Introduction: Southwestern Style Sterling Silver Necklace

Tutorial showing the construction of a necklace, from sterling silver wire, based on a traditional southwestern Native American design. I think the original design I saw used half-round wire, so the center of the dogbones (see later steps) are more cylindrical. I actually like this look slightly better.

This style is unisex, although this particular one is destined for a lady. Every person I've made one for has loved it; it is a pretty classic design--simple, elegant, and with enough irregularity that it says "made by hand."

Try it for Valentine's Day. I gave my girlfriend one last year, and three months later we got married. Guess I oughta enter the V-Day contest. Hmm... Just saw that it is also soldering month. Free patch, huh? Look at step 4, serious soldering going on there. Prolly not what you were expecting, but heck--*that* is soldering. First instructable and I get to enter two contests! This is cool.

Step 1: Materials & Sources

As I noted, this tutorial involves some specialized tools, although you can make some obvious substitutions. Sources for raw sterling silver wire and other supplies include Santa Fe Jeweler's Supply and Rio Grande, which is a dead tree catalog-centric company.


Mandrels of various sizes. Despite the fancy name, what we are talking about here is a couple metal or solid rods that wire can be bent around to form rings. You will need one about 0.5" in diameter and one about 0.25" in diameter.

Jeweler's saw. Jeweler's saws have very fine blades. This is one tool you might consider buying, along with some "0" blades. If you don't make the cuts close and straight, soldering becomes a frustrating exercise.

Pliers. For these tasks, I like the small pliers with springs that will keep them naturally open. I also prefer smooth jawed pliers, since anything with knurling in the jaws will mar sterling silver--dead soft sterling silver, which is used here, is very malleable and will show such marks easily. For the most part, I use snub nose pliers, but I also use a pair of rounded jaw pliers and a pair of parallel jaw pliers. Unless you get into this heavily, you may have to figure a substitution here, although you can pick up relatively cheap sets of pliers at Sears Hardware.

Wire Snips. Unless you want to leave bits poking out, you will need a decent small set of wire cutters. Those big lineman's electrical wire cutters won't cut it here... Something with a fairly pointy end and small...

Rawhide Hammer. I use a rawhide hammer in this tutorial because it mars silver less. You can probably get away with a softer hammer, or taping up--and continually retaping--the end of a conventional hammer to soften it a bit.

Torch. Silversmithing was my excuse to get a big oxyacetylene rig, and it can be your excuse too. In all fairness, however, I use a little torch in this tutorial, and the soldering is such that a little torch works pretty well. Mine was actually a gift, and I think its actually designed for putting the sugar crust on creme brulee. There are probably better versions of these things available at Home Depot. They run on butane. I would not recommend one of the big plumbing torches for this--I do this inside. Insert big disclaimer here about things that can burn you and use of gas indoors without adequate ventilation, etc.


Dead Soft Sterling Silver Wire. I use, for this tutorial, 12 ga. (large rings), 14 ga. (small rings), 18 ga. (clasp) and 20 ga. (wrap) wire. I like the relative proportions using those dimensions, but you could sub 12 ga. for the 14 ga., with minor adjustments, 22 ga for 20 ga., etc. Read the tutorial and see where you might choose to do things different.

Silver Solder. I used medium for this--70% silver solder. I recommend using easy solder (65%), but I didn't have any on hand. Or couldn't find it.

Liquid flux. Stuff to solder with. Very small amounts needed. Generally sold in very large quantities.

Pickle. Not that kind of pickle. Pickle is a mild acid used to take the oxidization off after soldering. Again, small amount needed, generally sold in large quantities.

Baking soda. The stuff you get in the grocer's. Used to neutralize pickle and scrub with.


Tumbling Polisher. I use a Lortone tumbling polisher in this tutorial. There are other ways of polishing as well. I used this one because it is in my garage. If you don't have one in your garage, you can probably use silver polish and do it by hand.

Jump Ringer. I use a Jump Ringer system to make jump rings. Again, you have alternatives if you can find metal rods (mandrels to us jewelers). You just need to form circles. Look in Home Depot.

If you want to know more about this kind of stuff, suggested reading includes Indian Jewelry Making, which, despite its cheezy pictures, is very good.

Step 2: Make Large and Small Jump Rings

You will need two sets of rings for this project, a set of N 12 ga rings with an internal diameter of about 0.5" and N+1 14 ga rings with an internal diameter of about 0.25" or so--something large enough to accommodate two 12 ga wires--the little rings hold the big rings. In my case, N was 19 (19 large rings, 20 small rings) for a necklace that is ended up 19.5" long. In the pictures, you can see the forming of the larger jump rings by winding the wire on a mandrel. In this case, I'm using a jump ringer and a 0.469" mandrel. Once you have a coil, you then use the jeweler's saw to cut down one side of the stack, separating the rings. Do this again for the small rings.

Step 3: Close the Large Rings

Now we have to close the large rings (large rings only). Given the way the rings were formed, we need to bend them so that the cut edges match up. The cut edges have to match up, or else soldering the ring together is going to be a real problem--to solder, the edges need to be "clean and close." I generally use two pairs of small snub nose pliers for this--note you will have to "overbend" a little so that the edges match up when the metal springs back.

Step 4: Solder the Large Rings

We now need to solder the larger jump rings. I cut a bunch of little squares of sheet solder (I used medium 70% in this case, but would recommend starting with 65% easy solder), I brush some flux on each cut, put the ring on a heatproof plate, put a little square of solder underneath the cut, and then heat with a small torch until the solder flows into the joint. I generally put the solder in contact with the ring, but underneath the ring. Because solder tends to flow to hotter areas, and because the torch will heat the top more than the bottom, the solder will suddenly "jump" and disappear into the crack.

Step 5: Forming the Large Rings

We need to form the large jump rings into what I'll refer to as dogbones. I do this using two pairs of pliers--one a pair with rounded noses and one set of parallel jaw pliers. I use the rounded pair more like a spreader, then compress the middle of the jump ring using the parallel jaw pliers. Since the parallel jaw pliers won't open wide enough, I use a rawhide hammer first to flatten the big rings a bit. You should end up with a bunch of dogbone like things. Note, I tend to try and put the soldered joint in the middle of the dogbone. Later we will wrap the flat center section and it will hide any soldering irregularities.

Step 6: Making the Chain

We need to link the large rings and small rings into a chain. This is standard chain making, except that half the rings are large, and half small. I start by bending open a small ring with two pliers, putting on two dogbones, then closing the ring and soldering it. Soldering these can be a bit tricky, since you want to avoid soldering the little ring to either of the dogbones. If you do, you can always reheat the piece, give it a little shake to loosen up the solder, then dunk it in water. Once I have a collection of paired dogbones, I then assemble quads by opening a small ring, putting on two dogbone pairs. Lather, rinse and repeat until you have a complete chain. Remember not to close one of the small jump rings on the end of the chain because you will need to attach a clasp.

Step 7: Making a Clasp

We need to make a clasp to close the chain. For this, I simply used a piece of 18 ga sterling silver wire, bent one end into a loop, then bent the other long side as shown in the picture. OK, maybe it is a little hard to see in the pic--there are some later pics that show the clasp better. But, to try to be more clear, you create a little circle on one end. Figure out roughly where the halfway point in and fold the wire over. this brings both endpoints fairly close to one another. Clip/bend to get them at the same point, then solder both endpoints to the wire where they meet. The small end goes through the little ring on the end of the chain. The long side is bent over a second time to form a U shape that can be clipped into the little ring on the other end of the chain. Aw heck. Seemed easier to just shoot another pic and be done with it. Should be clear now, even tho' the pic is post-polishing, you get the idea.

A little note here about dead soft wire. The bending of wire will make dead soft wire into hard. That means, once you do these bends, it is more difficult to "work" the silver. In this case, that is good because it means the clasp, once bent, then becomes fairly stiff.

Step 8: Cleaning Up the Chain

We need to clean up the chain. First, you'll want to get a small file (there are very fine jeweler's files) and take off any bits that would feel uncomfortable next to your skin--any remnants of the soldering process. The process of soldering also leaves lots of oxidization and other nasty stains, so we will drop the chain in warm "pickle" (a mild acid), pluck it out, and scrub with baking soda to neutralize remaining pickle. Pickle is best heated, and for warming pickle for home use, I found a little teeny tiny hotpot that works pretty well. Once you have done that, the finish should look pretty good, if a bit dull.

Step 9: Decorative Wrapping

Now we need to wrap the chain. I used smallish (4.5″) lengths of 20 ga sterling silver (dead soft) wire. The wrap is just held on by tension, but that seems to be sufficient for ordinary wear. I try nonetheless to wrap the wire over itself when I start on a dogbone, then clip the wire and stuff the other end into the center of the wrap. This way the wearer isn't going to get poked and there is less chance an end will get caught on something and either unravel itself or a sweater or something. Repeat for each dogbone. I also flattened the smaller links a little bit just to have more consistency in terms of diameter of the necklace.

Step 10: Polishing

Because the pickle leaves sort of a matte finish, I polished my chain. Because I have one, I drop my chain in a tumbler polishe--mine is a little rotary Lortone. It looks like the old rock tumbler my sister had when she was a kid, except it is filled with stainless steel nails and shot, along with some water and dish soap. After 10-20 minutes, the chain comes out looking spectacular.

Step 11: Variations on a Theme

A number of the techniques here can be used for other types of chain making, and some variations are obvious. I have also done the wrapping with gold wire--actually, make that "gold filled" wire. "Gold filled" wire is really the reverse of what the name sounds like it should be--it is silver wire with a thicker gold plating on the outside, so it forms like silver, but looks like gold. While I'm not a huge fan of gold, the gold accent on a silver chain looked good. In this case, however, I made it for someone who prefers silver. I should note that, while gold filled wire is pretty good in normal use, you don't want to heat it and you don't want to put it in a polisher. So, you have to wrap after you polish.

Jump rings, in particular, can be knit together in all sorts of ways. One of my favorites is Jens Pins Linkage (JPL3), where each ring added passes through two others to form a sort of spiral. When I am working those, I typically do not solder them, merely bend them into the proper configuration. I would also note that things like JPL3 are very sensitive to aspect ratio--the gauge of the wire related to the internal radius of the ring. Doing that wrong can lead to ugliness. If you want more information on that type of chain making, called maille, see M.A.I.L. The difficulty with soldering those types of links is that there is a high probability of soldering one link to another link unless you are very, very good or very, very lucky. I am neither. Also, the techniques for soldering chains can be used for normal chains as well. I have shown some variations, the one we just did is far left, followed by a variation with 12 ga small links that are left round, followed by a 14 ga JPL3, followed by a simple chain.