Some time ago, I wrote an overview of all the basic tools required to do silversmithing. Since then, I have had requests to write about all the various tools in greater detail. I’ve already written one covering the hammer. This article is about all the various types of blocks and their uses.
A bench pin is most commonly made out of wood. Although there is a specialty filing block made of rubber that like a bench pin, is attached to the smith’s work bench. Although it is not a block, strictly speaking, it is usually included in any discussion of blocks as are anvils.
A bench pin can be a solid piece of wood, but usually has a key-hole shape cut into it to facilitate sawing and piercing of sheet metal, tubing or heavy gauge wire. The key-hole is open at the outer end and so you may lay your work across it for sawing. The opening usually gets smaller toward the “back” of the pin to accommodate smaller pieces.
Some bench pins come with a metal bracket for attaching it to the workbench that also doubles as an anvil. Most are just wooden with a simple system for attachment.
Bench pins can get pretty beat up over the course of their use. They are often sawed into and acquire grooves. Also, they may become much worn down when they are used as a platform for sanding and filing. Luckily, they are not very expensive and they are easy to replace.
Most bench blocks are made of hardened steel and care must be taken not to get them wet or allow water to sit on them. They will rust. Then you will have to sand and polish them in order to continue using them.
The basic bench block has a smooth surface on the top and bottom. While they are made of hardened steel, it is still possible to mar them. If you do mar the surface, the pit or scratch will transfer to what ever metal you are hammering upon it. So, it is best to keep one side for the “fussy” work and the other for the less “fussy” work.
The block that I like best is four inches square and 3/4 of an inch deep. They do come smaller and larger, but I have found this size to be suitable for everything that I do.
There is also a block made of lead. This is used mainly when chasing and stamping. You can perform stamping on a standard steel bench block, but this might mar the surface as discussed above.
There are a couple of other blocks made of hardened steel. A hexagon block is one. It has a number of different sized holes on the face of it and a number of slots on one side. It is used as a base for riveting and drilling small parts. I prefer a drill press for drilling at all times. But if you do not have a drill press, the hexagon block will aid in drilling. Also, a round wire draw plate may be used to assist in riveting if you feel that you can not afford a hexagon block. Some draw plates (for sizing down wire) can be quite expensive, also. It is always best to shop around for the best deals.
There is also a block called a slot anvil. It is used for much the same purposes as the hexagon block (which some people also call an anvil).
While most bench blocks are used for flattening of metal, anvils are used for flattening and shaping. It is a good idea to buy an anvil that has provision for attaching it to your work bench. Or you may attach it to a solid piece of wood for stability. It is absolutely no fun to be hammering on the horn of your anvil and have the whole thing tip over. Typically, a good anvil will have a round, polished horn and a “square” horn with a wide flat surface in between the two.
Dapping blocks are made of hardened steel or hardwood. You use a dapping block in conjunction with dapping punches to form hemispheres or to put curves into sheet metal.
The hardened steel variety, along with the punches, is primarily used to “dome” sheet silver. The block can be flat or a cube. There are hemispherical depressions ranging in sizes that match the sizes of the round-ended dapping punches. The sheet silver is placed over the proper size hole. The punch is set on top of it and struck with a hammer.
Hardwood dapping blocks and their hardwood punches are used to form gentle curves or make bowl shapes from sheet silver. The hardwood punches are also struck with a hammer (or mallet), but it is best to use a hard rubber hammer or you will, in no time at all, ruin the striking end of your punch.
A forming block is a cube of hardened steel that has grooves cut into all six sides. The grooves have different cross-sections: half-round, triangle, square and rectangular. They are all in varying sizes. Mostly, they are used to force various shapes into sheet metal.
Most engraving blocks are complex affairs. They are designed to hold metal items of various shapes so that they can easily be manipulated while engraving on the metal. Some engraving blocks can also be used to hold objects for stone setting. Because a lot of smooth heavy pressure must be applied while pushing the graver along, it is essential to have a way to securely grip the item being engraved. It is almost impossible to do engraving without a block.
For large objects, the jeweler will have to make her own “engraving block.” If, say, engraving the blade of a large knife, a frame to firmly hold the blade in place must be constructed and the blade should be clamped to the frame.
There are a huge number of different types of soldering blocks. They come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and materials.
Solderite(TM) soldering pads come in a variety of sizes. Some are hard and can not be pinned into. Others are soft and allow you to use pins to hold your work in place. They are asbestos-free and made of a reinforced calcium silicate. The cost is reasonable and these are my first choice for soldering. They heat and cool quickly without cracking or crumbling.
My second choice is a magnesia soldering block. It is also asbestos-free. It reflects heat well and cools quickly. It is soft enough to pin into it and lasts longer than charcoal soldering blocks. When the work surface gets too pitted to use any longer, I simply take it outside my shop and, using a circular motion, smooth it out on the concrete. They can stand temperatures to 2000° F.
Charcoal soldering blocks are preferred by many and most jewelry making schools recommend them, but I find them not to be cost effective. They get very hot and stay very hot for a long time, making it difficult to reposition your work upon them. If they should happen to cool too quickly, they will crack and fall apart. For this reason it is a good idea to bind them with binding wire before the first use.
Transite is another material used for soldering boards. It is also asbestos-free and withstands temperatures to 2800° F. It comes in a number of sizes.
Honeycomb ceramic soldering boards are also available. I have never used any of these, but those who do, seem to like them. The holes help move heat away from parts being soldered and so help to keep you from melting parts that you do not want to. But consider that serendipity does play a part in any jeweler’s repertoire. The holes also allow you to place pins for holding your work in place. They will withstand temperatures of up to 2000° F. and are asbestos-free. You may also purchase solid ceramic soldering boards. There is even a lazy-Susan style that rotates for easy access to all parts of your work.
This is a dizzying array of blocks, but my favorite is still the bench block. Give me one of those and a hammer and you just know that I am having a load of fun. Always remember to wear eye protection. If you are hammering metal, it is also a good idea to wear hearing protection. Now, get out there and have some fun!