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Soldering 101


#1

Hello everyone,

I recently joined this wonderful forum and have enjoyed reading the
posts everyday. I have already learned a great deal in just a few
days - a vast store of kindly given.

I am a complete beginner in the world of jewellery making. I have
always wanted to make silver and gold jewellery and once enrolled on
a course to do so but sadly the course was cancelled due to
undersubscription. However, I decided to go for it and for the past
year I have bought and read many books on the subject, read many
articles on orchid and slowly collected tools, gemstones and silver.
I have recently started making silver jewellery for myself, my
daughters and friends. I have great days where I produce pleasing
pieces and bad days where nothing seems to go right at all. I am
learning every day through mistakes and accidents. I wonder if you
kind, experienced professionals would offer some advice on a few
niggling points? I’ll start by explaining the set up I am using.

As a beginner I am just using a butane, hand held torch at the
moment while I save up for a better set-up. I have been successfully
soldering using this and easy solder. I use borax/water paste as a
flux. This leads me to my first problem:

  1. I ran out of easy solder and had some medium solder. Now I fear
    that I changed too many variables on the particular piece I was
    having trouble with. I had purchased a beautiful but very large
    carnelian agate cabochon (about 33mm x 25mm oval) and was attempting
    to bezel set it (something I had done several times successfully). No
    matter how much I tried, I could not get the solder to flow when
    soldering the bezel to the base. By the time the solder was hot
    enough to flow, the piece was melting. I was heating the piece slowly
    and letting the piece heat the solder as per instructions. After
    about four attempts I purchased some more easy solder! i) Is there
    something I should know about medium solder - something I should
    change to get successful results?

ii) Was my failure due to the piece being so much bigger than pieces
I had previously tried?

iii) Is the failure due to the butane torch not getting hot enough
quickly enough and thus the silver melting before the solder flows?

  1. The second problem I have encountered involves previously soldered
    joints melting and the piece collapsing when trying to do the next
    join. I have read your posts on this subject and am curious about the
    whiteout pen. Is this simply the correction fluid used in the office?
    And if so do I simply paint it on previous joints and anywhere I do
    not wish the solder to flow? And will it come off in the pickle? I am
    currently using safety pickle (aluminium chloride if I remember
    rightly)

Any help with any of these topics would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks

Helen Hill


#2

Helen,

I ran out of easy solder and had some medium solder. Now I fear 

If you’re going to use different solders on the same piece, start
with hard, then go to medium, then to easy. This is because a piece
with a joint that is soldered will be in danger of flowing at that
solder’s melting point, so if you are trying to heat it to where the
hard solder will melt and flow, and the piece has lower-melting
solder joints present, you’re going to have a mess on your hands. Go
the other way, starting out with hard, and you won’t have to raise
the piece’s temperature as high for subsequent work with easier
solder.

ii) Was my failure due to the piece being so much bigger than
pieces I had previously tried? 
iii) Is the failure due to the butane torch not getting hot enough
quickly enough and thus the silver melting before the solder
flows? 

Likely the former. You need the whole piece to be fairly hot, but not
too hot, and you need to be able to get good heat along the solder
joint. It might be that the torch you’re using isn’t giving you
adequate control over where the heat is going, and that could be
either the shape of the flame, or your inexperience in guiding it.

The second problem I have encountered involves previously soldered
joints melting and the piece collapsing when trying to do the next
join. 

See above – it could well be that you’re trying to get the piece
hot enough for hard solder after using easy solder nearby.

I have read your posts on this subject and am curious about the
whiteout pen. Is this simply the correction fluid used in the
office? And if so do I simply paint it on previous joints and
anywhere I do not wish the solder to flow? 

Yes, it’s the office-supply stuff, and it blocks the solder flow
while you’re working, then washes off easily.

Loren
http://www.golden-knots.com


#3

Hi Helen,

I too just use a little handheld butane torch at home, but I’ve
gotten very good results with it. It’s got a nice large, adjustable
flame on it, is the first thing. Second, I don’t ever solder with
easy solder. I always start with hard, and occasionally if I have a
huge amount of soldering I will eventually drop down to medium. Easy
is just too…well, easy. I think if you have more than one join, if
you’re trying to solder with easy, any successive joins are difficult
because the previous one will run before or at the same time as the
new solder. Also, I’m sure this seems a bit obvious, but presumably
you know that you can go from medium to easy on the same piece, but
not easy to medium.

What I’ve found with the butane torch is that it’s all about fine
temperature control, patience, and not overheating your base. I sort
of slowly heat the base until it’s a bit warm, and then start
increasing the temperature, but not too much at a time. I think
generally my flame is just gone blue when I get the solder to run. I
don’t know what size of piece you’re trying to do, but I’ve
successfully soldered onto a 2" circle 2mm thick, fairly easily,
which is a pretty substantial chunk of metal. If you have good
control over your torch, then you can do fairly large pieces. The
key really is to get to know it and its quirks really well. If you’re
collapsing your baseplate, the torch is definitely too hot!

Hope that provides some insight :). Happy soldering!

Robin Cassady-Cain.


#4

Dear Helen

I was interested in your post to the list because I also consider
myself a beginning and fortunately worked myself through the issues
you are dealing with. (I have a new set of more complicated issues
though now!) Specifically, the soldering question you have is one I
think I can give you some direction on. First of all you should
check the web site of Don Norris at learnsilver.com. He teaches
soldering with only a little hand held torch like you have. He has a
soldering CD you can purchase that will give you all your answers. He
also has a monthly set of CD’s you can sign up for that are
excellent. I am getting them and have learned oodles! But they will
cost you a couple hundred dollars. Check his web site. If you have
any other questions email me.

Best of luck to you.
Jean Menden


#5

Helen,

When soldering the bezel on to the back plate it’s better to heat
the piece from underneath. The method I use is to put the piece you
are soldering up on a metal screen supported by firebricks. Heat from
underneath until the flux is melted then move the torch to the top to
continue to heat and flow the solder.

Using a butane torch you are probably not getting enough heat to
solder a bigger piece. A portable propane torch sold at the hardware
or home improvement store for plumbing will give you a little more
heat. For the long term you should invest in either an acetylene/air
setup or propane/oxygen setup.

I use Handyflux paste flux. Most fluxes burn off by the time you get
silver up to soldering temperature. Clean any oxidation and tarnish
off of your silver and your solder with sandpaper or steel wool.
Everything should be shiny before soldering. Also, you need to make
sure you get your silver clean to get solder to flow. A fingerprint
can stop silver solder from flowing. I keep a squirt bottle (an old
contact solution bottle) of rubbing alcohol on my bench for cleaning
silver before soldering.

Whiteout will not prevent previous solders from melting. That can
only be done with temperature control. Also, start off with the hard
or medium solder first then for subsequent soldering switch to easy
or easy flow(extra easy).

HTH

Rick Copeland
Silversmith and Lapidary Artisan
Colorado Springs, Colorado
http://home.covad.net/~rcopeland


#6

Helen–

You aren’t getting the piece hot enough. A silver bezel that’s 33 x
25mm is quite large for a small butane torch.

It can be done, though you risk major firescale as you’ll have to
keep the heat on for quite a long time to bring it up to temp. I
doubt your problem is so much the difference between medium and
easy, as it is the size of the workpiece. Set it on a charcoal block
with a couple of nails underneath and periodically angle your torch
under the edges. That way you can get the center of the piece hot and
keep it from creating a huge heat sink.

In the end, if you find you are getting firescale (purple or red
splotches visible after polishing), try a thick coating of Prips. If
the solder is balling up, you’re probably accidentally hitting it
directly with the torch rather than “sweating” it. You may also be
burning up the flux. Try Handi Flux or switch to a paste solder.

As far as the previous joints and the melting, I think you’re just
going past the soldering point without realizing it. Watch carefully
for the color change in the metal and wait for the solder to flow.
Once it runs, take the flame off.

You can rouge the seams and use various other products to stop the
flow. Usually this isn’t a problem if the bezel is sitting flat,
though you might try binding wire. Tweezers would draw more heat
away, and you need all you can get with this size piece and a butane
torch.

John Walbaum


#7

Hi Rick,

Thanks so much for getting back to me on the subject of soldering. I
did eventually have success with the piece by doing exactly as you
describe. I figured that as it had been sitting on the firebrick, it
was getting too much heat. So I raised it onto two metal rods so that
I had a space underneath where I could “bounce” the flame off the
brick onto the underneath of the piece. It worked a treat and as I
moved the flame back to the top of the piece, the solder was
obediently sucked into the joint. Very satisfying. I must persevere
with the medium and try the hard solder too and remember to use the
highest temp solder first. I had not read any of that in the material
I read but it makes so much sense.

I do try to get the silver as clean and grease-free as possible
prior to soldering by abraiding it and making sure I do not touch the
areas to be joined. However, I do sometimes get the frustrating
situation of seeing the solder ball up and refuse to flow, although I
am getting better at it all the time. Like anything it’s a matter of
practice and brilliant advice from people like yourself.

I will probably try yellow ochre powder as some have suggested,
instead of white-out.

I have seen your website and absolutely love your work. It is very
reminiscent of a book I have been attempting to buy but it is out of
stock everywhere I’ve tried. “Navajo jewelry - a legacy in silver and
stone”. I can’t quite remember the author’s name off the top of my
head. I ordered it from Amazon and was so looking forward to reading
it but can’t get hold of it. Never mind.

Thanks once again Rick for your sound advice.

Helen


#8

Hi Robin,

Thanks so much for your reply. I too have had a large degree of
success with the handheld butane torch. I figured out in the end that
my main problem was that I had sat the piece directly on the
firebrick. Because it retains so much heat, the piece was getting far
too hot and the bezels were melting. I raised it up onto two metal
rods in the end and bounced the heat onto the underneath of the
piece. It behaved itself beautifully and the solder was sucked into
the join. I have received so much useful advice from people like
yourself, I can’t thank you enough. I hadn’t read about using
different solders on the same piece but it makes so much sense and
could help solve my problem of previous joints flowing, although
that too is improving with my torch control.

Thanks again Robin.

Helen


#9

Hello Jean,

Thank you so much for your kind reply. I have looked at Don Norris’s
website but unfortunately am not in a position to buy his CD’s at
present although I’m very sure his tutorials would be invaluable to
me. I have had a lot of very sound advice from yourself and many
others on Orchid. It was great to get such a response from a group of
such friendly people.

I eventually succeeded with the piece in question before receiving
the replies, using logic. I figured that as I had been sitting the
piece on the firebrick and the bezels kept melting, it must have
been receiving far too much heat. So I raised it up onto two metal
rods and bounced the flame from the firebrick onto the bottom of the
piece and heated it up slowly. Then when I moved the flame back onto
the top of the piece, the solder was obediently sucked into the join

  • very satisfying! But having had so many bits of useful advice that
    I had no idea of has been an absolute bonus. I am also finding that
    reading everyone’s posts are teaching me lots I didn’t previously
    know.

Thanks again Jean.
Helen


#10

Hello Loren,

Thank you so much for your reply. I figured out my main problem in
the end. I got it to work successfully by raising the piece up off
the firebrick and bouncing the flame off the brick up onto the
bottom of the piece. I was able to control the heat it received far
more that way. I did not realise that you could use different solders
on one piece. I was attempting to make the whole piece from medium as
I had completely run out of easy. I will buy some hard and use just
hard and medium in the stated order and see how that goes.

My butane torch, while not necessarily giving me enough heat for
future large pieces I may wish to make, is very controllable and
well behaved. I will probably buy one of the plumber’s handheld
propane torches (as someone else kindly advised me) to use for larger
pieces and use my butane torch for small pieces as it works a treat
on them.

I have looked at your website. Your work is amazing. I have always
been fascinated by knots too although haven’t used them in my work
so far. Your tutorials are excellent, I’d be interested to have a go
sometime.

Thanks again Loren.

Helen


#11

Dear John,

I got it to work the day after I posted my question. I realised that
if the bezel was melting then the piece was getting too hot, so
rather than sitting it on the firebrick I raised it up onto two
metal rods and bounced the flame from the firebrick up onto the
bottom of the base plate. After slowly heating the piece that way, I
moved the flame up onto the top and it worked a treat, sucking the
solder into the join. I sort of figured that there is not much of a
temperature difference between the two types of solder and that it
must have been that the piece was much bigger than anything I had
made before.

I have also largely cured my previous joints melting too by using
torch control and as you say removing the flame immediately the
solder flows.

I have been lucky up until now not to have encountered firescale but
I fear that the piece I have just made today may be suffering from
it. I have pickled it for the correct amount of time but there is a
red patch on one component of the pendant. Can anything be done to
get rid of it or do I have to make the piece again?

What flux do you use for soldering silver? Is it much more expensive
than borax or not?

Thanks again John.
Helen


#12

Hi Helen

I found this thread to be quite diversified!!! HA Reference the book
you are seeking: “Navajo Jewelry - a Legacy of Silver and Stone”. I
have the book. It is by Lois Essary Jacka, photos by Jerry Jacka. I
went into Google and found her name…it lists others she as
written. Also gives a reference to Elk Ridge Art Company, which kinda
sounds like that may be a source for the book…even lists the $14.95
that I paid umpteen years ago. It is a paperback about 3/8th of an
inch thick.

When I needed a book, which was out of print, several years ago, I
went through a book store here in Denver which tracks down those old
titles. They found it for me at a price!!! But well worth it.

Good luck
RM Christison


#13

Helen

What flux do you use for soldering silver? Is it much more
expensive than borax or not? 

There are several strategies for dealing with firescale. In the case
of a bezel, if the metal is thick enough, you can just abrade the
surface until it’s gone. You will probably have to go all the way
down to 120 grit or so if you have a nasty spot, then work back
through the grades to your final polish. Another technique is to use
an abrasive wheel or sandblaster and just create a textured surface.
Depletion gilding can also be employed, but you may find it tedious.

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with it is to back down to about 600
grit for your final polish. You can then use a brass brush or steel
wool to apply a nice satin finish that will obscure the firescale. If
the patch is real light, even dropping down to White Diamond tripoli
instead of rouge might render it less visible.

As far as flux goes, I use standard boric acid and water. It’s the
cheapest flux available since it’s sold commercially as roach
killer. You might try Handy Flux, though, which stands up to heat
better. Prips and Cupronil are both good for firecoat, though
marginal at best as solder fluxes.

John Walbaum


#14

John,

I’ve been happy using borax and water so don’t see a reason to change
at this point, and as you say it’s the cheapest one around. Thanks
for your advice regarding firescale. Fortunately the patch I had did
actually go during polishing.

Thanks again
Helen


#15

For sterling silver, my favorite flux is Superior 6.

http://www.ccis.com/home/hn/index_files/Page7.htm

Jeffrey Herman, a prominent silversmith introduced me to this
uber-flux years ago. It creates a skin over the metal and you can
solder over and over as long as that skin is intact. We buy this
stuff for the school in buckets.

Spoon out small amounts into a container and mix with water until it
looks like yogurt. I’ve seen lots of students who have difficulty
with good soldering because their flux is too watery.

However, do not use paste flux on charcoal. Only use alcohol based
fluxes as the paste will gloss over the charcoal and all the oxygen
reducing atmosphere features of charcoal will be lost. A fire brick
is the way to go.

-k

M E T A L W E R X
School for Jewelry and the Metalarts
50 Guinan St.
Waltham, MA 02451
781 891 3854
www.metalwerx.com