I have a friend who’s been a goldsmith for more than forty years. She told me told me that she learned how to solder jewelry by working with a plumbers torch over a pumice tray and crying a lot. Hey, soldering can be frustrating to learn. You can’t ignore the laws of chemistry. Metals do not all have the same properties. Different varieties of solder flow at different temperatures and the flame must be hot enough to do the job. So, sometimes a micro torch will work and sometimes it’s just not hot enough. But the size of what you’re soldering affects things too. If you are connecting one small wire to another, a micro torch might be fine, but if you are soldering a bezel and need to heat a larger metal mass, the micro torch might not be sufficient. Or you might have to use two micro torches at once. (Press here for a description of this technique.) Solder flows towards heat which means that if you point the flame at the join, the solder will go everywhere but the join. Solder will not fill gaps; the items you are connecting must sit as flush as possible. And fire can be scary; you must respect it and take the appropriate measures to work with it safely.
I have been practicing my soldering. As you can see from the bezels above, I’m a little heavy handed with the solder. I am still working on getting my bezel soldering mojo and hope to improve on that in time. Until then, it’s lots of cleanup. But even with my limited experience, I have a few tips.
- Take a class. You, need to learn about lighting a torch and basic safety, but there is another important reason: you can read about soldering all you want but until you witness the difference stages of soldering from the initial heating to when the solder starts to flow, it won’t make sense. It helps when you see what color the metal should be, what the solder looks like right before it flows and how long it takes to flow.
- Does your carefully laid out solder skitter as soon as you hit the metal with the flame because the flux starts bubbling? Pass the flame over the flux to dry it before you place the solder. No more skittering.
- If you try binder wires, clips and tweezers to hold everything in place, they will act as heat sinks and draw heat away from where it needs to go to get a sturdy solder join. Charles Lewton-Brain wrote an article on soldering tips and tricks for Ganoksin where he gives instructions for making a thingy to weigh down pieces you are trying to solder together.
And finally, you need to check out Lexi Erickson‘s videos on soldering. I met Lexi when she was a guest speaker at the Main Line Bead Society and gave an entertaining and illuminating presentation on creativity. I thought she might be an academic but I was only half right because the next thing I knew, she had moved to Colorado and was blogging, making jewelry, teaching and writing great articles for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.
She drew on her years of experience as a goldsmith and university level metalsmithing teacher to put together two videos on soldering that are full of practical information, including an explanation of the various types of torches used in soldering, tools, solders, and several soldering techniques. The videos are well filmed which is vital in a video about soldering. You really need to see how the materials look during each step of the process before you understand what is supposed to happen when you are soldering properly. You can buy the videos from Interweave.
Lexi’s videos are extremely helpful, she would tell you that you still have to practice, practice, practice. Like throwing pots and making lampworked beads, the more you make, the more skilled you will become. As Malcolm Gladwell said in Outliers, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”