Jewellery making

Filing, finishing and polishing

Towards the end of every masterpiece you make there’ll be the obligatory finishing and polishing stage. You know how it goes, you’ve designed, constructed and even got through all the soldering, you are one step away from wearing. Then there’s the filing, finishing with emery paper and polishing – the stage that seems to always take an age. So near yet still so far!

But it really is the pesky stage that will make or break a piece. The time you spend on finishing will separate the ‘men from the boys’ the ‘Prada from the Primark’ so I thought it was worth a few lines to offer you some hints and tips. It really doesn’t have to take too long to do, and if it does then you are possibly doing part of it incorrectly. So read on and hopefully find ways to cut down on some of the time.

Stages to success

So what are the stages? To start with, whenever I construct a piece I always leave as much of the filing until all the soldering has been completed. That way – if there is a melt down during making I haven’t wasted oodles of time finishing. Then make sure that the work has had a final last good soak in the pickle to remove all traces of flux and oxide then you are ready to file.


Let’s consider filing for a moment. You may think that this is easy and that you can’t really do it wrong. Unfortunately I see lots of barbaric filing at the studio; this falls in to three main filing no-nos.


Don’t go at it hell for leather, we aren’t scrubbing the floor! Try and see filing as the final delicate finishing touches and shaping to an intricate piece of art work. A ‘scrubbing’ action should be avoided if possible, a file will usually cut in one direction – away from you so try to do a stroke and lift, get in to a rhythm, stroke – lift, stroke – lift, and stroke – lift…. it can be quite therapeutic. You will also be giving yourself the opportunity to look at your work after each stroke – sounds like a daft thing to say but it does help if you can see what you are doing.


Always work cleanly. I often see individuals filing away oxides and worse still – flux. Filing away oxides is a waste of time. Filing away flux will damage your files. Flux is basically glass and forms a lump of very hard material after soldering. So ALWAYS pickle to remove these residues first. Which sounds more appealing? Waiting for a few minutes for pickling, or filing for half an hour? I know which I prefer.

Finally the most important:

Choose the correct file. The best piece of advice I ever got from a tutor was to always use the BIGGEST file you can get away with. Files will wear out and I often see large areas of work being filed with a piddling little needle file. This just wears the teeth off the file and takes forever. So always consider using a large engineer’s file or a slightly smaller jeweller’s file before you go near the needle files. These tiny files are for just getting in to all the small nooks and crannies – literally the final stages of filing. Think of them as ‘final files’ – this new name will work wonders. The other reason for using a bigger file is to have a larger file area to work with. Have you ever been filing for ages only to be seemingly making even more gouges in the inside of a bangle or similar item? That’s because the file will slip off solder on to the surrounding silver (or copper) and a small file will create a mark of its own profile. This can eventually turn it into a channel. So your bit of excess solder you were just going to whip off in the blink of an eye becomes surrounded by a major new design feature!

A bit about the files themselves…

What do you need in your kit?


As with all tools these become like old friends. You will gravitate towards the same ones during your practice. So what should you buy? On the whole this does depend on the scale you tend to work in. If you like big jewellery, like making chunky bangles and rings then you will definitely need a large coarse engineer’s file and a slightly smaller, smoother jeweller’s file. If you like to make very dainty teeny tiny sized jewellery especially out of finer wire, then you will need a jeweller’s file and a set of diamond needle files. But really all of us will need all 3 types at some point.

Diamond or normal?

What’s the difference between diamond files and normal files? Diamond files have a finer cut and will make more delicate marks. Needle files that are not ‘diamond cut’ are slightly coarser and more general purpose. They will last slightly longer.


What are ‘Rifler’ files? In a word – fantastic! If you’ve never tried them ask to borrow the ones at the studio. Riflers are needle sized files but with curved profiles at the end. This makes filing difficult spaces easy to get to. They are also good for filing solder off flat sheet without marking all the surrounding areas of the metal surface.

 You can pay a lot or a little for files. The top end Swiss files won’t last much longer or do a better job (that bit is down to you) than their cheaper counterparts. So if the choice is one set of Swiss files or one of each cheaper style file then I would always say go for the cheaper option. Get to know which sizes and types you gravitate towards – then go for its Swiss counterpart if you feel the need.

After the file comes the abrasive.

Remember this; the file performs a definite task. It is for removing excess solder, smoothing any lumps or bumps out, and for making any alterations you may wish to make to the shape of your work. Abrasive papers are for removing the marks made by the files, fire stain and any last scratches made by the abrasive papers. In other words – don’t sit for hours trying to remove excess solder or smooth out lumpy bits with emery paper. You’ll just end up with smoother solder and shinier lumps. So make sure the filing stage is finished first!

Which papers? – and wet or dry?

Abrasive papers come in different coarseness’ called ‘grit’ measured with numbers printed on the reverse. You can normally tell by touch which to use but basically the higher the number the smoother the grit and the less abrasive the paper will be. What’s the difference between Wet and dry paper and emery? Wet & dry paper is just that, the grit is applied to sheets of paper. Emery is normally made with a cloth base for the grit. Both are designed specifically for metal and do work better if used wet. Whilst still being abrasive, when used wet it is less harsh and leaves finer marks. So get a cup of water and keep dipping the paper in. The foam pads and blocks are nice for finishing jewellery and can also be used wet. They only tend to be available in one grade of grit, but as they start to wear out – keep them; and eventually you will get a collection of different grits to choose from. For really fine hand finishing I have also found using manicure nail files to be really good. These tend to be very fine grits and are often available as small blocks. They don’t last forever but can be just the ticket for some really careful last stage smoothing.

How to go about using papers:

The best way to avoid lots of finishing is to not make marks in the first place. This does come with practice. But if you have got lots of file marks then coarse abrasive papers will be on the agenda, the deeper the file cuts the coarser the paper will need to be. Identify your scratches and work across them with your paper. When you can’t see them any more go down to your next grade of paper and work across in the opposite way.  Carry on in this way until you get a mirror finish. So you will always be crossing the last marks you made ‘against the grain’ so to speak. If the filing stage was done correctly then this really shouldn’t take too long.

Nearly there…!

For some designs that require a brushed or matt finish then this could be you done. If on the other hand, you want a really shiny finish then there’s a choice of two steps left.


The first is to tumble your work in a barrel polisher. This is a machine that is filled with steel shot, an abrasive ‘soap’ and water. You put your work in and leave it to do its thing for an hour or two. There’s an obvious expense to setting yourself up with this and all tumblers make a monotonous annoying noise. But it will polish all parts inside and out and all the nooks and crannies so it’s a nice easy finishing solution.


The other option is to polish with a buffer or dremel to give that mirror finish. Again there is an expense here for either of these tools. A buffer will give a better finish than a tumbler. A dremel with a polishing mop attached will polish a smaller item that can be difficult or too scary to hold on the buffer. Some items are really not advisable to polish on the buffer. Chains for instance – I saw the results of someone who had had quite a nasty accident buffing a chain (unfortunately on his own machine at home, so I couldn’t stop him!) His hands were very cut up. Remember that the buffer is a dangerous machine! So always think through what you are doing – and ask yourself if this is the correct finishing technique for your item.

Not got either of these options?

It is possible to polish by hand. Use an abrasive polishing cloth with a metal polish in liquid form like ‘Brasso’ or ‘Silvo’ and polish in the old fashioned way with elbow grease. It can be done! It is just time consuming. If this is the option for you then make sure you have worked right down to the finest grit of emery paper before starting. This can actually be quite satisfying! Honest! (I can hear you all laughing) Use the metal polish on a duster or slightly abrasive fibre lustre pad. It is still a good idea to do this even after tumbling to give that added final shine. Lustre pads are stocked at the studio and available in packs along with wet and dry paper, sanding blocks and pads.

So there you have it – I hope you find this helpful in streamlining your finishing techniques. There is nothing more satisfying than the lustre and gleam of polished metal. For this reason alone we can always find it in our souls to approach the finishing touches with more enthusiasm.

Happy polishing!

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