Some Forum questions, or topics, generate lots of comments, opinions
and recommendations. I’m surprised this soldering question, about
such a fundamental jewelry making activity, has not generated a
flood of feedback.
Bob, jewelry soldering can be done successfully with any of the hand
Torches sold today using various gases plus related products. Each
Torch, soldering technique and accessory has it’s advocates and
intended use. Each also has it’s benefits and sometimes drawbacks.
Other people have suggested taking a basic soldering class, watching
videos, maybe starting with an inexpensive setup like a Plumber’s
Torch (brass neck/Tip that screws onto a small, propane cylinder).
All good suggestions as a person learns to solder. You said you’d
read a couple books which shows initiative, an important action that
demonstrates self-motivation. Keep on reading.
Three areas basically define soldering tools / purchase
considerations: Costs, tool function and gasses. Depending on a
person’s budget and plans somewhat different items may be needed to
get started. After over 40 years of experience at the bench, here
are some of my opinions with product examples for illustration. As a
person gains experience additional items sometimes become useful but
in the beginning only the basics are necessary so that’s what I’ll
focus on. Potentially the most costly single item is the Torch. If
your budget allows acquiring a Torch, new or used, that’s designed
for fuel gas plus oxygen brings many benefits over a fuel gas / air
Torch that does not require compressed or higher purity oxygen.
Two, popular Torches are the Little Torch and Meco Midget. Other
Torches are available and worth consideration but these units
represent a fundamental of many tools; a range of ‘quality of
construction.’ You can’t go wrong with the Meco Midget, period. Both
Torches will ‘burn’ various gasses but an important, often
misunderstood fact, is how central the Torch “Tip design” is to the
fuel gas used. Important in the sense of maximizing flame control
re: flame stability, range of adjdusaibility and overall ease of
soldering use. Simply “burning” a fuel gas is very different from a
Torch “Tip” that’s “optimized” for a fuel gas! Propane & natural gas
require “multi-port” Tips to correctly burn those gasses. Acetylene
& hydrogen need single hole Tips. (I’m not suggesting you consider
hydrogen, in the beginning, unless an inexpensive ‘Water Torch’ deal
comes your way) The Little Torch and Meco Midget can be used with
all common fuel gasses plus oxygen but both only come with
single-hole Tips. If your fuel gas is propane or natural gas, much
cleaner burning than acetylene and plenty hot enough, search for a
supplier of “optimized” ‘multi-port’ Tips to make your soldering
Torch really preform!
Along with gas considerations come tanks, sizes, regulators, safety
products and other materials. Propane tanks come in a number of
sizes and are easily refilled at many outlets. Some localities have
regulations re: propane indoor tank size. Natural gas, if available,
requires no tank, a cost saving benefit. Acetylene gas adds new
refill or tank exchange.
Oxygen supply is from either a compressed, ‘tanked’ source or oxygen
generator. Tanked oxygen is generally the better choice being less
expensive and providing higher purity gas. Newer oxygen generators
produce fairly high purity oxygen but those units cost more.
Generators do not offer the range of oxygen output pressure tanked
oxygen does. Oxygen generators do not require a separate regulator
but regulator cost should be lower on the list of most important
considerations. Propane and acetylene require a regulator, natural
gas does not; another benefit of natural gas if available. Used
tools sometimes are good investments but purchase any needed
regulators new. Any of the common brands of regulators are fine, mix
or matching brands is fine.
Other items you should add: Reverse gas flow ‘check valves’ and
possibly ‘flash back arrestors.’ Combined safety valves (check
valves / flash back arrestors) are available or each type may be
purchased as separate units. Jewelry soldering requires fairly low
gas pressures so ‘flash back arrestors’ may not be as necessary
unless a person is using higher gas pressures with larger Torches
often used for lost wax casting or in oxy /acetylene welding. Other
safety considerations to keep in mind: Acetylene can 'self ignite’
over 15 lbs. output pressure from a regulator so keep an eye on the
regulator dial if using that gas! Propane is heavier than air so if
you have a leak or accidentally leave the Torch fuel gas valve open
gas can accumulate on the floor with a potential to ignite from a
spark source if concentration builds up. Natural gas is lighter than
air plus has a limited air to gas mixture range that will even
ignite which helps with it’s safe use.
Other tools and supplies needed are the following: Soldering Flux.
lots of options there. My suggestion: use a white paste flux that
does not contain fluorides. You will need a Pickle Compound to
dissolve metal oxides and hardened flux. Start with any brand of a
"safe pickle." It’s slower working, less aggressive and easier to
dispose of than sulfuric acid, etc., but gets the job done. As you
gain experience other pickle chemicals can be considered. Pickle is
used heated for best results. Only use a pyrex or ceramic container.
Electric ‘pickle pots’ are an option as are some cooking ‘crock
pots’ but watch the lid material. No ‘ferric’ metal lids / parts
that can form oxides from pickle spray and drip down to contaminate
the solution. Copper Tongs to remove work from the pickle solution.
You should use some type of heat / flame protection on your work
surface if it’s combustible. Various materials are available from
jewelry tool suppliers or just use several regular bricks. On top of
the surface protection you need a material to actually solder on.
Again, there are various options. My vote is for a charcoal block
from jewelry tool suppliers. Soft and hard charcoal blocks in
various sizes are available. Both have pluses and minuses. In the
beginning, go for hard charcoal. I use soft blocks 95% of the time
but starting out hard blocks are more cost effective and easier to
maintain. Get a pair of stainless tweezers about 4" long to pick &
place small pieces of solder and adjust positions of your work when
it’s hot. Also, get a pair or two of locking tweezers, straight and
bent, with heat protection handles. Tweezers, unless they are sold
as “acid safe” do not go in pickle solutions. Re: Solder: I’m
guessing silver will be your precious metal of choice at first. Buy
the 3, common heat ranges of silver solder. Get sheet solder, not
paste or ‘chipped’ solder when learning. A pair of solder snips,
(made for cutting sheet solder) makes cutting solder into small
pieces easy. You also need a solder pic. See pick options in
catalogues. A 3rd hand tool can be a big help sometimes.
A ‘plumbers’ Torch allows doing basic soldering but it’s lack of
flame control and heat range output, from not using pure oxygen,
restricts advanced soldering. Upgrade to a quality fuel gas / oxygen
Torch like the Meco with correct Tips that match your fuel gas, a
tank for oxygen and acetylene if you choose that gas, regulators and
safety valves and you’re set for a career of soldering. Plumbers
Torch setups run about $15 to $60. Going the other route provides
far more options in what you’ll be able to solder, melt, fuse, etc.,
but costs more. That’s basically it.
Some final points. Solder Brand makes a difference! Different
formulas with various melt / flow points can make soldering easier
and produces better results the same as matching Torch Tip design to
the fuel gas. I’ve tried many brands of solder over the years and
for sheet solders there are none better than the products Hoover &
Strong produces. Some people may suggest using a face fumes mask,
protective eye ware, good lights, a venting system over your pickle
area and/or work space. A Torch holder / hanger, some type of Torch
flame lighter (I use a Bic). I’d be surprised if someone didn’t
mention getting some soldering heat shield compound, oxide
preventing spray or liquid, iron or stainless binding wire, etc.
I’ll leave those areas for others to comment about (and I hope more
people comment). Your basic question was about the tools jewelry
makers use. Basically that’s what I’ve tried to stick to along with
some explanation of why this or that. People who made good
suggestions before my comments inspired me to contribute. Maybe a
few things I’ve mentioned will get others to share their knowledge.
Good luck in jewelry; it’s a lifetime learning art form with many
avenues of interest to explore. Learning to solder is probably the
single most important and useful skill to learn in fine jewelry