The price of a rolling mill can be staggering, they vary anywhere from $150-$3500 for large, electric rolling mills. This is no small investment, especially if you are an artist just starting out with your first one. With larger machines, rollers are purchased separately, which can be a costly expense. Try a less expensive rolling mill to start, which will give you insight into how you’ll use it. The rolling mill we carry at Halstead, comes with 5 rollers, covering everything you need to get started. Later, if you choose to upgrade, you’ll know what rollers you use and it can better suit your needs. Here are 5 ways to use a rolling mill, caring tips, and a maintenance/breakdown video to help get you started.
1. Emboss Patterns on Sheet Metal
The number one reason I used our studio rolling mill was to run brass pattern sheets through it. It was fun to imprint patterns onto the annealed copper sheet. I would quickly have patterns on a copper metal sheet which were ready to go. We also annealed copper and ran found objects through. Leaves, flowers, twigs and soft screening materials can all be used. Always anneal the metal that you want to emboss on. Using a rolling mill in this capacity is lots of fun and quite satisfying; however, there’s so much more it can do.
Tip:Steel objects such as mesh, saw blades and other hard objects will permanently damage a roller. Steel is extremely hard on the rollers, it can leave scratches and gouge them. When the rollers are damaged, they need to be shipped out to be resurfaced, which is costly and time-consuming. If running steel through the rolling mill, sandwich the steel between two soft metal sheets. That way the steel never makes contact with the rollers.
2. Melt and Roll Scrap into Usable Sheet
It wasn’t until I attended Michael David Sturlin’s retreat that I realized how important a rolling mill is and I really learned to appreciate it. It was the first time that I ever saw scrap metal melted into an ingot. Next, I watched as Michael ran that ingot through a rolling mill until he had flattened it into the gauge that he needed. This is what he does with his scrap metal. Rather than sending it off for money, if he needs a gauge and he doesn’t have it on hand he just melts and rolls it.
Tip:Separate all of your scraps. Dedicate specific jars for copper, brass, and sterling silver scrap.
3. Draw Down Wire Gauges
This new outlook on rolling mills really changed how I felt about them as tools. One day I put it to the test on a project I was recently working on. I was learning how to wire wrap and we had run short of a gauge that I needed. It occurred to me that our rolling mill came with wire rollers, so I unwrapped them from their boxes and above is what I found. There a total of 5 rollers that came with this rolling mill. The two flat rollers that were always on the machine, long and short wire rollers and a short textured roller (this textured roller has two mesh patterns on it. What fun that was to discover!).
After switching out the rollers I started with a larger gauged wire and rolled it through the mill. I found myself rolling it down until it was the gauge I needed and the problem was solved. It worked perfectly.
Tip:If you want half-round wire just leave the flat roller on the bottom and place a wire roller on the top.
4. Harden your Sheet Metal
Occasionally you’ll need to harden your metal and a rolling mill works great for hardening sheet and wire. You’ve already learned that if you want to imprint your metal it needs to be annealed, however, every pass you make through the rolling mill is work hardening your metal. It can harden to the point of cracking in just a few passes, so when hardening your metal just pass it through the rollers to get the temper you need, but don’t exceed the passes and damage the metal either.
Tip:Tip: Rollers bend your metal. Don't feel frustrated when it happens because it's an easy fix. Use a bench block, and a rawhide or nylon hammer to flatten it right back out without damaging or moving the metal.
5. Fold Forming
Yes, you can fold form without a rolling mill, but the creases in your metal will be so much more pronounced if you run it through a rolling mill. Your metal folds will be tighter and look so much sharper that you may use a rolling mill with all of your fold formed jewelry. Give it a try and see what you think!
Caring for your Rolling Mill
Gears & Handle
I’ve spent time with Michael David Sturlin in his studio and in ours. He’s one of my mentors and he passed along some important tips on rolling mills. But first a little about Michael. Michael travels to schools and studios teaching courses and classes. He also runs week-long retreats at his home studio in Scottsdale, AZ. His insight is extremely valuable to me. Second, a rolling mill is not a disposable item. This is an expensive machine for the majority, so caring for your machine can be the difference between a machine that lasts for years and one that breaks early on.
Michael said, when I asked him for tips and suggestions regarding rolling mills, “The issue with breakage is usually with the gears. On smaller or lesser quality mills, if undue force is applied, it’s possible for the gear teeth to break, usually with the gear attached to the handle.”
One tip I suggest is to not attempt too much reduction in one pass if there is too much resistance as you start to roll, open the rollers slightly.~ Michael David Sturlin
Proper Rolling Mill Height
Another tip from Michael combines ergonomics and posture, efficiency and long-term damage to your body (and we know it’s never too early to do it right the first time). “The proper elevation is placing the mill so that the handle at the top of the rotation is aligned with the outstretched arm, parallel with the floor. Generally, this will place the handle at the bottom of the rotation at the position of the hand hanging at your side, pointing down towards the floor. This varies a little depending on the size of the mill and the length of the handle. If the mill is on a low table it forces the user to bend over as they use it and if the mill is too high it forces the shoulder to extend as the handle is pushed up a the top of the swing. Either of those positions will encourage back and shoulder problems.”
He also added suggestions to raise your rolling mill to the proper height: “For most situations, a 4 x 4 inch or 4 x 6 inch might suffice. I did not have that dimension of wood at hand so I stacked up two sections of 2-inch boards. People can check in the lumber department of their home improvement store, quite often there is a cut-off or scrap bin where they can find an odd or end piece for very little cost.” This discussion made me realize that our studio rolling mill is too short and when attending school and at studios, they have been bolted to average size tables. When I made that observation to him, his reply was: “Quite often in academic teaching environments, they have the rolling mills bolted to a table that is way too low. Commercial rolling mill stands are made with quite a high platform to bolt the mill too, ensuring the mill is at the proper height.”
After annealing your metal, dry it thoroughly before running it through the rolling mill. Water can damage it by causing rust and corrosion over time, so never run anything wet through it.
Clean and dry metal is the heart of the issue.~ Chris Contos
My jewelry instructor at Yavapai college, Chris Contos, explained to me why the school rolling mill was locked up tight. “The rolling mill was locked to prevent untrained hands from destroying it. The old roller had scars from unprotected steel and surface etching from the pickle. Ideally, the rollers should be kept as pristine as possible. Some folks like to wipe a light oil onto roller surfaces after each working session before it sits idle. In a college studio, the ideal is not always practical or possible.”
Storing your Rolling Mill
When you purchase a new rolling mill it will come heavily greased in oil. That’s a good thing! Always keep your rolling mill and rollers greased in a 3-to-1 gear oil which will protect your mill from corrosives. This is especially important during transport via ocean freight, so new mills have a lot of protective grease during transit. To remove it, use rags to wipe away the excess, but don’t use water or liquid cleaners. You want a little bit of grease to remain on the mill to keep it in good working order. When rolling metal through your mill you can wipe the extra oil off of your rollers with a soft cloth or paper towel. When finished, simply re-grease it with the 3-in-1 oil before storing it.
Finally, place a bag or box over your rolling mill to protect it against dust and debris and other harmful things.
Here at Halstead, we sell an economy rolling mill for an affordable price. We’ve had this same one in the studio for three years now, and it’s perfect for our needs. Below is a video that shows you a breakdown of the rolling mill that we carry here. Remember, a rolling mill will last for years, as long as you care for it. Scroll down to watch another video on tips for maintenance.