Yellow Jacket Hobo Nickel Tutorial

Yellow_Jacket_Hobo_Nickel_Tutorial_0 The gold inlaid wasp I added to a recent knife I engraved for William Henry Studios turned out so splendidly I had to do a Hobo Nickel with the same theme.

Above, I’ve taken a 1930 Buffalo nickel and transferred a scaled yellow jacket design to it.

I begin the engraving process by cutting all the major outlines with a V-graver. This design is now indelible, and I can’t wipe it out with a misplaced finger…

Now begins the background removal process. Here I’ve used the same V-graver to cut parallel lines in all the spaces where I need to waste away the background. These V-cuts are a convenient way to measure the depth of background removal and make a smooth background of consistent depth.

I could use a flat graver to remove the excess background, but I find a tiny carbide bur is faster and just more convenient, at least in the initial stages of wasting away the unwanted background.

Above, I’ve removed the excess, and also used the same carbide bur to make a “scribble” textured background. Of course, now the yellow jacket is looking pretty flat, so I’ve got to do something about that…

Speaking of flat gravers, I begin to sculpt the yellow jacket abdomen, thorax and head by using a flat graver to cut away the top corners. I start with a 45 degree cut, then move up with the flat graver held at a shallower angle. I find twice around is a good start for most of my sculpted engravings.

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Above are two images taken at an oblique angle to try and illustrate the depth I’m working towards. You can see the two facets left at the top corners of the body shapes.

The flat graver leaves little facets when used at an angle. I could carve away those little facets with more work with the flat, but I’m going to exploit one the greatest aspects of engraving in metal – its’ ability to be moved. Above, I’ve used a tiny steel punch to hammer the body shapes smooth. You can see the attractive pebbled texture the tiny punch leaves behind. I’ve also used the punch the sculpt the wings. Additionally, I’ve carved the legs to provide a little vertical development. Perhaps you can see where they are lowest where they go under the body, climb up to the first joint, then descend back down to the “feet.”

The legs are still a little crude, too wide near the body, and some of the feet detail is missing. I used a tiny 90 degree V-graver and a tiny flat to trim around the lower edges of the body parts and legs – you can see the shiny spots in the background texture.

Getting down into tiny spaces is a problem, and I’ve solved that by manufacturing an even smaller carbide bur. You can see it in the image. I make these by grinding four tiny flats in a worn out ball bur – in this case, the tiniest round bur I’ve been able to purchase (about a half millimeter in diameter). I haven’t measured one of my tiny manufactured burs, but it’s a lot smaller, and comes to an even tinier point.

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Above, you can see two oblique images at this stage. Starting to look pretty good now.

The yellow jacket is sufficiently sculpted and trimmed so it’s time to add the gold inlays. Using gravers and carbide burs, I’ve excavated the cavities where the tiny 24 karat yellow gold wires will go. I’ve undercut the edges of the front cavity (see the blue arrow) with a tiny flat graver, and also cut three rows of tiny uplifted teeth, at three different angles. This provides a forest of tiny teeth in the bottom of the inlay cavity, as well as a continuous undercut around the bottom edge, for the gold to flow into and become permanently trapped.

Above, I’ve used a tiny brass punch to partially hammer a single soft gold wire along the rear edge of the inlay cavity. I’ll add in more parallel wires, lightly tapping them into place until the cavity is completely filled.

Here, you can see three parallel rows of wire in place. I’ll use the tiny brass punch to vigorously punch the gold wires into place. If I’ve done my job well, the extremely soft gold will flow into all of the teeth and undercuts, as well as cold-weld together into a single solid mass.

Here you cans see two completed inlays, which have been roughly scraped to remove excess gold. Next, I’ll use a very smooth carbide burnisher to remove the few remaining rough spots. After everything is smooth, I’ll use a tiny abrasive stone to really smooth the gold surface.

Here are the completed 24 karat gold inlays in the abdomen. Notice that I’ve used a tiny Vgraver to cut very fine lines in the cupro-nickel metal around the gold. This really provides a visual demarcation and makes the inlays really “pop.”

Above, I’ve also used a small round graver to cut the wing details in.

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Here’s the Yellow Jacket Hobo Nickel finished! Six 24 karat gold inlays and a lot of carving.

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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CRKT Squid Widowmaker Tutorial


Starting on a new knife – this time a CRKT Burnley Squid. I’m trying to make this an affordable engraving, so it can be an EDC for us mortals, and not end up being a “Safe Queen.” Here I’ve shimmed the handle scales so my pounding won’t damage the mechanism, and cut the outlines. I’ve left the front bolster area clear of engraving so your thumb won’t abrade it.  Very important, I’ve also taped the very sharp blade.  No matter how much care you give, you will eventually brush up against that blade – don’t ask me how I know that.

Above, I’ve cut all the outlines and used a little solvent to get rid of my design transfer.

Here I’m beginning the process of sculpting the spider body in Japanese-style shishiaibori (sunken relief).   Shishiaibori is characterized by a sculpted carving below the surface of the metal, and outlined by very deep cuts.  At the blue arrow, you can see my original (single) outline cut.  The red arrow shows where I’ve used a narrower V-graver and cut a second time, deepening the original cut but not widening the cut.

Above, I’ve deepened all the outside lines, and I’m beginning to carve away the interior corner surfaces. Then I followed up with a small sculpting punch smoothing the surfaces, leaving a pleasing texture.

Above is a simplified graphic explaining the Shishiaibori technique.

Here’s the spider body finished.  I’ve used flat gravers to carve away the excess steel on the edges, and then smoothed everything with a tiny steel punch.

Above, you can see the first cut with a flat graver removing the top corner around the outside of a spider leg segment (the blue arrow).  The graver is held at about a 45 degree angle for this first cut, and cutting close to the bottom of the deep outlining cut.  I’ll go back again with the flat graver held at a shallower angle to cut the top corner again, then sculpt with a punch, leaving a nice texture.

Here in the left image, you can see the legs fully trimmed and sculpted.  In the right image, I added shading cuts on the legs and a big 24 karat gold eye…

And, finally after three days of engraving, here’s the CRKT Squid “Widowmaker” knife in all its glory.

Thanks for all your support and great comments, and Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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William Henry Rainforest Knife


Creating Side A of the William Henry Rainforest Knife

Here’s the drawing of my design. The folks at William Henry Studios wanted something with a rainforest theme. Unfortunately for them, my background as a microbiologist keeps creeping out, so a lot of my work focuses on the largely unseen drama that takes place in the hidden recesses of the world…

A William Henry Studio knife handle scale. I thought some of you might like to see the beginning – above is how the scale comes to me, beautifully machined and polished.

I feel a little badly, but the first thing I do is to destroy that lovely finish by stoning it, to eliminate glare under the microscope (center image). It’s not too much of a tragedy, because none of the surface you see will survive to the end.

And above, the ugly dude in the photo is my deer antler burnisher for transferring the pattern, which you can see on the steel knife scale.

I got the outlines cut in the @williamhenry_studio Rainforest knife scale today. Believe it or not, this is about 4 hours of cutting…

In this sequence of images I’m working on a small maquette to see how the lichen on the William Henry Studio Rainforest Knife might turn out. I’ve engraved, carved and punch sculpted the lichen, and that’s 18 karat green gold overlaid on the edges. I’m pleased with the lichen, but the gold edges might just be a bit much. So much of this style of engraving is trying to balance the detail and look/feel of each individual element with the overall impression…we’ll see…

A little more “adjustment” to the lichen, and a bit of overlay experimentation on a small maquette of the gecko. Seems that style of gold inlay isn’t going to work…my neighbor said it looks like the lizard has a walking harness on – so nope, nope, nope! I’ll use a less definite style of gold inlay for the stripes of the gecko. All my questions are now answered, so on to the actual work on the knife scales themselves.

Above, I’m actually operating on the knife itself, beginning to remove the background, and starting to detail the wood and bark as I go. Another big part of engraving and sculpting such a complicated design is the ordinal process – which parts you do before the other parts. Get the order wrong, and you can easily paint yourself into a corner…

More bark and wood detail, and lots more background removal. In general, I outline the design elements with gravers, and use carbide burs to carve away the background. Then, more detail with gravers, then burs, then lather, rinse, repeat…

Here I’m beginning to sculpt the gecko. I start by trimming the top edges of the lizard outlines with a tiny flat graver.

Above, you can see the facets left by the flat graver. Something with this level of depth I’ll generally make two passes with he flat graver. The first pass will be at 45 degrees from horizontal, than another pass at less than 45 degrees along the top edge of the previous facet.

Here, I’ve begun working with a small punch to smooth the graver cuts. You can see the pebbly texture along the bottom side of the gecko’s head. I really like how this texture gives you a “scaly” feel, so I’ll probably go with it…

And here’s the first round of rough sculpting finished. I’m really just trying to round things over in a general sense. I’ll go back later after the gold inlays are in and “adjust” anything that needs it.

Today felt like a wasp day on the Rainforest knife. At the left, I’ve removed the background and begun detailing the wasp with a small flat graver. On the right, I’ve started using flat graver and sculpting punch at the head, rounding things more gracefully. Features like legs are still a little too coarse, even though the entire wasp is only about half an inch long (12 mm).

More refinements with flat graver, sculpting punch and really tiny carbide burs. Suffice it to say a whole lot of finicky work with a tiny flat graver, then punch sculpting. It’s just about ready for the gold inlays…

Above, I’m working on the leaf and centipede, rounding the centipede with a flat graver

A lot of work on the dead leaf with small carbide burs, making it look, well, wrinkled and dead…

A more detailed image os the leaf. It’s also a good example of the order of things – I inlaid the centipede’s antennae early on in the process, because they are a flush inlay, with the top of the gold at the original surface of the steel knife handle scale. That way I don’t need to try a leave a reserved area for later inlay. This is strictly a value judgement…

Lastly, both leaf and centipede smoothed and sculpted with a tiny punch.

Above, I’m beginning to inlay rose gold in he centipede legs. Here, I’ve undercut V-graver cuts in the legs using a small flat graver (see the blue arrows). Hopefully the red gold will flow into these undercuts, trapping the gold into place.

Above, I’m punching in rose gold wire into the previously prepared undercuts. Rose gold is a real pain in the derriere – it work hardens instantly, so if your inlay technique is poor, the inlay will fail!

Once the gold is in place, punches, scrapers, gravers, burs are all pressed into service to shape and smooth the rose gold legs. Here, you can see the finished legs in the front half of the centipede.

The centipede legs are finally all inlaid in rose gold. It shouldn’t, but I’m always surprised – that’s a lot of legs…

Since I’m inlaying gold, I thought I might as well continue on with the wasp. Above, I’ve used a V-graver and carbide bur to excavate the pockets which will receive the gold.

Here, I’ve used 28 gauge rose gold wire to set into the first pocket. It’s pretty narrow, so only required two widths of wire. While the supplier of the gold claims it to be rose gold, I’m just not seeing the red in it, but it is a beautiful “peachy” color, so I’m going to call it peach gold. Among engravers, rose gold has a love/hate reputation – it is notorious for work hardening instantly, so lots of engravers shy away from it. This particular brand isn’t too terrible, but as it isn’t really red colored, it’s not really a solution for the red colored gold problem…

Above, I’ve set in all of the gold in the wasp’s abdomen. On a whim, I’ve added 24 karat yellow gold in the last pocket. I kind of like that… I’ve hammered all of the gold into place, filling all the undercuts, then used a tiny scraper to remove the excess. You can see all the scrapings around the edges.

Above are two images of the completed inlays, scraped, burnished, stoned flat, and a slight polish. I’ve also stippled the non-gold areas of the wasp so as to appear darker.

Lots of finicky detail work in the wasp. This image has a little temporary black Sharpie™ Permanent Marker inking just to see how it will look.

Above, I’ve finished sculpting the lizard, and added her gold eyes using a gold overlay technique.

Now to add the gecko’s gold stripes. Above, I’ve excavated the stripe areas, and undercut the edges.

Here I’ve not only undercut the edges of the pocket on the gecko’s head, but also raised a forest of tiny hooks on the bottom of the pocket. All of these will trap the gold permanently into place, and you can see me adding the first piece of 24 karat gold wire.

Above, all the wires in and hammered into place.

Here, I’ve used a V-graver to begin removing the waste material in the gecko body stripes. I’ll use a carbide bur and tiny grinder to remove the rest of the waste.

Above, I’m adding 24 karat gold to the gecko back. there’s still more to go in the tail stripe…

After looking at the wasp for a while, I decided it needed a tiny bit of gold inlaid in between the eyes – quality control is a never-ending process…

Above, the gecko is fully inlaid, with another dark stripe added. Also beginning the final steps on the front bolster with a bit of lichen. Not long left on this side…beginning to seem like forever!

The bolster needs a tiny gold spider. The legs are simple single wire inlays, but the body is actually several balls of 24 karat gold I melted on the ends of the gold wire. I hammered several of them together into a mass which extends above the surface, then used a body-shaped punch to do the initial shaping. A little trimming and gentle punch sculpting made everything nice and smooth.

A little texturing around the spider.

The above three images are of the finished Side A of the Rainforest knife! Now on to Side B, with poison dart frogs…

Creating Side B of the William Henry Rainforest Knife

Above, I’ve transferred my design onto Side B and cut them with a V-graver.

I’m not certain whether my idea for a small puddle with tadpoles in it will work so here’s a small experimental maquette for the poison dart frog tadpoles. Looks good to me, so on with the actual knife.

Above I’ve begun the background removal process. I’m mostly using carbide burs for this.

More refinement of the background. l’ve also inlaid green gold in the centipede antennae.

Above is the tiny earwig I added to the bare area on the front bolster, with inlaid gold details.

More progress – check out the earwig on the front bolster area.

Here you can see the earwig and the liverwort plant I added.

Above, the poison dart frog tadpoles in their tiny puddle.

The tadpoles and earwig are finished.

Here I’m finishing up the dead leaves. The blue arrows show me shaping the area between the ribs with a carbide bur.

Above, the blue and red arrows show where I’ve used a punch to soften the texture left by the carbide bur – blue is after the punch and red is before.

The two images above show the leaves in all of their deceased glory…

Here I’m adding in some grass in the in-between spaces. I’ve done a kind of interweaving to add a little interest. I first outlined them with a V-graver, and then removed the background with the tiny carbide bur in the image. That particular bur is 0.4 millimeters in diameter.

Above, I’m cleaning up the edges between the background and the grass leaves with a tiny flay graver (right hand side) and carving the top surface of the grass with a tiny round graver (left hand side).

Above you can see the three areas where I added the grass tufts.

Now it’s time to begin sculpting the tiny poison dart frog. Above, I’ve used a tiny flat graver to begin carving back the sharp edges of the frog. My first cut is about 45 degrees from vertical around the edges, followed by another time around at a more shallow angle (about 20 degrees). You can see the facets left behind by flat gravers. This sets the stage for the punch sculpting to follow.

Above is the poison dart frog after the punch sculpting. I really like the attractive texture the punch leaves behind – just like a frog’s pebbly-textured skin.

The home stretch – here’s the poison dart frog fully sculpted and ready for the gold inlay. You can also see where I’ve added a small gold inlay to the largest of the tadpoles.

I’ve excavated the areas for the gold and have the first gold wire in place.

Above, all the wires in place, and ready to be hammered permanently into place.

Here, all the gold has been inlaid and smoothed. A little quality control, followed by a good inking, and Side B will be finished.

Above, both sides finished, and ready to go to the good folks at William Henry Studios for assembly, and their new home.

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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World War II-style Damascus Steel Grenade Lanyard Bead

Starting another damascus steel and copper lanyard bead. Here I’m lathe turning the grenade body out of Geoff Keyes Damascus steel.  I’ve spent some time step drilling the 1/4 inch diameter hole through the center.  Damascus steel, since it’s made of many, many stacks of different kinds of steel isn’t the nicest stuff to drill…

While I’m at it, I carefully turn away everything that doesn’t look like a grenade…

Here I’m cutting the grenade body from the rest of the damascus steel.  I’ve planned ahead, and the waste material from this bead will become another one in the future.  Damascus steel is expensive, so I work hard to use as little as possible.

Above, I’ve cut the grenade handle and top from a thick bar of copper, and have spent a LOT of time cutting the male threads on the grenade body.  I’ll use the tap in the picture to cut the female threads through the copper grenade top.

And here are the two parts screwed together.  It’s very surprising how much time and effort it took to cut the two sets of threads – I don’t think I’ll try this again – far too much time and effort for what I’ll be able to sell it for…even though being able to disassemble it and play with is really cool!

The two parts disassembled.

Now I’ve got to cut the vertical grooves on the grenade body…the horizontal grooves were easy, since I turned them in place on the lathe.  I start by cutting (very deeply!) vertical grooves with a wide V graver.  There are six of these grooves, equally spaced around the circumference.

Now to enlarge those vertical grooves.  I’m using a large carbide bur in my NSK micrometer grinder.  Notice I’ve also added my signature to the neck of the grenade body.

Above, the finished vertical and horizontal grooves.

Now to etch the damascus steel grenade body with ferric chloride to reveal the damascus goodness within.  I’ve used a masking agent to cover the threads and my signature reserve so they won’t be harmed by the etching.

Here’s the grenade body completely etched and cleaned up, revealing the damascus folds.

Now on to the copper grenade top.  I desperately need to thin the copper handle area, so I’ve stuck it down with some pitch so I can use a coarse file for the thinning.

Here I’ve trimmed the excess from the sides of the arming handle.

Of course, no grenade is complete without the pin and ring pull.  Here I’ve created them from sterling silver.

Now I’ve got to engrave the details in the grenade top.  You can see the tiny grenade bead’s big brother (and my nude model…) in the image below.

So here’s the completed bead, shown with it’s big brother.

And another view…

All of the various pieces.  The copper thing on the right is what I call a “dangler.”  That passes through the central hole of the bead, so it can be strung on a leather cord as a pendant instead of a lanyard bead.

And here, partially assembled.  I’ve installed the pin and ring pull so they will spin and rotate but not be removable.  The pin and ring would be $50 USD to replace if they get lost…

More glamor shots…

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Here with the dangle installed, and leather cord for use as a pendant.


Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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Fine English Scroll Earrings

My wife is starting a line of jewelry, and here are a pair of titanium earrings destined for a bit of Fine English Scroll engraving – at least my take on what I think Fine English Scroll is. The actual size of the earring is 1.75 inches tall.


I began with the basic shape of the earrings. These are tapered, so each of the four spirals I planned would have to be of graduated sizes. I chose four spirals for this earring because they would fit well – if the earring was shorter, then three would have been more appropriate, and if longer, then five or six. This is the first bit of artistic judgement I had to use…

Next, I placed a border inside the earring outlines. Sometimes I’ll cut the border, but this time I’m only using it for planning purposes – I want some space to remain outside the scrolls. That is artistic judgment number two… Then, I sketched in the spiral backbones. The one at the top I chose for the starting element, so it is the only one that is different since it contains the scroll origin (I think of it as the seed). Then I inked in the scroll backbones.

Also note the direction each of the spirals takes as it leaves (grows from…) the previous one, each spiral being in the opposite direction from the previous, just as plants grow – you seldom see a branch grow the other direction, and then it looks really weird.

Above is the actual pattern, ready for transfer. Note that I’ve removed the border – had I left it in, I might cut it in a moment of inattention. Best not to leave things to chance – no battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy…I have met the enemy, and he is me…

Here’s a little hint that took me a great deal of time to figure out: Most modern engraved spirals have one and a half turns! (See the blue line) I always tended to put too many turns in, then had difficulty filling them. This is a case where less is probably more…

Also, note that I have a knee in each of the four spirals (the red arrow) – I used a scribe to correct the transfers under the microscope. Even those corrections weren’t the greatest – it’s much easier to cut a smooth curve than it is to draw one, so I really just corrected them on the fly during cutting. Artistic judgement number three.

Here’s the earring with the scroll backbones cut.

And the earring in progress and finished.

And a closeup.  Of course, this is a pretty simple start, but at least it isn’t just a rectangle like most practice plates. Things really get worse when you try to fit this stuff on a knife or gun, with lots of odd shaped areas and curves. Plus, when your relatives show up with an odd shaped (fill in the blank) for you to add a few ruffles and flourishes to…

Hand engraved Fine English Scroll earrings completed. Grade 2 titanium, 1.75 inches tall. Now I need to make a matching pendant…no rest for the wicked…

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling


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Skull and Bones Damascus Steel Lanyard Bead

Starting the second lanyard bead out of  damascus steel by Geoff Keyes (  Above, I’ve engraved the outlines really deeply, so I can carve the skull in 3D, but below the surface in Japanese shishiaibori style.  I began with a wide graver (Lindsay Universal, 116 degree), followed by a narrower graver (Lindsay Detailer, 96 degree).  Each subsequent pass makes the cut deeper and deeper.  I finished deepening it even more with third pass with an onglette.

Above, I’ve darkened the bead for better visualization.

Here, I’ve begun the part of the shishiaibori process that makes it all come alive.  I’m using small flat gravers and carbide burs to carve the skull inside the deeply engraved outlines.  All of the skull will be inside those lines, and the highest point will be the original surface of  the bead.  Sorry for the lousy image…photography isn’t my strong suit.

Above is a simplified graphic explaining the Shishiaibori technique.

Here I’ve finished carving the interior of the skull.  I’ve done most of the surface refinement using small punches (made from discarded burs).

And a darkened version – I can’t help but want to know what it will look like when finished.  The bead is now ready to inlay the bones in 24 karat gold.  This kind of inlay is quite straightforward, and I’ve discussed it many times before.

Since this is damascus steel (or pattern welded steel, as it is sometimes called), I have to etch the surface in order to discover the lovely surprise waiting inside.  Prior to etching, damascus steel looks like any other kind of steel.  However, since I’ve spent all this effort carving the skull and inlaying the gold bones, I’m going to have to mask off the parts I don’t want etched.  I’m using a Charbonnel lacquer masking agent (the dark stuff covering the skull and the bones).

I prefer to use ferric chloride as the etching agent for steel.  Thats the icky looking yellow-brown liquid in the jar.  It’s by far the safest and most effective of the various agents I could use – most are acids, more difficult and dangerous to handle, with nasty vapors during the etching process.  I’ve jammed a dowel into the hole in the bead so I can extract it during etching to see how things are going without running the risk of damaging the masking.  About two hours in my chilly studio worked well in this case – yes, temperature plays a large part in this process.

The different types of steel Geoff Keyes used while making the damascus layers etch at different rates, and take on different hues during etching, revealing the surprises hidden inside.

Here’s a closeup of the bead after etching, so you can see the intricate details of the damascus steel.

Geoff_Keyes_Skull_Bones_Lanyard_BeadAnd here’s the bead from all sides, in all of its’ glory!

The Geoff Keyes Damascus Skull and Bones lanyard bead is complete, and soon to depart for America and into Geoff’s hot paws.

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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Gold Spider Damascus Bead

I’ve started a lanyard bead on some Geoff Keyes damascus steel.  I’m going to add a tiny gold spider hanging from a thread. This bead is for Geoff – shhh, don’t tell him…

Gold_Spider_Damascus_Bead_1Above, I’m beginning to turn the bead from Geoff’s damascus steel rod.  So far I’ve faced the rod, turned the rough exterior perfectly round and am drilling a center hole for drilling all the way through with successive sized drill bits.

Gold_Spider_Damascus_Bead_3Here I’ve carefully rounded the end, saying particular attention to the finish.  Any marks left on the surface now will be accentuated once I etch the damascus steel and reveal its’ complexities.

Above is the turned bead and the remainder of its’ bar – I tend to turn two beads at a time, because the next bed gives the lathe chuck something to hold onto.

You can see the preliminary etch above, revealing a really fine pattern (3/4 inch long/19 mm).  Geoff made the damascus from two or more different kinds of high carbon steel.  Each kind of steel etches at different rates (I used ferric chloride), leaving behind this beautiful woodgrain effect.  Now I need to make several tiny punches to create the raised portions of the gold spider.

I spent today making a set of punches for making the raised portions of a gold spider on yesterday’s Damascus lanyard bead. The spider will be similar to the gold ant on the beetle hobo nickel from a few weeks back.

Gold_Spider_Punch_1Above, I’ve transferred the design to a piece of 1/8 inch diameter piano wire.

Here I’ve engraved the interior of the design.

Now I’ve carved out the interior with a tiny carbide bur.  Can you see where we’re going with this punch yet?

Here I’ve engraved and carved exterior to the edge lines – I want a not quite sharp edge.

Above, you can see the shaped exterior on the two finished punches, one large for the spider’s abdomen (big butt…), and a smaller one for the spider’s head.  You can also see where I tested both punches on a piece of lead.

Below, I’m adding the spider to the Geoff Keyes damascus lanyard bead.

I’ve engraved the design of the spider into the damascus steel, and begun excavating the pocket in the spider’s body and head where I will inlay the 24 karat pure gold.

Above, I’ve completed excavating the inlay pocket with tiny carbide burs.

Here I’m undercutting the edges of the inlay pocket.  The soft gold will flow into these undercuts, trapping the gold into place.

Gold_Spider_Damascus_Bead_13In addition to the undercut edges, I’ve also added heavy stippling to the bottom of the inlay pocket.  This rough bottom will also allow the gold to flow into the zillions of crevices, creating additional hold.

Here I’m adding the gold in the form of a tiny ball melted on the end of the pure gold wire, squishing it in place with a brass punch, to be followed by the front body portion shaping punch I made last time.

I’m continuing the inlay process of the 24 karat gold spider abdomen by pounding in several gold balls

Above, I’ve rough-sculpted the abdomen with a brass punch, and used the shaped head punch to refine the shape of the gold in the head inlay.

I’ve used the abdomen punch we made earlier for the final shaping. I’ll carefully trim away the excess gold.

Here’s an overall view of the spider at this point, in my bead holding fixture.

Above is the finished spider body inlay.  Now I need to add in the wire gold for the legs and spider silk.

Here’s the beginning of inlaying a single 28 gauge gold wire into the silk strand the spider will hang from.

Now I’m adding in more wire into the legs.  Note how the edges of the leg cuts have been carefully undercut for the soft gold to flow into.

Gold_Spider_Damascus_Bead_27We’re halfway there.  I’ve used a small scraper to trim off the excess gold from the leg and silk inlays.

I’ve aded in tiny outlining cuts around the single wire inlays in the legs.  This step really makes the inlay pop visually.  Did I mention the spider is only a little more than one fourth of an inch tall?

Gold_Spider_Damascus_Bead_30aAnd, finally the completed bead, after darkening it with gun blue and adding a paracord lanyard.

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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Shibuichi Longhorn Beetle Hobo Nickel Tutorial

Shibuichi_Longhorn_Beetle_Hobo_Nickel_Tutorial_1Shibuichi_Longhorn_Beetle_Hobo_Nickel_Tutorial_2 Shibuichi_Longhorn_Beetle_Hobo_Nickel_Tutorial_3
Starting a new project, a Hobo Nickel with a shibuichi Japanese-style inlay of a longhorn beetle. I’ve been watching Ford Hallam (…/) make his lovely metal inlays, and have been taking his advice to “steal with my eyes.” I think I’ve broken the code, so I’m trying it with this beetle inlay.

Of course, I might have it all wrong, so you should take this with a grain of salt.  Additionally, since the traditional methods I’ve alluded to here are taken from the Japanese method of hammer and chisel, I’ve tailored all the actions to better suit my use of pneumatic hand engraving technology.

Here I’m sawing out and filing a tiny snail from a self-made plate of shibuichi (75% copper and 25% silver), about an eighth of an inch thick (3.2 mm).

Here I’m sawing out and filing a tiny snail (less than half an inch long) from a self-made plate of shibuichi (75% copper and 25% silver), about an eighth of an inch thick (3.2 mm).  This will make an almost 3D beetle in very high relief.

Above is a small sample of my favorite Japanese-style raised metal inlays by Ford Hallam, just to illustrate the wide range of exquisite work in this style being done today.  More of his work can be seen here:  (…/)

Heres a terrible image of the beetle after sawing it out with a jeweler’s saw and 2/0 blade.  Sorry for that…  I glue a paper printout onto the sheet and just saw through the paper.

Note the tiny vise I use to hold the beetle for careful filing.  It’s a wide nose pin vise.  This one is an antique, but almost identical modern versions are available at

You can also see the two jeweler’s files I used to trim up my rough sawing technique.  I try to file so that the base of my shibuichi inlay is wider than the top surface.  That way the inlay will tend to “dovetail” into the inlay pocket when I punch the pocket edges down into contact with the inlay, trapping it in place.  This will make a completely secure mechanical connection that is unlikely to ever come apart.

One of the problems I’ve always had with this style of inlay is getting a clear and close outline of the inlay transferred to the substrate because I couldn’t hold the inlay in place and trace around it without moving.  Here’s a view of a “complicated contraption” clamp I use to hold an inlay in place on the surface of the “base” metal while I scribe a very close outline.

I find this far quicker and more useful than the methods I’ve attempted in the past, including trying (and failing) to hold the inlay with my finger, and even super-gluing the inlay into place, scribing the outline and then releasing the glue using heat (warping the base metal and making a huge mess to clean up).  Incidentally, this little beetle is less than half an inch long (about 12 mm)  This clamp is held in place with a single socket cap screw in a threaded hole in the top of the vise, and rotates around that screw as well as allowing the brass nose to extend and contract in length.

As a point of interest, the shibuichi beetle inlay is harder than the cupronickel base metal of the coin, hence the need to use this style of inlay.

I’ll also use this clamp again to hold the inlay in place in the pocket while I punch the sides of the base metal to jam the inlay into place for a permanent installation.  The clamp will hold the inlay firmly in place, without allowing any movement, and the small size of clamp contact won’t interfere much with the operation.

Another view of the clamp.

A close-up view of the clamp in action.

Here are some images of the inlay hold-down clamp I took my inspiration from, so here are some images of it. Much more elegant than my cobbled-together solution. Photos courtesy of Mike Dubber and Brian Marshall, the clamps actually designed and manufactured by Ray Letourneau.

The result of the scribing and clamp in action, a clear and close outline, in the proper place.

Here’s the start of the pocket creation for the beetle inlay.  I use a narrow flat graver (45 degree face), and simply plunge it into the base metal at about a 45 degree angle.  My aim here is to start piling up a blob of base metal, and then using the power of the pneumatic airgraver to push the pile just beyond the edge of the outline.  I’ll repeat this all the way around the edges of the outline until I’ve gone completely around.  The tighter the curve, the narrower flat graver I use.

I use a Lindsay Classic Palm Control Airgraver with the heavy tungsten piston, 60 psi air and fairly long stroke – I want nice large piles of metal around the edges.  I’ll use these piles of base metal to punch down around the edge of the inlay, jamming it permanently in place.

I’m not terribly familiar with GRS or Enset operation, but obviously you’re going to want a high power setting.

A small disclaimer here – I’ve not used this method with steel yet, but I think it will work just fine.  I anticipate a few more broken tips, however, as this is likely to be hard on narrow flat gravers…

Above, I’ve gone all the way around.  Notice the individual graver marks have left a rough interior – I’ll use an onglette graver to clean up the bottom edges of the cuts.

Here I’m using the standard method of multiple parallel cuts to begin the excavation of the excess material from the inlay pocket.

I’ve used an NSK micromotor and tiny carbide bur to excavate to the bottom of the parallel graver cuts.  I’ll repeat the parallel graver cuts and carbide bur excavation to get this pocket deep enough (about 1 mm deep) to hold the inlay securely.  I’ll also use the onglette graver to make sure the bottom edges of the inlay pocket are clean and slightly wider than the top opening.

If I’ve done this correctly, the shibuichi inlay will “click” into place and not wobble horizontally.

Here’s the shibuichi inlay almost in place.  It doesn’t quite fit in the “right shoulder” notch and point of the shoulder (see the red arrows).  I’ll use the flat graver as a bulldozer and push up the edges of the inlay pocket in those areas a little more until I can see a small dark line between the inlay and base metal.

Once the inlay has a good fit, I use a small block of lead and engraver’s hammer to firmly seat the inlay in place (another Ford Hallam trick).  The lead won’t mar the inlay and acts to make a solid but controlled dead blow (no bounce).

When everything fits well, I re-install the clamp, adjust it until the position is correct, and then begin punching down the little piles of base metal around the edge of the inlay pocket.

Here’s a closeup of the inlay just sitting in the pocket.  Notice the raised edges of the nickel inlay pocket against the pinkish shibuichi inlay.  We’re ready to begin punching those raised edges down against the inlay.

Above, I’ve used a tiny punch to push the inlay pocket edges as close to the inlay as possible.  I’ve leaned the engraver’s block to and fro to get the angle right for effective punching.

My punches are made from old carbide bur shafts, with the carbide portions snapped off.  i grind the face flat, with a very slight radius to the edges of the face to avoid marring the surface.  The punch I’ve used here looks to be a little less than a millimeter in diameter.

A closeup of the punched edges.  The inlay is now permanently installed – to attempt to remove the inlay at this point would probably require destruction of the nickel base metal, and perhaps the shibuichi inlay as well.

Above is a quick and dirty graphic of the basic process of Japanese-style pocket inlay.

Above is the inlay installed, and the beginning of roughing in the additional details.

Here I’m rounding out the beetle’s body with carbide burs, although flat gravers would work as well.

Above, I’ve used a tiny scraper to refine the shape of the beetle wings (the long part of the body).

The same tool has refined the front body portions as well.

Trimming the body with a Lindsay Universal graver (116 degree V graver) and tiny carbide bur.  Then, the body parts were smoothed with a 600 grit pencil stone.

Above, after a little burnishing with 0000 steel wool.

Starting to inlay 24 karat gold in the legs.  The largest section of the right hind leg is two 28 gauge wires wide.  The middle leg shows the undercut sides, with angled holes made in the bottom of the inlay trough with a simple single pointed tool – I drove them in at about 45 degrees from vertical.  Barry Lee Hands explained the hole technique in this thread:   He calls this style of teeth raising “louver,” or “arch” and it works very well.

A little better view of the “louvers” in the inlay channels.

I doubled the gold wire over for a short distance to fill the widest parts of the legs.  A single width of wire worked fine for the slimmer portions of the legs.  You can still see the excess length of wire still attached.

Above, all the legs have been inlaid with gold, punched flush, and trimmed.  I use a small scraper to scrape the excess gold from the tops of the inlays.

Above you can see the tiny cuts I make in the nickel base metal just outside the gold inlay (see the right rear leg).  This step really finishes off the gold inlay and refines the visual appeal.  Compare the right rear leg with the right middle leg just above, and see how much more refined the right rear leg appears.

All of the gold inlays outlined with tiny cuts.

Above, I’ve begun making a raised inlaid ant in 24 karat gold.  Here I’ve excavated the tiny ant pockets in the usual manner, undercutting the edges with a tiny flat graver and raising “louvers” in the inlay bottom.  Then, I melted tiny balls on the end of my standard 28 gauge gold wire, altering the sizes of the melt balls as needed.  Using a flat-faced brass punch, I’ve tacked the balls into place, then begun shaping them into the appropriate ant body parts, making certain to securely punch down the edges into the undercuts.

Above, you can see the rough shapes established with the small brass flat-faced punch.

Here, I’ve used a small shaped female punches to further refine the shape of the three body parts.  For more about making punches like my “ant punches,” visit this link:

Above I’ve used a tiny square graver to trim away the excess gold, and further refine the shapes.  I’ve also gone over the surface with a tiny flat faced steel punch (made from a tiny worn out carbide bur).

I’ve inlaid the legs, but this time I did not punch the gold flush with surface, but left it fairly thick.  I might add these legs are quite tiny and narrow, so 28 gauge gold wire is pretty excessive for the size.  That leaves a pretty thick and wide layer of gold above the surface.  Using my tiny square graver I trimmed the excess gold away, leaving slightly raised inlays.  The ant is 3/16ths of an inch long (4.75 mm).

Here is an overview of where we are now, all the inlays are in and we are ready to do some background removal and texturing, followed by some stippling.

Above, the background has been removed around the beetle to create raised legs, and stippled to darken the shadow areas near the beetle and around the legs.

Also, I’ve stippled around the ant, and carved a hole for the ant.

And with the addition of patina (I use Birchwood Casey Super Blue) and a good inking, the Shibuichi Longhorn Beetle Hobo Nickel is finished!

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling



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Inlaid Shibuichi “Slimy Snail” Hobo Nickel Tutorial

Starting a new project, a Hobo Nickel with a shibuichi Japanese-style snail inlay.

I’ve been watching Ford Hallam (…/) make his lovely metal inlays, and have been taking his advice to “steal with my eyes.”  I think I’ve broken the code, so I’m trying it with this snail.  I’ll discuss the technique further as the project unfolds.  Here I’m sawing out and filing a tiny snail from a self-made plate of shibuichi (75% copper and 25% silver).  Note the tiny vise I use to hold the snail for careful filing.

I cut it out with a jeweler’s saw and 2/0 blade (actually several of them, since I had to attack it from several directions because of the length of the shibuichi plate, and I broke a blade backing out – I seldom break blades in forward gear, but reverse sometimes gets the best of me…)

One of the problems I’ve always had with this style of inlay is getting a clear and close outline of the inlay transferred to the substrate because I couldn’t hold the inlay in place and trace around it without things moving, and then requiring a lot of adjustments to the inlay pocket.  I’ve even superglued the inlay in place, then scribed around it, but removal is a mess.  However, I saw a beautiful clamping fixture designed to fix all that – unfortunately no longer manufactured.  So, this is my (rather inelegant..) solution, but it works like a champ.  I use the clamp fixture both for tracing the inlay outline and permanently seating the inlay in the substrate..

There’s been some interest in the inlay hold-down clamp I took my inspiration from, so here are some images of it.  Much more elegant than my cobbled-together solution.  Photos courtesy of Mike Dubber and Brian Marshall, the clamps actually manufactured by Ray Letourneau.

Here’s how I begin the inlay process (upper left) – using a flat graver, I drive it downwards (slightly inside the lines) at about a 45 degree angle, pushing up a little mound of metal and continuing to move that mound until it it slightly beyond (outside) the inlay line.  I repeat this all the way around the edge.  In the past, I’ve cut around the inside edge of the inlay pocket with a v-graver, then removed the interior waste material, but getting a good fit was difficult.  This new method (new to me…) solves those problems, needing only minor adjustments.  I then remove the interior waste material as per normal (flat gravers and carbide burs).  Two rounds of waste removal seemed to make the proper depth.  Next, I’ll seat the inlay and push the nickel edges up tight against the shibuichi inlay, fixing it permanently in place.  I believe this is the method of the ancient Japanese metal artists.

Got the snail inlay installed in the nickel.  You can see the before and after, using a punch to move the nickel “piles” back into place to contact the shibuichi inlay.  The hold is solid, permanent and strictly mechanical – no glue or solder.  Now I have to begin simmering turkey necks for tomorrow’s world famous gravy – hope everybody has a wonderful Christmas!

Finished carving and texturing the snail with flat gravers and carbide burs.  Next will be creating the background by removing the Indian head, in a logical sequence.

The Slimy Snail Hobo Nickel is complete.  I slipped in a simple background and texture and patina.  Shibuichi snail, hand engraved and inlaid into a 1929 US nickel (5 cent coin).

Thanks for Looking!

Tom Sterling

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Tom included in The World of Art Knives, Vol III by Dr David Darom

Those who’ve been around the knife world for very long will recognize the many art knife books by Dr David Darom. I have a number of them myself, and have found lots of inspiration in them. Imagine my pleasant surprise when he asked me to participate in his latest, The World of Art Knives, Vol III. A very great honor! I was even more pleased when I received my copy, and got to see the spectacular 4 page spread he created with my artistic efforts! Thanks so much David!


The book is available from Nordic Knives USA,
Phone: (805)688-3612

Thanks for Looking!

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