Whether one's work area is spacious or small, shared with others or not, one can never take too many safety measures in the jewelry studio. Here are a few key points to keep in mind. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. It is a very basic, introductory list. I suggest revisiting it and improving upon it often.
1. Regarding Power Tools... or, Doing Stupid Things Faster With More Energy...
Who hasn't inadvertently stepped on the foot control pedal of their flex shaft power tool causing the hand piece to fly off the bench and zoom from 0 to 30,000 rpm in two seconds, right? Everyone has heard at least one horror story involving this very helpful tool. The words "hair", "ripped", and "scalped" may have been used. These are powerful tools that, when used correctly, save us a ton of time in production. When used incorrectly, they can hurt. A few things to help stay safe while using a flex shaft, polishing wheel, and other power tools include hair-ties, safety glasses, particulate respirators, and Vetrap tape.
- Hair-ties. Just keep them handy somewhere in the studio. Then, use them!
- Safety glasses. Clear polycarbonate works great. They are available in several models and sizes and can fit over prescription glasses and are often adjustable. Side shields give your eyes added protection against dust, chemical splashes, and other flying objects. Keep at least one pair in the studio. Then, use them!
- Particulate respirators. A respirator or dust mask will go a long way in protecting your lungs and your health. The masks protect by filtering particles out of the air the user is breathing. They come in many configurations and ratings. The primary ratings are N (not oil proof), P (oil proof) and R (oil resistant). Following the letter rating is a number, generally 95, 97 or 100. The most common rating for disposable dust masks is N95, which will filter 95% of airborne particles that are not oil-based. Keep in mind, if the mask is not comfortable, you will not want to wear it when it is needed. Masks with adjustable nosepieces and foam face seals are more comfortable and a little more effective. Find one that is easy and comfortable to wear. Then, use it!
- Vetrap tape. This flexible, elastic, self-adhering tape is a staple in the studio. Use it to provide protection by wrapping it around your fingers during close work with sharp instruments, like saw blades and drill bits. It is breathable, lightweight, and comfortable. Also, it comes in hot pink and purple! Use it!
2. Regarding flammable gases...
The thing about flammable gases is that they can catch on fire. That, it turns out, is the nature of flammable. There are times, like when you're soldering, that you want them to catch on fire. And, then there are times, like when you're wearing loose clothing or when your torch hose connections leak, that you don't. The trick is to keep the fires burning when and where they are supposed to. The general idea here is to make beautiful, quality jewelry in your studio and live to tell about it. So, here are a few thoughts on how to do that. I have organized these thoughts into three sections: 'Before', 'During', and 'After'.
First and foremost, have a fire extinguisher. Do not store the fire extinguisher near the gas tank as it will be out of your reach if a fire breaks out in the soldering area. You won't want to risk burns just to reach your extinguisher in the event of a fire. Therefore, I think the best place to store the fire extinguisher is by the door or any visible place that you have easy access to.
Once you have safely transported your acetylene tank from the local welding supplier to your studio, strap that baby securely to the leg of your soldering bench so it can't accidentally get knocked over. It should have been transported in an upright position, unable to roll around, keeping the gas inside the tank stable. Once at the studio, let the tank "rest" for several hours or overnight before using it. Position the tank in an area with adequate ventilation. What is adequate ventilation? Follow me over to the soldering table...
Soldering produces high, airborne concentrations of metal fumes. There is nothing good about these fumes and no amount of them is safe. They can contain cadmium, antimony, and fluoride, all very toxic and highly irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, potentially causing kidney damage, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and/or pneumonia. I recommend purchasing a bench-top fume extractor. DO IT! There are many kinds of fume extractors. I like the Winged Sentry, a product of Sentry Air Systems because it has sides, or wings, that help to direct the hazardous fumes towards the unit's filter chamber. Also, it's quiet, energy-efficient, and affordable.
Another little, helpful discovery I made and recommend is the battery-operated Torchmate Ignitor. Gone are the days of fumbling around with a flint spark torch ignitor. Less fumbling equals fewer accidental burns. Simply, touch the Torchmate Ignitor button with the tip of your torch and, voila! Flame! A heavy-duty, leather or flame-resistant cotton apron is essential, too. And, one more thing: A wide-diameter, rotating annealing pan with pumice. These come in two diameters: 7" and 12". I like the bigger 12" option because it provides a larger, protected work area and it better accommodates the errant spark or molten metal blown off the soldering block by too strong a flame.
You're done soldering? Bleed your hose. That sounds kind of dirty, I know, but always turn off the gas at the stem, in a clockwise direction with the tank key after daily use. Then, bleed the hose at the torch handle (while pointing the torch tip towards your handy fume extractor) to release any pressure. This helps to prevent leaky connections and faulty regulators.
3. Regarding acid baths...
Jewelers have traditionally used an acid bath called 'pickling solution' to remove oxidation and flux residues that develop on the metal during the soldering process. This is most effective when heated in a crock-pot. Heat, however, creates fumes, which of course can be toxic. So. If you insist on keeping the pickle pot on your workbench, use the lid. I keep my pickle pot outside, on the studio porch. I recommend a white, ceramic pickle pot. Crock-pots come in all kinds of colors nowadays, but plain, old, white allows you to see the small metal pieces you've placed in there more easily against the light background without having to put your face (and eyes) halfway in there while retrieving your work. I also recommend a crock-pot that has an indicator light that shows that the pot is turned on. This serves as a reminder to turn the pot off when you are done using it for the day, avoiding the possible dilemma of evaporating all of the pickling solution, thus causing the ceramic to crack and break... not that I have ever done that.
There is an increased interest in reducing the use of chemicals in the studio among jewelers. As a result, less-toxic alternatives are now available. Two I recommend are Citric Acid Pickle, which is essentially super-concentrated lemon juice, and Vinegar And Salt Pickle. Each is cheap and easy to find. Their preparations, applications, and disposals can be found on this helpful site.
So. In review... Jewelry studio safety is the key to avoid or minimize the possibilities of going blind, ending up with permanent lung damage, scalping yourself, poisoning yourself, and exploding in a ball of flames. Unless you are into those sorts of things, do your homework and educate yourself about the tools, techniques, and chemicals you are using. Granted, you won't look very fashionable while simultaneously donning safety glasses, dust masks, Vetrap tape, and fire-resistant aprons. HOWEVER, you will be a living, breathing, bright-complexioned, clear-eyed jewelry artist with a full head of hair!
About the Author:
When I am not saddling up my Siberian huskies, Nugget and Cowboy, and chasing them up backcountry trails, I can usually be found working in my jewelry studio. However, jewelry production is not always easily managed: I use power tools, flammable gases, and acid baths while I work. And I have to wear earplugs, protective eyewear, and dust masks... all in the name of jewelry studio safety!
I live and work in the foothills of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, near the little, historic, mountain community of Gold Hill. The Cowboy's Sweetheart Jewelry studio is located at an elevation of 7,500 feet at the base of the steepest county road in the country, a dirt road with the most precipitous sections climbing 241 feet in 1/4 mile... That's an 18% grade. No, I don't need to wear crampons to traverse a glacier or scale a cliff to commute to my studio, but sometimes, especially in three feet of snow or when I am experiencing a creative slump, just getting there is a challenge.
And then, of course, there are THESE!
So, if I've managed to arrive unharmed, ready to work, these are a few basic safety measures I always employ to ensure that I have an efficient, productive day at the office.
Here are a few book recommendations to further assist:
'The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide" by Monona Rossol
'Health Hazards Manual For Artists' and 'Artist Beware' both by Michael McCann
Halstead is one of North America's leading distributors of jewelry supplies. The firm is celebrating its 42nd anniversary this year. Halstead specializes in wholesale findings, chain, and metals for jewelry artists.