When I was in my early twenties I went through a period where I frequented garage sales looking for books, records, and vintage clothing and I always checked out the jewelry. At that point I was interested in restructuring pieces, but I was not thinking of trying to make a career out of jewelry making. I found an orange colored acrylic watch and it was really cool. I loved that thing. I wore it out.
When I decided to become a self taught metalsmith and art jeweler I, or rather “we” (includes my wife and partner, Heather), decided not to use glues, plastics or anything dyed or irradiated in our work. And, this stood until recently. Mind you, I am still hesitant about using plastics, but I came by some Plexiglas. One piece was from a broken ferring, from maybe a riding lawn mower or something, and another came from a stupid window replacement someone had made on the front of our house. One day last year in June, I had an idea to make some jewelry out of it for a Recycled Art Show. I made three acrylic bracelets and five pendants to test the market. I ended up selling one of each. I would have sold more bracelets, but I only had those three. Each were different sizes, and the largest one was too large and the smallest was too small. The pendants all sold in less than 6 months. They were never displayed online. So I decided to make some more pieces.
The technique I used to form the acrylic
Since these pieces were in sheet form, I used a circular saw and a fine saw blade. I found that pulsing the saw’s power was the best way to do this. I cut the material into strips from one half an inch to one-and-a-half inch wide. From there a hacksaw was used to cut the pieces into bracelet lengths. Any excess was then cut into pendant sizes.
To form the bracelets, I used a torch to heat the plastic to pliable. The acrylic will bubble before it starts to flow, so if it bubbles it’s gone too far. It never really reaches a molten state, just a pliable state. You need a heat that is better controlled. I had a toaster oven kicking around that we didn’t use so I decided to try that. I found that 340° F was the best temp for my oven and a soak time of about 5 min. Now I’m not sure what the exact temperature is, but most sources say 275° F for 15 min. I played around until I was comfortable. You can easily handle this hot material with cheap leather work gloves and you can actually mold the bracelets by hand this way. You have a pretty limited work time, but if you aren’t satisfied, you can always heat it up again.
One thing that happens when you heat up a piece you have already bent is that it will unbend itself. Similarly, if you impress a line into it with a tool and heat it up, it will do much to remove the line. This material cools very rapidly. You must act quickly. I would have liked to have been able to impress a design into a strip, reheat and shape, but there isn’t enough time for both actions. It’s one or the other. I see a way you can do this, but it requires manufacturing bracelet forms out of steel or wood, and that’s just not something I want to do. The process would be to soften the strip, form it around the steel, bind it to the steel, most likely by the ends, heat again till pliable, then impress. I don’t plan to do this.
Once the piece will no longer deform you can drop it in water to cool. You can also do this to end the deformation process.
Quick note on heat sources
A toaster oven or household oven is not the best choice for a heat source. The reason being is that they heat in cycles, not consistently. The best choice is an oven with a constant heat source. You might find a regulator out there to mitigate this. I’m not sure if anything like that is made for toaster ovens.
Back to Working
Once the object is formed I use my 100 grit diamond utility disk to round off the ends and edges, but you can easily use files and sandpaper. You can polish with red rouge but you must do it slowly. Friction from a buffing wheel will heat up the surface and imbed the red rouge into the surface and that’s not good. I find that cerium oxide or Zam™ running slow produces satisfactory polishing results. Abrasive style toothpaste should be fine too.
You can impress a mold into heat softened acrylic. Because the temperature is so low, you can use wood to carve designs into and quickly impress into the heated acrylic. Keep in mind that fine detail must be omitted. You can’t really impress fine lines into acrylic by hand. You might have better results if you can use a press. However you can easily cold work fine details with bits in a flex shaft. I haven’t, as of yet, tried etching with a graver (engraving tool), but I imagine I’ll try it today. This should work. As mentioned above, files are also fine to use.
If you choose to drill the material, don’t force the bit
This reminds me, don’t try to force the bending process either. It can snap or crack easily. Too much force on a drill and the piece is broken. Too much force on a bend can snap it in half.
Health and Environmental Concerns
Working with this material is potentially harming yourself and your planet. Be responsible! Avoid breathing any fumes directly or breathing in any dust. Our planet uses far too much plastic and the ramifications have yet to be fully felt. I feel a certain amount of guilt using this material, but I am partially consoled by the notion that the damage was already done when the acrylic was manufactured. The bad part is that I know I’m creating acrylic dust. But overall it isn’t much different than cutting gemstone material, and something might be said for recycling or repurposing the material. Be Cautious. Be Responsible!
So Why The Heck Do I Even Like The Stuff?
It is clear as crystal. It’s hard. You can deform it. It is easy to polish. It won’t tarnish your skin. It can be carved. It is versatile.