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AJM article on Hydroflux on orchid


#1

This article originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of AJM
Magazine. Visit AJM on the Web at www.ajm-magazine.com.

Making Connections

With the help of technology, attaching metals has never been easier.

Connections are an important part of jewelry manufacturing. We make
them with suppliers, with retailers, even with the people who buy and
wear our jewelry. But some of the most important connections are those
we make between metals. Whether creating custom one-offs or producing
in volume, jewelers must constantly make physical connections between
metal objects�ear posts to earrings, clasps to chains, and jump rings
to nearly everything. And more and more, they are looking toward newer
technology to help them do so in less time, at lower cost, and with
greater convenience. Recently, I had the opportunity to experiment
with several benchtop welding units that, to varying degrees, achieve
those aims. These units�two water welders and three fusion welders�may
operate under different principles, but all increase efficiency: Some
save considerable time, some save money, and some simply increase the
flexibility of shop operations. All, however, prove the value of
incorporating technology into the shop.

The first units I tested were the water welders. These machines have
been around in the jewelry industry for some time now�at least 15
years, according to Mike McCoy, vice president of the Union, New
Jersey-based Okai Corp., manufacturer of the Hydroflux welder. While
water welders are not the newest innovation in the industry, continued
refinements have reduced their size and cost. Among their benefits,
the most important is that they eliminate the potential danger of
storing flammable bottled and piped gases. Instead, they generate
hydrogen and oxygen on site from the breakdown of distilled water.
This is especially important with bottled gas; normally purchased and
stored in pressurized containers, it is coming under increasing
regulation and may be prohibited in some areas.

The two machines I tested were the Okai Hydroflux and the SRA H2O
#250 welders. While each shares basic operating characteristics, they
differ in several ways. Both machines generate fuel gas by sending an
electrical current through distilled water, the conductivity of which
has been improved by the addition of an electrolyte, potassium
hydroxide. The current breaks the bonds between the oxygen and the
hydrogen atoms of the water molecules, releasing them as a mixed gas.
That gas is then �bubbled� through a fluxing solution of methyl
alcohol and boric acid.

This solution, which becomes incorporated into the fuel gas, performs
two functions. First, it lowers the burning temperature of the flame
from around 5,600 degrees F to 4,850 degrees F, helping operators to
avoid inadvertently melting parts. (Conversely, this temperature
reduction increases the flame�s BTU value.) Second, the boric acid
helps protect the object being soldered from oxides and fire scale.
This is further helped by the high hydrogen content of the flame,
which produces a reducing atmosphere that eliminates some of the
potential for oxidation present in most fuel gases. (It should be
noted that the fluxing action and reduction flame do not eliminate the
use of pre-dip and flux at the solder joint.)

I can�t recall when, but at some point in the past I had formed an
impression that the flame from water welders didn�t compare favorably
with my trusty old oxy-acetylene setup. It might have been from
observation; the water welder�s torch tip is nothing more than a
short hypodermic-type needle, the appearance of which looks pretty
funny to a bottled gas user. But while the flame may seem small and
anemic, in this case looks are deceiving: The flame is actually hot
and precise. One adjustment I did have to make was in learning the
feel of the hotter hydrogen flame�welds occur much faster with such
high heat�but I acclimated quickly.

Suitable for small-scale jobs up to and including the sizing of a
man�s ring, these welders performed very well in all areas of
benchwork. I found that they did indeed generate less soldering �mess�
in the form of oxides. Also, both torches performed as well or better
than the oxy-acetylene system I typically use. The only advantage with
my old oxy-acetylene torch and its interchangeable tips is that I can
generate a huge flame when necessary, such as when sizing a large
silver ring with a gem that must be immersed in water for heat
protection.

Both welders also offer the benefit of portability. When their
methanol/boric acid chambers are emptied, these machines can travel
with craftsmen who take their benches with them for demonstrations, or
for on-site repair and sizing in the growing �craft show� venue. Even
in a static shop situation, the portability of these machines may
prove useful, since they can be moved from bench to bench easily.

The two machines do have some differences. The SRA machine has a
relatively small footprint, 11 inches by 6.5 inches, while the
Hydroflux welder is a little larger�16 inches by 10 inches. Also, the
Hydroflux flame can be controlled by simply changing the torch tip;
the unit has a pressure switch that reacts to a tip�s size, cycling on
to maintain a pressure of about 3 psi. The SRA machine uses a
combination of amperage to regulate gas output and tip size to
regulate flame, so that gas output can be more specifically matched to
a job.

Although both welders performed admirably, I had to wonder: Would I
be paying more if I did away with bottled gas? I decided to find out
and called my bottled gas supplier, who provided a price of $34.10 for
a container holding 197 cubic feet of gas. Since one cubic foot
converts to 28.317 liters, the math reveals that I pay about 0.6 cent
for a liter of bottled hydrogen. With gas cylinder rental at about
$6.50 per month, I speculated that bottled hydrogen approaches about 1
cent per liter overall�a crude cost comparison, but a start.

I also needed to determine how much the water welder would cost in
electricity, an expense I don�t have with my oxy-acetylene hookup. I
called the president of SRA, Stan Rubinstein, who said that the #250
produces about 45 liters per hour and uses about the same electricity
as a 150-watt bulb. McCoy agreed with that estimate for his machine as
well. I then contacted Michael Lang, an energy management specialist
with my local utility company in Eugene, Oregon; he informed me that
the average residential cost for operating a 150-watt bulb for one
hour is roughly .006 cent.

Dividing that figure by 45 liters of gas gives me a cost of .0001333
cent per liter. I had to add in the overhead of about $138 per year
for electrolyte, methanol, and boric acid�but then I remembered that
bottled hydrogen requires bottled oxygen, which costs about $16 per
bottle. Given this, it seems a fair assessment to say that these water
welders produce fuel gas less expensively than my current setup with
bottled gas. With an initial capital outlay that can run up to about
$1,100, these machines seem like a good investment for any jewelry
manufacturing business.

Fusion Fun

Another method of making connections does not involve any fuel gas at
all. Fusion welding systems have been a mainstay in the jewelry
industry for many years; properly set up and used, they can provide
fast, clean bonds between similar and dissimilar metals.

Some of these systems require the use of specially designed findings
(available from many suppliers) that have a small� approximately 0.01
inch diameter�nib in the center of a flat contact plate. The actual
welding takes place when an electrical charge flows, by a process
called capacitive discharge, through a fusion finding touching the
surface of the receiving metal. A small explosion occurs, which blows
all of the oxides and gases away from the weld. For the next
millionth of a second or so, a vacuum exists, allowing metals to bond
in the residual heat.

One such fusion welder is the Sparkie II, manufactured by Triad Inc.
in Chartley, Massachusetts. During my tests, I found it to be a
potentially useful tool for manufacturers involved with high
production numbers and standard, or at least predictable, shapes that
can accommodate the nibbed finding (e.g., tie tack backs and earring
posts). Success with the Sparkie involves the coordination of pre-fit
moving parts: a spring-loaded cylinder with a collet that holds the
fusion finding, and a jig that steadies the workpiece and engages the
collet. The jig, jig holder, and collet have interchangeable parts for
adaptation to different welding applications.

For the uninitiated, the Sparkie welding process can seem very
dramatic, but it�s actually very simple and straightforward. The
cylinder is engaged by locking it in position with spring tension. The
fusion finding is placed into the collet, and the unit�s capacitor is
charged simply by pressing a button and observing the voltmeter.
(Though determined by the parts to be joined, the charge usually falls
in the 80 volt to 120 volt range.) The operator places a workpiece in
the jig, holding it in place with a finger (properly protected, of
course, by a rubber glove). With the release of the cylinder, the
finding plunges toward the piece. A brief pop, a small spark, and you
have an immediate, secure bond. A slight residue of carbon left around
the welded parts can be easily wiped or washed off. The instruction
manual provided with the Sparkie adequately explains the process of
setting and maintaining the machine. The unit can accommodate custom
jigs, including a Triad-supplied fixture disk in which jewelers can
make impression molds in a two-part polymer.

One important note about quality control, as stated in the Sparkie
instruction manual: �The simplicity and speed of fusion welding can
be misleading. Proper alignment of the machine and preparation of the
pieces to be welded is very important and cannot be overemphasized.�
In my experience, I found that in most cases improper alignment
resulted in a failed bond. But even considering the care needed to
properly align parts, I feel that the Sparkie II may be an invaluable
tool for production welding applications, resulting in increased
output compared to traditional soldering. With very little practice, I
found that we could weld about six to 10 parts per minute�which is
about four to five times as many as I could do through torch
soldering.

Off the Beaten Tack

While the Sparkie works well with predictable applications, another
system offering increased flexibility is the Tack II. This
fusion-bonding machine, manufactured by Aelectronic Bonding Inc. in
Cranston, Rhode Island, works similarly to the Sparkie II. However,
it�s geared not toward permanent bonds, but toward the pre-weld step
of precisely aligning parts.

The Tack II basically comprises a capacitor; one electrical lead
attached to a copper contact pad; and one other lead connected to a
fusion pencil, a pair of tweezers, or any of several other electrical
conductors. As with the Sparkie, the capacitor produces an electrical
current between the lead and the workpiece, producing a bond. It�s
important for an operator to experiment with voltage levels. With too
little voltage, the bond may not occur. And with too much voltage, a
small part could be fairly well vaporized�as we nearly did a few
times.

To illustrate the Tack II�s operation, let me describe how I used it
to place prong heads on a ring mounting. Holding the ring mounting to
the contact pad, I used the tweezers to hold the prong head in the
desired position. I then depressed a foot pedal to discharge the
capacitor, which ran a sufficient current between the two parts to
tack them in place.

This procedure works well for any assembled part requiring precise
alignment, especially since it allows for mistakes: If you don�t get
the correct position on the first try, you can twist the prong head
away from the mounting and repeat the procedure. Once the parts are in
place, traditional soldering permanently attaches the head or other
object. The instruction booklet and video that accompany the unit
provide numerous similar examples of ways to use this handy machine,
such as the always tricky tacking of chain ends together and the
fabrication of free-form parts.

One use that I wasn�t able to try�but am anxious to experiment
with�involves a new way to place beads for granulation. One of the
discharge attachments available with the Tack II is a small tube to
which a miniature vacuum device is attached. The vacuum can be used
to pick up a single bead and hold it in place on a surface to be
granulated. Upon discharge, the bead is minutely fused to the
surface, securely held in place without the necessity of any chemical
glue. When all beads are placed, you can then fuse them to the metal
through oven soldering. I can only imagine how much time this could
save an artisan involved with granulation.

Another machine built and distributed by Aelectronic Bonding, the
Tack III, is another beast altogether. Originally designed for the
specific use of tacking hollowware halves prior to oven soldering, the
Tack III is actually an �arc welding pencil��which means it also uses
capacitive discharge to fuse metal, but in a different way. It uses a
tungsten electrode that, when held a very slight distance away from
the piece to be welded, passes an electrical arc that liquefies the
metal and forms a bond.

Because this process will occasionally cause oxidation around the
point of contact, the Tack III has been designed so that an argon gas
line can be attached to the welding pencil. The tungsten electrode of
the welding pencil is housed in a ceramic casing that has a diameter
slightly larger than that of the electrode; this allows the inert gas
to flow around the electrode and bathe the arc and surrounding metal
in a non-oxidizing argon atmosphere. When the foot pedal is depressed,
the gas line is activated a split-second before the discharge takes
place, so very little gas is used in the process.

Safety is, as with any tool, an issue with these fusion and arc
welding devices. A painful shock could be experienced if the
operator�s skin becomes the path of least resistance for the capacitor
discharge. Rubber gloves are advisable, and some sort of eye
protection is mandatory. For better corneal protection, you can wear
dark welding glasses�I recommend #5 shades at a minimum�but they make
it difficult to see anything but the spark. Since the capacitor
discharge is so brief for all of these machines, I found it routine to
blink as the discharge takes place. Another, safer method is simply to
look away.

When these safety precautions are in place, I found the Tack III to
be of great value. In fact, I had the machine set up for no more than
about a day when I discovered just how useful it could be. A new
client came into the shop with a necklace of beaded amber and pearl
strung on nylon, and she pointed out that the end caps had pulled away
from the clasp. The traditional repair would have called for
restringing with a stronger end cap or stringing directly to the
clasp. For her necklace, a multi-strand, I estimated the cost would
have been around $65.

Remembering the technology I had recently acquired, I made her a
proposal. I would try to fuse the tab end of the end cap with the
Tack III so that it would not pull loose again. If successful, I would
charge her only my shop minimum, $15. If not, I would complete the
repair in the traditional method and she would pay the full $65.

Honestly, I was surprised at how well the system worked. My weld was
a bit sloppy, since I had had only a day of practice, but the tool
worked perfectly. Not only did I successfully fuse the end cap tab, I
did it without melting the nylon to which it was strung! I saved my
client $50 on her first job with me, completed it while she waited,
and perhaps gained a client for life.

In the days that followed, my workers and I became very comfortable
with the Tack III, finding it useful for various routine shop
procedures. We rarely use a torch now for soldering jump rings; the
Tack III produces a perfectly bonded jump ring in seconds�with no
cleanup needed. I�ve also used it to fuse metal in casting pits, with
great success.

Of course, sometimes we have to live with a new technology before all
of the possible uses are discovered. But finding those uses is one of
the many things that excite me about my work, and about the jewelry
industry as a whole. I have a friend, a ceramist, who ebulliently
expresses her connection to her medium by proclaiming, �Touch clay
every day.� As jewelers, we have very much the same connection with
our metal�and, with tools such as these welders, that connection will
no doubt continue to evolve.

Editor�s Note: In addition to thanking the manufacturers of the
products tested for this article, AJM would like to thank Eisinger
Enterprises in Newark, New Jersey, for its help in procuring the
Sparkie II fusion welder and the Hydroflux water welder.

Welders Reviewed

Hydroflux Water Welder

Okai Corp., Union, New Jersey
Price: $975

SRA H2O #250
SRA Inc., Foxboro, Massachusetts
Price: $1,075

Sparkie II

Triad Inc., Chartley, Massachusetts
Price: $1,195

Tack II

Aelectronic Bonding Inc., Cranston, Rhode Island
Price: $1,295

Tack III

Aelectronic Bonding Inc., Cranston, Rhode Island
Price: $3,900

John Shanahan, Associate Editor
AJM magazine
The Authority on Jewelry Manufacturing
Editor, AJM Online
http://www.ajm-magazine.com
800-444-6572, ext. 3037


#2

Just a note to everyone…I accidentally left the author’s name off
the posting of the article.

The welding article was written by Gary Dawson, who has owned a
working artist’s studio for 20 years in Eugene, Oregon. (And Gary has
a superb article on crafting quality relationships with your
customers, coming up in the the August AJM.)

John Shanahan, Associate Editor
AJM magazine
The Authority on Jewelry Manufacturing
Editor, AJM Online
http://www.ajm-magazine.com
800-444-6572, ext. 3037


#3

Thanks John! I thoroughly enjoyed your article…especially the part
on the hydro torches. I have used and sold them for several
years…but never bothered to go into that much investigation of the
actual operating cost & etc. Very informative!

I would like to say though that at the site below… You can buy the
units right now …NEW for $818.00 Plus the freight! I don’t like to
advertise…but I have had several folks contact me lately about these
and I hate to see them pay $950.00 to $1100.00 when they are available
for less. This is for the Hydro Torch By Okai. I am a licensed
distributor. Again, Thank you for the informative article and all
your work! Dan DeArmond.

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