The Basics of Jewelry Making - Part 3

For the final post of this series, I'll discuss a few techniques and tips for using the materials we previously discussed. 

1. The pickle: I never follow the directions for mixing the pickle, but here are some guidelines: add acid to water (always); I never use as much water as it calls for. Instead, I put in enough water for my needs, to cover my work entirely. Usually just a couple of inches. Then add in some of the dry pickle, and mix in. You do not need to turn on the crock pot for the pickle to work but it works quicker with heat. So if you have a lot of stuff and you are in a hurry, use the heat. Just try not to forget to turn the pot off, which can evaporate out all the water (still no big deal, just add more). Distilled mineral water is best. You might also get some kind of non-metal pan or tray for under your crock pot in case of spills. Lastly, locate it in a spot where children or pets are not going to get into it. Pickle is not a deadly acid that will burn your skin the second it touches it, but you don’t want it on your skin just the same.

2. The solder: Easy melts at the lowest temperature, then Medium, and finally Hard melts at the highest temperature. You only need all three if you plan on doing complex projects with a lot of solder joints. Then you don't want to be using the same solder for the whole piece because as you are working on the last joints, the first ones are also heating to flow point. You plan out your soldering in advance, then start with hard and work back to easy. That way the hard joints aren't flowing when you are working on the easy joints. Color your solder sheets different colors with permanent marker. I use red for easy, purple for medium, and black for hard (color both sides). You don't want to mix these up if you can help it, for the reasons above (i.e. soldering an easy joint with hard solder will make all previous joints flow before the one you are working on). Then cut off very thin strips with scissors and then cut little square snips from those with your wire cutters. I have three marked containers for my solders so I don't mix them.  I have friends who use medium solder for everything and that seems to work for them but I would still urge you to get all three if you are soldering anything with more than ten solder joints.

3. The flux: I flux everything before I start soldering. The solder is wet and if you start right away, everything will bubble and your solder, if you pre-place it, will bubble out of place. If you let your piece sit, the flux will dry out and then not bubble when you heat it.  Also, not thoroughly fluxing a piece can lead to the build-up of firescale in sterling silver.  That is when the copper in the sterling alloy comes to the surface when the piece is heated and gives the silver an orangish hue.  This can be a huge pain to buff out, especially if the surface is highly textured.

4. Venting: You should also rig up some sort of ventilation system to remove any fumes from your workspace.  This can be as simple as a fan at your back and an open window if front of you, or a kitchen range hood mounted above your soldering area.  Try not to solder while looking down on your work because then the fumes will be flowing upward into your face.  If you do this once you will tend to avoid it afterward— it’s really unpleasant.

And, finally, here is a trick.... I take the piece of solder onto my pick, by wetting the pick first (either in water, or in the flux) then heat it until it balls up. Then I place that ball where I want it. This gives you a lot more control of where the solder flows. When you start with the flat chip, it just sort of melts like a pat of butter with the heat. When it's in ball form, it tends to follow the seams of the piece better (e.g., if you are soldering two pieces of sheet together at a 90 degree angle). Also, have a small container of water handy to dip the hot pieces into before dropping them into the pickle pot.

If you've ever been inspired to learn the basics of metalsmithing, or just been interested in seeing how it's done, I hope these posts have been helpful. If you've enjoyed this series, or if you have a question or two, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!

(originally posted March 2015)