Let's heat things up! In this guide, we'll solder a simple silver ring using a butane torch. This is the perfect practice project to get you started with all the soldering tools you'll need to create more small jewelry soldering projects in the future. This project is an excerpt from my free introductory Jewelry Class!
You'll need the following supplies:
- Smooth jaw pliers (set including flush cutters)
- Safety glasses
- Small ruler
- Calipers (optional)
- Bench block
- Rawhide mallet
- Needle files
- Bench pin
- Saw frame, blades, and bur lubricant
- Sandpaper (handi-files, wet/dry sheet, and/or sanding pads in various grits 200-1000)
- Dust mask
- Small towel
- Apron (optional)
- Bench brush
- Old toothbrush and soap
- Butane torch with fuel
- Fire extinguisher
- 14 gauge (1.62mm) Sterling silver (or nickel alloy) round wire (about 1ft/30cm)
- Chemical-resistant gloves
- Silver solder (small bit of each hard, medium, and easy)
- Quench container with water (ceramic/Pyrex)
- Ring mandrel
- Flex shaft or Dremel with polishing accessories and polishing compounds (optional)
- Ring clamp
- Silver soldering accessories available as a kit:
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A dedicated jewelry bench is a treat, but not required!
Many home goods stores with kitchen supplies carry household-type butane torches, which while great for making creme brulee, are also perfectly suited to the small silver wire project in this class. Store the torch and fuel in a safe place, protected from extreme temperature, and be sure to keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Professional jewelry workshops use oxygen/acetylene torches that are capable of heating larger projects to higher temperatures, which are also much more dangerous.
A ring mandrel is necessary for forming rings into circles after soldering. Silver is a very soft metal, so it's easy to bend into shape with pliers and then round out with several thwacks against the mandrel with a rawhide mallet. Metal softens when it's heated (called annealing), so your ring is even better suited to shaping after having been heated during soldering.
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Step 1: Prepare Pickle
When heated, the copper in the outer layer of sterling silver oxidizes, forming firescale, a layer of dull grey material on the outside of the silver. While flux helps mitigate firescale, chemical removal with an acid pickle solution is necessary (called so for its former main ingredient alum, used to make pickles). Sure, you could sand away the grey surface layer, but it would take extra time and a layer of your silver along with it! The acid pickle only removes the copper oxides, leaving all the silver behind. It works better when it's warm, so you'll use it in conjunction with a little slow cooker called a pickle pot (never again to be used for food). If you can't use a dedicated pickle pot, a mason jar is a suitable alternative, although the process will take considerably longer at lower temperatures (overnight vs. over lunch). Be sure to read the chemical safety information and mixing/disposal instructions with your pickle: some are very hazardous (burning skin, clothes, and work surfaces) and others rather benign. Safety glasses, gloves, and a well-ventilated area are recommended regardless of pickle type.
Step 2: File Wire Ends
When you're starting out, your rings won't turn out exactly the right size— that's ok! First practice making a few seamless solder joints and you'll learn a few sizing techniques along the way. You can always use extra practice rings in other designs later, or at the very least trade them in with the rest of your scraps.
If you have a ring that fits you well, pop it onto your ring mandrel to measure its size. The required length of wire to create a ring of this size varies by material thickness. You can use an online reference chart to find the corresponding wire length for your size in 14ga (1.6mm) round wire, or just wrap a piece of scrap paper around your finger and mark the rough circumference. Either way, cut your wires a little longer than you think you'll need them because some material at the ends will be removed. Cut five or six pieces of wire to this length to make a few rings instead of just one! Practice makes perfect.
Pinch your wire in the V of your bench block and use the flat side of a needle file to clean up the wire ends until they're perfectly round, smooth, and perpendicular to the wire itself.
Step 3: Shape Wire to Align Ends
Grab onto each end of the wire with a different set of pliers. Twist your wrists to bend the wire back on itself, bringing the two wire ends to overlap slightly and create an overall D shape.
Although overlapping, the two wire ends should be straight on the same axis, so use pliers to adjust their angles if necessary.
Next, use your fingers to pull the ends apart just enough to snap the filed ends to butt up against one another, and adjust the wire ends to stay that way, as if closing a large jump ring. The tension of the overlap puts pressure on joint, clamping it securely together in preparation to be soldered.
You may notice that although you thought your wire ends were perfectly round, flat, and perpendicular to the wire, that now there appears a small imperfection somewhere. If you have your saw frame handy from the last lesson, you can use it for a neat trick!
Place the blade at the wire joint and gently saw through it. Some protruding material will be removed from both sides, but only the thickness of the blade, and the clamping pressure will snap the joint cleanly closed upon the cut's completion.
Step 4: Prepare Soldering Area
When you set up your fireproof surface for soldering, keep in mind that you won't just be aiming the torch straight down. Protect your desk from errant heat by positioning the work with plenty of heat-absorbing material in the path of the torch flame. The fireproof surface often also reflects the heat of the torch back towards your workpiece, helping build up temperature more quickly. The alternative is a soldering tripod, which allows heat to radiate away more freely, and allows heating from the underside of the work. Double check that you don't have anything flammable near the torch's resting spot, and fuel it up. Always let the butane settle for a minute or two after refueling before lighting the torch. This lets any escaped butane evaporate away from your hands and the outside of the torch, and allows the pressurized gas to warm back up to room temperature (transferring vessels releases energy and cools down the fuel).
Cut five or six bits of hard solder using your flush wire snips. To prevent them from flying away, cover the end with your finger. Silver solder is a metal alloy available in a gradient of melting points: hard (745-788°C), medium (720-765°C), easy (705-723°C), and extra-easy (667-709°C). In more complex soldering projects involving more than one solder connection, medium solder would be used for the next solder connection, so as to not remelt the first, and so forth with easy and extra-easy solder.
Grab your tweezers, cross-locking tweezers, solder pick, and a quench container with water. Put your to-be-soldered ring on your fireproof work surface. The yellow bottle is flux, which we'll explore in the next step.
You can optionally use a third hand tool with cross-locking pliers to hold the work in place. This is not necessary for this basic ring, but quickly comes in handy for just about anything else. Use caution with excessive heat, however, as the tool can make impressions in your workpiece.
Step 5: Apply Solder & Flux
Grab a bit of solder with your tweezers and nudge it up against the wire joint. Next, it's time to help the solder flow and reduce oxidation by applying a chemical flux.
Handy Flux paste (applied with a brush) does a great job protecting the workpiece and promoting solder flow, but it's highly toxic. I prefer yellow liquid flux (applied with a brush or syringe bottle), as it's safer to use and I'm going to clean up the work regardless of flux used.
You can choose to coat the whole workpiece in flux, or just the area to be soldered. Pictured on the left is a ring soldered after being covered completely with paste flux. The ring on the right was soldered after a small drop of yellow liquid flux was applied to the joint, resulting in more firescale on the rest of the workpiece.
Step 6: Heat Ring With Torch
Follow the instructions that come with your torch to fire it up— usually some combination of safety lever and ignition button does the trick. Adjust the flame to a medium setting, and take care not to point the lit torch at anything flammable (including parts of yourself). Be careful, as the torch radiates heat further than the visible flame.
Take a look at the different parts of the flame. The hottest part of the flame is directly in front of the innermost blue cone, so it'll be our goal to heat the workpiece with this part of the flame.
Start further away at first, and point the torch at the workpiece. Begin making gentle circles with the flame as you approach closer, heating the entire ring evenly. If the flux spits and moves the solder away from the ring, use your pick to push it back into contact with the ring. Once you are close enough to apply the hottest part of the flame to the workpiece, continue making slow circles until the metal glows bright red, at which point the solder should melt and flow into/around the joint. Continue heating for just a few seconds more, until the solder has fully enveloped the area, then remove the heat and turn off your torch (set it down somewhere safe to cool).
But if your solder doesn't flow into the joint, here are some troubleshooting tips:
- Ensure your workpiece is clean. Solder won't flow between metals covered in oxidation or dirt. Freshly filed or sanded metal works best.
- Add enough flux to penetrate the entire solder joint and surrounding area.
- Make sure the solder chip is touching both sides of the joint and is otherwise as close as possible to the primary area you wish to join.
- Uneven heating can result in the solder flooding to just one side of the joint. Remember to heat the entire workpiece evenly.
Step 7: Remove Firescale
Allow your ring to cool for several seconds, then transfer it to your water-filled quench container using cross-locking tweezers, just to ensure it's cool enough to touch, then plop it into the heated pickle pot to soak. Never place hot metal pieces directly from the soldering surface into the pickle, as the reaction could release harmful fumes.
After several minutes in the heated solution (or several hours in an unheated solution), the metal will appear light grey, as the removed copper oxides have left behind a surface layer of silver alloy with reduced copper content. Remove the ring from the pickle with tongs (copper, plastic, or wooden) and rinse it off in your quench container or the sink, then dry it off with a towel.
Step 8: Hammer Into Shape
Slide your D-shaped ring onto your ring mandrel as far as it will go, and brace the mandrel on your bench block or desk. Strike the ring with your rawhide mallet anywhere it sticks out, so as to round out the shape. Continue to adjust the ring's position downward on the mandrel to keep it snug while you work.
To remove the ring from the mandrel, you may need to turn it upside down and use the rawhide mallet to tap it loose. If your ring turned out uneven (wobbly like an old bike wheel), flatten it into a uniform circle with your rawhide mallet on a bench block.
Step 9: File, Sand, & Polish
A ring clamp comes in extra handy when finishing rings, since they are so small and hard to hold onto, especially while polishing. If you don't intend to polish your ring with a rotary tool, you may be able to get by without a ring clamp, but I highly recommend using one to make the whole process a lot easier on your hands. The wedge can be used at either end to secure the ring in its leather-padded jaws (bang the wedge end on the worktable a few times to be sure it's in tightly).
File the solder joint area smooth using a combination of different shaped needle files. After making several rings, stack them all up on your ring mandrel to see which (if any) are your target size. Rings can be stretched a small amount using your ring mandrel and rawhide mallet. To stretch the ring more, reheat it with your torch (always pickle after heating) to anneal it again. To make a ring smaller, simply remove more material (with a saw and/or file) and solder it again. To resize finished jewelry (with set gemstones, etc.), professional jewelers use specialized sizing machines capable of stretching or squishing rings to change their size without the application of additional heat. For our purposes, it's a good exercise to have soldered several rings as practice, and hopefully at least one of them fits you.
Sand and polish up your rings using the same techniques you used in the previous lesson on sheet metal. Clean it up with an old toothbrush and soapy water, then take a photo of your project and share it with us in the Class Project module below!
Step 10: Next, Try...
Congratulations, you've made it to the end! If you enjoyed your experience, please share this guide with a friend and check out the rest of my intro Jewelry Class. If you make a ring, I'd love to see it in the I Made It section below!
If you like this project, you may be interested in some of my others:
- Sheet Metal Jewelry Basics - Saw, File, Sand, & Polish
- Silver and Amber Ring
- Beaded Wrap Bracelet
- Wire Wrapped Beaded Earrings
- Mini Concrete Planters Using Plastic Bottles
- Wedding Portrait Embroidery
Participated in the