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Jewelry Class at Kennett's Career and Technical Center

Metalworking isn't just for guys any more!

Caitlin McDonald proudly wears the heart ring she made in Creative Metal class. (Photo by Sara Young-Knox). (click for larger version)
February 18, 2010
"I tell the boys, give your ring to your mother," Fenton, the Career and Technical Center's machine tool technology teacher at Kennett High School in Conway said while the students worked on their rings.

It's a nine-week course, meeting an hour a day for five days a week. The first week Fenton introduces them to tool use and safety. Each student is issued a machine tool handbook, "Safety is You," which goes over the safety rules for operating each tool. Students must sign off at the bottom of each page, signifying that they've read the rules for that tool.

When it was mentioned later that the young women in the class seemed to prefer dark tops, Fenton replied that on the first day of class they are dressed more fashionably. "Once they use the plasma cutter, they go and get their brother's sweatshirt," he remarked.

Last Wednesday, Fenton instructed students in the use of the jeweler's saw. The teeth of the saw's thin blade, he told the class, always points down and out. Students hadn't used that particular saw yet, because the first piece of jewelry they made was a simple band ring that did not require any of that type of cutting.

There are at least 17 steps to making the heart rings, and once Fenton had run through the first few steps, the students quietly went to work.

The Creative Metal class is just one of the courses Fenton, who has been at the Career and Tech Center for over a decade, teaches. Several levels of machine tool/welding classes are offered, culminating in independent study for the most advanced students.

"They get exposure to a little bit of everything," Fenton says. Last year advanced students put roses on the graduation trellis using multiple layers of metal to craft each bloom. "You don't want it to be perfect," he said of a single rose. The tree of knowledge that stands at the school's entrance was crafted by Margaret Flynn, a former student. "Everything in education, it's all about skill set," Fenton says. You need those skills, he says, to go to the next level.

Welding students also have the opportunity to compete with students from across the state, and several will do so in late March at a SkillsUSA competition at Manchester Community College.

"Every year we're putting two or three kids in a community college," Fenton says.

The maximum class size for the Creative Metal is 18. "It's a privilege," Fenton says, "to get in here."

Not every student in the class has his or her eye on a welding career.

While working on smoothing out the rough spots on his band ring, Quincy Perry said, "I'd like to learn, maybe not for my future, but I'd like to learn more."

Jake Martin had space in his schedule for another class and had heard good things about the class. "It's my senior year, so I might as well have fun," he said, as he tapped on the piece of metal wrapped around the ring anvil.

On Wednesday, several of the students were ready to start their heart rings. After selecting a piece of brass, Caitlin McDonald glued a paper heart pattern on to it, then used the drill press to put a hole in the middle of the heart. Through this hole she threaded the thin blade of a jeweler's saw and gently sawed out the heart's interior outline. When she was finished with the heart's inner, she went to work on the outline of the heart.

Cutting the inner part of the heart out first gives the students a larger area to hold on to. The blade only needs a light touch to cut the metal effectively.

By Friday's class, two days before Valentine's Day, most of the students were well on their way to finishing their rings. While teacher Fenton walked around the shop helping students, teacher's aide Daiva Hampton took some time out to explain all the steps that go into making the rings. Several years ago she took creative metal through the Adult Education program at Kennett and really enjoyed it, learning a great deal. She took a follow-up jewelry course with Heidi Engman of Tamworth.

"Now when you look at jewelry, you look at it totally different," she says.

The students' next step after sawing out the brass heart is to gently file off the edges. At that point, it's time to get the band part of the ring. The students cut a length of wire from a coil of nickel silver, first measuring how much they need for whatever size of ring they're making. The wire is measured with a jewelry maker's scale, adding three sizes, to make up the difference between the outer and inner loop.

The next step is to flatten out the ends of the wire. This will be where the heart is welded onto the ring band. Using the ring anvil, students tap the wire into its round shape. Now it's time to set the heart on the band, using a jeweler's torch, flux and solder. The flux is brushed on and then heated, after which the ring is welded with solder. The heat is applied to the bottom of the ring, and as it travels up to the solder that material increases in temperature, getting white. The solder beads up, then flattens out. "That's how," Hampton says, "you know when it's done."

The ring is then sandpapered. This gives the metal more lines, so that light will bounce off the little etchings, giving the ring more sparkle. The ring is then rouged and buffed, the final step before it becomes a permanent part of someone's jewelry collection.

On Friday, Caitlin McDon-ald was among those wearing her ring. As to the males in the classroom, Jake Martin said, "I gave mine to my girlfriend."

One young man, whose name we won't mention, said he had had his in his pants pocket and forgotten about it, then thrown the pants into the laundry. Remembering this later, he couldn't find the ring.

Let's hope his mother found it amongst the clean laundry in time for it to be a Valentine's Day surprise.

Martin Lord & Osman
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