Making Tiny Birds From Brass Sheet – Guest Post by Steve Shelby

I have to take some time out of the studio for the next 1-2 months, so I have some guest posts lined up for you showing other artists’ process. I hope you enjoy! This post is by Steve Shelby, one of my online metalsmithing friends. He’s had work in Craft Forms and the Forged show at Target Gallery I was a part of. You can find him online at the Shelbyvision Facebook page and the Shelbyvision website. All photos in this post are courtesy of Steve Shelby.

I make these little brass birds in large numbers, having had them featured in Artful Home‘s holiday ornament catalog for a couple years, so I had to devise a lot of special tools and jigs that would not be practical if they were being made occasionally one at a time. There are many steps that aren’t pictured here. If you are interested in seeing more illustrations of the process and the special tools involved, visit my Facebook page here.

The bird process is mixed in with the process of making calla lily ornaments, but it’s easy to tell which is which.

Hammering into the wood block.

The process starts with flat blanks of 20 gage brass sheet, punched out with a pancake die I had custom made by Dar Shelton of Sheltech. After annealing, the blanks are bent down the middle, and then clamped in a special wood block I carved out for the purpose. The body part of the bird is hammered into the cavity, and the head is punched into it with a domed punch.

Pressing the sheet into a die.

After some more hammering on a special bird-shaped stake to eliminate wrinkles in the neck area, the piece needs to be annealed again. Then after annealing the bird is pressed  with the bird-shaped stake into a special die to better define the head and neck.

Then the neck area is worked on a simple domed stake held horizontally to smooth out wrinkles, and then on the same stake held vertically, the area where the beak meets the head is further defined with carefully placed hammer strokes.

Working the neck out.
Defining the head and neck.

Now, one of the most important and difficult parts of the project, to get the belly rounded out in a way that will allow the two sides to meet in a straight line with no gaps. On a specially formed stake, the body is hammered from the side down to the seam as evenly as possible, so that the edge remains a smooth continuous line, so that when it is closed it will come together evenly with no gaps.

Using a special formed stake to round the belly.
A look at the rounded belly.
Getting the seam just right.
Closing the seam with a specially made wood block.

The next step is to close up the seam as much as possible, first by simply squeezing with the fingers, and then by hammering on a sandbag. There is no way to achieve complete closure at this point because the brass has become work-hardened too much, so it’s time for the final annealing. After annealing, the final closing up of the seam is done, using the specially made wood punch and cradle shown below, and with a hammer on the sandbag and on the wood cradle. It is a difficult and tedious task, and I have yet to devise a simple, easy way to do it.

Once the seam is closed up, the bird is put in a clamp that holds the seam tightly together, and silver soldered. After pickling, the seam is cleaned up with a Scotch-brite wheel and any stray solder removed. Although now complete, the bird is very crude and unrefined in appearance. Now it can be hammered from the outside only, so care must be taken not to push it in too far, because there is no way to pull it back out. Now that it is one continuous form, it can be planished to whatever state of perfection I want to take the time for. Below, the beak is hammered on a flat stake, all the way around. The tail is also flattened on this stake. Also, planishing on the sandbag with whatever shape of hammer is needed to achieve the final form.

Hammering the beak.
Planishing on a sandbag.

Once the planishing is completed, the bird is buffed with a fast-cutting compound to create a smooth surface.

Buffing the bird.
Buffing the bird.

I have used these birds mostly as hanging ornaments, which sold by the hundreds from the Artful Home holiday ornament catalog. More recently I have added them to a ring and a bottle stopper (see pictures below).

Bird Ornament
Bird Ornament
Bird Ring
Bird Ring
Bird Bottle Stopper
Bird Bottle Stopper
PS – I want to point out that I captioned the photos, so don’t blame Steve for any weird captions. Also, now you see all of the specially made stakes Steve has just to make these birds you know why metalsmiths are such tool hounds.

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