Small Biz how-to : Monday Mini Makeovers!

closed for renovations - michael sweeney

closed for renovations – michael sweeney {click image for source}

 

WELCOME to my brand new segment, Monday Mini Makeovers. Here every fortnight, I will be showcasing a bunch of online creative micro-bizzes just like yours – and giving them a visual makeover!

The idea is that not only do these good folk benefit from having a fresh set of eyes over their online presence, but that YOU my fab reader, also get tips on how you can charge up your own online presence.

I reckon that’s a WIN-WIN.

 

Just a quick disclaimer – these are simply my initial impressions when I land on people’s sites. It’s not an in-depth analysis, and it’s not intended to be taken as any kind of definitive professional advice.

I’m concentrating on my initial impressions because it’s what your potential customers do. If your site doesn’t look interesting enough, if it’s hard to navigate, or it doesn’t clearly convey who you are and what you offer, another store is  just a click away.

Of course you’d like them to stick around and have a bit of an explore – so, these are my suggestions on how these sites could be improved for easier customer access, for visual cohesion and branding.

I play things as I see them, so you can expect honesty, but I PROMISE I will be kind 🙂  So here goes!

 

Bec Gullo and Bluebird Candles

Bluebird Candles

Bluebird Candles

Bec sells lush-sounding fragrant soy candles in recycled and recyclable glass, and she asked for some suggestions on her Facebook page.

From having a quick look through her FB photos, I can see she enjoys a bit of retro styling in her images – kind of 60s, but warm and homey, with some tropical lushness thrown in (she’s based in Innisfail, Queensland). This is a lovely aesthetic to work with, and I think she could concentrate on it to help her with her whole branding efforts.

With images and branding, the idea is to pick out what suits your product and the mood you’re trying to convey and then reinterpret that with your own styling. It’s often helpful to stick to a limited palette (say of 5-10 colours) and 2-3 fonts that you use for everything.

With regard to Bec’s FB page, it’s important to note that you are a bit limited on what you can do on Facebook – a lot of the screen is taken up with Facebook’s own colours and layout. Image-wise, you can really only change your ‘Cover Picture’ (i.e. the big one) and your ‘Profile Picture’ (the little square).

Bec’s cover photo does nothing much to convey anything about her business – it just looks like a blue jar in the garden.  I think both cover and profile pics could benefit from some lush styling, something fragrant and pretty (perhaps tropical – e.g Pina Colada? Tangerine anyone?) from one of her best sellers. Or for instance, lit candles in a lush garden would be much more inviting and descriptive as a cover photo. Concentrate on how those scents make you FEEL – conjure up a relaxing scene!

Just underneath the cover photo, there are four frames. You can’t change the ‘Photos’ and the ‘Likes’, but you can add in more frames and use them for apps – that way you can link to your shop, special events, notes, and a whole lot more – just click on the little drop-down arrow on the right.

When you use them to add in specific events, make sure they’re kept up to date. Nobody likes clicking on a link only to find something that finished 2 months ago – yuk! Bec has used them well, adding in a link to a giveaway she is running at the moment, and to a market that she will be doing soon.

Generally, she has very good engagement on Facebook, with frequent posting about new products, events, and other special things that have happened (like the glorious sunset she saw). Engaging with your customers on facebook is also an excellent way to do a bit of customer research if you keep your eyes and ears open – what sorts of things do they respond to the most? The more you engage with them the easier it is to build up a picture of your customer.

 

Deborah Davey and Domum Vindemia

Domum Vindemia

Domum Vindemia

Deb sells upcycled vintage crockery (turning them into sweet cake stands) and linen, as well as bunting and other decorative items in her Etsy shop, DomumVindemia, and I would describe her style as a sweet and ditsy style of shabby chic, with lots of florals in pale and pretty colours.

Firstly, Deb’s shop header needs a bit of a tweak. The images chosen are fine, but the text looks chunky and pixelated. I probably would chose a softer colour too – the black looks a bit harsh.

Looking through her first page of products, my initial suggestion is that she should try and keep the viewpoints in each of her photos at a more consistent angle (at the moment when I browse her shop, the multiple angles remind me of a ship rocking in the ocean). Composition wise, the cake stands are too large in the picture frame – give them more space to breathe. In Etsy, for each product you have 5 images to use, so use some of them for macro details of the patterns. Take a straight, level, side-on view to show off their stands.

Style your bookmarks with books so that it is obvious what they are and how they look in use. Some of the plainer items look good against the sheet music, but if your items have lots of pattern then beware of making your photos too busy – it can detract from the item. A plain background is easy to make with a large piece of white cardboard – I use a bulldog clip to hold it onto the back of a kitchen chair, or onto a large hardcover book that I have standing up and propped open (Yes, I’ve got a tutorial with some photography tips in the works and it will be published soon, I promise!). Cardboard doesn’t crease like paper or fabric, and it’s easy enough to remove spots in Photoshop or Picmonkey by using the rubber stamp tool.

Lighter items like the bunting can be styled against a darker background. However, keep the backgrounds more consistent – using various spots around the garden would be fine, but perhaps not against the brick wall as it doesn’t fit with the rest of the vintage shabby feel of the product in Domum Vindemia.

Overall, I think it comes down to consistency. In Deb’s shop, there are lots of competing angles, widely varying backgrounds; and some but not all of the photo frames have a soft fadeout edge. At the moment it all looks a bit busy and I feel like I need to walk into the shop and tidy the shelves.

If you have all of your similar items styled in a similar manner, at the same size and orientation, your shop will look and feel neat.

 

Louise Radge and Radge Design

Radge Design

Radge Design

Louise is a graphic designer and makes wire-wrapped jewellery in her Hand-Made shop, RadgeDesign.

Like many other platforms that allow you to set up your own shop, the vast majority of the screen space is given over their house-styling, leaving you with only your shop banner to grab potential customer’s attention. Louise has got a distinctive logo of a purple flower, which she has developed out of one of her artworks. The logo is interesting, but there is nothing much else so it all looks a bit too white and empty. The grey stripe along the bottom looks a bit flat and thick, because it’s very different to the hand drawn elements. The “R” and the purple flower obviously come from hand drawn elements, so perhaps instead she could try using a hand drawn line like on the flower to do a simple frame (or even a fancy one, if it suits) to define the whole banner and give it more personality.

Arial is a very common font, and I’m sure it doesn’t do justice to Louise’s talents as a graphic designer. To advertise her talents, I think she would be much better off choosing something more stylish. I also would not mix up capitals halfway through the tagline. Easiest way around that is to use all caps or all lower case.

The word “funky” could be used with a shop that specialises in bright, colourful, 60s/70s-inspired kitsch, but really I think it’s a word best left to describing James Brown (WOO!).  Spend some time with a thesaurus, write down a list of words that you might like to use in your tagline and then choose the best, or just leave it out entirely and concentrate on the practical words that describe what you do.

Now to the product lisitngs. The size of the products in each photo is good, however all the photos are a bit dark, and this is especially noticeable against the graphic design items which are very white. Brightening your images is quite easy with Photoshop, Picmonkey or any other photo-editing program. If your images look a bit washed out when you up the brightness, then all you need to do is up the contrast as well, and this should fix it.

 

 Phew! Got all that? 

 

Now it’s over to you! Can you think how the suggestions I’ve made today could be applied to your biz? What would you change? What would you keep the same?

Have I still not solved your problem for your biz? If you’ve got a specific question let me know in the comments below!

AND, if you would like a Mini Monday Makeover on your biz, you can join in too – all you have to do is subscribe here, and follow the instructions.

See you then!
Julie X

Opinion + Design how-to : There’s decoration and there’s decoration

There’s decoration and there’s decoration, and seriously, it’s not just a matter of taste. What do I mean? I mean the thoughtless sticking on of stuff, just because “it’s-popular-therefore-it-must-be-good” or even “it needed something, so I stuck a flower/bow/octopus on it”.

Nick Cave  (from the Soundsuit series)

 

However, I will forgive Nick Cave (the performance artist with the wild costumes [above], not the singer/songwriter, whom I also admire deeply). His work lives because of its excess – overload on overload. It’s a wild conglomeration and dazzling to the eye, but what makes it work is all the elements that correspond. See how much yellow and red he uses throughout, and check those fabulous protuberances – they’re recognisable as a bunch of tin toy spinning tops.

Nick Cave (from the Soundsuit series)

And lots of flowers. And all so fabulously tactile.

 

Design has to be meaningful and appropriate to be good; therefore a decoration needs to be considered properly and be a necessary part of the thing that it’s decorating. That means if you took the decoration away, the thing would seem poorer for it, or less powerful in some way. I’d reckon that’s certainly true of Nick’s work. What would it be without excess?

However, not everyone is good at excess.

 

 

Fair enough; that kind of thing takes guts and vision to pull off.

 

But many folk aren’t good at restraint either. I see so many instances where the decoration is unhelpful at best, and an appalling abomination at worst. Having a trawl through Etsy brings up some rippers.

 

monogrammed straw slippers - goodsportdesigns.etsy.com

monogrammed straw slippers – goodsportdesigns.etsy.com

 

I cannot bring myself to publicly share some of the totally dreadful things I’ve found. So I’ve chosen these because they’re more or less well-executed (despite the fact that the slippers above are actually imported from China, and the shopowner is simply handy with a hot glue gun). The design problem here is that there is little in terms of visual elements that relates the fabric and/or button to the slipper. Perhaps the scale of the gingham is kind of close-ish to the scale of the weave, but that’s drawing a pretty weak link, and that’s about it. There is no correspondence of shapes, colour, texture, or anything much else that I can see.

Take away the bow, and you’ve got a beautiful texture, with very lovely natural variations in the colour of the straw. I think that’s interesting enough on its own.

 

octopus light switch cover - sookesculptures.etsy.com

octopus light switch cover – sookesculptures.etsy.com

 

How do you fancy fumbling for the light switch in the night and encountering an octopus? This switch cover appears to be cast all from the same material, so it’s the same colour… but how is this in any way enhancing the shape (or even usefulness) of the switch plate? I’m absolutely positive there are an infinite number of other things I could put on my walls to add interest to my room.

 

sweetheart apron - CarlaGAccessories.etsy.com

sweetheart apron – CarlaGAccessories.etsy.com

A girly chooky apron. OK, I’ll pay the spots, even if they’re not my cup of tea. But ricrac AND broderie anglaise ruffles AND a bow?

Please, please, please, think carefully about adding in stuff just because it’s there. For design to work well, it needs to correspond well with the object it is gracing. It also needs to add something, more than just itself. It needs to add a deeper element of beauty, of interest and/or of meaning.

In the words of the legendary architect Mies Van der Rohe, “Less is more”.

 

Unless you’re Nick Cave.

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What do you think? Do you like the examples I’ve given, or do you disagree with me entirely? I would LOVE you to tell me your thoughts!

Julie X

Small biz how to : Getting started in surface design Part 2 – colour and printing

Getting started in surface design Part 2 –

Colour and the printing process

 

Welcome to part 2 in this series on getting started in the world of surface design. (You can find the first part here – it’s about getting your image files ready for printing). Designing your very own pattern and then seeing it in real life for the first time is a fabulous thrill.  Seeing it made up into a piece of clothing or printed onto a laptop case is something else again!

For me, colour is an incredibly important element of any design. It is one of the first things that we register when we see anything, and can have a enormous impact on whether we like something or not. A change in colour can alter the whole mood of a finished piece. If you want a result that is vibrant and fun, seeing a design that you’ve worked so hard on printed in colours that are muted and dull can be very disappointing.

whimzwhirled - paisley pop

whimzwhirled – paisley pop

 {read more about whimzwhirled and her designs here}

 

 

WORKING WITH COLOUR

There can be a massive difference between what you see on the screen, and what you get on the fabric. Variations occur because you’re working with different things – light on a computer screen is not the same as ink on a surface.

There are two ways of making colour, depending on whether the colour is made up of light, or whether it’s something printed onto a physical surface. RGB colour refers to Red, Green, Blue, and this is used to create colours in light; it is perfect for images on screen. CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, black – yes there’s a crazy history as to why it’s K) is used to create colours in printing. Your image-editing program will give you a choice of using either of these (there’s probably a few other options as well, but don’t worry about them at this stage). It’s generally the best practice to use RGB on your screen, as it gives a truer picture of the colours in your finished design. Printing venues are usually accommodating of whichever system you use, and will convert your file to CMYK before printing.

The next most important factor in getting the colour right is knowing that different surfaces will have a big impact on the finished product. Depending on the weight of your fabric, colours can be more or less vibrant (a thin voile is more translucent and will look less vibrant, whereas a heavy cotton is more opaque and can hold more ink resulting in richer colour). Paper is opaque and flat, and colours tend to be even more vibrant. The colour of the surface will affect the result – if it is off-white or creamy, the print will likewise be skewed that way. The types of ink used can also affect the result.

Finally, remember that on-screen colour varies from monitor to monitor. Your monitor may or may not have good colour reproduction, and it may look quite different from another screen, and VERY different from a printed surface.

 

For all these reasons it is highly recommended that you get yourself a colour chart, printed on the material of your choice, from the printer you intend to use. These are usually printed as a grid of squares, each with its own code (for instance, a Hex code in the format #ffffff) to ensure accurate colour reproduction. There are other colour systems (e.g. Photoshop includes Pantone references), but it doesn’t really matter which system you use as long as you are consistent. Choose your colours from your printed colour chart, and feed those codes into your digital file. (as discussed above, this may mean that your image on screen may not appear to have the ‘correct’ colours!) Finally, you might like to order a test swatch if you can, to physically check the colours in your design before spending oodles of cash on yardage that is just not right.

(If you want more information on how colours work together at a design level, I’ve written about colour as a design element here.)

 

ONLINE VENUES FOR PRINTING

There are a few avenues for you to choose from when you are ready to test the waters with your first design. They vary in structure slightly, and are open to anyone.

Spoonflower is probably the best known, and is structured so you can set up your own shopfront and make your designs available publicly, and you earn a commission on yardage sold. They have a good amount of information about the printing process and what to expect, but they do emphasise that that their process is substantially automated, and therefore the responsibility is on you to ensure that the file you upload is absolutely correct.

FabricOnDemand doesn’t have the option of a shopfront, but they do offer a much wider range of basecloths (currently 19 different fabrics including 5 weights of cotton as well as 100% linen and silk). Unfortunately their system doesn’t allow you to preview your design after you’ve uploaded it like Spoonflower does, but they do give you the option of adding in any comments or special requests when you order, and they will also email you a proof of your printed design for your approval before printing. They have an excellent FAQ page, and are more than happy to talk to their customers about special requests.

DigitalFabrics are an Australian company based in Sydney, and print on a wide range of polyester-based fabrics to achieve consistent results. They will also print on fabric that you supply, as long as it has a high polyester content to ensure good colour reproduction. Like FabricOnDemand their system doesn’t allow for you to preview your design, but they do have some very good tutorials on how to create repeats in Photoshop and Illustator.

Libertypress is a site based in the UK that I have only recently come across. They offer a few different types of finished goods as well as paper and a variety of fabrics, including various weights of silk, cotton and Belgian linen.

Society6 is another site that allows you to set up your own shopfront. However, it doesn’t print your design onto yardage but instead offers finished products – clothing, tote bags, throw pillows, iPhone and laptop cases and more. It is used by designers of repeats, as well as more illustrative work.

 

Now off you go, and have fun!

 

In the next post I will be discussing what happens when you decide to get a bit more serious. Where do you go to learn more?  Who do you approach to sell your designs? (And if you want to go back and check the basics, Part 1 of this series is here.)

In the mean time, I would love to hear your questions and comments about colour, and getting your work printed through online venues. If you’ve tried any of the above venues, what have been your experiences, good AND bad? If you’d had problems, have they been sorted quickly?

Cheers, Julie 🙂

 

Small biz how to : Getting started in surface design Part 1 – image editing

Getting started in surface design – Part 1 –

Editing your images

 

Yes I’m back from holidays, and yes it was wonderful! This year I’m working to give you a bunch more practical and small biz-type information and tutorials, and I’m kicking off with an intro to the world of surface design. This was prompted after a recent and thought-provoking conversation with my good friend Sarah, who is keen to develop her own range of fabrics and had lots of questions about the process. Let’s get stuck in!

 

oksancia - bright garden flowers

Oksancia – bright garden flowers

{click here to read more about Oksancia and her designs}

 

 

Have you ever wanted to design your own fabric? It’s a bit thrilling to see your very own pattern printed onto something that you can cut and sew into your very own original garment. With an ever-increasing number of online avenues to custom-print your original artwork and designs, it’s SO simple to just have a go and see if you like it. If you do like it and want to take it further, there are excellent tutorials and courses out there to to enable you to lift your work to higher levels, and I’ll be discussing some of the options in a later post.

But let’s start with the basics. You must have a good quality image if you want a good quality print. Even with the most fabulous design, you can still end up with a disappointing and ugly mess if you don’t address the technical aspects of your digital file first.  This is a skill like any other, and as always, the more you practise the better you get at achieving exactly the look you’re after.

 

IMAGE SOURCES AND EDITING

Your digital files can come from several sources – an image from your digital camera; a drawing, painting or other 2D image that has been scanned in; or something created entirely onscreen through Photoshop, Illustrator, or any other image editing program (there are lots of basic free ones out there, including Picmonkey, Pixlr or Gimp).  Please don’t be tempted to use other people’s artwork (as in Copy/Paste) even if you intend to alter it, as you still may be infringing copyright. There are lots of images out there in the public domain, free of copyright and available for everyone to use, but it is important that you check before using anything.

 

RESOLUTION

You need to get yourself familiar with a calculator and ruler here!  The resolution of your file is very important. A very good quality print can be achieved at around 300 dpi (dots or pixels per inch, equivalent to about 118 dots per cm), but depending on what is being printed and what material you are printing onto, the fewer dpi you use, the more pixelated your image becomes. Some printers recommend your images should be at least 150dpi for a reasonable quality print onto fabric. The standard screen resolution on your computer is 72 dpi, which looks fine on your screen, but comes out distractingly pixelated and chunky when it is printed onto a surface.

 

IMAGE SIZE

First, you need to figure out how big you want your repeat to be. If you have small simple elements, your file doesn’t need to be large, but if you want something big, of course your file is much, much bigger. So using the resolution guide above, if you want to have a repeat of 12 inches wide at a resolution of 300 dpi, your image size must be 12 x 300 = 3600 pixels wide. If your repeat is 12 inches wide with a resolution of 150 dpi, then your file should be 12 x 150 = 1800 pixels wide; a 4 inch wide repeat at 150 dpi is 4 x 150 = 600 pixels wide, and so on.

 

CREATING A SIMPLE REPEAT

At its very simplest, you can load your image file onto a site such as Spoonflower, and and use their layout options to create a repeat. You can choose to tile (a straight up and down repeat), do a half-drop or a mirror repeat – each of these will alter the rhythm and look of your print.

chinese medallion repeat variations explained

 

Sometimes these methods can create repeats that have distinct edges which are distracting, and can produce unpleasantly obvious repeats (for instance, if you are trying to create a scattered floral). One method of removing these edges from your work is to use the ‘Offset’ tool in Photoshop (many other programs have a similar tool), which moves your image up and across, so you can fill the resulting edges with continuing pattern. This tutorial on Design Sponge gives you a practical demonstration on paper so you can understand the principle, and an explanation for how to do it in Photoshop is found here. The most practical amount for offsetting is half the pixel width of your image.

 

 

CHECKING FOR ERRORS

When you upload your file to a site for printing, you need to remember that it is your responsibility to ensure the file you send is free of errors (and I’m not talking about computer glitch). For instance, check that there are no unintentional white spaces, that there isn’t a missing line of pixels, and that the colours you use on your screen will print in the colours that you intend.

You can tile your file on most image editing programs and check for errors that way (especially useful for finding a missing set of pixels, or mismatched lines at the edge of your design); getting a test swatch printed is useful for colour matching, and can also show up some of these errors  (but not all, if your repeat is large).

 

 

 

That’s probably enough for now! In the next post, I’ll talk about colour (absolutely essential to getting the result you’re after, and there’s lots to know), as well as the various venues where you can have your deliciously juicy design printed.

Have you got any questions about image editing? Do you need info on how to do a particular task in Photoshop (or any other image-editing software)? I would love to hear about your experiences and problems.  Leave me a comment below!

Cheers, Julie

 

 

Small Biz how-to: 5 top tips for packaging your products

Pocket Carnival - giftwrapping

Pocket Carnival – giftwrapping

 {via Pocket Carnival here

Once, when I bought some fabric online, the parcel travelled all the way from America to Australia covered in only a flimsy paper envelope with no further packaging. Fortunately it arrived unscathed, but it could have been a WHOLE bunch worse – think ripped envelope, dirt, rain…

I wrote to the seller (who had only just started on Etsy) and politely encouraged her to be more careful in wrapping her orders. She was grateful and gracious, and said she had been thinking about exactly that problem, and was intending to make her packaging more secure and waterproof. So, no harm done and problem solved.

Sadly, many new sellers start out doing exactly this kind of thing, trusting the postal service to treat their parcels like fine china. Now, the postal service are pretty good most of the time, but THEY’RE HUMAN. And they deal with THOUSANDS of parcels every day. So if you’re a small biz, and you want your lovingly handcrafted goods to arrive in top condition, make sure your packaging is up to the task.

 

Not only does your packaging have to protect your goods, it is also another avenue for you to express the personality of your business.

 

1. Choose the wrapping to suit its purpose, AND your brand.

Your brand is your business. It’s what makes you different from everyone else. Your branding is your attitude and aesthetic approach, which should be reflected in every aspect of your business. Is your aesthetic clean and modern? Wrap your parcels in plain white tissue, and finish with silver ribbon. Shabby chic? Wrap it in soft blue, finished with a bow in floral ribbon and/or string. Crafty? Wrap it in brown kraft paper and tie with baker’s twine. Straight forward and practical? Finish your plain package with a printed sticker or a stamp featuring your logo.

Your wrapping can take many forms. Depending on your item, it can be as simple as tissue paper, or it can be as fancy as you like – wrapped like a gift. BUT please don’t go over the top. Excess packaging is wasteful of resources. It is also expensive and adds weight to your parcel, and hence adds to your postage cost.

You can spend time making your own packaging, or if you like you can you can buy strong, light, pre-made boxes and more from suppliers like PackQueen.com.au (a wholly Australian company, run by women!).

 

2. Your business card.

Nothing looks cheaper than a piece of paper with your biz details printed on it, shoved in the package with the product. And believe me, it gets chucked in the bin. There are plenty of excellent professional printers out there – you can get great cards you design yourself through Saltprint. They’re a wholly Australian owned company, based in Brisbane; I use them and I’m very happy with the quality of mine. Or you can go Vistaprint, or Moo (they’re both multinationals, and the quality is different).  And only ONE card in each parcel, please! Unless of course it is your special aunty/fave cousin/best friend – your casual customer won’t be into carrying those spare biz cards around with the intent of building your empire – again, they end up in the bin.

3. An invoice

Another essential is an invoice (unless your customer has specified that this is a gift). It helps you keep track of things, it helps your customer keep track of things – especially if it’s a business expense for them.

 

4. Care instructions

If your item needs special attention to keep it in tip top condition, care instructions are always a great idea (remember your customer doesn’t know your product as well as you do).

 

5. Surprise bonuses

Depending on the value of your product, you might also like to include something extra – bonus product or a sampler, a discount voucher on their next purchase, gift tags, fridge magnets and more. Make it useful, and your customers will thank you! For large orders, I include a handmade greeting card or two, which also has my details stamped on the back – the bonus for me is that the card gets passed along, WITH MY DETAILS. If you’re an artist, you could do the same thing with a postcard featuring your artwork.

 

Got all that?? Here’s a checklist.

  • Fragile items need to be packed carefully. Use protective wraps such as bubble-wrap, padded envelopes, corrugated cardboard.
  • Flat items need to stay flat. Pack photographs and artworks between 2 sheets of heavy cardboard.
  • Will it be damaged by water? Wrap in a clear plastic sleeve sealed with tape, or put it in a zip-lock bag.
  • You can make it look pretty, but excess packaging adds postage weight and expense.
  • Include  a business card. It’s essential.
  • Include an invoice. It’s also essential.
  • Care instructions if they’re necessary.
  • Bonus extras. If you do, make them useful to your customers! And bonus brownie points for you if it’s got your biz details on it. 

 

This list is by no means exhaustive! There are a bazillion (I swear that’s a real number) ways of presenting your product, and beyond the practicalities of packaging your product securely, you are limited only by your imagination. Get to it!

 

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Do you sell online anywhere? I would LOVE to hear your tips for packaging your product. Leave me a comment below, with a link to your small biz too!

Cheers, Julie

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Disclaimer : tractorgirl partnered with PackQueen on this post. But rest assured I only ever share things I believe in, and think that will be genuinely useful for you!

How-to : Choosing your materials for jewellery – Part (ii) – non-precious metals

 

This is the second part in my How-to on jewellery metals, and this one’s about the common non-precious metals used in jewellery. I’ve written it with the beginner-jeweller in mind, because I am absolutely passionate about excellence in craftsmanship, and that starts at the very beginning. Isn’t it so very satisfying when you make beautiful things? If you start with the right materials and the right tools, then you’re already way ahead of other folk.

As I said in the first post, this series has been prompted by me seeing some metals used in quite ugly ways, and it stems from my utter conviction that some materials are NOT suitable for some purposes.

Please consider this only as an introduction to the various metals – I’ve tried to keep it brief and useful, but of course in doing so, there is so much more that I haven’t talked about here!  Think of this information as guidelines, rather than rules.

So let’s start.

 

 

InSync - anodised aluminium earrings {via egetal}

InSync – anodised aluminium & 925 silver earrings {via egetal}

Aluminium: In its raw form, it is light grey in colour and very lightweight. It is low in cost, it is the most abundant metal on the planet, mostly occurring  in combination with other minerals and particularly as bauxite ore. It wasn’t isolated until 1825, and was considered so special then that a 100 oz pyramid of it was made to crown the Washington Monument in 1884.

  • Generally, aluminium is a bit too soft for applications where the metal gets a bit of wear and tear, and in its raw form is also a bit reactive.
  • It is not suitable for soldering (joining with a filler metal of a lower melting temperature), although it can be welded (joining by melting the work pieces). The most practical joining methods for the home jeweller are cold-joining methods such as screws and rivets.
  • It can be shaped relatively easily. If it gets work-hardened, you can anneal it by rubbing it over with a cake of soap – when the soap turns black, the aluminium has reached the right temperature, and will be soft enough for working again.
  • For me, its main attraction is the wonderful process of anodising – an electrochemical process which produces a porous surface, capable of being dyed any colour in the rainbow. The dye is translucent, which means that whatever finish you put on the metal – matt, shiny or anything in between – will shine through the colour from underneath, and can add great depth and richness to the colour.
  • Anodised aluminium can be dyed in plain colours, but it can also be painted, used with resists (a coating resistant to dye), or printed – so a huge variety of colour combinations can be achieved. I featured some fabulous anodised work by Lindsey Mann on the blog recently here – she combines printing techniques with anodising to create beautifully patterned surfaces.
  • Anodising also makes the surface much tougher and substantially less reactive. Although the surface can be scratched, with reasonable care it is very durable.

 

Nickel: Nickel is an inexpensive metal, often used for alloys, and for plating. It is light grey in colour, with a hint of yellow.

  • Nickel is often used in alloys, as it is quite hard and resistant to corrosion, but is still relatively easy to work with in shaping and polishing.
  • Nickel silver is the most common alloy, and is a mix of copper, nickel and zinc. Depending on the alloy, it can move around a bit when you’re trying to solder, so is not the ideal material to practice soldering techniques on.
  • Because it is tough and inexpensive it is often used in jewellery findings (they’re the functioning bits of jewellery, like pin backs and earring posts)
  • NOTE! Nickel is NOT good for people with sensitive skin. This is especially a problem because gold is often alloyed with nickel for colour and hardness – please check the alloy you are using.

 

dawily - copper earrings, heat oxidised

dawily – copper earrings, heat oxidised

Copper: I have to say right now that this is my least favourite metal to work with, although it does have its uses.

  • In its pure form, it is orangey-pink in colour, and next to gold, is the only other metal that is not white or grey.
  • Copper is very cheap, relatively soft and easy to work with, and for this reason it is great for experimenting with, and for sorting out design problems in a tangible way. It’s is my best recommendation for a practice material – hone your shaping skills and your soldering skills on it.
  • Best used as a decorative element in jewellery pieces, you can utilise its reactiveness and colour it with various chemicals to achieve a wide range of colours and finishes, called patinas. Most popular is black or dark brown, easily achieved by using Liver of Sulphur (Potassium Sulphide). This will also react with the copper in sterling silver, so if you want to contrast blackened copper against silver, use pure silver, or else be prepared to work the black off the 925 silver  with emery. You can also oxidise it through heat, as in the earrings above.
  • NOTE: Copper reacts with your skin very easily. When fresh, the metal is a soft orangey-pink, but readily discolours to a dull dark brown. More than that however, it can leave unpleasant residues on your skin, which on some people can be a dirty green. There are some who advocate its anti-arthritic properties, but for goodness sakes PLEASE don’t use it for earwires! It makes my skin crawl to think about it. That includes those things with fancy coatings that supposedly stop its reactiveness – they can wear off.
  • Be careful with patinas! Yes, there are lots of pretty colours you can get with copper because it is so reactive, but many of the patinas are also not good near skin, and in some cases are downright toxic. Please do your safety research before using them.
  • I had a very hard time trying to find a picture of a piece of jewellery that uses copper well. Most of the copper ‘jewellery’ I found looking though Etsy needs to be tossed in the bin. Enough said.

 

goldandsilverlining - handpainted brass pendant, goldplated chain

goldandsilverlining – handpainted brass pendant, goldplated chain

Brass:  Brass is an alloy of copper and nickel, and for the most part, I have the same opinion about brass as I do copper. It is goldish in colour, but has a hint of green to it, and lacks the luminosity and warmth of gold.

  • It’s a bit harder than copper, but still great for learners to hone their skills on.
  • It can also be coloured with patinas
  • It reacts with skin readily – do NOT use it for jewellery that sits against the skin.
  • Brass looks best on door knobs, house name-plates and fireplace tools.

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In summary, use brass, copper and nickel mostly for practising with. You can utilise them in jewellery, but use them with caution – the more you practice and grow your jewellery-making skills, the more readily you will be able to make wise decisions about when and where to use them.

Anodising aluminium is great fun and relatively easy, but it does require lots of acid and a bit of equipment, so is probably not for the beginner.

Use sterling silver where you can – simple pieces can look great in this lustrous white metal, and it’s very nice to work with. If you muck something up, you can always melt it and use the silver again. Importantly, it is fine for the majority of the population to wear against their skin (although there are still some people with sensitivities). You can add colour with precious or semiprecious stones, enamel, and other things. Skills and imagination can take you many places.

High karat gold is even lovelier to work with, but is mostly out of the price range of the beginner jeweller. If you continue your practice in a consistent manner, developing your skills and your ideas, you will know when you’re ready to try gold.

My fondest hope is for the world to be a prettier place. Beauty makes us happy, and that surely is a good thing. And I love that handmade is riding a wave at the moment! I want everybody to experience the joys of making things, but I also want people to understand that beautiful work takes time, much skill and understanding of tools and materials.

I would love to hear about what you’ve been making! Feel free to drop me a link in the comments below.

 

Happy making,

Julie 🙂

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(The link to the first part of this post, covering precious metals, is here.)