Mica, Tintypes, and Torches, Oh My!

Earlier this week, mixed-media artist Jen Cushman shared her tips for making chalk paint and using resin in mixed-media art. Because that post was so popular, I wanted to touch base with Jen again and talk about two of her newest DVDs, which include projects for making a stamped metal and mica pendant and an upcycled silverware hook. In this exclusive interview, Jen talks about using tintypes and mica, stamping metal, and using a torch.

CH:Tell us about the mixed-media jewelry that you make with tintypes.
JC: When I envisioned the stamped metal and mica necklace, I was looking at a gem tintype photo I have in my collection of found objects. I’m usually able to pick these up at vintage shops and from fabulous vendors at the art retreats where I teach. Like much of my art, I used the tintype as a starting point for inspiration and took the piece in an entirely new direction.
Note: Tintype photos are small portrait snapshots on a thin sheet of brown or black enameled iron (not tin) made popular in America in the 1860s. Collodion, a type of emulsion, was poured on the iron sheet metal and sensitized just before use for a wet plate photography process. The smallest of these are called “little gems” which are about the size of a postage stamp. The cool thing about tintypes is that it they brought photography into the hands of working class folks. The plate was given a quick rinse in a bucket of water and then air dried. A dozen of these little gems could be bought for about a dollar, so it was the beginning of being able to keep a still image of loved ones close to the heart.
Photography is a hobby of mine. When I first started making mixed-media art, I was thrilled to learn unique transfer techniques and made quite of few of these tintype-inspired images.
Back to my necklace. I found myself once again being inspired by the vintage tintypes, but instead of making a photo transfer, I decided to simply use a vintage 1930s photograph that I scanned and printed out at my local copy center. I cut the image to fit and then used mica to protect it and add a hint of mystery. I riveted the mica to the copper sheet for a cold connection.

CH:What are some pros and cons of working with mica?
JC: What I love about working with mica is that it’s a natural mineral and can be purchased in thin sheets, which are typically used for electrical work. You can use an X-acto knife to make a small slit in a corner of the sheet and then start peeling back the layers. Sheet mica is used a lot by book artists. I find it to be a versatile art material for mixed media and use it in my collages, assemblages, and jewelry. The only real con of working with mica is that it tends to be dark brown in color, which is why I needed to peel back the layers to something a little more translucent for my necklace. Mica can be tinted with Alcohol Inks, which is a cool way to get some additional color into your work.

CH:Any troubleshooting tips for stamping metal?
JC: Stamping is a simple technique once you get the hang of it. At first, it’s a little like Goldilocks and the Three Bears in that it can take a few tries to get your impressions just right. Because stamping is actually displacing the metal or “upsetting” it so it forms up and over the die, the hammer needs to hit the top of the stamp dead center with the right amount of force.
To get a good impression, you’ll need to work on a solid surface. I have an old butcher block table where I do my forging, texturizing, and stamping. Your steel block needs to sit flat on the surface without a cushion underneath it. Use a standard heavy hammer, holding it in your dominant hand, and pick up a metal stamp with your other hand. Hold the stamp right in the middle with your thumb and first two fingers and rest your hand on the bench block and table for additional stabilization. Press the stamp into the metal (softer metals such as copper and dead soft sterling silver work beautifully), and strike it dead center with the hammer. Attempt to hit the stamp with enough force the first time so that it makes a clear impression. If you feel like you hit it off center, do not pick up the metal stamp. Hold it still exactly where it is and then slightly tilt it forward and hit it again. If you pick up your stamp, you will probably not get it back into the same groove, and a second hit will cause a shadowed imprint. (This is a direct excerpt from my book, Making Metal Jewelry; How to Stamp, Forge, Form and Fold Metal Jewelry Designs.)

CH: I just watched the preview for Upcycled Silverware Hook, and the end result looks so cool. What’s your favorite part of this project?

JC: One of the things I most like to do with my work is to look at everything with new eyes. I love to take techniques I use in one form of mixed media and see if I can translate the same technique into another genre. For this project I wanted to take the idea of my favorite piece of jewelry (the upcycled fork bracelet) from my book, Making Metal Jewelry and see if I could transform that into something beautiful for the home. In my mind’s eye I was able to see the shape of the bracelet and realize that if I just stopped the metal forming three-quarters of the way from being finished it would create a hook shape. I then wanted a substrate (surface) to place this hook on and went searching in my studio for the perfect base. I have a collection of old, gorgeously tattered books I bought in a flea market in Paris. I had the idea to marry the fork hook with the book to make something truly unique and different. I’m completely in love with the final outcome. It looks exactly like it did in my mind. I feel a sense of accomplishment deep down when I know I’ve examined an object or an idea so closely that I literally turned it inside out and backward.

CH: You use a torch in this project, a tool which sounds intimidating. Any advice for first-timers?
JC: I find that a lot of people are intimidated by a torch, and for good reason– fire can be dangerous and a torch must be used safely. The thing about metalworking, though, is that you simply cannot do certain techniques without a torch. Metal must be annealed in order to be moved and formed and shaped properly. In jewelry, there is a lot that can be done with cold connections, such as rivets and hinges and wire wrapping. However, you can’t do jewelry soldering without a torch, so for those who are truly interested in learning about making jewelry, this is a fear that needs to be tackled.
I happen to adore my Benzomatic 5-foot hose torch. It has a quick start on/off trigger kit that I bought at my local hardware store. I can use it with propane or MAPP gas canisters and it does everything I need it to do. Plus, it’s cheap! The very first torch I learned to work on was this kind, so I think that’s another reason for my affinity for it. That said, there’s a lot of work one can accomplish with smaller, handheld butane torches. For jewelry making, you need to get one that burns hot enough, at least 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. The best piece of advice I can give to those feeling fearful of using a torch is to start watching some quality online video classes, like those at Craft Daily. The instructors are all professionals and give great tips and tricks for torch safety. I made sure to include this information in my DVDs as well. A lot of larger cities also have good metalworking studios where people can take classes. I’m a firm believer in jumping right in to try new things, but when it comes to working with things like chemicals or torches or potentially hazardous stuff, smart artists remember that health and safety come first.

Raise your hand if you learned something new today! I know I did. You can get even more in-depth instruction from Jen in Stamped Metal and Mica Pendant and Upcycled Silverware Hook, both newly available at the Interweave store. Stay tuned–later this week, Jen will be our guest blogger and she’ll share a sneak preview of tips from her mixed-media art workshop, Clay Heart with Wings Assemblage.

Off to try something new,


3D Art and Assemblage, Art to Wear, Blog, Mixed-Media Jewelry, Mixed-Media Techniques


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.