In J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, Wendy gives Peter a thimble as a symbol of her kiss to him. In return, Peter gave Wendy an acorn button. Each wore the other’s gift on a chain around their neck. In Shakespearean times, thimbles were often given as a symbol of courtship and love.
Can you make me a thimble?
It was a simple question with a complicated ‘maybe’ as an answer. I had no idea at the time, that saying maybe (which was really yes) would present me with my most challenging project yet. I love a challenge, but I really had no idea at the time, if it was possible. Most thimbles are mass-made by machine, in a mold. Fabricating a single thimble would be very different! Sheet and wire, or cast in wax? Both? I had many ideas.
A thimble is used to protect fingers when sewing. Generally it is worn on the first or second finger, but sometimes the thumb. Like any tool, the user will find the best way to work with it. This piece was to be thumb thimble. (say that five times fast!)
Another challenge: the size. Since this was a gift, I couldn’t do any fittings. When making a ring or a bracelet one needs some indication of size. The internet told me that there is no standard of sizing for thimbles, like there is for ring sizing. Some makers use ring sizing as a starting point, but thimbles are not worn the same way as a ring.
I put the sizing aside while I tried to wrap my head around just how I would make it. I asked my silversmithing instructor what she thought would work. She had previously made a sweet little round birdhouse pendant, so I asked how she did it. She started with a tube, and added elements from there.
Breaking down the construction: a thimble is a slightly flared, capped tube. The tube would be the easy part, as it’s essentially a long ring. I could make a long ring and flare it out on a ring mandrel to get the shape right. The cap would be the tricky part. One way would be to make a disc, dome it and then solder that onto the body of the thimble. The challenge: the domed cap has to fully contact the flat edge of the thimble body in order for the pieces to solder together properly. That would be tough to do since one has a curved surface and one has a flat surface. Her second suggestion was to solder the thimble body to sheet, and then gently dap and form out the cap from the inside.
To start, I did a mock-up of what I thought would work, in paper. A straight tube would only flare so much, so I cut the paper in a more trapezoidal shape. That seemed to work better, so I transferred that template to copper sheet. Copper is inexpensive and a good way to try out designs before committing to a more expensive metal.
This is where I am thankful for all the classes I have taken! In my spinner ring class, I was taught a neat soldering trick for larger rings that worked really well for soldering the long body of this piece. The trapezoid shape worked nicely, but after soldering I realized that my seam did not run vertically, but was at a slight angle. I knew some adjustments would have to be made to the template before I would make it in silver.
I made a domed cap in copper just to see what the connection points would be like. I was right, and was not able to get it to solder well. Back to the bench. The second method would have to be the one that worked, and it did in the end.
And now back to sizing. I was stuck here. Was this to be an art piece, or would it actually be in use? And the answer: this needed to be a usable thimble. I asked if there was a thimble already being used, that we could sneak out for a quick round of measurements, but alas it was not that easy! The closest we could come up with was borrowing Mr Two Carrots to stand in as a thumb-model. I based the paper template for the final piece on that measurement and cut out the silver.
My first idea was too complicated, involving layers of metal that decided they did not want to be soldered together. In hindsight, the piece would have looked pretty, but been unbalanced and would spin on the finger so it would not have worked. That silver is now in my ‘make this into something else or melt it down’ pile.
Back to the bench. I cut out a new piece of silver. I added texture, and then spent quite a while on fitting the piece together so I would have a nice straight seam. This soldering was easy, and went well. The trapezoidal paper template resulted in a slight cone shape to the piece when it was hammered out, so then I had to mark, measure and saw the tube so the top and bottom edges were parallel.
From there I added a stepped base ring, and then braced myself for the hard part.
A constructed piece is tricky. You have to consider each part, as well as how those constructed parts are soldered to the piece.Solder comes in three different flow temperatures. (Hard, medium and easy) For a piece that has multiple solder joints, you have to carefully consider the order of solder joints. If you use the wrong temperature of solder, or assemble things in the wrong order, previously soldered parts can pop open, slip or melt. (And this always happens at the very last step, just as you think you are done.)
This piece has:
- Stepped ring with a solder joint (hard solder), which is then soldered to the bottom of the main thimble body (medium solder)
- Main thimble body with one long joint (hard solder)
- Cap, soldered to the top of the main thimble body. (easy solder)
It required all three temperatures of solder, and every soldering trick I’ve been taught, save one. You can cheat and paint out the already soldered joints to prevent them from re-flowing but it’s a messy process. I find that you learn how the metal reacts and just how far you can push the heat if you don’t use the masking method.
I had one last step…the cap. I would have to solder the main tube to a sheet of silver without messing up the other three solder points.
I set up my fire bricks to create a little forge. This would trap the heat of the torch as I heated the piece from the bottom up, to allow the cap solder to flow while protecting the previously soldered body and stepped ring. I didn’t want the pieces to move, so I used iron binding wire to hold them together during soldering. It worked!
After that it was fairly smooth sailing. Cutting out the cap, filing, sanding, and doming the cap piece before polishing.
I took advantage of some natural light to take some pictures outside, before giving it a final high polish.
This simple piece is also the very first vessel I’ve made. True silversmithing is all about vessels; cups and bowls and the like. I’ve now made one, so this is truly a milestone piece for me.