bunch and went for lunch.

I attached the workpiece to the pitch bowl and a sanding bit in a cordless drill and tried if I could make some swirls of fur-like lines on the base. I didn’t try to define any recognisable cat shapes but rather just an abstract texture. It’s a pile of kittens after all, you can’t tell where one cat ends and another one begins.

A surprisingly difficult task, actually, to make a texture that is both even, but not too repetitive, flowy, but still chaotic.

You can see the center punch marks at the locations of the eyes. At the time, I didn’t think that I would show these work in progress pictures anywhere so I didn’t take any of the inlaying of the eyes. I’ll write another post on that sometime. The technique is called ten zōgan (点象嵌 dot inlay). Basically you punch a round hole in the base metal, but not all the way through. Stick a piece of wire in the hole – 1 mm silver wire in this case – cut it so it protrudes slightly. Then tap the wire in with a suitable sized punch that has a hollow round face, forming the round top of the inlay.

For lack of pictures, I’ll skip to the end… Here is the Pile in its final state.

February 27, 2017

Making of Whiskers

I favour recycled materials whenever possible. That has been my preference as long as I can remember, but it was further strengthened by personal experience in making iron from ore. That kind of stuff just puts things into a completely new perspective.

I had found this piece of 2 mm steel that had rusted a bit.

Some rubbing with a piece of a sharpening stone…

… and I can call it good enough. You can see faint scribe marks for cutting a circle in the bottom right corner, along with smaller concentric circles to guide further processing.

The blank cut out with a jewellers saw. You could say that it would have been quicker to just whip out the angle grinder, and that is true for this piece. Steel is cheap, so the additional waste of material wouldn’t really matter in this case, but you can cut much more complex shapes with a jewellers saw than this. With that end in mind, this was good practice. Besides, it is not as slow as one would think. I used the blade size of 2/0 to cut this, the blades are 0.26 mm thick. So there is very little material to remove, in other words: less work.

I didn’t take pictures of the raising process, but here’s a video of a master in work. Basically you take the plate, place it on a heavier chunk of steel of an appropriate shape and hold it a little bit off the edge. Then strike it with a hammer slightly away from the point of support. Rotate the workpiece and hit again, until you’ve gone all the way around. The steel plate work hardens and has to be annealed, that is, heated to a red glow and let cool as slowly as possible.

I was too hardhanded with the first blank; the circle tacoed in the raising process. Instead of trying to fix it, I cut a new circle and started over. Not very wise to introduce oneself to raising with 2 mm thick steel, I guess. Especially with a piece as small as this. Practice with something thinner and softer first. Then again, if you hit a thick plate in the wrong place, the plate kicks back at your fingers, which hurts and thus teaches you to hit in the correct place faster, no?

After a few rounds of raising and annealing I got more or less the shape I was after. I filed out the hammermarks and sanded with 320 grit paper to get most of the filemarks out.

I heated the pitch and the workpiece and stuck it in. In a couple of minutes the pitch is cool and the workpiece is held securely and safely.

It’s a bit hard to see pencil lines on steel, so I rubbed a lump of plasticine on it to make the surface a bit oily then dusted chalk powder on it. Corrections are easy to make. Just rub it off and reapply.

I made some pencil sketches on paper beforehand, but still had to go through a couple of iterations on the steel. This is what I settled on. Since the pencil marks wear out so easily I scribed the final layout lines in.

For the eyes and the nose I used 1 mm thick silver sheet. I kept the eyes together at first to make it easier to handle such small pieces.

It is possible to first inlay the eyes and then inlay the pupils in the inlaid eyes. However I took a slightly easier route by soldering the steel pupils in the silver eyes before inlaying them in the steel base. I used the same steel plate for the pupils as I did for the base to have an equal patina.

Here are the eyes after silver soldering the pupils in and cleaning in a citric acid pickle bath.

I separated the eyes, and finished the shapes by filing. The bottoms of the inlays are a bit wider than the tops to make the pieces key in once they are in place. I scribed around the cut shapes.

To dig out the place for the inlay, I first cut a v-groove around the shape, slightly inside the scribe lines, then pushed the outside wall of the groove out, to form a raised lip. Then I excavated the middle part with round chisels. After a good amount of dry fitting and cutting and pushing the edges I was close to a tolerable fit. The lips of the inlay sockets look quite thin and not very pretty, but they turned out ok in the end.

I then proceeded to gently tap the first piece in straight from above with a flat faced punch. The face of the punch is slightly roughened so as to not slip and damage the surrounding areas. Then I tapped the raised lip of the base metal down and towards the inlaid piece to make it impossible for it to come out. This also required a special tool. I made the tools as I progressed with a practice piece earlier. Same procedure for all the other pieces.

The process for the flat pieces is called hira zōgan (平象眼 flat inlay). My resources were from the Japanese tradition again, but I suppose the techniques are more or less the same in the Western tradition of fine metalworking.

Here is the piece after filing the eyes almost flush. I left some excess material to finish after I’m done with the whiskers.

Here the nose is inlaid as well. I wiped the surface with a dilute solution of copper sulphate and water to make the inlays more visible.

I also started the inlays for the whiskers. The first step was to engrave a narrow groove. You can see that I missed some of the scribe lines… I mean, ”I fine-tuned the composition” a little bit. Yeah, that sounds better. Unfortunately, I got into a flow and forgot to take pictures during the inlaying. However the process was the same as in a practice plate I made before:

The inlays for the whiskers are made with a technique called sen zōgan (線象眼 line inlay). First I engraved the groove with a v-chisel. The chisel in the photo looks like a round chisel, because I had failed to sharpen the top face perfectly flat. The very tip curves away from the light source, appears darker and blends into the background.

I tapped the sides of the groove outwards to form a lip, with inlay ”chisels” which are a bit like slightly rounded blunt chisels. They are designed to force the material to move, not to cut material away. The process is basically the same as what I did with the eyes and nose, but a bit more difficult because of the thinner groove, especially so with a tapering line as I was attempting with the whiskers.

The two chisels in the picture are both the same kind of inlay chisels. One smaller than the other and upside down.

I made all of my chisels and punches according to a set of diagrams of classical japanese tools. I first wondered why the inlay chisel needed to have the long ridge on the top face. I figured that that may help a little bit in making the chisel fit in tight places. Some other tools also seemed to have shapes that didn’t strike to me as being absolutely necessary considering the purpose of the tool. I still followed the instructions, though.

Having made a bunch of these tools and having them laying on the table, while working, it occurred to me that these little details help identify the chisels! These things are really small, the business ends are from 0.5 mm to 4 mm wide, or so. It would be nearly impossible to tell a flat carving chisel from a similarly sized inlaying chisel without picking each one up one by one and looking at it up close. With the ”excess” design elements you can tell the ”category” with a glance. An incredibly sophisticated system, I must say.

The groove cut and the lip formed, I started inlaying some 0.3 mm silver wire. I placed the wire on the groove and tapped it in with a rough flat punch. The punch forces the wire to fill the cavity and at the same time pushes the protruding lip of the groove down on the wire, locking it in place. I bent the wire and punched it in as I went along, pressing it down with the punch while bending to prevent pulling it back out.

Getting close to a full circle I cut the wire with a flat chisel. You can see the beginning end of the wire still sticking out a bit. Both ends will go in together in the end.

I left a chisel mark in the base plate, close to the cut end of the wire. Well, that’s what practice plates are for…

Here’s the full circle tapped in. I made the groove a tad too deep and/or too wide, the wire only barely filled it, so I ended up marring the surrounding surface with the punch. Well, that’s what practice plates are for. At least I didn’t waste silver by having much excess to scrape off.

I hold my left thumb in place as a pivot point and twist my right hand against it. The scraper is quite long and this manner of working generates a lot of leverage in the tip in front of the fulcrum point, the thumb that is. It’s a very accurate tool and light to use. Archimedes approved.

Flattening out the scrape marks with a piece of sharpening stone.

The finished line inlay practice circle.

Back to the Whiskers. This image shows the piece after scraping the inlaid wires but before filing and sanding with progressive grits.

I wasn’t going for a super blingy surface, but more of a satin sheen.

The patina revealed some nasty scratches, so I took a couple of steps back in the sanding grits, and patinated the piece again.

I made the patina mixture according to an old recipe. There’s a bunch of stuff in it: water, red clay, salpetre and ferric sulphate among others. The patina is acidic and is neutralized by dipping the workpiece in water with birchwood ashes in it. The ash turns the water into a weak caustic lye solution thus neutralizing the acids but it’s still gentle enough to not strip the patina off.

The finished Whiskers sculpture.

February 25, 2017

Making of Schrödinger’s Cat

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment devised by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Since I’m not a physicist myself, you should take the following description of the idea with a grain of salt.

In the hypothetical experiment a cat is put in a sealed box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. The Geiger counter detects when the radioactive material decays and a mechanism is triggered to release the poison, killing the cat. From outside the box it is impossible to tell if the reaction has taken place. According to the prevailing Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics at the time, the cat would have to be both alive and dead until the box was opened.

As far as I understand, what Schrödinger was trying to point out is the gap between the microscopic quantum theory, which is all about blurred probabilities, and the macroscopic ”real” world, which either is or isn’t. Also, the observer who opens the box seems to have the power to resolve the indeterminacy of the quantum world, which is a bit strange, you would think that physics works the same, whether there’s someone watching or not.

Okay, I went in over my head already, therefore I will not attempt to explain it any further. So let’s get back to the comforting solid world where if you hit something with a hammer, you make a dent. You don’t both make a dent and not make a dent. In my lighthearted interpretation of Schrödinger’s cat, I left quantum physics to the specialists and concentrated on the box and the cat. If you want to forget about the gory dead-and-or-alive aspects of the thought experiment, just imagine that there may be a cat in the cardboard box, or there may not.

Speaking of hammers and dents, the technique I used for this piece is called uchidashi (打ち出し). It’s a traditional Japanese metalworking technique that resembles the sinking and raising processes more familiar to us in the West. Instead of supporting the metal on various steel stakes and hitting it with hammers, as in western raising techniques, in uchidashi the metal is worked on a bowl filled with a mixture of mostly clay and pine pitch called matsuyani (松脂 pine rosin), with hammers and punches. Matsuyani is first heated to make it soft, during which the metal can be moved quite quickly, and as it cools, it stiffens and more accurate work is possible. I’ll write another post on matsuyani and the pitch bowl later.

I started off with a copper plate, approximately 0.8 mm thick. It was an etched printmaking plate in its previous life. I first sunk a shallow dish in the plate on a treestump, a bit like the sauna scoop you probably had to make in craft class in primary school – if you grew up in Finland, that is. Then I annealed the piece, attached it in the pitch bowl and started the punching process.

Here is the piece after the first round of hammering with a large and quite rough punch. The roughness of the punch allows one to ”grip” and move the metal down and in thus raising the shape. You’re kind of gathering the material from the sides and pushing it in. Or as Ford Hallam put it in his introductory video on uchidashi: ”Imagine doing a sandcastle on the beach.”

You can see the scribe marks, that I made to guide the final dimensions. There’s also a deeper groove in the lower right area in the plate, where I hit a bit too hard. That caused problems all the way to the end. It stubbornly wanted to fold in on itself at that spot, even though I tried to be very careful after the initial mistake.

The metal work hardens quite fast so the piece has to be annealed after every round of punching.

Here it is after round two.

I didn’t take pictures after every step, but the shape is slowly coming along. You can still see the problematic dent that I mentioned in the right corner.

Starting to resemble a box.

Defining the corners.

Here I’ve added some details with smaller punches and laid out some cuts to saw out.

Cuts made. I left a little bit extra in the corners. There are faint pencil marks slightly up from the base to mark the final height of the box.

I sawed grooves towards the pencil marks and defined the box side flaps with parallel jaw pliers.

I cut the excess flaps to the same proportions sculpted in top of the box. Some filing work still to be done, but before that I tightened the flap corners by punching in from the back.

I sunk the workpiece in the pitch upside down.

And hit the flap corners down. In proper uchidashi technique, this is frowned upon, you should be able to make the shape by hitting the plate only from the outside. Mercy, mercy me.

It looks like the sides are curved, but that is actually due to the material being thicker in the corners, caused by the technique. On the outside, the faces are pretty much flat and the corner is close to 90°, so the excess material is collected in the inside corner, if that makes sense.

After some filing and patination, here’s the finished Schrödinger’s cat sculpture. Thanks for reading, questions and comments are welcome.

February 22, 2017

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