Gold Damascene with Brian Meek

by Metalwerx on April 6, 2015

A rare opportunity to learn Korean-style damascening with Brian Meek occurs next month at Metalwerx, immediately following the close of the SNAG convention in Boston. Brian, known as the “Tool Guy” at Knew Concepts metalsmithing equipment, will lead the two-day workshop in which students will learn to make what he describes as “metal Velcro.”

The road leads to Damascus, the saying goes, as it is the root which gives us a variety of words. The Syrian capital was in ancient times an important trading hub for weapons and crafts due to its advantageous site at the crossroads of Asia and Africa. It became famous for its richly patterned damask fabrics, its tough, shatter-resistant swords of Damascus steel, and its method of decorating metal, known as damascening, in which gold is inlaid to steel, iron, or bronze.
Damascene Fan Brooch

Damascene Fan Brooch by Brian Meek

Brian’s approach to the process is one he learned in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. There is no official English spelling for the Korean words, but Po-Mok-San-Gaam is about as close as it gets. “It means ‘woven surface.’ If you look close up it looks like linen. You basically take a fine chisel and cross-hatch the metal surface. You’re shredding the surface and pounding gold into it, and if it’s thin enough, the gold is ductile enough to lock into nooks and crannies,” Brian said. “You’re making metal Velcro.”

Creating a piece of damascened metal is easy but time consuming work that involves long stretches of tapping with a chisel. But as will happen while making art, one can get into a meditative state and time will fly by. In the workshop, students will practice on titanium. The process is traditionally done on steel or iron, but will work on any metal as long as it is harder than the gold.
TI Pin

TI Brooch

It works on silver as well, but for that, keum boo is easier, Brian said, adding that doing things the easy way is not where he’s at. “I go with titanium because I like the colors. If you’ve seen my work you’ll see I go for reactives, because white and yellow and reddish and black get kind of old after a while,” he said.

Reactive metals, such as titanium and niobium, are very dense metals with a superior ability to conduct electricity and absorb heat. The challenge of working with reactives has led to impressive outcomes for Brian. He was told niobium could not be raised much because it could not be annealed, so he tried it just to see how far he could go.

The end result was a spectacular goblet in luminous shades of lilac and cobalt, “Chalice for the Heretic,” although without a stem. It took him a year to figure out how to finish the piece based around the unsolderable niobium goblet. He finally added wooden legs shaped like a Tiffany setting. “There are times I do things just to see if I can,” he said.
Chalice for the Heretic

Chalice for the Heretic

When not “arguing with the machines” at Knew Concepts in Santa Cruz, CA, Brian teaches Adult Community Education metalsmithing classes at Mission College in nearby Santa Clara, CA. He is as committed to building a community of metalsmiths in the area as he is to manufacturing the ingenious prototypes designed by Lee Marshall, the “Saw Guy” who gave us the Precision Powered Saw (runs on electricity), as well as the Fret Saw, which some will swear has taken their sawing skills from clumsy to confident.

“Lee thinks it up, I figure out how to make it,” Brian said. He also operates a graphic design business, specializing in digital imaging, product photography, and photo re-touching.

The son of two scientists, Brian learned to program computers with punch cards before he was old enough to drive. Was it an act of rebellion when he chose to study art in college? “I ran so far (from science) I ran around the circle and am almost back where I started.”

While in college, he ended up hanging out with physicists, noting that the mindset of scientists and artists are much the same. “At the higher levels, science and art are not that dissimilar, there’s just a lot more math with science,” he said. “But metalsmithing is leaps and bounds more technical than anything else. This is absolutely the most technical of all the crafts.”
Overpressure 4: Harmonic Amplification

Overpressure 4: Harmonic Amplification

Gold Damascene on Titanium and Steel” will take place May 24-25 at Metalwerx. Class hours are different than usual to accommodate students coming from the SNAG conference: Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm, and Monday, 10 am to 5 pm. The class is intended for those with even basic fabrication skills.

Participants will make their own chisels and gold foil, and come away with a sample piece of high-carat gold on titanium. The cutting chisels make superb chasing punches, and this will be demonstrated as well. Additionally, Brian will share tips for rust removal via a simple and reasonably non-toxic technique. Each student should bring a small rusted iron tool to clean, like a pair of pliers or hammer head.

There are still seats available for Brian’s class, his first at Metalwerx. To register, click here or contact Metalwerx at 781-891-3854.

In conjunction with the Society of North American Goldsmiths’ “Impact: Looking Back, Forging Forward” conference (May 20-23), Metalwerx is offering workshops before (“Wire Weaving” and “Powder Coating“) and after the conference. Please check our website to learn more about this and about the May 23 Gallery Hop which includes a stop at our premises at 50 Guinan Streeet, Waltham, MA.Visitors will see demonstrations of various techniques in our fantastic studio, view a special exhibit, “Embellish,” of necklaces made by members of our community, and enjoy munchies.

—by Yleana Martinez

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