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At new studio, artist takes jewelry further
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Bethany O'Neil shows some of the jewelry she has made. She started dabbling in metalsmithing three years ago and she takes summer classes in the craft at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the Smoky Mountains. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
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Sunday, November 4, 2012

By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor

Creating unique bead jewelry was fun for Bethany O’Neil.

Now that she makes her own beads, along with metal components, the fun and creativity of jewelry-making is on a whole new level.

O’Neil, who had been making jewelry, soap, candles and other things in the basement of her Chatmoss home, just opened a metal working studio in Studio 107.

She also has work on display at The Artisan Center, where she gives occasional classes on a variety of topics, including knitting.

O’Neil is a longtime student of the John C. Campbell Folk School in the Smoky Mountains. Each summer, she takes craft and jewelry classes there. In July, she was an assistant instructor in the stonesetting class.

“I’ll go back next summer to take another class which will up the ante in metalsmithing even more,” she said.

O’Neil moved into Studio 107 in mid-September. “It takes a while” to get a comfortable working space set up, she said.

The needs of a metalsmith are different than for someone just “beading jewelry. I’ve got some major cutting tools in here,” she said. “What makes a lot of this happen is some really good tools.”

Making beads starts with a special piece of equipment. Onto it she places long, slim glass rods in position and melts them together into designed beads.

O’Neil has been pleased with the designs of the beads she has created. A teacher at the craft school told her, “‘You just have the hands’,” O’Neil recalled.

However, her focus is turning more to metal. Much metal starts in the form of metal plates which O’Neil shapes to fit her needs.

So that a metal plate can be shaped, first it must be annealed. That means to warm up the plate so that it becomes pliable. The plate does not need to remain hot to be pliable. Heating the piece breaks up the molecules enough to separate them, making the piece less resistant to pressure, O’Neil explained.

As the metalcrafter works on the plate, such as by hammering designs, the molecules of the metal are pressed back down, and the piece hardens again. It may need to be annealed more times during its work, lest it crack, she added.

Brass plates can be etched with designs. To etch an original design, O’Neil blocks off with a marker and tape the sections that should not be affected. She dips the plate into a solution and lets the uncovered surface dissolve away. Those plates are used to press designs onto copper, silver and gold surfaces.

After a copper piece is annealed, a design from an etched brass plate can be pressed into it. The copper piece is pressed against a design plate. Both are wrapped in paper. Then, the metal duo is put through a rolling mill. The metal smither turns a lever which activates gears to roll the pieces through under great pressure.

O’Neil cuts strips of metal into smooth lines with the 12-inch guillotine. Think of a more compact, stronger version of the paper cutter at schools. The jewelry-maker lays down a sheet of metal and pulls the lever to cut strips at desired widths.

At least two tools, plus accessories, are used to make convex circles which can be strung into bracelets or hang as earrings.

First, a stamp or punch is used to cut out little circles. Then, to curve the circle, O’Neil puts it in a shaping tool. It is a block with recessed half-circles in it. She lays the circle over the matching-sized part of the shaping tool. Using a tiny hammer with a ball-shaped point, she bangs the piece into the circular indentation until the circle takes on the shape.

Soldering is the step which melts one piece of metal into another. The 5- or 6-inch long yellow and orange blaze that shoots from the end of a soldering tool comes from propane. Then a stream of pure oxygen is added. The oxygen narrows the flame to a sharp, 1-inch or less blue point.

If pieces of metal need to be joined, it’s the heat of the soldering iron that does it. A miniscule bead of soldering metal is placed against a gap that needs filling. The gap may be so tiny it only can be found by shining a bright light which shines through cracks. The solder has to be placed exactly against the gap or it won’t take, O’Neil said.

When the piece to be soldered is unusually delicate, it is placed on a metal screen on a stand. The fire is sprayed from below it. To heat the piece gradually, first only the screen around where the piece sits is heated.

Setting up the soldering stand takes more time than the actual soldering process does, O’Neil pointed out.

After each piece is made, it is sanded and polished. To do that, she uses a tiny power tool with end attachments. “It’s like a Dremel tool, but much nicer,” she described it.

Her style inspirations come from the great outdoors. “When I’m driving around, I’m always looking for texture, 3-D, in nature for designs,” she said. “Nature is a pretty prominent part of my designs. I’m a huge gardener, and I’ve pulled that into my designs.”

Don’t look for pristine with Bethany O’Neil. She goes for an “antique appeal.”

“I want it to look quality hand-made,” she said. “Unique. I don’t want to make things more than one time.”


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