Thursday, October 7, 2010

Repousse and Chasing Techniques

Repousse and chasing are techniques for creating 3 dimensional relief in sheet metal. The process is a very old one which is often overlooked by metal artists today. It is a direct method of sculpting metal using simple hand tools and hammers. There is no loss of material when forming metal with these techniques - the metal is not cut by the tools but pushed into shape in small increments.  There are as many approaches to repousse and chasing as there are artists.  You can get some sheet metal to experiment with at Online Metals. Copper sheet is a good choice, in the thickness range of .032-.04".

Here are some of my frequently used chasing tools. These punches have a variety of specially shaped faces which push the sheet metal around by tapping on the tool with a hammer.  Most chasing tools are made from hardened and tempered tool steel. Tool steel has a higher carbon content than typical steel which makes it much harder and more durable. I have found that for my purposes, tools made of mild steel with lower carbon content work just fine. In fact, I have done some repousse work with wooden tools with good results. Matt Weber from Della Terra Studios makes some very high quality, high carbon chasing tools.

 The texture of the business end of the chasing tool will be transferred to the surface of the metal. Smooth faced tools like these are often used to move the metal into shape. Chasing tools with textured faces can produce different surface effects and are often used in the refinement stages of repousse work.

Repousse and chasing are commonly performed over pitch. Pitch is a resinous tar-like substance which is semi-fluid when hot and hard when cold. It provides a backing for forming the metal that supports it yet allows it to be deformed. The pitch holds the metal in place during hammering and prevents the material from being pushed around, other than what is directly under the chasing tool. The pitch is used at different temperatures depending on the amount or depth of forming required. The final stages of refinement, called planishing, are typical done on cold, hard pitch. Soft pitch has the resistance of wet clay if you were to press something into it - Not your finger! Pitch burns can be very severe and painful. A good source for pitch is Northwest Pitchworks.

This is the lid to a box that I formed in the pitch bowl. I worked the metal from the front and back sides of the design by flipping it over in the pitch multiple times. Repousse refers to pushing the metal out from the back side of the piece - chasing is pushing the metal down from the front. There is a lot of back and forth between repousse and chasing when creating a relief. As the metal is moved around it becomes stiff, or work hardened. The metal will crack if the stresses are not relieved. Think of bending a paper clip back and forth until it snaps. The metal can be returned to it's soft, malleable state by heating it to very high temperatures. This process is called annealing. Annealing temperatures are different for each metal and alloy but generally occur when the metal is red hot. Some metals must cool down slowly after annealing but copper and other non-ferrous metals can be quenched in water for a quick cool down.
I began this piece by drawing the design on the flat sheet metal and embossing the lines with a tool called an outliner or tracer. This tool has a business end similar in shape to a screwdriver but with rounded edges and corners. After the design was outlined I flipped the metal over and began pushing up the high points in between my traced lines. This is the back side of the design showing the types of tools used to create the depth. The piece was then flipped back over to define the shapes from the front.

In this photo you can see the faint impression left by the outliner tool in the lower right. This section has not yet been pushed out from the back side. Starting a project from the front with the outliner is a common strategy but not necessary. Some pieces are started by pushing out a large undefined area from the back and then pushing the low points back down, establishing the design by moving the metal from high to low.

Here is a sample I did for a client a few years back. The fingers and details were created with repousse and chasing, and then the metal was bent up into the cupped shape.

I do a lot of my repousse work with the aid of a hand held pneumatic hammer. This is an air chisel with adjustable speeds. The chisel tools have been modified by grinding, forging, and welding. The tools are just bigger versions of my chasing tools. The air hammer moves the metal quickly and with pretty uniform results. Saves lots of wear and tear on the hammering arm as well!

Here are some pieces that I formed with the pneumatic hammer.

Some of the most famous sculptures created using these techniques are the Statue of Liberty, Portlandia, and King Tut's burial mask. I have lots more to say on the subject of repousse and chasing. I will be posting step by step images of the techniques soon.


  1. excellent work
    I want to make my own punches now

  2. you are a great artist, i would like learn with you!!!!!! congratulations!!
    greetins from Temuco,Chile, South America..

  3. I have a question. Do you fill the face with pitch and then work the positive side?
    North Carolina

    1. Pitch normally isn't used for very large forms. Forming can be done using clay, wax, towels, carpet, sandbags, or nothing at all as a backing.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful introduction to repousse! I wanted to show my middle school classes some background for this beautiful artform and you have perfectly described it for us! Thanks!

  5. Hi Jeremy, My name is Rocio Bearer. I am very interested in take some metal clases.I love your work.
    I am a Glass artist( let me know your shedule.

  6. What beautiful work ! i am interested in learning this technique. where does one find the iron pitch bowls ? What pitch would you recommend for a beginner? Thank you .

  7. beautiful work. every item is so neat and very nicely design. thanks for sharing your work with us.

    Stuart Elliot

  8. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I do metalwork, and I'm definitely wanting to do more sculptural work. Thanks!

  9. What gauge of copper sheeting do you use?
    I have done metal fabrication for cars and I want to try a sculpture Human life size using this technique. Should I make some bags or should I make some other forms?

    Any suggestions for tools & materials suppliers and also tutorials?

    Thank You

    1. Normally 16 gauge if I'm planning on welding, or 18 if not. Some bags may be useful but you'll probably need some stakes to hammer over as well, since you'll have to work the material from both sides. Raising stakes, mushroom stakes, etc. You can make them since they can be expensive. There should be some other tutorials in the website links in the right side column like metal artist forum