Technology and knowing your craft

beads 2-2-15

I’ve been working in glass part-time since 2011, and full-time (excluding fishing, household chores and reading) for the last 4 months.  That’s nothing compared to artists who’ve been in the field for decades.  Since success in this field is heavily influenced by hands on experience with the medium, I know that I’m a rank beginner.

I’ve learned what I know by taking classes (I’m up to about 280 hours of class time right now), but also by experimentation.  I smile when I see people on forums asking whether some idea they have might work, because my first impulse is to say “try it and see”.  Then again, glass is an expensive medium to work in, so I can understand being conservative with your resources.

One trait that some of my instructors have employed, and that I can appreciate, is teaching the primitive way to do something first, before showing you the mechanized methods that make the work easier.  I saw this in Beverly Fuller’s fusing class, where she insisted that we all learn how to program the kiln controllers to run the fusing schedule that we needed.  There are fancy kiln controllers that have pre-programmed profiles, so all you have to do is choose from a menu (ie “large piece, tack fuse”) and hit run.  It’s certainly possible to buy a kiln, use these pre-programmed schedules and never have to concern yourself with ramp rates and hold times, but Beverly wanted us to understand what the kiln should do to achieve the affect we wanted.  Since the controllers I built depend on generic digital temperature controllers this knowledge has been essential, because I have to program heating rate, target temperature and hold time for each step of the firing process.  And since I’ve found that the memory functions of this controller aren’t reliable, I have to do that every time I make a change.

I had a similar experience in Leslie Ferrell’s jewelry class.  The focus that semester was on brass and silver bangle bracelets, using 10 gauge wire.  Leslie taught us first to saw freehand, using a simple bench pin, and to then file the ends of the wire at 90 degrees so that they would fit together without any light showing.  It takes that kind of perfect fit to get a good solder joint, because silver solder won’t fill gaps.

After a few class sessions she introduced us to this handy gadget, a miter vise that can be used to clamp wire or sheet metal.

Sawing and then filing until the metal is flush with the vise produces a perfect 90 (or 45) degree angle.  One of the class members asked in frustration “why didn’t you show us this before, when this is so much easier?”.  Her answer of course is that we needed to learn how to saw and file properly first, so that we’d know how to do it without any props.  I still haven’t bought a miter vise.

Technology can help us do things faster and more accurately, but if you really want to understand your craft the best approach is to learn how to do a thing correctly, and only when you have it mastered should you consider using tools that make it easier to do.

I spent some time in the studio yesterday, both at the torch, and cutting out more fused dichroic cabochons for my Valentine’s show this weekend.  We’ll see how the cabs look after the fire polish firing, which is going on now.  In fact, I’d better go check the kiln.

dichro cabs

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