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How to Make Beautiful Jewellery or Hand-crafted Items from Aluminium and Brass

Updated on June 8, 2012
Bubbles
Bubbles

The idea of using aluminium and brass for jewellery may at first seem foreign, but whether you are an experienced hand-craft artist looking for something different to try, or a novice who is not sure where to start, chances are you may be pleasantly surprised by the results, as I was some time ago when I made my first items, the pair of earrings shown in the picture on the right.

About the materials

Aluminium (US: 'aluminum') is a soft, silvery-white metallic element of low density. It is reasonably maleable but becomes brittle when reshaped or bent repeatedly. Aluminium is seldom used in its pure form. Instead, it is alloyed with other metals, such as copper, zinc and magnesium to obtain a light-weight metal with good structural properties. It is available in various shapes — round bar, flat bar, tubing and sheet are the most common. Aluminium is relatively expensive, but fortunately small bits and pieces of these shapes are fairly easy to come by.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc with a distinct gold-like appearance when polished. It is heavier and harder than aluminium, and also more maleable. Brass is usually available in solid round bar and sheet form, while brass brazing rods are available in small diameters, e.g. 3 mm and 2 mm.

But why use aluminium and brass for jewellery? Here are some pros and cons.

Aluminium

  • Easy to cut and drill; easily scratched
  • May be polished to a mirror finish; shows fingerprints and becomes tarnished in time if not protected.
  • Light-weight, with silver-like appearance; may be too light for items that need some weight, e.g. earrings and pendants.

Brass

  • Relatively easy to cut and drill; shows scratches, but more durable than aluminium.
  • May be polished to a mirror finish; shows fingerprints and becomes tarnished in time if not protected.
  • Heavy, with gold-like appearance; may be too heavy if used for large earrings.

Aluminium and brass pendant
Aluminium and brass pendant

The disparate weights of aluminium and brass may be used to advantage. For example, a pair of earrings or a pendant made of aluminium only would probably be too light. However, by judiciously adding brass, not only is the weight of the final item increased, but the appearance is also enhanced.

Tools

The tools you would need to work with these metals range from basic to advanced, depending on what you wish to achieve. Basic tools include:

  • Large and small hacksaws. These are essential for cutting the stock material.
  • Various files, including a set of needle files, for initial shaping.
  • A small steel ruler.
  • A small ball-peen hammer.
  • Shape stencil with circles, squares, triangles and special shapes. You can make your own out of thin plastic or any other suitable material.
  • A hand drill or electric drill with a set of drill bits ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm.
  • A scriber for marking the material. This could be as simple as a sharpened nail, or a more professional scriber available from most hardware stores.
  • A centre punch. Again, this could be a sharpened nail or a bought product.
  • A small vise to hold your work while shaping it.

Advanced tools

  • A drill press (bench drill).
  • Dremel tool with an assortment of accessories.
  • Disk and belt sander.
  • Small lathe.

Techniques

Planning
It is a good idea to keep a notebook in which to record your ideas for designs, should you ever want to reproduce an item. Draw your sketches full-scale so that you have a rough idea of how much material you will need. Also make a list of items that you may have to buy, such as clasps, chains, Swarovski crystals etc.

Marking and cutting
Use your scriber and ruler or shape stencil to mark out the desired shape on your stock material in preparation for cutting. If your design is not purely geometrical you could mark it out free-hand. If you intend repeating the pattern of your design, e.g. for a pair of earrings, then you might want to make a special shape stencil first. You could then mark out as many copies of the same shape as needed before cutting.

Drilling
If your design calls for holes, mark their positions and use your centre punch and hammer to make a dimple at each mark. This prevents the drill bit from 'running around' on the metal when you start drilling. Drill the holes before you cut out the shape — it is much easier to drill holes in a large piece of aluminium stock, than in a small, possibly odd-shaped piece that is difficult to hold. Use a suitable cutting fluid when drilling aluminium and brass — cleaning alcohol and methylated spirits work well. Avoid water and oil. Water will cause rust on your tools, and oil will cause filings and drill cuttings to stick to everything, making a royal mess.

Joining the metals
Although brass solders well, aluminium cannot be soldered, so there are basically two ways in which the metals can be combined. The first is by drilling a hole in one metal and inserting a plug of the other in the hole, e.g. the earrings and pendant shown above, where short lengths of brass rod were press-fitted into holes in the aluminium. The other way is to use a suitable adhesive, such as high-strength two-part epoxy or jeweller's glue.

Polishing and texturing
If your workpiece is scratched, you may want to consider a brushed finish instead of a polished finish. In order to achieve this, simply place a piece of sandpaper of about 400 grit on a flat surface and slide the workpiece back and forth in a straight line on the sandpaper. This will leave a 'brushed' appearance. Or you may want a textured finish. Here it is best to experiment with different tools, e.g. a round-nosed punch for producing indentations in the material.

If a polished surface is what you want, then you have to be prepared to put in some effort. Starting with so-called 'water paper' (waterproof carborundum paper) with grit size ranging from 400 to 1200, progressively polish your workpiece using water to wash away the residue. Water paper must not be used dry. Following this, use a metal polish product such as Brasso or Silvo with a soft cloth to produce a mirror finish. If you have a drill stand, a buff wheel and appropriate polish will give you a real mirror finish. But be careful not to touch the finished product with greasy fingers — protect it as soon as possible with clear laquer or artist's varnish.

Examples

Bracelet with pearls, aluminium beads and Swarovski crystals
Bracelet with pearls, aluminium beads and Swarovski crystals
Letter bracelet with aluminium beads, pearls and Swarovski crystals
Letter bracelet with aluminium beads, pearls and Swarovski crystals
Aluminium cuff bracelet with Swarovski crystals
Aluminium cuff bracelet with Swarovski crystals
My favourite: aluminium and brass plate bracelet
My favourite: aluminium and brass plate bracelet

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    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 4 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks for the great overview of using aluminum and brass for jewelry making. Aluminum looks beautiful, but I could see it tarnishing easily and not holding up as well. Voted up and interesting.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Other thanking things from old soda cans, I've never really worked with aluminum. I work with copper and brass, though. For some reason, aluminum sort of worries me.

    • profile image

      Ali lmran 2 years ago

      I need help for shine finish to almuniam

    • jbosh1972 profile image

      Jason 17 months ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      There is not any hazard with aluminum. It is safer than nickel. This craft would be best suited for a sculptor or metalsmith who will have copious scrap lying around. Aluminum can be anodized and copper can be enameled. Sky is the limit.

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