Craftsman of the Month
Cover of Rock&Gem V1N1 March-April 1971

John A. Mackey - February 1999
Butterfly Box

The Craftsman of the Month for February is John A. Mackey of Eugene, Oregon, for the lovely butterfly box he made for his daughter. His instructions are so complete that we'll let him give you all the details himself.

"The box involved many silversmithing/lapidary challenges. It is of inlay style, with decorative turquoise cabochons around its rim. Tiger-eye was used for the butterfly's wings and snowflake obsidian for the body. The box was fashioned entirely of sterling silver."

"First, the design was laid out in a drawing, with the stamped decorations. The design stamps were handmade from drill bits, nails and punches, filed and tempered as needed. The 3-inch by 6-inch butterfly design for the inlaid top of the box would be surrounded on three sides by a rim of scalloped design including 16 5mm turquoise cabochons."

"The first challenge was to create the 3-1/2-inch by 2-1/2-inch inlaid butterfly. Pieces of tiger-eye were selected to resemble a butterfly's wings, with dark bands on the periphery and the golden sheen so characteristic of this material toward the center."

"To add symmetry each piece was cut through the middle, parallel to the base of each stone. Each section of the butterfly was thus cut open like a book, so that there would be two pieces--mirror images of each other--for each section of the butterfly. Cutting rather thick sections reduced the likelihood of the material cracking during the cutting, but required more sanding. The scalloped edges of the wings were carved with a Dremel tool, being very careful not to chip off any of the design."

"Rather than try to fit each stone into a preexisting inlay silver form, the pieces were shaped first, to exact outlines, the pieces of scrap 22-gauge sterling were formed around each stone and beveled against each other to provide solid solder joints. The inlay forms needed to be wider than the depth required for the top surface, as did the stones themselves. Later, they would all be sanded down at the same time. The antennae were also formed and the body was shaped around the snowflake obsidian. Finally 14-gauge square wire was cut to outline the top surface of the lid."

"Now the first phase of soldering was ready. Using a sweat-soldering technique and hard solder, all of the inlay channels, antennae and square wire were fluxed and soldered in place onto a 3-inch by 6-inch piece of 22-gauge sterling--a task much easier said than done. The channels were soldered from below, using a wire-mesh and steel ring-stand to heat with a wide flame, moving constantly to distribute heat all around, but then focusing intermittently on smaller areas, as needed. Despite some warping of the 22-gauge sterling, which was later flattened with fingers and hammer-tapping), and some movement of the channels, which was controlled with a soldering pick, the first stage was a success."

"The second phase of the project was to stamp the designs onto the rest of the box pieces. Again, 22-gauge sterling was used. All box pieces were cut to size, the sides being 1-1/2 inches high. Each part was lightly sanded with 600-grit sandpaper so that division marks could be drawn on them. The sides and lid rim were marked and stamped with the design. Sometimes the larger stamps left a partial impression, which had to be finished by meticulously placing the stamp back in exactly the same position and then hitting it again, leaning the stamp slightly toward the unstamped area. The scallops on the lid rim were filed with a triangle file and polished slightly, as polishing would be difficult later."

"Preformed 5mm bezels were fluxed and soldered to the stamped, scalloped lid edges, using hard solder. Yellow ochre was used to protect the stamped designs from being covered by any running solder. The edges were then pinned on a soft soldering surface against the front and sides of the lid, which was placed upside down. A hinge was formed from round wire, coiled multiple times around a solid wire hinge-pin to form a straight, hollow coil once the hinge pin was removed. The coil, having been made of hard solder, was then cut into lengths to be used alternately with other sections attached to the box. The lid sections were then pinned to the back of the lid. Having all sides of the lid in place, and joints fluxed, medium solder was used to attach them. A solid wire solder was used like a welder, rather than have lots of tiny pieces dancing around all over the work once heat was applied. The edges had been previously coated with firescale preventer."

"The lid was now ready for the lapidary work. Each stone in the butterfly was glued into place, using epoxy. The rest of the lid's surface was 'inlaid' with chips of turquoise by filling the remaining area with Liquid Solder(R), found in most hardware stores. The turquoise chips were packed into the Liquid Solder, and the lid was allowed to dry for several days. Then the whole business was sanded flat and polished. Considerable time was spent on the harder tiger-eye than on the softer turquoise to keep them at the same level. Tin oxide was applied to the stonework and channels, tripoli and red rouge on the silver edges. The 5mm bezels accepted 5mm turquoise cabs formed with a cup-shaped cabbing tool. The bezels were then set and polished with the Dremel. The Liquid Solder took a nice silver-colored polish that has lasted for years."

"As for the box itself, the stamped sides were coated with firescale preventer and wired to each other to form the 3-inch by 6-inch rectangle. The inner corners were soldered together, using the hard solder welding technique. The floor of the box, slightly larger than the sides, was then wired into place. The sides needed to be maintained in a perfect rectangle, and the exposed edges of the box served as a visual guide. Chips of medium wire solder were placed around the fluxed interior edges. The soldering again was done from below to control heat dissipation which, in sterling silver, is great. Using quite a bit of wire to secure the sides to the bottom helped control warping."

"The wire was removed and the top rear edge was sanded clean before attaching the rest of the coil hinge. The box was laid on its back and the soft soldering block was again used to pin the hinges in place. Soft solder was used to attach the hinges. Finally, the box was turned upside down and a decorative sterling bead was soldered onto each corner of the bottom, to act as feet."

"The box was pickled, sanded with 600 girt and prepolished with tripoli. Areas of firescale were located and removed with wet pumice and frequent rinsing. The box was then prepolished again with tripoli and finished with red rouge. The interior of the box and lid were cleaned with pumice. Velvet-covered cardboard linings were made and glued onto all interior surfaces. The lid was attached by replacing the long hinge pin through all hinge segments."

Finished . . . a tough job, well done!


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