Snowbirding 2018 Postcards: Silver Jewelry

After practicing for about two weeks, I’ve made the switch to real silver. This is an oval cabochon of polished K2 Granite (yes, from the mountain; yes, the blue spots are natural), wrapped in square and half round sterling silver. I think I’m really getting the hang of this now.

Pendant made from K2 Granite and sterling silver.

Another New Hobby: Wire-Wrapped Jewelry

As if I didn’t have enough hobbies to keep me out of trouble.

I’m in Quartzsite, AZ, this January and although I originally had plans to camp out in the desert for the first half of the month, a variety of circumstances convinced me to take a booth at Tyson Wells’ Rock and Gem show. I’m selling (or trying to sell) aerial photos of desert campsites. (More on that in another post.) The east side of the show is full of rock vendors, many of which sell polished cabochons (or “cabs”) and finished jewelry.

Dictionary Definition of Findings
In case you’ve never seen the word “findings” used this way, check definition 2 here.

There are several ways to make a rock into a piece of jewelry. The most obvious is to drill a hole in it to fasten a hoop or use some other sort of findings. But a more artistic method is to use wire to wrap the stone securely and add embellishments. This is called wire-wrapping and there are a lot of examples of it here, especially during the rock shows at Tyson Wells and the bigger/better rock show at Desert Gardens nearby.

Kindling an Interest

Last year, my friend Rebecca came to town while I was here and introduced me to her friend John Heusler, a gemologist who has a booth each year at Desert Gardens. John not only cuts and polishes stones, but also makes jewelry. Dorothy Roubik-Ellenbecker, another jewelry maker, works for/with John and shares booth space. She makes beautiful wire-wrapped pieces with intricate wraps that are really a joy to behold.

I got slightly interested in wire-wrapped jewelry last year, but was busy doing a lot of other things. This year, I’m sort of trapped in my booth, especially on weekends when there’s a decent crowd at the show. I’ve been looking at a lot of different wrapped jewelry styles while I’m here and starting getting the idea that maybe making some of these was within my capabilities.

Getting Training

I talked to Dorothy and asked if she’d be interested in teaching me in the evening, when we’re both done booth sitting for the day. She agreed and set a date for Monday evening. I asked about books that might be helpful and she recommended skipping the books and going right to YouTube. So I did.

I discovered that there are a lot of how-to videos on YouTube about wire-wrapped jewelry. Search for yourself. I spent one evening watching about a half dozen of them, mostly by one artist. “Tried-and-Tested Wire-Wrapping Tutorial for Pendants” showed one basic technique and “Quick Wrap! Wire Wrapping Tutorial for Pendants” showed a quicker but less polished technique. Neither of them looked terribly difficult. I went to bed that night eager to get started.

Buying Materials and Tools

Fortunately, everything I needed was walking distance from my booth. Before I opened that morning, I went shopping for cabs. I bought two nice ones, then realized that since I was just learning, I should start with lesser stones. I found a booth selling some nice but apparently low quality ones for a lot less. I bought ten.

I closed up early (as I often do — seriously, how to people do 9 to 5 unless they’re busy the whole time?) and walked over to the booth where I could find tools and wire. Although the woman working there tried hard to sell me expensive square silver wire, I homed right into the silver-plated copper. I expected to make a lot of mistakes and didn’t want to screw up with expensive wire.

A comment about tools…

If you look at the two videos I linked to above, you’ll see that the woman who does the tutorials makes a point of saying that she uses regular tools — not special jewelry tools. Sure, you can use an Ace Hardware needle nose pliers and wire cutter to get the job done. But look closely at her work. Those ridges that make needle nose pliers so good for gripping also mark up the soft metal wire she uses to wrap the stones. I didn’t want those ridges on my stones so I bought the right tools.

Her husband was extremely helpful with the tools. They had a big selection with a variety of qualities. One video I watched discussed tools in some detail, so I knew what I needed to get started. He helped me find every one of them, including one that wasn’t displayed that he had to dig through stock to find. (He also recommended another tool, which I passed on but wound up buying the next day.) The tools weren’t expensive — they averaged $5 to $10 each. My initial investment in tools and wire was $35, which I didn’t think was bad.

In case you’re wondering what I bought, here’s a list:

  • Small chain pliers
  • Small flat pliers
  • Small round pliers
  • Wire straightener
  • Wire cutter
  • 18 gauge silver plated copper wire
  • 20 gauge silver plated copper wire
  • 22 gauge copper wire

First Tries

That evening, after dinner, I spread out my tools, pulled out some wire and a large teardrop-shaped labradorite cab, and got to work. I went with the quick wrapping technique in the second video I linked to above, using the 20 gauge silver wire. The biggest challenge was holding the cab and wire in place while I did the wire twisting required to hold it. I was almost surprised when I got the cab to stay in the cage I’d built for it. I then made and positioned swirls on the front of the piece with two of the leftover ends. I admit that I was kind of blown away by the results. The finished piece didn’t have the same polish as John or Dorothy’s work, but it sure wasn’t bad for a first try.

Labradorite Wrapped in Silver
My first finished piece: labradorite wrapped in silver-plated copper.

A closer look at the piece, however, reveals its problems. The biggest problem, in my opinion, were the small burrs I’d created in the wire by rough handling. Simply said, I’d used my flat pliers too aggressively and had damaged the soft metal wire. There were burrs on the decorative bends, especially on the back. This could catch on fine fabrics like silk or nylon, making the piece pretty much unwearable. Unless Dorothy knew a way to fix it, it would never be more than a piece for show.

My wire twists aren’t as neat as they could be, either. Although my spirals are very good with minimal tool marks, the wire joins are clumsy. Surely Dorothy would have tips to fix that, too.

I decided to try the more difficult technique on a small piece of bacon agate that the vendor in the next booth had polished up and given me the day I arrived. I really think that the desire to do something useful with this pretty little stone is what helped fuel my interest in wrapping.

Bacon Agate wrapped in Copper
My second piece was a small bacon agate stone gifted to me that I wrapped in copper.

I chose the thinner, 22 gauge copper wire for the job. I thought (rightly, I believe) that the copper wire would go well with the colors in the rock and the small size of the rock meant I needed a thin wire. I followed the instructions in the video to the letter to create the tightly wrapped anchor points that would form the cage around the rock. I was very careful to avoid overworking the metal; this was a piece I wanted to wear and I didn’t want burrs. I purposely made the bail small and loose and added a single swirl to the front. When I was finished, I was very pleased with my work.

I sent photos to a few friends and put them on Twitter. I got some positive feedback, which made me feel good.

I watched a few more videos before I went to bed.

Additional Efforts

The next morning, I went back to the tool shop and bought three more tools:

  • “Micro” chain pliers – to get into tighter places
  • Nylon headed flat pliers – to prevent marring soft metal
  • Bailing pliers – to make nice bends

Speckled Agate wrapped in Silver
My third piece was an oval of some sort of speckled agate wrapped in silver-plated copper.

I chose another cab from my collection of cheap ones: an oval stone that combines a white quartz with black and pink rock specks. (No one seems able to give me the exact name for this stone, but I will keep trying to find out.) Again, I went with the more polished technique that used tightly wrapped anchor points to build the cage. I ended up with spirals that I positioned over the area that had no colored specks. I think it came out good, although I wish I’d made the upper spiral a little larger.

I had a nice elongated piece of rose quartz that was actually two-sided and decided to get fancy. I’d do a bevel mount with a thin wire to weave the bevel and hold the stone. I walked over to the findings booth and bought two more types of wire for my quickly growing collection:

  • 24 gauge silver plated copper wire (for this piece)
  • 28 gauge copper wire (for future use)

Then I went back to my booth and got to work. I started off well, using the 18 gauge silver-plated copper wire for the edges of the bevel. When I brought the ends up and around, I created a really pretty spiral finish.

Around this time, a woman I’d seen around the show came by my booth. She was on a bicycle with a small, white, curly-haired dog in the front basket. She’d caught sight of me working on the wire wrap as I sat at the table in my booth. She also does wire work. I told her I’d just started and showed her my pieces. (By that time, I’d also bought a small glass-fronted box to hold and display my work.)

We chatted for about 45 minutes. She complemented me on my work, pointing out how nicely I’d used the swirls to fill the white space on the stone with the pink and black speckles. She said that the labradorite piece I’d chosen was not a good one, showed me how to look for features in labradorite, and explained the importance of finding good stones by “cherry picking” them. She told me about a big booth on the other side of the show that had decent quality, inexpensive cabs, as well as where to find more wire in a shop in town. She pointed out that the swirls in one piece could move if they were caught on the wearer’s clothing and gave me a tip about preventing that. She also told me about some inexpensive wire-wrapping classes being held evenings at the QIA building not far away.

While we talked, I tried to work on the piece. The distraction is probably what screwed it up — I accidentally shifted one of the thick wire frames while trying to weave it to the opposite side. My wraps were okay — neither good nor bad — but I’d made one side much smaller than the other, thus screwing up the bevel.

I had to run out to the post office so I closed my booth early. On the way back, I stopped at Hardies Beads and Jewelry in town. They sell mostly beads and jewelry (as you might expect) but do have a good selection of wire-wrapping wire at the back of the store. I wound up spending about $32 on a selection of wires in colors and styles, including an interesting 21 gauge twisted silver wire and various thicknesses of antique copper wire. I now had just about all the wire I’d need to move forward with additional projects.

Rose Quartz wrapped in Silver
My fourth piece was an incredibly boring round piece of rose quartz that I dressed up with fancy twisted silver-plated copper wire.

That evening, I tried to fix the bevel piece but failed miserably. I took a few photos of the design (which I won’t share here) so I could remember what I liked about it, then took it apart. I tried two other wraps on that stone and gave up before putting much time into it. But rather than finish the day with a failure, I picked a round rose quartz piece and did a wrap on that using the new twisted silver wire with a narrower wire for the wrap points. The stone was extremely boring — I honestly don’t know why I picked it — but the fancy wire and swirls I added really dressed it up a bit.

So at this point, I have four completed pieces, three of which can be worn.

Next Steps

It’s Saturday morning. Before I open my booth for the day, I’ll stop by that shop with inexpensive cabs and buy a few interesting ones. I feel better qualified to choose them now that I know how I can work the features of the stone into my work.

After I open my booth, I’ll settle down with my little bin of cabs and tools and wire. I’ll pick out a cab and work up another piece. And maybe another after that.

And I’ll likely do a few others on Sunday.

On Monday evening, I’ll bring my collection to Dorothy for her critiquing. I hope she’ll be honest and frank. I also hope she can offer good advice on doing the wraps and twists I find difficult. And teach me how to do bevels!

It might take more than one evening. That’s fine. I’ve told her I’ll pay for her time, although I don’t think she expected that. (She is a professional; she should be compensated when sharing her expertise with a novice.) We’ll both be here at least until January 25, so we have time for a few lessons. I’ll post an update on my progress — if I make any!

Prepping and Planning for my Winter Migration

In waiting — and planning — mode.

Autumn is just about over. The leave are mostly gone and nighttime temperatures are dipping into the 30s. There’s been frost on the ground every morning. As the sun rises and fills the valley north of my home with light, odd little patches of evaporation fog form over the Columbia River 800 feet below the shelf where my home perches. I often stop my morning activity to watch, wishing I had one of my good GoPros around to create a time-lapse of the slow cloud formation and dissipation.

Of course, by the time that happens, I’ve already been up for a few hours. I’ve had my coffee and usually my breakfast. I’ve probably finished my daily journal entry and maybe even a blog post. I wake very early no matter what the season is, usually between 4 and 6 AM, although sometimes earlier. I’m a morning person and I have been for at least the past 20 years. It’s hard for me to believe that I had trouble attending 8 AM classes when I was in college. These days, by 8 AM, I’m usually ready for my mid-morning snack.

Sunlight and the Shadow Time

Living this far north — latitude 47.34° — the days start getting very short around the middle of October. By mid November, there’s only 9 hours and 15 minutes of daylight each day and we’re losing about 2 minutes of it every day. By the Winter Solstice, the sun is up for only about 8 and a half hours a day. That means the sun isn’t up for 15 and a half hours a day.

But worse than that is what I call the Shadow Time — the six weeks each year that the sun fails to clear the cliffs south of my home. For that brief period, sunlight does not shine at all on my house, although it does still reach out and fill the Wenatchee Valley. For the days leading up to the start of Shadow Time — December 1, I think — there’s less and less light on my house. Yesterday, there was about an hour of it starting around 1 PM. I love the way it shines into the high windows on the south side of my home, sending warm light at weird angles into my living space. But it’s weird looking out the north windows and seeing a big shadow in the foreground with the brightness of the valley behind it.

November View
I shot this photo yesterday afternoon from my deck. The clouds were great and the river was so blue. It’s a panorama for a reason — I cropped out the shadow in the foreground.

And I don’t have it bad at all. Some of my neighbors on the south side of the road have been in it for weeks already. Their Shadow Time lasts months. I can’t imagine living that long in the shadows, without the rejuvenating properties of warm, direct sunlight coming through the windows. Honestly, I don’t know why some of them built their homes where they did, especially when I see the occasional boulder coming down off the cliffs dangerously close to one neighbor’s backyard. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before one of those basalt columns lets go and ends up in their living room.

The Shadow Time is one of the reasons I go away for the winter. I’m a sunlight person — I need to be in the sun. That’s one reason why I like living on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. People think it rains a lot in Washington, but that’s not true. It rains a lot in Seattle. It doesn’t rain much here. And those short days turn into gloriously long ones in the summer time; it’s actually light out when I wake up and sometimes when I go to bed.

My goal is always to be gone during the Shadow Time and I’ve been pretty good about that for the past few years. But this time, I’m can’t get out quite as early as I hoped to.

Killing Time

So as November winds down, I find myself waiting for my departure date.

I’m spending much of my time at home goofing off and doing odd jobs around the house, with a few occasional forays down into town to catch a movie, have dinner or cocktails with friends, or run errands. My home and its menagerie — currently 13 chickens (including a rooster just learning to crow properly) and two garage cats (for rodent control) — are pretty much prepared for winter. There’s always something to do around here, but none of it is pressing and some of it has to wait until spring.

I’m also working on glass projects again — something I haven’t done for years. The goal is to create some recycled glass wind chimes for sale in Quartzsite, AZ in January. I’ve been working with my new kiln for a few days now but have had disappointing results. Apparently, I’ll be spending a few more days troubleshooting before I can start churning out new pieces.

And, of course, garage reorganization is something I’m always working on. I’ve still got boxes to unpack. I’m also prepping for a garage sale in the spring. I have a lot of stuff I don’t want/need anymore — some of it from my old home/life in Arizona. While Craig’s List has been instrumental in offloading the larger items, there’s a ton of little stuff I can sell cheap.

My helicopter business is slow this time of year — and only gets slower as winter creeps in. I do have a nice charter later this month; I’ll be working with two other helicopters to take a group of nine men on a flight to various points of interest (to them) around the state. I’m hoping our flight path takes us past my house; my next door neighbor’s kids love it when I fly by with other helicopters — they say it’s like an air show.

Then, of course, is the primary thing keeping me in the area: my December 3 flight bringing Santa to Pybus Public Market. This is a community service I do every year. (Last year was the first time I missed a flight but that’s because the helicopter was in Arizona for overhaul.) The last time I did it, about 300 kids and parents were waiting on the ground when we landed at Pybus in my bright red helicopter. There were photos in the newspaper. I usually shut down and stick around for a while so folks can come up to the helicopter and get their photo taken with it. I’ll do that this year if the weather cooperates.

Pybus Market
An aerial view of Pybus Public Market, shot with my Mavic Pro the other day. I land the helicopter in the corner of the parking lot in the lower right part of the photo, not far from the white building. One year, we rolled the helicopter into the main (gray) building where I left it on display for a week.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those are the only days I’ll fly the helicopter. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll take it out today. I have two wine club shipments waiting for me at Cave B Estate Winery down in Quincy. That’s an hour drive but only 20 minutes by helicopter. I figured I’d take a few friends down there for lunch — I fly for food — and pick up my wine while I’m there.

And the helicopter will go to California for its sixth season of frost control work, likely in mid February.

Going South

Once I’m done with the few things I need to do in the area, I’ll hop on a flight to Phoenix with Penny the Tiny Dog. My truck, camper, and boat are already down there waiting for me. With luck, a month from today I’ll be camped out on one of the Salt River Lakes, soaking up the sun while I explore the lake in my silly little boat.

I’ll spend Christmas along the Colorado River with some friends, camped out in the desert. The site I hope we get — we got it last year — has a boat ramp and easy access to a stretch of river that runs 76 miles from the Palo Verde Dam north of Ehrenberg, AZ to the Imperial Dam north of Yuma. I brought along my new tent and some tent camping gear so I can do overnight boat camping trips along the river. My friends are seriously into fishing and I know we’ll do some of that, too. Last year, we had fish tacos a few times. We have a campfire nearly every night; it gets cold but not too cold to enjoy the outdoors.

Sunrise at the River
We were treated to a few amazing sunrises during our stay along the Colorado River last year.

Then in January, we move to Quartzsite where my friend sells her artwork at a 10-day show at Tyson Wells. This year, I got a booth, too. I’ll be selling drone aerial photography services for folks camped out in the desert, as well as my recycled glass wind chimes (if I can get the problems with the new kiln worked out). It’ll be weird and it might not make any money, but I’m really in it for the experience more than anything else. Besides, my booth at Tyson includes a full hookup and it’ll be nice to get a bit of “civilization” after more than a month camped out in the desert.

After that, I’ll likely start heading north along the Colorado River with my truck, camper, and boat. I’m hoping to do some camping and boating at each stretch of the river between dams, all the way up to Hoover. I’ll definitely revisit Arizona Hot Springs — this time in my own boat — and tent camp for a day or two in the mouth of the canyon there.

In mid-February, I’ll come home (via commercial flight), fetch the helicopter, and take it down to the Sacramento area for its frost contract. From that point on, I’m “on call.” This is different from cherry season, when I need to stick around with the helicopter to be called out on a moment’s notice. Instead, I get my callout at least 12 hours before they might need me. That’s enough time to hop on a flight from wherever I am to Sacramento.

I’ll be in the Vegas area for a week or so in late February to explore Lake Mead, visit some friends, and see HAI’s big helicopter show. When that’s over, I’ll continue north and west, eventually ending up in the Sacramento area. I’ll stick around there, boating on Lake Berryessa and Clear Lake, wine tasting in Napa Valley, and hiking in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains until March. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few callouts while I’m already there; this can really be lucrative when I don’t have to hop a commericial flight, rent a car, and get a hotel room. Then, depending on weather in California and back home, I’ll make my way back north. I did a coastal route last year, but I might try a more inland route this time. It’s all about going new places and seeing new things.

It’s the typical migratory route I’ve been doing with minor variations since 2013 but I’m going to make it count this year. It might be the last season I go to Arizona for the winter; I’m hoping to begin researching retirement destinations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and possibly New Zealand in future winter seasons. We’ll see.

Of course, I will be working every day. I’m writing a book about my flying experiences and am determined to finish it before I get home. So I expect to spend at least 4 hours at the keyboard daily — likely early in the morning — to knock out a manuscript. I’ll handle publication next spring.

While I’m gone my house will be in good hands. I have a house-sitter who will live there for the entire time I’m gone. We did a trial in October when I took a 2-week vacation south to visit friends, re-explore a few national parks in Utah, and reposition my portable winter home in Arizona. While I’m gone, he’ll make sure the chickens and cats have food and water and collect eggs. Maybe he’ll even put up my Christmas decorations, which I haven’t bothered to do in years.


So I’m in a sort of limbo right now, waiting for my departure date to roll along.

I feel as if I spend most of my life waiting. In the old days, I was waiting for my wasband to get his head out of his butt and start enjoying life. It was frustrating, to say the least. The older I get, the less time I have left. Waiting for someone else was like idly watching my life slip by without being able to do anything to enjoy it.

Now, with him out of the picture, I do a lot less waiting and a lot more doing. I spend a lot of time traveling when I’m not busy with flying work. When I’m home, I spend my time building and learning new things. My life is much more full and interesting; my time is much more flexible.

But I still have responsibilities that tie me to my home, even if I’m not kept here by work. So I’m waiting for calendar pages to flip by again so I can do the few things I need to do.

And then I’m outta here.