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!

Snowbirding 2018: Reader’s Oasis Books

A visit to one of the “must see” destinations in Quartzsite.

Years ago, when I first visited Quartzsite, I stopped at the local bookstore. That’s when I discovered that the owner was a nudist.

Or as much of a nudist as he could be in public without getting arrested.

The only item of clothing he wore back then was a sort of sack that covered his penis and balls. And maybe a hat, but I can’t say I remember that for sure. All I remember was that he was very thin, relatively old, and had a very even, very brown tan.

On that first visit, I was with my wasband and his cousin. We didn’t stay long. I love bookstores, but I was more accustomed to the kind with lots of new books. This bookstore was old and dusty and disorganized. And it was run by a nearly naked man old enough to be my father. Which was weird. I know it was seriously weirding out my future ex and/or his cousin, so we left after being there only a few minutes.

Fast forward 20 or so years. I’m back in Quartzsite again — heck, I’ve been coming here nearly annually for the past 20 years. I never got around to visiting the bookstore again. Frankly, I thought it had closed. It wasn’t where I remembered it being. And surely that guy had to be dead by now.

Bookstore Ad
Here’s an ad for the bookstore in the local tourist information booklet. It’s definitely “must see.”

But I was getting some work done on my rig the other day at Solar Bill’s and got into a conversation with one of the women who work there. The bookstore came up in conversation. Did it still exist? I asked. Yes, I was told. But where? She told me it had moved to the east end of town. Then she told me that she’d recently sat next to the owner of the place at some sort of event in town and hadn’t recognized him because he was wearing clothes.

Oddly enough, the bookstore and its owner came up on Twitter yesterday. One of the folks who follows me (who I follow back) suggested I visit the bookstore. I don’t think he thought I knew about the owner’s eccentricities. We then tweeted back and forth about it; I’ll let you click the tweet to follow our conversation if you want to.

Later that afternoon, with nothing much else to do, I tucked Penny into my backpack, hopped on my bike, and rode over to Main Street. I turned right, heading east, and pedaled until I saw the bookstore on the north side of the road. I pulled in.

It was surprisingly busy for 4 PM on a Sunday afternoon. There was a bookmobile bus parked outside and a table covered with books by a local author who was sitting there for a signing — more about those in a minute. The owner of the bookstore was sitting on a chair on the porch. I was almost disappointed to see him wearing a colorful sweater, but then realized he wasn’t wearing brown leggings. Those were his legs. And when he got up to greet me, I could see he was wearing the same kind of penis bag — what the hell would you call that thing anyway? — I remembered. It was knitted or crocheted and as colorful as his sweater. I like to think it wasn’t the same one.

He had aged. Obviously. And although he was a lot thinner with a lot less muscle tone than I remember, he was still spry.

I let Penny out of the bag and put her on a leash since there was a loose cat around. Then I went inside to look at the books. He followed me in, pointing out that all used books, including audio books, were 50% off. Then some other folks came in and he went to greet them, leaving me to browse.

Although the bookstore was in a new (to me) location, it was a lot like I remembered it. There were a ton of used books — 200,000 of them, according to the advertisement in the local tourist info rag. They were mostly organized by topic in the various rooms of the small building and, within each topic, grouped by author. There were a lot of books and authors I’d never heard of, along with a lot of old paperback bestsellers. Most of the books were wrapped in plastic — I think that was an attempt to keep them clean in this very dusty environment.

I’ve been wanting to get into some fiction — mostly to keep me from fixating on the latest from the “very stable genius” who is being roasted daily on Twitter — so that’s what I was looking for. I stumbled into the spy thriller area and found the Robert Ludlum collection. Back in the 1980s, when I took a subway to work in New York every day, I used to read Ludlum’s books. I’m a very fast reader and went through two or three of them in a week. After reading about a half dozen, I realized he had a formula and that kind of spoiled it for me. Later, he didn’t even write his books. But the one I found was very old and there’s a pretty good chance I haven’t read it.

There were a few other shoppers around, including a woman a little older than me looking for books by a specific author and a young couple who seemed very interested in older non-fiction books. I was browsing in the same room they were in — looking at some first edition youth books from 1914 for a gift for a friend’s son — when I realized that the music I was hearing was live. I wandered out into the main room in time to see the owner sitting at a grand piano I hadn’t even noticed — it was covered with books and other items — playing a kind of ragtime song with wild hand flourishes over the keys as he sang. I had never heard the song before. There were three people there — all retirees — standing nearby, listening and laughing at the lyrics. The refrain:

If you want an icy cold beer
Set the can next to my ex-wife’s heart.

I wanted so badly to capture it on video and even had my phone out, but I thought it would be rude. I was going to ask if I could for the next song, but when he finished that and we all applauded, he closed up the piano. When asked, he told the folks around him that he was 75 and that he’d been playing for a long time. He wrote his own songs, so that was an original.

At that point, a bunch of us were ready to check out so we lined up in the only area that looked as if it were set up to take money. The young couple bought quite a few books. As he checked them out, he told them about the music that was playing — an old blues song with a female vocalist I’d never heard of — he’d apparently put the music on when he was done playing.

While I was waiting, I saw an old Nero Wolfe paperback from 1966 and grabbed that, too. I’ll definitely need my readers to see the tiny print on the yellowed pages.

Bookmark Front Bookmark Back
Here’s the front and back of the bookmark I bought. Sadly, Paul doesn’t look nearly as hot as he does in this photo. But add a sweater and he was dressed the same.

He was selling bookmarks for 50¢ and everyone was buying them. When I saw the photo, I had to buy one, too. He autographed all of them, which was kind of cool.

As he checked out my two books — for a total of $3.00 with the bookmark — he told me about the song that came on, another blues number by another female vocalist. It was great music from the 1930s or 1940s.

When I was finished, Penny and I wandered over to the bookmobile. It had been a school bus and had been painted black with the words The Road Virus painted on it. The front half was lined with shelves full of books in a variety of topics and genres. The back half was blocked with a temporary partition; it was the living space for a life on the road.

The owner of the bookmobile sat in the driver’s seat, turned around to chat with that young couple and me. She looked to be in her 30s maybe — I’m terrible with ages — and had hair partly dyed blue. She said that she and her partner had been on the road with the bus selling books for exactly a year. They’d been all over the country. They usually partnered with local bookstores or wax museums or other attractions and stayed for a short time before moving on. It was all about local — not chain — establishments. She probably had about 1,000 books on board and I found one — a mystery by an author I’d never heard of — to buy. I really like to support small businesses, especially when they’re run by folks with an alternative lifestyle.

A Young Cowboy's Adventures
Here’s the book I bought for my friend’s son. You can find it on Amazon for less — but not autographed.

Penny and I walked back to the bike. I had to stop at the table where the older gentleman was sitting with his books spread out in front of them. His name was Stu Campbell, he wore a cowboy hat and vest, and he looked to be in his early 70s. He told me that most of the books had been written based on his own experiences. One of them caught my eye: A Young Cowboy’s Adventures. I asked him if it would be good for a boy about 12 years old and he said it would be perfect. So I bought a copy for a friend’s son who has been helping me with a few things at home. I even had it autographed.

With a bag half full of books, Penny had to jog most of the way back. But when I realized she was getting tired, I managed to stuff her into the backpack with the books for the remainder of the ride. I could see her over my shoulder when I turned my head; she was riding high in the bag with her head sticking out into the wind. I knew she was uncomfortable, but it was a short ride back to our home on the road.

If you’re ever in the Quartzsite area — especially in January when it’s so crazy busy with winter visitors — I highly recommend a visit to Reader’s Oasis Books. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.

Snowbirding 2018 Postcards: More Aerial Views of Quartzsite

I know this is getting monotonous, but I’m kind of stuck here now.

Someone who lives here asked if I was going to sell posters or postcards of Quartzsite from the air. This was a very popular item in past years and I have been thinking about it. So this morning, while sitting at my booth, I sent my Mavic up to see (1) how high I needed to be to capture a good shot of the whole area and (2) how “filled in” the desert camping areas are. The answers: (1) very high and (2) not enough yet.

Of course, I took a few photos while I was up there. This first one is from the southwest corner of the area. The big RV tent went up the other day; the area beside it will soon be full of RVs for sale and vendors living in their RVs. In this shot, I’m set up in the show area near the freeway overpass.

Just for fun on the way back, I pointed the camera straight down and centered it over the Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show. The resulting image looks like Google Earth on steroids.

More to come.