The Significance of Surface: The Vital Role of Finishing Work in Silversmithing Practice

"Dyret" (2009) by Linn Sigrid Bratland. Photo by Ingolf Endresen

In this essay by Linn Sigrid Bratland, we are invited to contemplate surface work, a time-consuming and often tedious part of any craft process, which today is being revolutionised by emerging technologies and automatic processes. Bratland highlights the possibilities of these aids while emphasising the importance of safeguarding manual skills and tacit knowledge.

This paper aims to describe what I experience as a somewhat insignificantly considered but nevertheless vital part of my practice as a silversmith – surface work. As craft artists, we know that work on surface is about much more than looks. I would say it is about more than tactility too.

Surface work, or finishing work, primarily includes filing, grinding, and polishing – in short, removing material to get the result acquired. Several technological inventions help optimise this process, but most of them include tumbling, which, like a potato peeling machine, blurs every shape and detail. This type of technology only fits some work, and time-consuming hands-on work is often still required.

The artist Barry X Ball’s work illustrates how apparently insignificant, but still vital, the role of work on surface is. His bust, Envy,1 is an iconic example of what 3D scanning, CAD modification,2 and 3D printing make possible. Still, it required 2000 hours of hand grinding to finish the work after this advanced technological creation (Johnston, 2015).

As a traditional silversmith, I operate in the landscape between art, design, and production. My practice involves everything from producing traditional brooches for folk costumes, developing my own designs, creating jewellery collections designed by others, and custom-made jewellery, as well as recycling and repairing old jewellery. This is, of course, not a standard; every craft artist has their own “business model”, but still, Professor Terje Planke highlights this balance between several – sometimes conflicting – interests and the connection to society, as well as materiality, as the core of traditional craftsmanship (Planke, 2001).

Throughout my years as a silversmith, I have often encountered how uneven, in many settings, the value of developing my own design is, as compared to creating something more or less standardised, like traditional brooches for folk costumes, standard wedding rings, or making what someone else has designed – even though the last of these, in my experience, is often as challenging as the first. Not only technically, but also in terms of reflections and communication. It appears, much like work on surface, as an insignificant part of our craft.

Whether some part of my practice appears as less equally valued, accentuating how we rank body and mind in today’s Western society, is a more considerable discussion than there is room for here. Still, it influences how I consider different parts of my practice. Moreover, being aware of such prejudices has made me open to the possibility that activities I have considered less significant might have to do with the society I am part of, and not the action itself. Through this acknowledgment, work on surface has come to play a surprisingly significant role both pragmatically and conceptually in my PhD project on traditional craft and technology.

The project I refer to is part of an assembly of PhD projects under the umbrella theme of "sustainability as a cultural challenge" with the culture studies programme at the University of South-Eastern Norway.

Based on the notion that the objectifying of humans, land, and materials is fundamentally problematic in terms of sustainable development (Tuhiwai Smith, 2012), I have built my research on post-colonial perspectives and the spatial turn in science (Brown, 2020). This ontological baseline acknowledges and values different types of knowledge systems, and the fact that location and relations to humans, as well as the more-than-human world, influence my perspective. Consequently, this perspective enables merging my embodied knowledge as a silversmith with theory concerning craft and technology.

In this context, I use the term “embodied knowledge” to expand on Michael Polanyies' term “tacit knowledge” (Polanyi, 1966). Tacit knowledge is, in a Scandinavian understanding, often translated as taus – meaning unspoken knowledge, much connected to the tactile sensorial understanding of process and materials (Polanyi, 2000). In this case, I also include the craft's emotional and subjective social part, which Tim Ingold poetically calls "the life of lines" (Tim Ingold, 2015). Together with the tactile side, this perspective accommodates the craft’s connection to not just materiality, but also space and humans. Consequently, how I conduct the craft relates to location, mentors, customers, colleagues, and other relations that influence and shape my understanding of process. An example of such influence is when my mentor Lory Talcott let me pull the hammer from her hand to understand the firmness of the grip she uses for engraving. Or when artist Lise Schønberg sat with me, polishing, and showed how the smallest structures on a surface influence the wholeness of a work and what she considered a suitable finish. Like written words, these are building blocks of knowledge – the theory of the craft which is connected to an action to fully understand and make meaningful (Planke, 2001; Planke & Lorentzen, 2022).

At the mercy of materials
Almost a hundred years ago, Walter Benjamin described how technologies, on the one hand, open new perspectives and possibilities, but also distance us from experiencing the whole reality and emotional connection to nature. That it gives on the one hand and takes on the other, so to speak (Benjamin, 1936).

Technological fixes are, in many cases, set as the solution to sustainable development,3 despite the irony in how this disconnects us from the embodied experience of materiality, social issues, and the more-than-human world.

Through my research, I have experienced how the rapid development in software blurs the lines between virtual and physical reality, and how it is very easy to forget that this development is also at the mercy of materials, and the knowledge of refining and processing that material. Our shortcuts often come at someone's expense.4 Such theoretical knowledge from academic publications and research also influences how I view my practice, and when it merges with the theory of the craft, it becomes an interesting cocktail.

Embodiment, vision, and intellect
During my PhD project, I have kept my business and workshop running. I have not had the capacity to develop new collections or produce work for an exhibition in this period. Marketing and organising such events would have been too time-consuming while also keeping pace with the academic "craft".

The only part I have been able to maintain is work on custom orders and production of my old designs. This situation has left me mainly with the finish work. As many production processes are automated by now, this work, on surface, is what I spend the majority of my time doing in the workshop.

To begin with, I used this activity when I needed a break from theoretical reflections, writing, and readings. As the project grew, however, it became clear that these hours of distraction nevertheless influenced my research, and vice versa.

It is possible, and often beneficial, to automate most construction and design work through generative design, 3D scanning, and printing directly in the precious materials. Emerging technologies and generative design are brilliant in vision and intellect. But to automate what we at the workshop considered the most straightforward, mindless, and simple tasks was neither easy nor beneficial in small-scale silversmith production (Settendal, 2022).

The red thread
The result from the lab work, literature findings, and my apparently insignificant hours by the workbench made the work on surface grow to become a pragmatic, but also conceptual, red thread in the project. Pragmatic, in the sense that surface work is what I am left with when other processes are automatised.

The fact that what many silversmiths, like myself, are left with in terms of manual craft labour is the removing of materials, has made me start to wonder whether we have lost too much of the close engagement and embodied understanding of the materials that we work with. These thoughts came to me after numerous hours of surface work and changed my perspective and project completely. The plan initially was to explore robotic technology further. However, integrating my practice and being open to input from unexpected sources like cutting, filing, and grinding (i.e. surface work) revealed that knowing what is possible to solve through simple hand tools is a rare and maybe valuable competence in today's Western society. This recognition reminded me of an early experience with the craft.

Simple means
My first craft teacher, Marit Andersen,5 did not allow beginners to use any machinery. After the first year we were only allowed to use hand tools; we could use the polishing machine if we found it helpful. Still, by then we did not find it necessary as often as we thought we would. The year spent using only hand tools made us make other decisions regarding technology than we would have to begin with.

Such decision making is not only about quality, but also about efficiency, convenience, and sensory experience. Sometimes simple hand tools, if you have the embodied understanding of them, are the best and even most effective means of providing a suitable finish or shape. Hands-on materials processes can also offer solutions that might not appear if the result is developed only intellectually or through sketching. Through such processes, you become aware of the tool's surface and how it transfers to the surface of the work. This means that while forming and constructing a shape, you are also constantly aware of surface finish. You don't separate work on surface to work on shape and concept. If you pay careful attention to the surface as you mould, you don't need to file, grind, and polish afterward. Still, it also provides an understanding of when it is useful to choose more advanced technological solutions after all.

Based on this background, I have begun to wonder whether it is possible to "repair" or maybe "recycle" some of our skillsets and mindsets as craft artists by moving the gaze in another direction, and exploring old ways of handling surfaces through new perspectives.

Being open to the unexpected
Before the industrial revolution, when materials were not that easily accessible, chasing and chiselling were the ways silversmiths did most finish work. The principle of these techniques is to compress, move, and mould the material, rather than remove it. Through the objective perspective and dividing of processes, however, chiselling is often confused as being solely a décor technique, and is out-competed by press and cast technology – lately, generative design, scanning, and 3D printing. Creating patterns and ornaments is much easier and less time-consuming that way. When advanced technologies out-compete us in vision, intellect, and even creativity, low-tech craft can appear pointless in some perspectives.

To be aware the embodied knowledge in this setting have made me value the part of my craft that is about making traditional patterns or realising someone else's ideas; it makes me humble, and part of a timeless and spaceless puzzle of humans and materials. Lately, however, I have also come to consider ancient processes like chiselling not only as a rarity, but as a potential source to find new, or maybe very old but meaningful, perspectives on process, materiality, and their connection to society.