What is fold forming metals?

I love this subject, it is often one of the most helpful ways for me to overcome creative block, especially after a break from making like the summer holidays. If you’ve never tried it then it’s certainly well worth a look. So first of all – what is it?

Fold forming metals is a revolutionary way of metalworking which explores the elasticity of metals to create unique 3-dimensional forms. In other words it is a way of working which uses the natural characteristics of the metals to achieve results – the properties of the metals generate the design as opposed to the design forcing the metal in to a form. These properties are primarily, the structural make-up of the metals and the way in which work hardening and annealing affect this structure. As a subject it can be credited to the work of one man and his followers – Charles Lewton-Brain. It was recognised as a subject during the eighties and was a culmination of more than 2 decades of work.

Why try fold forming metals?

fold forming metals

fold formed elements combined with beads and twisted wires

Fold forming metals is a fascinating subject. It is one of my favourite techniques to use for many reasons. At first glance it is a mystery how many of the results have been achieved in fold formed metal. But after a little exploration it becomes apparent that the process is relatively simple. The process also harks back to the Arts & Crafts movement where honesty in creativity was the focus. Meaning that the way the metal is formed becomes an integral part of the design – the marks made with the hammer are part of the beauty of the piece. Another reason why I really like the subject is that it encourages free creativity.

Learn to loosen up

It has many design possibilities but the results from the techniques are more serendipitous and organic in style. So it is a way of working that will help the more traditional and rigid amongst us to ‘loosen up’ or those who already embrace organic creativity to step out in a new creative direction. This is probably why I find it so useful for creative block. I often just try a couple of folds together that I’ve not tried ‘together’ before. The results are normally always a surprise on one level or another. Then I find that I’m off……..along a new creative path.

fold forming metalsThe process

As the name suggests – fold forming metals simply put, is a way of creating forms in metals by folding it. There are many different folds to try. Most of them created and named by the man himself but some have been given names referring to the person who created it, these being mostly his students or contemporaries. Complex looking forms and surface textures can be created by combining different folds on the same piece. But on the whole the technique involves four basic stages:

  1. Fold the metal.
  2. Hammer / mallet / roll (in a rolling mill) the metal – this is a bit like crisping the edge of a folded piece of paper.
  3. Unfold it
  4. Confirm the fold – this is literally making the sheet flat again but with a raised line.

In-fact, using paper to approach the subject is a great way to explore and push your ideas. Paper will act in a very similar way to metal. Once it is folded the creased line will always be there even when it is flattened back out.

The toolsfold forming metals

This is a subject that can be done in a fairly low key manner making it quite an accessible subject to practise at home in a basic studio. (However – if you really like it this may change!) The most important tools are:

  1. A good large vice with durable safe jaws
  2. A selection of hammers with different heads – a ball pein, a cross pein and maybe a repousse with a curved face are all good to start off with.
  3. A couple of mallets – large and small. The large one for quickly creasing an edge, the small one for more repetitive edge forming or flattening
  4. A flat metal surface – either a small selection of jeweller’s stakes, or a bench block, or a combined bench block and pin will do. Whichever flat surface you use be aware of marking it with the steel hammers. (Once marked – marked for good! Any mark made on your surface will be transferred to the rest of your work for ever onwards!)
  5. Annealing capability

In addition to these 5 main tools – more industrial tools can come in to play if you have access to them. Although not essential, the following will speed the process up or cut down on a lot of the manual work:

  1. A large anvil is handy – especially for use with metal hammers. Keep your small bench anvil for use with mallets to keep it un-marked.
  2. Fly-press
  3. Rolling-mill

Tips to make your fold forming a success:

Scale and softness

Annealing is the fundamental most important aspect of fold forming. Both – doing it, or not doing it will change the way a fold will act.

Metal gauge is important to get right in relation to the scale you are working at. Larger pieces (like bangles / cuffs) can be done in thicker gauge. But the smaller you go the thinner you may find the metal has to be. So sometimes you may need to;

Work bigger and cut your design out afterwards. Use a larger piece of sheet material than you need. You will have more leverage to open and close the folds.

fold forming metals

Fold formed silver pendant combining stone setting and cold enamel

Make prototypes 

Try ideas in paper or card. This is a great way to explore design ideas before plunging in with metal.

Use copper for prototypes. As with all exploratory work, copper is a great medium to work with as it is much cheaper than silver. It can be a little less temperamental than silver in terms of annealing or failing to anneal. And copper can always be plated if you end up with a masterpiece…..!

Combining folds is where the real strength of fold forming can often be seen within designs. More possibilities within the fold can be found in this way so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Use simple shapes like squares, circles, triangles etc. Sometimes simple shapes are all that is needed to compliment a technique. Try cutting the shapes out both before – form the plain sheet, and after folding whilst the sheet is still in half. Note the difference this makes. Also a folded sheet cut out then opened up will give you a symmetrical shape – hearts are a good example of this.

Drill and cut

Holes! Not strictly part of the original fold forming technique set out by Charles Lewton-Brain. But I have found that a hole drilled where folds are to cross can make it much easier to work the metal. Especially when working at a smaller scale. I have then incorporated these holes in to the design or set stones over them.

Cutting or drilling folded forms can be tricky to do without squashing the design. So cut out your designs with a piercing saw and make holes in tricky places with hole punch pliers.

Health & Safety

There’s always H&S considerations in jewellery making – even if you are just sat at a table with a pair of pliers, beading. In addition to the usual workshop hazards fold forming has 2 additional hazards to be aware of.

Firstly repetitive strain injury:

Prolonged use of hammers is obviously the main culprit here. So make sure you are comfortable whether at the bench or anvil and move around frequently. Do some annealing, have a break! Also, and this goes for any hammering done during your silversmithing, use the correct weight of hammer. So a heavy mallet or hammer is ok for a short burst of work. But select a lighter weight tool that you can comfortably use for a prolonged period of time. Otherwise at best you’ll be worn out or at worst you will end up with an RSI.

Secondly ear protection:

This is really important, if you are working at home doing prolonged hammering with a steel hammer against a steel surface, invest in some ear protection. The ‘headphones’ are good but even the little orange ear-plugs available from the chemists will protect your ears to a greater extent than nothing at all. Your hearing will be damaged slowly! You probably won’t notice. I have met some completely deaf silversmiths in my time!

Just have a go

Fold Forming metals

This necklace is made up of different fold forming techniques looked at during this class

So the next time you are staring blankly at you work bench thinking ‘I can’t think what to do’ give it a go. Just pick up a bit of sheet and try it out. You may be surprised where you end up! A one day fold forming workshop is available at Silverpetal Studio. This workshop is designed as an introduction to the subject to get started and look at the first basic steps and several different folds within this vast subject. This is an ideal workshop for anyone who likes a more guided learning experience and help when starting out.

I hope you feel inspired. Happy Folding!

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