Friday, May 18, 2007

Build a box and something magical will jump inside! or How to make a soldered reliquary

First... a history lesson... WHAT in the WORLD is a Reliquary?

Reliquaries were historically used to hold various fragments of saints, the Buddha, the Christ. The fragments ranged from bits of bone, hair or flesh to snips of garments or pieces of the crucification cross. Some reliquaries are clear so that the bones of the person could be viewed. Some reliquaries that I saw while at the Vatican were inserted into the staff of the Pope at the time.

Reliquaries are sometimes decorative as in a brooch or pendant, but are often a simple box or coffin shape. In Victorian era reliquaries you could find a lock of hair of a loved one sealed into an item of jewelery. My particular enjoyment of these tiny treasures is in the placement of odd items. I start with tiny collages for a background and then begin making a scene as in a diorama and then adding that element of surprise. They can also go in the direction of the macabre in which case employing the shape of a coffin is definitely in order!

Reliquaries range in size from teeny to life size coffins, but mine tend to stay in the range of quite small. I like to use mica to enclose the scene to give it a Victorian feeling and then I solder the entire piece. They are a rewarding project because they just come out SO COOL! And you get to solder...

Let's chat for a moment about soldering... soldering is basically a way of holding things together. There are a few different ways of soldering, in this case we'll be using a soldering iron, copper tape, flux and silver solder.

The copper tape becomes the base for your solder, every place that you want soldered has to be covered with copper tape, the flux tells the solder where to stick and the solder is metal that we'll be melting at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (temperatures vary depending on the type of solder that you use – I like Silver Gleem and it is a higher temperature solder) and smoothing across the copper. I remember noting from the very first time I soldered that I felt like I was painting with heat and metal. What a THRILL!

With that in mind...

PICK your Shape!

Choose the shape or size of your potential box. If you're enclosing something special then you'll need to take its dimensions into account. Or if you're inspired by a certain shape you may want to work with that... House shapes resonate with me as do arches both Gothic and Roman. Also, consider precut glass shapes... watch crystals, optician's lenses, and precut bezels from stained glass shops are great for that.. You will build your box slightly differently if you use a precut piece of glass and I'll note that later.

Trace your shape onto black mat board and cut out. Mat board is thick and cutting it can be a challenge. I use a box cutter and cut only a little at a time taking 3 or 4 passes to cut carefully all the way through the board.

Get your GLUE on!

Begin collaging your background using gel medium or PVA glue of your choice. I love to use all sorts of interesting papers here. Original documents, water color papers, paper altered with caulking and ink, tissue paper and hand embellished scrap booking paper are among my favorites. Consider your theme and how you focal image or item will tie in with its surroundings. 

I like to pull from collage sheets for some of my focal images and build a theme around the “story” I've made up for them. Alternatively, if I have a special 3D item that I want to “Capture” I pull things together to support that item.

Story Time

Recently, my little girl lost her first tooth. She petitioned the tooth fairy to keep the first tooth. Luckily the tooth fairy understood Alexia's sentimental side and let her keep the tooth! Lexee and I came up with an idea to memorialize the occasion. We decided to make a reliquary necklace to hold the tooth. I used the note and glitter that the tooth fairy had left behind, and a bit of red ribbon to support the memento. Soldered the piece shut and finished it with a danglie filled with glass glitter chards and a fairy charm; Alexia now has a personal reliquary to remember her baby tooth! This same recipe works in these little boxes!

Build that BOX

Once your piece begins to come together you will want to decide when to add the sides to your box. Once the sides are in place it becomes slightly more challenging to arrange the little tid bits, but some items will be supported by the side walls or floor. Further dimension can be added to your piece by using the top of the sides to support trims and Dresden.

You'll want to measure the overall depth of your piece. If you are using something fairly flat you can make it basically whatever depth you like... I don't like to make them too much deeper than ½ - ¾ of an inch otherwise your piece starts to get a bit like a tunnel and is quite a bit harder to solder. On the other hand, if you're using a 3D object you'll want to use its depth plush a “skosch”.

Measure around piece to figure overall linear length and cut a piece of mat board that is a bit too long... trust me on this one... you'll want a little extra... there is very likely some algebra that would allow me to figure that out exactly, but Algebra and I parted ways yeeeeears ago and I never really measure in inches or centimeters... I typically use a piece of string to get my measurement.

If your piece has curves you'll want to score the mat board about 1/3 of the way through the thickness from the top of the strip all the way to the bottom. Make the scores pretty close together and be sure not to go through too far. IF your piece has only square sides measure and cut a piece of mat board for each side.

Now, if you started with a precut piece of glass follow the same steps, but when it comes time to glue the sides in place you'll be placing your sides on top of the base where you collaged your background.

BRING it on Home

If you're using mica to enclose your piece your sides will be glue around your base. This is the exciting part!

When gluing my sides on I use Aleen's Tacky Glue and I typically start an arched piece by putting the arch around first leaving longer legs on each side of the piece and then measuring a “floor” that slides into place once the side is secured. For the square pieces I find that starting at the top and building around one piece at a time works best. For circles and ovals I just score all the entire length and start gluing it into place at the top.

Once you have measured, cut and scored the side piece(s) you will go ahead and glue it into place.  I put an even amount of glue all the way around the base of the reliquary and then I set it on my non-stick craft surface and begin to push the sides into place. Once I have it in place I will put a rubber band around the sides as close to the bottom as possible. This allows the piece to be held together while you work it into just the right place. During workshops this is always where someone says “ooooh, I was wondering what those are for”... Taaaaah Daaaah! If the rubber band is up too high on your sides it will collapse your box.

Now, check the back to see if its level. Place your piece back on your craft surface. From the inside you can press down to flatten your base to make it perpendicular to the sides. If the ends of your sides over lap a little its fine. That can be easily trimmed – if your reliquary is a circle or oval you'll want to trim a little at a time until your two ends meet up and then put a little glue there - once the piece is cured using either a box cutter or really sharp, sturdy scissors you can trim away any excess. Keep in mind all of the sides and a little of the front and back will be covered with the copper tape later.

Finish your reliquary scene I like to add embellishments of the sparkley kind to the seams and sides it brings light and dimension and texture to the whole piece. Smooth glue all along the inside of the sides and sprinkle Vintage Glass Glitter or Ultra Fine Glitter from Art Institute. ( LOVE LOVE LOVE their glitters!)

Ok... the stage is set, you have everything just where you LOVE it and its as sparkley as you can stand take a deep breath... ahhh isn't that better? Meee tooo... (: We are right about to get to the GOOD STUFF...

I use Mica Sheets to enclose most of my reliquaries – its a really Victorian vibe and shrouds your piece in a bit of mystery and really draws people in. Ooooh what's in there? Place a piece of mica on top of your box and trace the box with a pencil (or pen or scribe) you want the mica to come all the way to the outer edge so that it neither exceeds the edge fore falls in – that would just make you cry and we don't want any tears on our art! (=

Cut the shape out with ordinary scissors and glue into place. The glue is just to hold the mica in place while you work with the copper tape.

What's that, Julee, did you say COPPER TAPE?

Oh yes... Prepare to Copper Tape

Clean finger prints off of your mica with a little glass cleaner on a piece of lint free fabric.

You will be using the copper tape to cover the sides of your box with a little overlap on the back and front. You may notice that your box is much deeper than your copper tape is wide so you'll need to layer your tape so that all of the black is covered completely. The solder will not go where there is no copper tape. I begin layering from the back and work forward with my final piece overlapping onto the mica.

Cut several piece of copper tape to fit. “Measure” around your piece to find the overall length and then ad a smidge (I believe this has been measured by a student as about 1/8”) Also, cut a piece of copper tape to go along the back to hold a jump ring to be your hanger! This piece goes on first and needs to stretch across the back and overlap both sides... mmmm k?...

I often use 1/2” wide tape that I then use decorative scissors to make the copper tape interesting! What? Your decorative scissors couldn't cut melted butter? Ok, well here's my little secret: This is where I usually tell my students “this is why you pay to come to class”! If you just use the 1” - 1 1/2” nearest the mouth of the scissors you can usually get a pretty good cut. Once they seem like they're no longer “biting” stop, open the scissors, realign your scissors to match your tape's design and cut again. It totally works! Patiently work your way down your tape.

Wrap it UP!

For different shapes I put the seam in different places... for instance, on the arch shape I like my seam to be in the middle at the bottom of the piece. You'll find what works for you. With that in mind, I hold my piece firmly but gently, I don't want to smoosh my box and the mica is delicate. I place it on the beginning of the copper tape so that the tape is in the middle of the bottom and overlaps onto the back enough to cover the seam – only peeling away enough backing from the copper tape to expose the adhesive...if you peel it all the way off it will curl back onto itself. And then I sort of cartwheel the piece down the length of the copper tape constantly checking to see that I'm still lined up to have the ends meet.

When I'm ending the length of the tape I make sure that there is only a smidge (as I mentioned before some of my students have measured the smidge and reported that it was about 1/8”, but I NEVER measure!) left to overlap. Too much and it won't stick later when we're soldering. Before I push it down into place I round off the corner of that end so that it doesn't become pokey after its been soldered.

Please, make the lovely little Corners

This is another one of those secrets that bring you to class...Mitering those corners makes a big difference in how your finished piece looks. Here is how you can get that done... holding your piece upright, pinch the tape in the middle to fold it over and then work your way up the tape towards a corner. Stop when you get to the corner. Slide your finger nail just under the tape across the top. Then coming from the top on the corner pinch down. Do that to the next corner. Then work from the middle out to the corners. If you have other corners keep working around the whole piece in this same manner. If your box has curves you'll really want to use the decorative scissors or decorative copper tape it makes going around the curves much prettier! Once you have the tape folded down all around be sure that you burnish your piece really well, but be aware that this is where some people smoosh their boxes. Firm but gentle pressure is all it takes.

Get your solder on people!

Are you getting excited? This is my favorite part. I love to solder... I think of it as painting with metal. The “Paint” in this case is silver solder. I love Silver Gleem, but there are different types for different tastes. Now, the solder will only go where there is copper tape and flux. You have your copper tape in place already so its time to get all fluxed up.

I prefer paste flux because that is what I learned with, but I have also noticed that the liquid flux cleans up really nicely and has its benefits. You'll learn to use what you like. I describe fluxing like buttering bread you need just enough to cover the tape, but not so much that its caked on. If you put on “too much” it will just burn off... no biggie, really. It leaves behind some brownish soot, but that wipes off with flux remover or a little glass cleaner. One of the benefits of paste flux is that it won't evaporate so I typically flux a bunch of pieces at once so that once I get the soldering iron going I can solder all of my work.


I don't leave the soldering iron on for lengths of time. A few reasons for that 1) Safety – kids, dogs, cats all love to find you as soon as you turn the thing on and the last thing you want is for one of them to get caught in the cord and pull the iron down. Please be sure to have it in a safe spot. 2) Extends the life of your soldering iron. The tips can burn out and I've had more than one student tell me that they burned theirs out after only a few uses because of leaving it on for extended periods of time... that said, I don't have an exact Rx for what is too long. I just have it on while I'm using it and turn it off when I'm done. Safety first, people...

One more word on safety before we move on. I use a cookie sheet and a piece of card board to insulate my work space. Always be sure that there is nothing flammable near your iron... no bits of plastic, fabric or paper near where your tip will be. I know that a lot of people try to work in 3” of space... this won't be one of those crafts. You must provide yourself with plenty of elbow room! You're worth it... clean up and get crafty!

I also have a rule that I always share during class: No Multi-Tasking. If you are soldering then just solder. If you're talking, and you tend to talk with your hands, put the iron down... finish your funny story about your Aunt Betty and then resume soldering. I have scars to demonstrate just how important this is...I have been whacked by a talkative student!

Ok... phew... now to the soldering!

This is the easy part... unroll your solder and make a long hook arching down and set your roll of solder down on its end and just take the tip of your iron press it up on the line of solder to gather a bead of solder and then run it on your piece. I usually start with the sides first – any excess will roll down onto the front/back and you can use that excess when you come to those parts. I like to go from corner to corner in one swipe so that I don't have to go over the area again. One pass is usually the best result. IF you have to go back over an area its no big deal, but there comes a point at which the more you work the solder the worse and worse it will look. Also, if it gets too thick it will be really hard to rework. Lastly, if you notice that your piece is really rough and bumpy check the temperature of your soldering iron... it may need to be hotter... if its hot enough then check the flux... have you burned it all off? If you start to get really pointy bits of solder that stick up, you definitely need more flux.

Once you finish the sides, lay your piece down and work on the back and then flip it over to work on the front. Once you've covered all of the sides in solder place a bead of solder where you are going to want jump rings. Some people like to put two jump rings on top and one on the bottom for a danglie. For the reliquaries I like to put a jump ring on the back to act as a hanger.

Jump Rings –  A.K.A This is REALLY REALLY why you come to class! :)

This part makes some people cry – ok, not really cry cry, but jumprings can be challenging. I have been told that this technique is a bit easier than what others have come up with themselves. So remember to breathe and that you'll “get it” after a few tries. I learned to do it in about 5 minutes when my teacher showed me this technique.

Arrange your little box so that you can comfortably work the jump rings onto it. You may want to use a weight or jewelr's bench block to hold the piece in place.

In your non-dominant hand you are going to hold the jump ring in a pair of pliers. How you hold the jump ring matters. You want the jump ring to be secure in the pliers so you'll want to hold it with the pliers going across the circle. You don't want to hold the top of the jump ring in the tip of the pliers or else the ring will hinge around when you're trying to place it... that makes it REALLY hard to get it straight.

Once you have the jump ring in the pliers you will hold it on top of the bead of solder on the top of your piece or on the back at an angle to act as your hanger. Perpendicular or parallel all depends on how you envision your piece hanging. If its tiny and you want to wear it as a pendant I tend to recommend perpendicular, but this is up to the creator!

Hold the jump ring steady and then place the tip of your soldering iron flat on the bead of solder and be patient... when the bead heats up thoroughly the jump ring will fall into the melted solder. Pull the soldering iron away, but keep the jump ring hand steady until the solder cools and solidifies – just 2 or 3 seconds...

VOILA! You have just created your very own reliquary!

Now go and practice and email me with your questions!

Have fun... don't forget... make that 2 ft drop from head to heart and create from there! Art happens in the heart!



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