The act of making and transforming materials is human experience. One measure of a human culture is found in what we construct. We are artists, writers, photographers, musicians, machinists and cooks. The Remains examines this act of making and reflects on the process of doing more than flipping television channels, ordering in take-out food, FBooking our lives into a virtual reality, and buying cheap, poorly made goods from China to save money. The Remains is not about saving money, but rather our sanity, our souls and our human agency.
The ring is an ancient object. Indeed, only a few societies do no include it amongst their basic personal goods. Magic is often thought to be collected in the making of a ring, and certainly Tolkien explores the idea in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, as does Richard Wagner in his Ring Series of operatic pieces [Der Ring Des Nibelungen]. I have always loved wearing rings, and truly feel that the pieces I own that were made by King Baby in California are intrinsic to my identity. Still, I bought those pieces with cash at a strode. Imagine if I had been able to forge, hammer or carve my own ring. Fortunately for me, I was able to do that exact activity this weekend at The Devil’s Workshop on Queen Street West in Toronto, Canada.
I have never worked with metal. Shop class was always a negative place for me. I was treated like a “soft kid” there, and my only construction was a crappy sheet metal tool box that was spray painted black. Interest in working with metal: none. However, M. found a cool workshop while considering what we wanted for wedding rings, and I am all for trying new activities. One never knows where learning will lead you.
The idea of the workshop is that within a 6 hour period you and your beloved will be able to cut, sand, hammer, fuse and polish a wedding band into perfection for about $320 per couple plus material cost. In our case, we chose to use silver. I am not a big fan of gold. Gold belongs to people who are light and heavenly, silver is the material of werewolf killers, witches and elves. Step one: book the workshop and actually show up after 64 parent-teacher-student interviews in 24 hours.
Measuring is not a skill I am particularly good at. I use rules of thumbs and comparisons by sight to do my work, but in the case of a ring that had to actually line up and be precise, I thought it best to make an exception. Using a very cool slide-type ruler I was able to mark the rough silver and begin to sand the cut edges even and flat so as to enable the seam to be soldered smoothly later in the day. After the previous two weeks of sanding the wood plane’s sole flat, I was actually pretty efficient at this part of the process. Indeed, I finished before the others, which meant that I had to be the test member for the next step: hammering with the aim to bend the strip.
While I am not Hephaestus, I was able to bend the metal with precision using the clever wooden molds and wooden mallets. The flat strip was starting to look like an actual ring. I began to believe that I might actual pull off a somewhat round ring. After quite a bit of fine hammering and bending with pliers, I was off to the coffee shop for a break. I had a bit of time before we were ready as a group to start playing with fire. I will admit that I have never been a fan of blowtorches, soldering guns or arc welders. My father’s anger and foolish behaviour around these tools left me with the echo of curse words and near explosions ringing in my ears. My last project involving a soldering iron went well, though, and I had been able to successfully rewire my American Stratocaster guitar perfectly. In this case, we were using an oxygen/propane torch to heat the silver into balls which could be attached to the seam with a small pick.
Getting the ring into the clips left me feeling like Frodo must have felt as he climbed Mount Doom: set fire to this thing and watch it burn! Not exactly, but the feel was one of exhilaration. For me, this was the transition from play to production. Flames always make me feel like serious experiments are in motion. While challenging, the torch felt safe and after a few misplaced globs of silver fell harmlessly to the wayside, I had made it to the next step: hammering away like Vulcan on a mandril to shape the ring and size it to the required diameter.
In the end, I felt like I had landed on the moon or perhaps even climbed a major peak without oxygen. The act of making is addictive. The realization that I MADE a beautiful simple ring from a raw strip of metal gave me a sense of accomplishment. Punching the clock, teaching children, reading a book, all of these are worthwhile pursuits, but none of them provide the same elation as transforming raw materials into a finished piece. Perhaps the real danger with creation is to realize that it is key to avoid the trap of merely deciding to run out and become a silversmith or believe that you can do so by buying a few rudimentary [and specialist] tools. Like the experiments I am working through with woodworking over the course of the year, I feel that there is a small place for this type of activity in my life on a regular basis. I enjoy my career, and see the benefits of my daily work. The key to happiness, however, is true balance, and I see how working with one’s hands is critical to becoming more than a consumer. I do not need to make a hundred rings and fill my house with smithing tools yet…but the one I did make one beautiful piece, and that would not have happened anywhere but The Devil’s Workshop.