Skills in the Making

Working with metal

Cathy Miles
Cathy Miles
(Image courtesy of the artist)


Contemporary makers working with metal no longer simply concentrate on jewellery or working with precious metals. They use metal in all its forms to make sculptural work. Andy Hazell uses recycled and waste sheet metal from canning factories to make humorous figures and models that are informed and decorated by the colourful printed designs on the metal surface. Cathy Miles uses wire of different thickness to make three dimensional drawings and sculptures. Junko Mori's work is inspired by nature and consists of many modelled elements joined together while Ndidi Ekubia uses more traditional methods of metal smithing, raising flat sheets of metal into vessel shapes.

Metal workers

Cathy Miles: wire sculpture

Junko Mori: forged metal sculpture

Andy Hazell: sheet metal sculpture and automata

Ndidi Ekubia: vessels and silversmithing

Celia Smith: wire bird sculpture


Links to makers in action

Wire sculpture with artist Steve Follen

Junko Mori talks about her work at SOFA, New York


Metal can be used in many forms to create sculptural or functional forms.

Sheet metal can be cut if soft enough and bent or moulded into shapes.

Wire can also be bent and used to draw three dimensional shapes.

Harder metals must be forged or heated in order to be shaped, by forming over a mould, bending, hammering or with other treatments. These metals come in rods or blocks.

To join metal securely it has to be heated - welded or soldered.

Common terms explained

Elasticity: the ability of a metal to regain its shape after being deformed.

Hardness: resistance to being scratched or worn.

Malleability: a malleable material can be hammered, spread or pressed into a desired shape.

Ductility: a ductile metal can be drawn into fine wire.

Brittleness: a brittle metal is apt to break easily and is usually hard.

Tenacity: a metal which is resistant to breaking when stretched has tenacity.

Work hardness: the condition brought on by the impact of hammer blows or other processes which alter the structure of the metal causing it to harden.

Annealing: the process of heating metal to soften it once it has been work hardened so that it can be worked more easily.

Hallmarking: Silver is a precious metal and is therefore stamped with a group of marks to verify its quality. For this the work is sent to one of the Assay Offices in the UK - in London, Birmingham, Sheffield or Edinburgh. The piece is tested for quality and if it passes is hallmarked. The hallmark is usually stamped on, or near, the base of a piece of work. It contains the maker's mark - usually their initials; a sterling stamp; a Fineness mark – the metal content; the assay office mark; and a date stamp.


Tin plate is a thin sheet of mild steel coated with tin. When the coating is removed rusting occurs. It is malleable and easily cut with tin snips.

Copper or brass shim is a useful introduction to sheet metal as it is thin and can be easily cut with scissors and bent with the fingers.

Sterling Silver is white and is an alloy of 92.5% fine silver and 7.5% copper. It comes in sheet form or as wire. It is used commercially by jewellers and silversmiths. Properties: soft, malleable, good conductor of heat, work hardens.

Copper is reddish brown and is very soft, softer than sterling silver. It comes in sheets and as wire. It is malleable, a good heat conductor, and the work hardens

Brass is a yellow metal alloy of 70% copper and 30% zinc. It is tough and resists corrosion.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, which is much harder than copper and can be melted and cast. It resists corrosion.

Mild Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and is malleable and ductile.

Cast iron is an alloy of iron and carbon. It is brittle and cannot be forged but casts well.

Wrought iron is 99% pure iron with slight impurities. It is malleable and ductile.

Gold comes in various colours depending on the alloys it is mixed with, but the most common is yellow. It is malleable and ductile.

Aluminium is a white, light weight and low cost metal, common in everyday life. It is highly malleable and ductile.

Pewter is very malleable but also brittle. It can be formed, cast, soldered and sawn.

Metal Wire

Iron wire is also called black annealed wire. Easy to manipulate and "draw" with. It will rust but can be spray painted, or painted with enamel paints such as Humbrol, or sealed.

Copper wire is easy to manipulate and is very soft. It does not rust. Wire is sold by weight. The thickness is measured in millimetres. Standard gauges for small to medium sculptures are: 0.7mm, 0.9mm, 1.2mm, 1.5mm


Tin snips, pliers and wire cutters and soldering irons can be bought at DIY shops. More specialist equipment suppliers are below.

Metal Suppliers

Cookson Precious Metals 49 Hatton Garden, London EC1N 8YN

K&M (wholesale Suppliers) Ltd Tel: 01142 474733. Fax: 01142 475335 Unit 24 Lion Park, Holbrook Industrial Estate, New Street, Halfway, Sheffield S20 3GH

HS Walsh 0207 242 3711/0121 236 9346 44 Hatton Garden London EC1 8ER

Rashbel UK Tel 0207 831 5646 24-28 Hatton Wall London EC1N 8JN

Columbia Metals 0207 732 1022 Wingfield Street, City of London, London SE15 4LH

Wire stockists

Ormiston Wire Ltd 0208 569 7287 1 Fleming Way, Worton Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 6EU. Many different gauges of wire. 020 8505 0002, Unit 3 Zone A, Chelmsford Road Industrial Estate, Great Dunmow, Essex, CM6 1HD. Thinner iron wire and copper wire.

General Art Supplies

Atlantis European Ltd 0207 377 8855 Britannia House, 68-80 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JL

Berol 0844 4121126 Berol Customer Services Newell Rubbermaid Fradley Park, Lichfield, Staffs, WS13 8SS

Colourcraft Ltd 0114 242 1431 Unit 6 555 Carlisle Street East Sheffield S4 8DT

Wire can be found in florist, DIY shops etc. Recycled metal sheets, such as offcuts from industrial canning processes, can be found at recycling centres, and usually come with a printed coloured side and a metallic side.

Metals specialist websites

The Association Contemporary British Silversmiths

Designer Jewellers Group

British Artist Blacksmiths Association

British Metals Recycling Association to find a local recycling centre. Industry specialist website

Bishopsland Educational Trust: courses, fellowships, exhibitions

Metal Collections and displays in museums and galleries

Victoria and Albert metal collection. and four exhibitions a year of work by jewellers and small object makers and the related online collections.

Birmingham Jewellery Quarter Museum. A great small museum housed in an old jewellery factory. Stocks work by contemporary makers. Offers tours of historic factory and practical demonstrations and workshops.

Sheffield Millennium Gallery houses a permanent collection of metal work. Also has temporary exhibitions.

Surrey based Fire and Iron Gallery: permanent displays and changing exhibitions.


Lefteri, Chris (2004) Metals: Materials for Inspirational Design, Rotovision.

McCreight, Tim (2004) Complete Metalsmith, Brynmorgan Press.

Miles, Cathy (2011) Sculpting in Wire, A & C Black.

Ccraftspace. Birmingham based organisation with strong educational remit - case studies of school projects.