A Lesson in Channel Work
by Max A. Hatch - Chandler, Arizona

For about as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed looking at channel inlay projects. After moving to the Valley of the Sun, I was exposed to some of the best channel work in existence. There were a number of people doing this work, including Native Americans and other silversmiths. Some work was only fair; some was exceptional! Over the years, I have incorporated a bit of channel work into some of my designs, but had never done a large, all-channel piece--you know, like some of the Kachina bola ties or animal-profile belt buckles.

At many lapidary shows, I have watched demonstrations by a number of skilled channel workers, but none better than those conducted by the Timms of Tucson, Arizona. Each time I would watch a demonstration, I would get another case of Channel Fever, and buy another pattern or two! I imagine all channel workers sell patterns. Then, for some reason, these would get placed in my design file, unused. Over the years, I amassed quite a collection of channel designs. Finally, I decided it was time to act; I had to do a real channel project.

For a very long time, I have had a thing about a desert bird known as the roadrunner. It is a fascinating creature. We once had a roadrunner living in the bushes around where we were camped in our trailer. It had lost one foot and part of its leg, but still managed to get around. We marveled at how it was able to forage on insects and small lizards.

I thought a roadrunner would be the perfect subject for a channel project. My design file held several roadrunner patterns. Among my favorites was one a bit larger than I anticipated making. On a trip to a local copy center, I was able to reduce it to what I considered a more manageable size: about 4-1/2 inches long.

Now, most channel projects of this size would become bola ties or belt buckles. Since this roadrunner is much wider than he is tall, I didn't think a bola was appropriate. I really didn't fancy it as a belt buckle either. I did toy around with the idea of attaching the finished roadrunner to a backing of ironwood to make a belt buckle (either inlaid into the ironwood or just attached to the outside), but eventually discarded these ideas. They do hold some merit for future projects, however.

What I finally decided on was just the channel-work roadrunner as a stand-alone piece. Maybe I would fashion an ironwood stand for it, or perhaps a commercial display stand would work. In any event, my roadrunner would become a display piece.

I have made enough jewelry and toyed around with the channel process enough to make some initial conclusions about this project. The first and foremost was that it was a fairly complicated design to begin with! Even though the size of the completed piece was to be fairly large, the individual sections within the pattern were quite small. Many were rather long and very narrow. And almost all had concave and convex curves. These features would make a very pleasing completed piece, but would present some real challenges in creating them--both in making the metal frame and in getting the stones to fit the channels.

I suspected that I should start with a simpler design--one with fewer and larger pieces. My ego won out, however, and in the end, I decided to proceed with the original design. My recommendation to you is that, for a first project, make something simpler!

There are even roadrunner designs using fewer, larger segments. I had all the time in the world and would be starting a vacation shortly, and this would give me something to do. If you read my article in the April 1995 issue of Rock & Gem, entitled "Take Your Workbench With You," then you know I like to relax by doing lapidary work while camping in the forest.

With this in mind, I packed my toolbox with the things I anticipated needing. First, in went several copies of the pattern. Along with that was a firebrick with a new, flat, smooth surface on it; a box of pins; a new roll of channel wire, which is similar to plain bezel wire but made of heavier, 24-gauge silver; some side cutters; snips; and several assorted pairs of pliers. I can't see a thing without it, so my Optivisor was also included. Since there would be a considerable amount of soldering involved, I included my "Little Torch" and some soldering supplies: hard and medium sheet solder; some soldering flux; self-pickling flux; a soldering stand; and a solder poker. A good selection of files and several tweezers were included, as was a small saw/grinder combination unit that could be used for working the stones. As a routine item, I included a Foredom Tool and its accessories. I also included some adhesive, alcohol and scissors.

This sounds like a lot of equipment, but it all fit in one Plano toolbox and a salesman-type case I use for this purpose, with a lot of room to spare. Of course, my homemade worktable was included. All of these power tools will run off a small generator I carry for my trailer. (I can either hook them directly to the generator, or run them through the trailer outlets.)

In due course, we were set up in a Forest Service campground in north-central Arizona. After savoring the cool weather among the Ponderosa pines for a few days, I set up my portable workbench and got down to business. One of the first things to be done was to cut the heads off the box of pins. Diagonal cutters were used for this step. After the heads were removed, each pin was bent to form an inverted letter "U," on the top end. The bent portion was less than 1/8 inch deep, and would serve to hold the channel wire in place.

Initially, I prepared about a dozen pins in this manner. Later, I would prepared about four to six pins at a time--just enough to fasten one or two sections of channel wire at a time. The fire brick was placed on the workbench and a copy of the pattern was cut from a sheet and pinned to the brick.

Now the fun began! I cut a workable-length of channel wire from my coil. I then measured and cut a length from this piece to form part of the outline of my roadrunner pattern. A pair of pliers with the appropriate-shaped nose was used to shape this wire to conform to the shape on the pattern. Once the piece was formed correctly and cut to the proper length, needle-nosed pliers were used to force some of the pins into the brick to hold the wire in place.

I started with the outline of a large section, the wing. When the outline was complete, I cut the shorter sections to fill in this area. As each piece of wire was cut and formed, I tried to file the ends to form somewhat the same angle as that at which they met the outline piece. Not only would this aid the appearance of the piece, but it would also make a better joint that was easier to solder.

Work was continued in this manner until the design was completely filled in, or nearly so. You will notice in the photo that there were a considerable number of pins holding the many, many pieces of this pattern. There were a couple of small pieces that simply did not allow room to place a pin to hold them in position. These pieces I omitted at this time. I would have to add them later.

When pinning the short pieces of channel wire to the pattern, it is important to place the pins so that they will not come in contact with any solder while soldering the pattern together. This meant swiveling the "U"-shaped heads from side to side, and being selective as to which side of a length of wire a pin was inserted. You must also be careful to keep each piece of wire vertical and not let it tip to one side or the other. This can cause much grief later on.

If I were to do this pattern again, I would probably use two or more soldering sessions. This is just a very busy pattern.

Well, it took me a couple of days to get the pattern all cut, shaped and pinned together. Remember, I was on vacation and in no hurry. I also only worked for a couple of hours in the afternoons . . . after lunch but before we walked around the lake or up the valley.

I was also pleasantly interrupted by visitors for a few days: my eldest son and his wife on their way to Germany. Eventually, however, the roadrunner was finished being pinned and was ready to solder. To prepare for this, I used the paste flux I had brought. I used some toothpicks, some trimmed to even smaller points, to apply a coating of flux on both sides of every joint. This was my second indication of just how difficult a pattern I had chosen.

I finally got the entire project fluxed to my satisfaction. The next step would be soldering all these joints. Wouldn't you know it? The wind began to blow--not really hard, but strong enough so that I knew my "Little Torch" would not be effective. If I had brought my regular air/acetylene torch instead, I probably would have been able to proceed. As it turned out, I waited several days for the wind to die down again.

When I thought it was calm enough to proceed, I selected one of the larger tips and proceeded to melt the flux. I had forgotten about the paper pattern underneath the channel wire. It burned as well. This was all well and good, except that the ash from the paper tended to get embedded in the flux. The paper pattern should have been burned off prior to applying the flux. I will remember next time. Again, a larger torch may have prevented this problem. During this process, I realized that my torch was not capable of doing the job outside.

After the pattern was burned off and the flux melted, I moved my project inside, to the trailer table. Even here, I had to use a hotter flame than I would have liked. Using my snips and the hard sheet solder, I cut a lot of small snippets of solder and let them fall to an open area on the firebrick. I planned to use the "pick" method of soldering: I would heat a solder snippet until it formed a ball, use the point of my soldering pick to pick up the ball, and place it on the joint to be soldered. This is a fast, accurate method of soldering this type of work. Some people place solder snippets at each joint prior to melting the flux. But I find that these tend to move and pop off too much.

My soldering process began. All seemed to be going well until I had a number of joints soldered. All at once, I had difficulty telling which joints had been soldered and which were yet to be done.

When I was finally confident that all the joints were soldered, I then started removing the pins holding the piece to the firebrick. In spite of the care I took, several pins had become soldered to the channel wire. It was necessary to reheat these pins to remove them. Also, on several joints the solder had not flowed to the bottom of the joint. This was caused by cool-air movement while using such a small heat source or torch. Even inside the trailer, the breeze had affected the process. I used liquid self-pickling flux and more small solder snippets to correct this.

I realized that I did not have enough torch to solder the channel pattern to a silver sheet backing plate, so this ended my work on this channel piece during the remainder of the trip.

Once home and ready to continue the project, I traced the outline of the roadrunner onto a piece of 26-gauge silver sheet. Using a jewelers saw, I cut this from the sheet, leaving about 1/8 inch extra around the outline. I applied the liquid self-pickling flux to this sheet and rubbed the channel-wire roadrunner around in it until the meeting surfaces were covered. Some flattened medium wire solder was cut into short snippets and placed around the inside of the channel wires.

The project was then placed on a wire soldering stand. I used a No. 3 tip on my regular silversmith torch to solder these pieces together. By using a soldering pick to apply pressure on the top, and movement of the torch flame on the bottom, I was able to got the two pieces soldered together.

I also made a couple of boo-boos. I shifted one of the wires on the wing slightly. It changed position and soldered itself farther down its connecting piece. Rather than trying to correct this, I accepted the change and decided to live with it. A couple of other wires tipped very slightly from vertical. I suspect the sheet solder I used initially was really medium and not hard. They were to cause me more problems later on.

The project was placed in a hot pickle pot and given a good bath. It was then rinsed thoroughly and all the solder joints were checked. The excess backing sheet was removed using a jewelers saw. Some fine-cut files and small Cratex wheels were used to give a smooth and finished surface.

The silverwork was now finished and it was time to start inlaying stones into the channels. While doing previous inlay work, I had wished I had a coloring compound to tint my epoxy. Even a void the width of a hair can mar the appearance of otherwise excellent work. My many searches for this had turned up only black and white. Several times I had seen mention of a "Tap" coloring kit in various articles in Rock & Gem. One was in an article by Earl Spendlove about Ken Allen of Ogden, Utah. I was able to get a request for a source off to Mr. Allen just before leaving on vacation. Upon returning, I had both a message on my answering machine and a letter from Mr. Allen, listing the address of Tap Plastics Inc.: 4225 Century Bl. Pittsburg, CA 94575; phone (510) 778-1223; fax (510) 718-6024. I immediately called to thank him and had a very pleasant conversation. I am certainly glad I made the effort to locate and order some of these dyes. You should get some, too, before attempting a channel-work project.

My primary stones for this roadrunner were to be a slab of Biggs Jasper, which had what I considered an appropriate feather-like pattern, and a slab of Bruneau Jasper. This would be used for the lighter parts of the bird.

Remember, you have choices in selecting material for inlay. You can try for absolute matches to the real subject or you can choose something that merely suggests the real thing. My material was to be in this category.

Before obtaining the shapes for the individual stones, I placed the project face down on a thick, folded towel. I used a wooden drawer pull and mallet to give it a slight convex shape. I had used this procedure previously, using a small sandbag in place of the towel. Mr. Allen suggested using the towel and it worked well. It was not as stiff as my sandbag. If you haven't guessed, this is done so you can grind your inlaid stones flush with the silverwork, using a round grinding wheel. It is extremely difficult to grind a large flat area using round grinding wheels.

There are several ways to get the shapes you need for the stones. One is to use extra copies of the paper pattern. This is okay if your silverwork has been 100-percent accurate. It also makes no allowance for the slight distortion caused by shaping the piece to a slight dome. Another method is to use an ink pad and paper. You turn the project upside down on the ink pad and then transfer this image to paper. This leaves everything in reverse and can be confusing to use. I prefer the method used by several people I have seen demonstrating at various shows. Let me explain.

I used some vinyl shelf paper. Cut a piece large enough to cover the channel involved, but small enough to be manageable. Place this on the channel with the vinyl side up and hold it firmly in place. Use an aluminum rod, such as those used for marking cabochons, and run it around the edge of your channel. This will leave a distinct, exact copy of the channel in question. Use scissors or an X-acto-type knife to cut out the pattern. Make sure your slab is clean and dry. Remove the paper backing from the pattern and stick it on your slab. When the slab is covered or you have all your channels copied, mark some cutting lines on your slab. Use a trim saw and fine blade to cut these pieces from your slab.

I cover my patterns with a clear epoxy prior to using the slab saw. This helps preserve them a bit better. Once they are removed from the slab, I wash the pieces with hot water and dish-washing detergent to removed all traces of the cutting oil.

Now the fun began. I used the 80-grit wheel on my Genie unit to remove as much waste as I could from each piece. This showed me again just how small some of these pieces were. I ground away my fingernails and a portion or two of some fingers in the process. Afterward, I had a handful of even smaller pieces, but they still were not ground to final size and shape.

What to do? Well, I have a homemade fixture that I use with my Foredom Flexshaft tool. I set this up and selected a handful of my diamond carving bits. Starting with a Mini Turbine Wheel, and changing to whatever size or shape was needed, I proceeded to shape and fit each piece of stone.

As stated before, I was using Biggs and Bruneau jasper--both very hard materials. The complex shapes and small sizes were a real challenge. When pieces started getting very thin, some down to 1/32 of an inch, extra care had to be taken not to break them by applying pressure in the wrong place. The very long, thin pieces also required extra care. Each piece had to be ground to fit its place in the design. I kid you not. I worked for several hours on some of these pieces. Also, I didn't break a single one. I was really proud of myself.

During this process, I discovered another thing. I was using slabs that had been cut for use in making much larger cabochons. As a result, they were thicker than was needed. This meant a lot of extra grinding and a bit more fiddling to get them to fit.

The piece for the head created even more of a challenge. Not only did it have to be shaped on the outside, but a large portion of the center also had to be removed. To accomplish this, I drilled a hole in the center of the portion to be removed using a diamond drill bit. Then I used a tapered, coarse-grit diamond bit to enlarge this hole from each side of the slab. When the hole was large enough, I switched to a regular diamond carving bit to remove the balance of material and shape the hole.

When the inside was done, I finished the outside of this piece. By measuring the depth of the channels, then the pieces themselves, I could tell when they were seated properly. Due to the slight doming of the piece, it was sometimes necessary to shape the bottoms of the stones to get them to seat properly.

There also were a few complications caused by some of the channel wires that had tipped from vertical. All this had to be taken into consideration while doing the grinding and fitting.

When all the stones were completed, I washed everything again. All the stones were covered with grinding dust and the silver channels had deposits of grinding dust in them--this from all the fitting I had done. A toothbrush was required to clean all the nooks and crannies in the channels.

With everything clean again, it was time to start cementing the stones in place. An area was selected to start with--in this case, the wing. All these pieces were set out, in order. The Tap epoxy colors were brought out. It was amazingly simple to mix a small amount of these pigments to an almost exact match with the stones. Once satisfied with the color, I applied the actual epoxy to the mixing slab and thoroughly blended the epoxy with the pigments.

A variety of round and flat toothpicks were used to completely coat the channel for the first stone. All sides of the channel wire were coated as well as the bottom of the channel. The stone was then set in place and forced into the bottom of the channel. This made the excess epoxy ooze up to the surface, where it was removed with a bit of paper towel.

Each piece of the wing was done in this manner. I had anticipated being able to also do the tail with this same batch of epoxy. But the addition of the color pigment apparently shortened the working life of the epoxy and it started to set up before I got to the tail. So it was necessary to mix another batch to do the tail, then the crest on the head. This pretty much used up all the stones of this particular color. Not wanting to take the chance of contaminating the colors, I put the project aside to allow this epoxy to cure.

It took me four individual sessions to set all the stones. I also must admit that, during this process, I broke two of the stones. Both were broken by the force used to seat them in the bottom of the channels. The epoxy was not expelled as rapidly as I tried to force the stones in. Fortunately, the breaks are hardly noticeable, and it was not necessary to make new pieces. I was very pleased with the Tap pigments. They are easy to use and very effective.

My only mistake was in doing the eye. I originally made the eye from a light-colored piece of Bruneau jasper. While setting the stones, I changed my mind and decided to remake the eye from a piece of artificial turquoise. This took about 15 minutes. I can certainly see why so much channel inlay work is done with these kinds of materials. I did not have a light-blue pigment, so I cemented this piece in place using just the clear epoxy. Although it's very small, you can see a couple of voids around the stone. I plan to get some additional colors before doing any more channel work.

Once everything was in place and thoroughly dry, it was time to grind the stones flush with the top of the channel wires. Both the Biggs and the Bruneau are hard (as already mentioned) but also somewhat brittle stones. They can both be prone to chipping along the edges. With all these small pieces--some very narrow--I was a bit concerned, particularly since I had so much additional thickness to grind away.

I started with the 80-grit wheel on my Genie. As expected, there was some chipping along the edges. I switched to the 220-grit wheel. This corrected the problem. Really, this grinding procedure was quite fast and simple to accomplish. A bit of attention was needed to maintain the contours, but this was not difficult. As soon as the stones were flush with the silver, I switched to the soft 280-grit wheel. This was followed by the 600-, 1,200- and 14,000-grit wheels.

This is one of the few pieces I have ever been satisfied with by finishing with the 14,000-grit diamond wheel. Usually, I am left with a greasy-looking finish at this point, and must use a cerium or aluminum oxide powder on a felt or leather buff to get that final shine. This, however, looked fine without that step.

The only thing left to do now was to polish the silverwork. I used some ZAM on some small buffs on my Foredom Flexshaft to start with. This would not get into all the narrow places, however. It was necessary to use an old, cloth bola cord charged with ZAM to reach these places. After the ZAM and a good wash, I used the same process with black rouge for the final polish.

Well, that just about finished things up. It was a fun project to make, even if it took considerably longer than anticipated. It required absolute attention and some delicate work. The results were definitely worth the effort, though. I look forward to doing more channel inlay work and I will not be intimidated by any design.

If you are new to this work, I really recommend starting with a bit simpler design, and also that you be patient with yourself and your work. You might consider using easier-to-shape materials such as imitation stones or even shells. Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy your work!

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Bob Keller