Silver Soldering tips and tricks.
How to cope with a melt down!
Silver soldering is possibly the most important basic requirement for silver jewellery making and unfortunately – possibly one of the most difficult to master! You may find that silver soldering is your stumbling block for at least a few weeks when you start out. Practice, time and patience are needed until things seem to ‘go right’ and it is easy to be discouraged if you don’t immediately experience success! But once you get the hang of it, all manner of designs will be available for you to try within your jewellery making.
I must just point out that silver soldering is a totally different way of soldering than with low temperature solder and a soldering iron. The low temperature solders that used to be lead based, are not appropriate for silver soldering for silver jewellery making purposes. I am also assuming whilst writing this, that the basics of flux and pickle for silver soldering are understood.
It helps to know the basic technical stuff! So here goes with a brief explanation:
In the most simple terms, when joining two pieces of metal together the aim is to actually melt a third metal – ie, solder in-between them. When a metal is heated to temperatures approaching its melting point the crystal (or molecular) structure of which it is made will relax and move apart creating spaces. The solder is then heated up to become molten ‘liquid’ metal that is able to run in-between these spaces between the crystal structure of the metal. Then as the metal cools the solder is trapped as the metals harden and this creates the join. Simple!
But in practice…
Every one of us will already have, and will in future, melt pieces of work at some point. I try and look at it like this, I can go for days at a time in the kitchen and everything will be OK and then all of a sudden I’ll burn the pizza, or the toast or even the soup! Making anything involves certain skills that sometimes don’t work properly. We are human after all – not computers! Stress, tiredness, hurrying, worrying or just feeling a bit off colour are all just a few states that can all affect our general abilities in life. The trick is to just try and put it down to experience and have another go.
In fact, a really helpful exercise is to do a few ‘melting’ projects. (There are some in the scrap workbook at the studio) This will teach you just how hot metals have to get before they actually melt. And – probably more importantly, observing metals closely during the few moments as they melt will help you to recognise when melting may be about to occur. This should then help you to judge and react to the process when melting isn’t on the agenda! I am talking mainly about silver here, but brass will do a similar thing, copper has to get to a more extreme temperature before it will start to melt.
Becoming more advanced
Once you’ve got over a few melt-downs and had some success – you may find that other ways of silver soldering could be tried for different soldering jobs. There are a few variations to the pallion soldering technique that I initially teach to all beginners. Below is a brief explanation of the different ways to solder.
- Pallions – small pieces of solder are placed directly over the join with tweezers, these melt when the metal reaches temperature. It is suitable for most types of work.
- Sweat soldering – sometimes called tinning, this involves melting pallions of solder on to one piece of metal at a time. It is good for soldering flat pieces of metal of different sizes on top of each other.
- Pick and probe – this involves picking up small pallions of solder on the end of a probe or a component by using flux. This method can be tricky for beginners.
- Stick – this method involves holding a length of solder in lockable tweezers and touching it on to the surface of the metal when it has reached soldering temperature. It is good for soldering large joins but it does need good judgement of the soldering temperatures of metals.
- Paste – this method uses pre-made specially manufactured solder and flux already mixed together in to a paste, dispensed out of a syringe on to the work before heating. It is fairly expensive but good for small and intricate work.
Remember, whatever method you use – quench your work in water then pickle it to remove the oxides and glassy flux residues after each solder. There is another blog about solder paste that may interest you if you want to read further.
All the above techniques are covered during the ‘2 day Bench Skills Masterclass’ held at the studio as a two day workshop. This is a good opportunity for all ability levels to focus on soldering and other essential bench skills.
Take time to set up
15 top soldering tips
Finally, here is my list of 15 top soldering tips to try and help when there are times when it just won’t happen.
- Joints must be touching. Solder doesn’t jump across gaps. The most common gap problem has to be jump rings. I’m sure you’ve had times when the solder just runs away from the join and around the jump ring. This is often because there’s a gap.
- Joints must be clean, free from grease, pickle, buffing compound, etc. this brings us to the next point;
- Work cleanly . Get in to the habit of pickling, rinsing and drying after soldering each join or annealing metals. This is a mistake I see all the time in the studio. If you pickle your work solely because you have been told to – then it’s time to research and understand the reasons for yourself!
- Flux must be used, no flux = no join!
- Pieces being soldered must be equally hot, heat larger components first to get them to temperature ready to equal any smaller pieces. It’s easy to get drawn in to the join. The heat will be drained from the join area until other areas of the work are also hot. Try to see the bigger picture and consider the heat conducting properties of the metals. Developing an empathy with the materials you are using will really improve your skills.
- Keep the torch moving around the metal to ensure smaller or thinner parts aren’t melted away. It’s dangerous – me saying this!! I often see ‘mad’ and frenetic torch swinging as a result. Keep the torch moving by all means. But you are not stirring paint! A torch swinging wildly – several inches from side to side will allow a small piece of metal to cool with each pass. This will mean that the metal takes much longer than it should to get hot. So you could just be burning flux and not effectively making a join.
- If the silver solder rolls in to a ball and just sits there it has reached temperature long before the metals to be joined – keep heating, moving the torch and aiming the heat around the rest of the metals.
- Try and use the correct amount of silver solder for the join. Easy to say I know. Really this just comes with experience.
- Always provide an air hole when making enclosed hollow items (like a ball) This is important, if steam is trapped inside the item it may explode when heated.
- Soldering (and annealing) may be easier in a dimly lit area so the colour of the metal can be seen as it gets hotter.
- Take time to set up the work to be soldered, sometimes work needs skilful ‘propping up’ before it can be joined. Often a 30 second join can need 10 minutes of fiddling and setting up. It’ll be worth it – always try to set up so you have your hands free to add solder and hold the torch. It’s almost impossible to hold pieces together with your hands, keep them steady and solder at the same time.
- Be aware that fire bricks, tweezers, binding wire, steel mesh or other devices used to hold the metal can also absorb the heat and will alter the length of time the metal needs to get to temperature. This can often result in flux being burned away before the metal is hot enough for the solder to run. This is ‘schoolboy error’ number 1! Often done by some of the most experienced. Learn to really look at what you are doing – assess and see the bigger picture.
- Use an air brick or a soldering wig to lift large pieces of sheet off the bricks – especially if soldering proportionally small pieces onto the surface.
- If the metal is taking an excessive length of time to solder then it is worth stopping, pickling and starting again. Ask for advice or assess why it went wrong, if possible before a second attempt!
- If silver has become excessively hot whilst soldering allow it to cool for a few seconds before quenching – sometimes it ‘shocks’ the structure of the metal, making it brittle if quenched immediately. This can even result in cracks occurring in the metal. It is possible to solder the cracks back up but it can still be a real disaster if it happens. Silver is delicate when it is hot so be mindful of this. Copper isn’t affected.
Silver soldering is obviously a real skill that can take years to perfect and understand. The most important thing to remember is that all the above pesky problems have happened to all of us at some point so whatever you do;
Don’t give up!