iPhone 4 Back

A great deal of the inspiration for my art comes from architecture; both modern and historical. Great architects such as Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Ghery, have all provided me with enough inspiration for several life times worth of art. Then comes along the new art of Industrial Design with the genius of Dieter Rams and Jonny Ives making the daily objects of our world not only more practical, but more beautiful. Ives in particular has had a significant impact on how we view and use technology. We would still be looking at boring beige computers if not for Ives.

iPhone 4 Back with radial pattern

I'm particularly inspired by how Ives has changed the way a phone looks and feels with the introduction of the iPhone. Of all the iPhone designs, I love the iPhone 4 in particular. The problem is that owning an iPhone means that your phone looks the same as 40 million other iPhones in the world. Yes, there are cases that hide the beauty of Ives's design, or vinyl stickers to protect the back, however, I wanted something for my phone that would make it stand out a bit. So I set about making a replacement for the glass back on my iPhone.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the two most common items carried by gentlemen were pocket watches and cigarette cases. Instead of Apple and Blackberry, they had Faberge and Cartier. I wanted to re-capture the elegance and style of the early 20th century. The designs I chose for my new iPhone back are a re-imagining of a 21st century device using 19th century jewellery techniques. Large flat surfaces, like the back of an iPhone, were engine turned; not only to enhance the beauty of the surface, but to hide the daily wear and tear as well. All of the designs that follow are inspired by Faberge cigarette cases, and designed to enhance, not hide, Ives's stunning design.

Head over to the accessories gallery to get more details.

Empire pen in silver

This has been a long time in the works.  Four years ago I began teaching myself to make pens.  I was unhappy with many of the pens on the market, and my goal was to make pens that I would enjoy using.

Empire in silver

My biggest issue was finding a pen that was a little bit larger than normal, but not so large to be uncomfortable for the average person. I've also found that a pen with a bit of weight to it is pleasant to use. Many years ago, Brenda Roy began teaching me jewellery making.  I decided to combine some of those skills with my pen making to create silver pens. The Empire is my first pen to bring everything together in a pen that has a nice weight and feel.

I am working on a new batch of these over the next two weeks. They will include at least one new engine turned pattern. I am also hard at work on my next pen offering.  It will be silver with engine turning on it, but will also include enamel. Look for that near the end of May.

While I am happy to finally be able to show off these pens to the rest of the world, it is merely a stepping stone to the projects I have in mind.

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Cutter Geometry

I am sitting in O'Hare airport on my return flight from the 2010 OTI conference in San Jose. OTI is dedicated to the art of ornamental turning, including engine turning. It was great to catch up with some fellow engine turners that I haven't seen in a few years, as well as meet some talented turners who are new to me. One of the conversations that came up regularly was cutter geometry and profiles. The geometry that I am using was proposed by George Daniels in his excellent book Watchmaking, and is appropriate for many non-ferrous metals. I have found this to be the best geometry for brass and silver, and should work well for copper and gold.

The starting point of any cutter is the material of the cutter itself. Traditionally engine turners would have used a high carbon steel, and eventually high speed steel (HSS) for their cutters. These metals will work fine, however, with the introduction of high quality carbide, they have become a little out dated. Last year David Lindow, a clock and rose engine maker in Pennsylvania, turned me on to Micro100 carbide tools. These tools use a micro grain carbide that is exceptionably strong, and can maintain a remarkable polish. I purchase their brazed tools meant for metal turning on a traditional lathe (Travers part# 21-100-907). The square profiled cutters are great as they allow the most flexibility when reshaping for engine turning. Micro100 tools are three or four times the cost of many other brazed carbide tools. The cutter geometry discussed below will work just fine with HSS cutters, or lower quality carbide. Considering the amount of labour involved with engine turning, the additional expense of Micro100 cutters is justified. Each of these cutters will last the lifetime of most engine turners, and the difference in the quality of cut is noticeable. I keep a few cutters for different applications, however, a single cutter will get you started.

The next consideration is the material you intend to cut. Harder metals will require a smaller included angle, while softer materials will require a larger angle. Some experimentation will be required with new materials. I work primarily in silver, and test patterns in brass. Since copper has cutting properties similar to silver, the same cutter should work ok. Moving further away from silver to aluminum (Al) or steel would mean a change in cutter geometry. If you intend to cut Al, maintain a cutter specifically for that purpose. Do not cut silver with the same cutter used for Al. Small amounts of Al remain on the cutter and will affect the quality of cut.


The first part of shaping the cutter is removing a lot of the unnecessary material. Diagram 1 shows in red the initial material to remove. There is no need to have a cutter that is 0.250" wide. None of your cuts will be that wide, and often times it would get in the way. I use a bench grinder to do the bulk of this shaping. It doesn't need to be precise, and you should have approximately 0.060" left for the cutter. Next remove some of the material from underneath the front of the cutter. You will be cutting the front face with a down angle of 10 degrees. There is no need to polish the tool holder. Diagram 2 shows the top and side profile of the remaining cutter. The left side of the cutting face should be made first. I use a side angle of 18 degrees on both sides. If you are working on a softer metal, like Al, try an angle closer to 14. I use a Glendo Accu-Finish for shaping and polishing cutters. It is a great system for maintaining repeatable angles while polishing. Starting with a 240 diamond wheel, work up to 1200. I form the left face right up to right hand edge. Now I switch over to the ceramic wheels and move through 6, 3, 1/2 and 1/4 micron. At each stage check the surface finish under a loop. The 6 micron wheel will remove all visible scratches from the carbide. By the time you get to 1/4 micron, it should look like a mirror. Now go back to the 6 micron wheel and form the right face of the cutter. The distance from the right hand edge to the point should be around 0.015". Work your way up to the 1/4 micron. It is time to form the relief angle. Tilt the table up to 10 degrees. The relief face should be formed only with the 1/4 micron wheel, and does not need to be very large. At most it should be 0.004" wide (about the thickness of a piece of paper). Be sure that the left and right face are the same size. If they aren't, you will get some striations in your cut.

The cutter is now ready to make some chips. If you take care not to drop or chip the cutter, you should be able to just touch it up with the 1/4 micron wheel. It is important that any touch ups be done before the start of a project. Your cuts will look different if you polish the cutter half way through the project.

Engine Turning Pt 2

As I discussed in my last post about engine turning, I am using a straight line engine in my work.  This post will cover how an straight line engine works in more detail.

Pattern Bar Holder

There were many variations of engines built, however, they all follow the same basic principles in their operation.  There needs to be some sort of headstock to hold the work piece, and there needs to be a tool slide to secure the graver and the guide, which controls the depth of cut.  As the head stock and piece are moved down, the graver is pressed into the material and cuts a line.  A basic engine such as this is typically called a bordering engine, and was used for creating borders on picture frames.  The variation in the patterns that a bordering engine can produce is very limited.

Most straight line engines have a few other critical features that allow them to create an infinite number of patterns.  The first is a pattern bar holder.  Pattern bars can be bolted in place, and using a few adjustments, can be changed to alter the final pattern that is engraved.  It is important that the pattern bar holder is very sturdy, that it allows multiple bars to be held at the same time, and that the bar can be moved up and down independently from the headstock.  My next post on engine turning will discuss the variations created through this important feature.

The tool slide on the Plant straight line engine has several important upgrades.  The first is an index system for moving the graver from left to right.  Using a ratchet and pawl system along with an adjustable stop, the cutter can be advanced by a known amount between each cut.  Because the human eye is excellent at picking out flaws in repetitive patterns, it is critical to keep the spacing consistent from cut to cut.  A radial adjustment is also a useful addition to the tool holder.  If the work has a curved surface on the edge, such as the side of a case, it is important to keep the graver perpendicular to the surface that it is cutting.  If the graver isn't perpendicular to the surface, one side of the cut will be deeper than the other.

The most important upgrade to the headstock is the radial adjustment.  The most common system to allow radial adjustment of the piece is through a worm gear.  The worm provides very fine control over how many degrees the piece is turned from one cut to the next.  A further improvement is to add a ratchet and pawl system to allow indexed fine control over the radial movement.  In the case of the 14" Plant, each notch on the ratchet wheel moves the piece 1/4 of a degree.  The sunburst patterns created using this upgrade were very popular on cigarette cases and picture frames.

The next post on engine turning will discuss what pattern bars look like, and how variations in their use can lead to an infinite variety of patterns.

Engine Turning

Engine Turning, or Guilloché, is a form of decorative engraving that is accomplished with the assistance of an engine. Its origins are rooted in the 18th century when artisan jewellers modified ornamental lathes, or rose engines, to cut metal using a fixed cutter. Rose engines used for ornamental turning typically use a live, or spinning, cutter to cut soft materials such as wood or ivory. I will be discussing rose engines and ornamental turning more in a later post. 14" Plant

The evolution of engine turning eventually led to the invention of the Straight Line Engine. The photo on the left is of the 14" Straight Line Engine that is in my shop. It was produced in the early 20th century by G. Plant & Son in Harborne, England. The 14" refers to the maximum length of cut that the engine can produce. Unfortunately G. Plant & Son closed up shop in the 1950's.

Through the use of different shaped pattern bars, the engine allows the operator to create a series of parallel or radial lines. Adjustments allow precise changes to each cut, creating stunning interference patterns. When combined with transparent enamel, pieces that have been engine turned truly come to life.