Saturday, April 12, 2014

Soldering: A Story of Trial and Error

This is an overview of how a seemingly simple process can be, in fact, extremely complicated, and a nod towards artisans that have truly earned their skills by persistently pushing through trial and error for many years.
*First of all, I am a mostly self-taught-sort-of-making-jewelry-person. I prefer to refer to myself
as a maker since my realm includes many mediums, without really specializing in anything.
I also learn from experience. I have a horrid patience for reading about what I am going to 
do instead of just doing it. Now that you know that, let's move on.

I noticed that the delicate chains on my necklaces have been slipping out of the jump rings. 
Bad, bad bad bad. This terrible reoccurrence has lead to my next exploration that has ultimately made me want to kick down a door in frustration. But I'm getting it. 
I'm teaching myself how to solder gold-filled wire. 
My first thought was yes totally I will just solder them closed. Easy solution. Done. Little did I realize how big of a project I was about to take on. First was watching tutorials and purchasing the necessary tools and chemicals to get started. This included boric acid, jewelry pickle, and a Smith Little Torch.

*I normally buy from RioGrande as they have excellent products and customer service, however
they are not always the cheapest. I got the same torch from Amazon for about $30 less.

When soldering anything gold-filled, it is best to first coat your piece with a mixture of boric
acid and denatured alcohol. You can then either burn the alcohol off with a torch or set it in the 
sun to evaporate. Your piece will be covered in a white layer of boric acid that will protect the 
gold-filled surface from the torch while soldering. This step in necessary because when something
is "gold-filled" there is a layer of at least 10k gold pressure bonded to a base metal. The gold layer
can easily be melted, revealing the base metal during the soldering process. 

Because the surfaces you are soldering together are at least 10k gold, that is the material best suited 
for the job. The price of gold fluctuates, but I bought easy gold sheet solder from RioGrande for 
about $50 per pennyweight. Yes, it is the sad truth of having a hands-on-get-it-done-this-may-be-a-
terrible-idea attitude, I gatta go straight for the pricy stuff without practice. Anyway, 
everything works more efficiently if everything is clean. So first, clean your solder 
with steel wool- but remember to remove the steel wool from your workspace after
as it is extremely flammable. Next you cut the sheet of solder like a grid, producing little
pallions like the one below. 

Next you add a dab of flux, which will aid the flow of the solder and keep the surface of the metal 
clean during the process. After laying the pallion onto the joint, you are ready to light up your
torch. I've been practicing with a number 5 tip, because I couldn't get the number 3 tip working
well *I need to play around more with the different tips to see what works best.
However, you can control the size of the flame/temperature a bit within each tip, and 
the number 5 seems to be doing the job so far.

It's like a little dance. I approach the joint slowly and straight-on and if the pallion slips
around on the flux, I gently chase it down, guiding it back to the joint. If it runs away too
far I pull the torch back and replace the same chip onto the joint and try again.
As you approach with the torch, you begin to see the chip wiggle, then wrinkle a bit before
reaching it's flow point and melting into the joint. Yum. It's so nice when it works out the 
way it should. You can see the soldered joint (slightly out of focus) below.

After the soldering is complete, drop the piece into a pickling solution. This will clean the piece and
help remove any firescale that may have showen up. Yesterday was officially my second day doing
this. I made about 15 successfully soldered joints...out of about 40...don't get discouraged.
But, maybe don't start out with gold-filled if you're not pressured by time (like I am!).
After the pickle, (using only copper tongs to remove pieces- steel will contaminate the solution)
rinse the piece in water, then grab a soft brass brush to finish the cleaning, using dish soap
so the brass does not rub off onto the copper. 

Now do everything over again about 50 more times. 
And that's about where I am right now.
Any advice from actual jewelers is more than appreciated.
Tomorrow will be day 3 of soldering trials and errors and I'm actually pretty excited for it.

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