As the plant manager for Swanstrom Tools, Tim Sheriff is the Willy Wonka of his own 18,000-sqaure-foot candy store. Tim’s decades of tinkering, tool development, and teaching make him a name that needs no introduction to people immersed in creating jewelry. He’s offered to tell the story, right here on Rio’s Blog, of how he found his calling in tools and jewelry-making. He even tossed in some gems of advice, a round-up of his favorite tools, and a new use for disc cutters (that just might surprise you).
From Farm Boy to Mad Scientist
by Tim Sheriff
One of the least favorite things I had to do growing up on a farm in Iowa was picking up rocks from fields to prepare them for planting. As much as I disliked the chore, I began to notice that some of the rocks were pretty interesting. Another thing I hated was spending my rainy days straightening nails by pounding them with a hammer on an anvil. In many ways, I am still picking up rocks and pounding things with a hammer on an anvil. I guess the difference between then and now is the difference between having to and wanting to. Maybe those two childhood activities were the spark that kept on smoldering for years and years.
My wife, Judy, and I started vacationing along the North Shore of Lake Superior in the early 1980s. While Judy had vacationed every year at a cabin her family owned on the North Shore, it was my first visit. Judy taught me the fine art of picking agates, a common pastime in the area. I wanted to polish the agates we found, so I bought a rock tumbler. Later, I began attending rock shows and saw a person faceting a stone. I wanted to give it a try, so I purchased a faceting machine. At first I purchased ready-made mountings, but soon I was buying soldering and casting equipment so I could make my own. I took GIA’s diamond grading course by correspondence and received their Diamond Certificate in 1984. While I am self-taught for the most part, I have taken soldering, stone setting, and flame working classes at Rio Grande. I’ve learned that Rio’s classes pull back the curtain of mystery that surrounds the skills one doesn’t have, and makes them attainable.
In 1984, Judy was offered a position at the Duluth, Minnesota Public Library, so we moved. My first job in Duluth was at a fishing tackle company. I had my first introduction to Swanstrom Tools when the tackle company chose Swanstrom to shepherd a new product through the development and manufacturing processes. Later on, I left the tackle company to work at Swanstrom Tools. Jack Swanstrom and I became very good friends over the years, and I credit him with the passion I have for designing tools. Jack’s son, John, now owns Swanstrom Tools and he has allowed me to take my efforts to a new level. He has created a work environment that blurs the line between work and play. Jack wound the spring. John has released its energy.
Tim’s Top Tools
My favorite tools, and the ones I use most frequently, are:
I use them to make all kinds of necklaces, pendants, and earrings. The twisted cage marble pendant is one of the most popular items I make with the pliers. To watch a step-by-step demonstration of the marble pendant coming to life, take a look at the video below.
I am continually amazed at how much can be done with these wondrous tools. I don’t simply punch out discs, I mix and match by initially punching out a disc with one disc cutter and then use other disc cutters to make further cuts on the initial disc. The design possibilities using the disc cutters are endless. Swanstrom disc cutters cut so precisely and cleanly that you can punch parts out of differing materials, then mix and re-assemble to create mixed metal jewelry pieces.
I use these to cut wire, jump rings, and fine silver bezel strip. They make such a flush cut I rarely have to use a file to remove spikes on the ends of the wires. Because they don’t have the traditional 15-degree head angle, they eliminate the difficulty of orienting a 15-degree head perpendicular to the material being cut.
I have two pairs of these pliers that I use for opening and closing jump rings. I can spend hours making a chain without my hands, wrists, or arms becoming fatigued.
I use these when I’m working with beads, from simple linked bead necklaces to antique scroll necklaces with spirals and many other components. Talk about multi-tasking—these pliers get it done!
I’m just beginning to unlock the potential of these pliers and they are sure to become a favorite—especially paired up with Rio’s e-coatings (#1 product on my wish list).
These brand new pliers are also becoming an indispensable tool on my bench for holding small parts.
A Few Final Gems
I encourage artists to read, read, read and use their public libraries. While the Internet has a lot of information, libraries provide a much better environment for researching because they have books and videos you can take home to use while you are making something.
I also encourage people to take all the classes they can. All classes provide a great return on investment. Really, classes are tools. Each class you take adds another tool to your tool box. The trick is not to let the tools rust from lack of use.
A parting comment: At one of Sam Alfano’s engraving classes at GRS, Don Glaser said to me, “There can never be too many pretty things in this world.” It is a comment that is always on my mind, especially in view of some of the ugliness in the world of late.
For complete information on all of Rio Grande’s class offerings, visit Rio’s website.