Book Review - "Hydraulic Die Forming For Jewelers and Metalsmiths"

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Hydraulic Die Forming for Jewelers and Metalsmiths

ISBN 0-9635832-0-4

by: Susan Kingsly

Reviewed by: Keith Farley

"Homage to Georgia O'Keefe"
Susan Kingsley 1987
Sterling Silver and Copper Brooch
6.5" x 7" x 1.5"
Photo: Lee Hocker

During the latter half of 1996 there occurred a thread on the ArtMetal mail list concerning hydraulic die forming. There was a flurry of discussion and a considerable amount of interest regarding the process. Joining us in the mail list was Susan Kingsly, a metalsmith well known for her interest in and development of specific methods by which metalsmiths and jewelry makers might make use of hydraulic processes in their work. Having spent many years investigating and experimenting with hydraulics, as it applied to her own work, she has both written a book and conducts hands-on workshops in which she defines a variety of applications for such equipment.

I wish to preface my remarks concerning Kingsley's book, Hydraulic Die Forming For Jewelers and Metalsmiths, by noting just how refreshing it is to read a text with no discernible typographical errors. It has been some time since I last experienced this and I wish to commend Susan for her professionalism in maintaining high standards as she brought her book to fruition.

..."through the use of the relatively affordable twenty ton press, all practitioners of the metal craft might be endowed not only with their own strength, but rather with super-human strength".

Linda Threadgill 1994
Sterling Silver, 22K gold
4" x 1.75" x .5"

At the onset, Kingsley notes that not all people who practice metalsmithing are inherently strong nor always able to cause sheet metal to take on forms which it largely resists. She further postulates that, through the use of the relatively affordable twenty ton press, all practitioners of the metal craft might be endowed not only with their own strength, but rather with super-human strength. This would in essence even the playing field and, given the limitations inherent to the die forming processes, would provide everyone equal opportunity with regard to imparting their own variety of artistic expression.

Kingsley provides concise descriptions of hydraulic power and easily obtainable hydraulic equipment that might either be built or purchased as a ready to use unit. In the appendix of the book, she provides a technical drawing detailing just how such a press, adequate for the processes she writes about, might be constructed. She also talks about a ready to use press, specifically engineered and built by Bonny Doon Engineering, Inc., to facilitate the forming of metal in a variety of ways. This is accompanied by descriptions of optional equipment intended for more specific functions to be used in combination with this particular press.

I recall someone commenting that Kingsley's book seemed little more than a glorified advertisement for Bonny Doon made tools. I wholeheartedly disagree with that assessment of this book. Although she makes reference to Bonny Doon on a few occasions, she also points to other sources for hydraulic power including for the do-it-yourself types who might wish, instead, to build their own. Moreover, my own research has suggested that there has not existed any such hydraulic equipment particularly geared toward the metalsmithing applications covered in the book. Not that some other press might be unable to provide the force necessary to yield any particular result but the question still arises just how well and, more importantly, how safely? It is my impression that Kinglsey has at least begun exploring other such avenues and has settled on using the Bonny Doon press because it was indeed developed specifically for metalsmithing applications and with issues of safety at the forefront.

Kingsley carries her discussion into a number of specific hydraulic applications. Most are very simple to put into practice, i.e.-formation of tubing, embossing textures and/or patterns into a metal sheet, also the use of the matrix die (a flat sheet of a resilient material which, once a portion of its body is removed, allows metal to be pressed into the remaining negative space.) She additionally describes other methods of producing dies that vary in complexity, each yielding particular types of results. Included is a very thorough description of the RT blanking system which may be used to cut out multiple blanks of any particular pattern in sheet metal using the hydraulic press. She discusses not only the theory behind the process, but the nuts and bolts of exactly how and why it works, how to harden and temper the steel RT die, how to put it to use, as well as sources for having such dies made. She continues providing further discussion of how to incorporate some of the die forming processes with others.

"Images of Perfection, Rose"
Kate Wagle 1991
Sterling Silver, 6" x 4" x 3/8"
Photo: Richard Gehrke


This book is very highly organized, allowing the reader to move through the materials covered, point by point by point. The text related to each particular portion of a process is assigned a sequential number. Accompanying each of the descriptions provided is a minimum of one photograph bearing the same number in very close proximity to the text. Most generally, Kingley's verbal descriptions seem sufficient to leave a reasonably clear idea of where she is going with a particular method or process. There were a few that seemed less clear than others but this was more than made up for by the photos she provided describing each process. Following the main body of the book, she offers a glossary and a very comprehensive appendix imparting an amazing array of information related to the die forming processes discussed in the book. These ranged from sources from which to obtain materials to mathematical conversions to organizations that might be potentially interesting to the reader of this book.

..."Due to the nature of the process the resulting structures tend to be reasonably simple, fairly shallow, and perhaps a bit too perfectly formed.".

As with any singular technique, there exist limitations with regard to variations of end product might be achieved. The ones discussed in the book are no different. There is a certain look that seems inescapable. Due to the nature of the process the resulting structures tend to be reasonably simple, fairly shallow, and perhaps a bit too perfectly formed. From a technical standpoint, die forming provides a quick and nearly effortless means of forming metal sheet while exercising a degree of control over the thickness of the metal as it is being worked. This might eliminate any requirement of the practitioner to ever lay a hammer on metal. Having taught a number of metalsmithing classes, I do understand the concerns voiced by Kinglsey regarding the inequity in different people's abilities to effectively move metal. My major concern with the die forming processes is that those who blindly adopt these techniques will likely not be initiated into the "smithing" world where one actually learns how and why metal moves and acts as it does, indeed much of what makes metal what it is. At the risk of exhibiting a degree of purism toward the traditions of working with metal, I strongly feel the importance for metalsmiths to minimally learn the basic processes and principles of the media. By so doing, one better understands what is actually taking place while proceeding into areas such as die forming in which the control imparted by the hand is virtually negated.

"Dancing Shakers Salt and Pepper"
Sue Amedolara 1992
Sterling Silver, Ebony, 24K Gold Foil
Left: 4.5" x 5" x 2" Right: 5" x 3" x 2"
Photo: Rick Potteiger


At the same time, I remain a staunch pragmatist and advocate arming oneself with a large arsenal of potentially useful techniques. Where one process may be outstanding for one application, some other method of yielding a similar result may be preferable in another situation. Die forming is a potentially very powerful process, one that I have on several occasions made use of myself. Its potentials ought not be passed over lightly and its methods should certainly be at least known by metalsmiths in the event that any one of them may provide an important solution to a problem. Susan Kingsley's book makes the processes easily understood without having to spend days reading and re-reading a long and complicated text. Without reservation, I highly recommend this book as an addition any metals library and consider it essential to those working with sheet metal on a smaller scale.