Artists fear the creative vacuum when we can’t think of what to do next or nothing draws you back into the studio. Fortunately, my love affair with bamboo jewelry has few such barriers, only periodic frustrations (Liu 2012a; The Workbench Blog 2012b). I first got interested in making black bamboo torques through steambending in 2010; this method enables very precise results, but takes too long as a practical way to make jewelry. A bamboo grower suggested I try heatbending, in my case, with propane or acetylene torches, starting in late 2010. This method worked, but like all techniques, required a substantial amount of practice before I felt confident. With sporadic attempts (all recorded in my jewelry notebook), I did not really achieve results that satisfied me until the end of 2011. By the beginning of 2012, I felt good enough about my heatbent bamboo torques that I began giving them as gifts and in March of 2012, I started selling them at Freehand, a Los Angeles craft gallery. While most of my bamboo jewelry is worn by women, some men also either wear them or appreciate them.
While our backyard grove of black bamboo provides a very sustainable yield of material for my modest jewelry production, it is not really free. The plants require watering, fertilizing and culling. Fast growing grasses like this running bamboo have rhizomes that easily fill out a given space, resulting in overcrowded plants dying or becoming malformed. Interestingly enough, bamboo dies from the top down, with the dead part losing that desirable culm pigment and turning a mottled gray, thus no longer useable for jewelry. The solution is to check their condition and prune periodically, so that dying plants can be saved in time for use.
Our culled plants, which consist of a jointed stem, called the culm, and the branches which grow out of the nodes or joints, reach heights of 15 to 20 feet. The main culm is too thick for heatbending into jewelry, so I only use the branches. It takes an hour to an hour and a half just to trim the branches and their leaves, using cutters and cutoff wheels on a Dremel power tool. A 20 foot/6.1 meter bamboo might yield only 30 useable branches. With some heatbending procedures, such as bends of very small radii, the failure rates exceeds 90% or more, especially if the bamboo is not freshly cut and/or has been exposed to the sun for too long. To have an adequate supply, you need five or more culled stems, plus the labor and time to trim them.
Most of the information on heatbending bamboo refers to bending large diameter culms for furniture. For this purpose, the internode septums or partitions are broken through, and the inside of the culm filled with fine sand so that the walls of the stem do not buckle during bending. This is not necessary with the small diameter branches used for jewelry (from 0.3 cm to slightly less than 1.0 cm) but most practitioners advise using freshly cut bamboo, which greatly increases the percentage of successful bends. One blogger recommends heating the bamboo to above boiling temperature, which is close to scorching of the skin of the bamboo, when the lignin and pectin of the culm soften and allow “a bend radius of sixty pole diameters.” (Retrieved 1/1/2013 from http://blog.bamboofencer.com/all-things-bamboo/bending-bamboo-not-trivial/). With bamboo heatbending, the torch flame achieves two purposes: heat-coloring of the skin and softening of the bamboo to allow bending. The former process makes working with black bamboo so rewarding, as the subtle enhancing of the skin colors and patterns by the heat, coupled with the inherent structure of its culms, combine to produce a structure that is visually and tactilely rich, yet light, strong and still pliable, and actually has greater tensile strength than steel (Retrieved 1/10/2013 from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/04/12/stronger-than-steel.html).
Since many of the basic bending and jewelry techniques for bamboo jewelry have been described in my previous articles or blog (Liu 2010, 2012 a, b), I will mainly talk about what I have done since. Essentially I like to work in series, which many other craftspeople also prefer; I have always loved variations on a theme. In fact, when working with bamboo, ideas generate faster than I can put into practice. At first, I concentrated on basic culm bending, including single and intertwined culm torques. The basic heatbending requires a wood mandrel, but increasingly I do the final bends with a gloved hand. I need to shape the bamboo torques in both lateral and vertical planes to fit the neck and the curvature of the chest (see Liu 2012c about factors important to how a necklace fits). Since all torques need terminations, I gave this aspect a lot of attention; mostly decorating the ends with beads and artifacts, using various cold-fastening methods. Some of the terminations required metalworking, like those that had soldered tension mounts. Along with the terminations, I worked on ways to enhance the bent culms, with wire or tubing wrapping; this wrapping started as a way to repair culms damaged through bending, but because it is so pleasing, it soon became a design element. To add visual interest and volume to the rather thin bamboo torques, I then started to make pendants and other objects that could be slipped onto the culm. I call such items slipons; they and the pendants move freely on the torques. The terminations were usually made large enough to trap or prevent the pendants or slipons from coming off, although some pendants can still be removed. The pendants or slipons consisted of beads or other cultural artifacts, fabricated metal, slices of large stems or heatbent culms with very tight radii. Since every metal jeweler has a scrapbox of odds and ends, I used such material, along with brass/silver tubing to fabricate a series of Scrap Geometric pendants. The contrast of bright metal goes nicely with the dark bamboo culms. With the addition of pendants or slipons, these bamboo torques essentially functioned like neckwires (Liu 2001). Their opening is at the back of the neck, versus those torques without pendants, where the opening is in the front. For this type of torque, the terminations provide the visual interest and focal points.
After heatcoloring and bending, the skin of the torques do not need additional finishing, although one can use a plain cotton buff or even use polishing compounds, then buffing with clean cotton. The nicest finish occurs on the steambent torque; but I am not sure if it is the combination of steam and heat.
Besides the sustainability of using a material like bamboo for jewelry, as well as its beauty and relative permanence, what I really like about making bamboo jewelry is that it draws on so many skills and interests. Woodworking, metalworking, beads, jewelry components or artifacts can all be applied, as long as one had a modicum of manual skills, imagination and tools. This is an ideal situation for today’s craftspeople, who so eagerly embrace and cross media and tools in their work. I hope to teach this stimulating type of jewelrymaking to others in the craft community and explore together the possibilities of bamboo.
Liu, R.K. 2001 Neckwires. Elegant Utility. Ornament 24 (3): 60-63.
—2012a Bamboo Jewelry. A Sustainable Resource. Ornament 35 (3): 60-65.
—2012b Design Discussion: Problem Solving. Retrieved January 2, 2013, from http://ornamentmagazine.com/blog/2012/08/08/design-discussion-problem-solving/
—2012c Clasps. The Vital Link. Ornament 36 (2): 62-67.