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Annealing sterling silver wire

I have some old sterling silver wire which I wanted to draw down from 1.5mm to 1.0mm diameter. The first draw down worked to 1.4mm but now I can’t get it to soften to do more. I have annealed it several times to ‘pink’ but it refuses to soften. Can you over-anneal wire? What am I doing wrong? Heather G

You need to heat the wire to 1100 Fahrenheit and hold the temperature for 10 minutes. Then water quench. This is best done in a kiln.

Here’s an easy way to anneal wire.

Wrap it round a cylinder. When it comes off it will be a bit like a slinky. Coil it and use the ends to wrap it into a tight circular bundle with no gaps. Flux it and then heat it with a torch. Get it to cherry red heat and then remove the flame. Then quench it and pickle it.

A more sophisticated method is to put the coil inside a small steel can and heat it from underneath until the can glows red.

It doesn’t need to be kept at a high temperature for a long time - just up to red and then finish heating,

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Depending on how much you have, coil it and tuck in any ends (they tend to heat up faster than the rest). You can also secure it with binding wire. I sometimes flux with a boric acid and alcohol dip depending on what I will use the wire for. Get a bit of a bushy flame on your torch. I have a separate EZ torch just for annealing. It has a nice flame and isn’t as hot as my gas and O2 torch. Heat the coil evenly in a circular pattern until all sections glow red. You probably won’t be able to get it all red at the same time. I have always darkened my shop when I do this. I have a master switch on my bench that shuts off all the lights. Pickle, dry, rinse and you should be good to go. Looks like you are going from around 16 to 18 gauge. This should be an easy draw. Good luck…Rob

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Many thanks. I have a small kiln so I can try that. The wire is thicker than I normally draw down. I have never annealed for 10 mins before … so will give your advice a go.
Heather G

More good advice. I think the torch I have been using may be part of the problem, too narrow a flame, so will look out my old bushy flame torch.
Many thanks,
Heather G

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This gives me a very simple option to try. I love all the different advice that is given and I am learning all the time. Many thanks. Heather G.

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Heather,

Here is a simple way to anneal your silver that I teach to my students so they don’t melt their metal. I learned this at a workshop many years ago. It works great for anyone, but especially new metal artists who have a hard time seeing the color change in the metal when it is heated to a dull red color in a well lit room.

Like Rob says, coil your wire and then put black sharpie marks all over the coil. You don’t have to coat the whole thing, just put some marks evenly over the whole piece. Skip the boric acid and alcohol coat because the alcohol will dissolve the sharpie marks. Heat the metal until the black sharpie “ghost’s out” and disappears. Stop heating, wait about 30 seconds - longer for ingots or similar large mass of metal - so the metal can cool to about 500 degrees F, and quench in clear water. You’re done. You will need to pickle to get rid of the oxidation on the silver, but it beats heating to red and having your metal wire fuse together, or worse melting into a puddle of goo and having to start over making your wire.

A couple of other points: Most precious metals and their alloys will become annealed around 1000 degrees F (538 C). This method works on gold and Argentium Silver also, but when annealing Argentium, do NOT quench at all. Allow it to cool to room temp. I just place it on a thick piece of steel and allow it to act as a heat sink to cool my silver.

I was taught way back when that you need to heat your metal to a dull red color, so when I learned in the workshop to use black sharpie ink it was a godsend. My newbies weren’t continually melting up their silver when annealing. I’m not sure why black permanent marker and not other colors, but my guess would be that permanent ink colors other than black will burn off at a lower temp than black. If you don’t have a black permanent marker, according to Charles Lewton-Brain in his book on Foldforming (thanks Charles) you can use other things as an indicator that you have reached the proper temperature such as blue carpenter’s chalk (turns white at annealing temp), and Ivory Soap (turns black at proper temp)

Good luck, and Happy Holidays to all.
Mike Campbell

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Mike your method sounds so easy! :heart_eyes_cat: I am away for holidays now but as soon as I get home, I will try your method first as I have no shortage of black sharpies. I felt an idiot not managing to anneal a thicker than my usual wire but now I have lots of tricks to get the job done! Many many thanks. Heather G

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Not surprisingly Rob and I use the same method. We use pretty much the same equipment and learned our basics from the same source. I was following along with this because I have learned I am not too old to learn something new. I know I had head the Sharpie trick before but have never used it. I make brass rod ornaments in the season. I build a fire brick oven in my gas grill, place 1/8" brass rods in the oven and run them at top end for twnty minutes. No clue what the temp is inside the oven but it anneals the brass rod well enough to work.

Don…

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I use a sharpie as an indication of annealing temperature on smaller solid pieces, especially if I am concerned about over heating. But for a coil of wire, the disappearance of a sharpie mark in one spot may not be an accurate indication that the entire coil is annealed. I prefer to watch it turn red in low to no light or use a kiln. In the end, like so much of what we do, if it works for you, keep doing it…Rob

Using a Sharpie to indicate annealing temperature is an highly inaccurate myth. Ann Cahoon did extensive research on visual indicators for annealing temperature. The research can be found starting on page 21 of the free documentation from the 2014 Santa Fe Symposium. http://www.santafesymposium.org/2014-santa-fe-symposium-papers/2014-bench-myths?rq=myths. A far more accurate indicator is when paste flux just starts to show glassy. Her paper is really worth reading and covers annealing of common jewelry metals as well as other myths about sawing, filing, etc. FWIW - the sharpie test for all colors of sharpie results in very low temperatures reached and not actually reaching annealing temperature.
Further research on the subject is found in the 2018 edition - http://www.santafesymposium.org/2018-santa-fe-symposium-papers/2018-bench-myths-revisited

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Thanks Judy. I will need your read your research reports more than once to get the best from them. It is really helpful to be pointed to available research as I might not have found these reports by just googling. Back to the bench! Heather G

I am definitely going to try the Sharpie trick. If it works I will be very happy. However, as we say in UK ‘there are many ways to skin a cat! Not a very PC saying and I have no idea where it comes from … and I love cats. Heather G

Hi Judy and All, and Merry Xmas!
I read the research with interest, but, as an academically trained researcher, I was disappointed by the research design. Of course, any research is better than none, but with one experimenter and four trials for each annealing method and no statistics, I don’t know whether you can draw any real reliable conclusions a all…looking at all the trials and assuming the thermocouple worked well, one conclusion would be that it is hard to judge temperature by any visual method and harder to judge the hotter the goal temperature. Within about 75 to a hundred degrees is about what the experimenter was able to achieve. She did somewhat better on some trials than others, but was that due to chance or the method used? Without some statistics, it’s impossible to know. Another issue is that the level of annealing—the softness of the silver after heating—was not determined. The fact that no one has commented in this whole discussion on how effective their annealing method is has been one issue that troubled me. From the little I know about metallurgy, it would seem that the reported annealing temps and times (about 1100*F for sterling, and anywhere from a minute or so on the bench to ten minutes in a kiln) have a lot of latitude to them. Seems like if you get the silver to some degree of dark red, you’ll get some softening, enough to go ahead and work your silver or draw it down. Isn’t that what you’re after? A quick way to soften your silver to some degree, if not the maximum? Then when it’s too hard to work properly, if you’re not done, you anneal again, right? So I don’t know whether all the worry over bright lights or dim lights of sharpie marker vs flux is all that important. I mean, silversmiths have been using various methods and getting along OK for hundreds of years, right? Or not?

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As to using a kiln to anneal silver. I have done it this way. You don’t have to judge color or mess around with sharpies, but you do have to have that kiln. The silver comes out very soft.

How long in the kiln, and have you found any differences in the timing between a standard size or a beehive?

royjohn - she had a themocouple on all of the tests. The annealing temperature of metals is well known and documented in multiple books. I use the MJSA book on jewelry metals edited by Jim Binnion. The point of the research was "visual clues to reaching annealing temperature. She documented same. And noted the red color in incandescent light and darkness. And noted the temperature reached - and that the color wasn’t predictably indicative of reaching the temperature desired. What she didn’t mention is the disaster of annealing too often or before annealing is required. Another discussion I imagine.
My point was to look at someone who had done a serious amount of work to find a predictable decision point with normal shop materials to find the desirable temperature. For all of those who didn’t read the document, she also covers annealing gold as well as many other myths - like how to file… JSH

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Hello Judy…re: Ann Cahoon’s research, it’s an interesting first experiment, but there are issues with the data that Ann doesn’t address. As to the thermocouple, the K style ones (which I assume she used, she didn’t say) are stated to be accurate to about one or two degrees, yet all the temperatures she measured are very high, if dull red is about 950-1000F. If you look up dull red temps., you get a large range. Some people say it is 1290F. This isn’t addressed. Then the addition of saving solution in judging the dull red in room light helps the temp be lower and also there is less inaccuracy across trial. This isn’t addressed. Why? Then common sense would indicate that using saving solution in judging the dull red in subdued light would improve accuracy, but that’s not the case. Judging dull red in subdued light produces a shorter range of judged temps. and a lower temp., on average, for dull red. However, using saving solution in subdued light increases the range of temperatures reported and raises the average temp. I can’t rationalize this. Then using the flux becomes glassy criterion, the thermocouple indicates an average of 1315F, whereas paste flux is supposedly glassy at 1100F. One could find other inconsistencies in these sets of date with further analysis, but I’ll just say I’m uncertain about them. As my professors always said, sometimes you report your results but you can’t explain them. My best guess is that in heating with a torch, it is easy to overshoot your goal and by the time you see the evidence and say “stop,” you have overshot the temperature. Further, when annealing temps at the bench are indicated by various authorities to be 1100F to 1200F and no one indicates that a higher temp. actually results in a harder metal, what is the issue when all you’re trying to do is produce metal which doesn’t crack and can be worked again? Solution annealing in a kiln is quoted at 1370*F, so I assume you can go that high without actually starting to harden the metal…

Charles Lewton-Brain states in this forum back some years that the dull red color idea comes from a time when there was no room lighting except the glow from the forge and that no color should be seen in annealing. He uses the change of the torch flame to an orange-yellow color as an indicator, but doesn’t say why this works for various metals and temperatures. I’m left with the idea that a lot of our ideas about metalsmithing are empirically derived and not necessarily all accurate.

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Charles Lewton-Brain via Royjohn makes an important point. I ALWAYS turn off the lights in my studio when I am silver soldering or annealing silver.
I also use a coating of boric acid and denatured alcohol to protect the metal from fire scale.
Flux and boric acid both serve dual purposes. They not only help with solder flowing, but I also use them as temperature indicators. When paste flux or boric acid turn clear and water like I know I have reached the proper soldering or annealing temp.
And finally I’m wth Judyh in following James Binnion’s advice when it comes to metallurgy. I encourage every one to go buy James Binnion’s book “Jewelry Metals” from MJSA. Every studio should have a copy. James really knows his shit. I’ve been at conferences when folks from all over the world with PHDs in metallurgy gather around him and ask questions. Get the book people!
And remember failure is a requirement to learning. Relax. We are not brain surgeons. If we f**k up no one will die. We can just melt down our metals and do it over again.

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