Learning to solder successfully almost every time (nobody’s perfect) is really a matter of learning to control the heat and position of the flame. I’m not an expert by any means. I solder earring posts, jump rings that connect a pendant or clasp to a chain, and jump rings to the work piece itself. I use solder to close bezels and to solder the bezel to a backing plate. I also solder decorative metal clay elements to bezel settings. My work is relatively small in scale, but when I want to solder a larger project, I know a couple of techniques that can help get the job done. And most of all I know my limits. There are just some things that can’t be done with the torch and the skill set I have. (Image: Fabulous finished piece by Lora Hart. “Purple Chalcedony Necklace”)
- Sheet or wire solder looks like any other metal sheet or wire. Be sure to mark it when you take it out of the package. (or just use paste solder like I do)
- Solder balls up
- Gravity sometimes allows the solder ball to fall out of position
- Flux boils (which can also cause solder to move out of position)
- Solder flows towards heat
- Solder will not jump a gap
- Solder can fill a small gap
- Solder will sink into porous metal clay (and potentially lose the connection)
- Solder will not flow on a ‘dirty’ surface (clean metal/solder with fine sandpaper or a wire brush)
- Solderite is soft enough that you can push T pins in to support work, push elements into the board to support them, and actually dig shallow grooves to ‘bury’ elements that will allow the work piece to lay flat – a hidden bail or brooch findings for instance.
WHAT’S A ‘HEAT SINK’?
- A heat ‘sink’ (also called a heat ‘shield’) is a heavier piece of metal used to draw the heat towards it as opposed to a smaller piece that might be in danger of melting. The third hand tweezer acts as a heat sink to protect a thin and delicate earring post when soldering it to the decorative earring piece.
- You might use the ‘sink’ as a ‘shield’ when soldering the last jump ring on a chain. Position the shield/tweezers below the last jump ring and it will prevent the previously joined rings from melting.
- In order for any solder join to be successful, the two pieces/sides/elements must fit tightly together. This means that you might need to file or otherwise alter the shapes of the elements. Always remember to join flat to flat or convex to concave (this is a helpful tip when joining metal clay parts too).
- When closing a jump ring, the wire may be round, but the cut ends should be perfectly flat to fit together properly.
- When joining a round jump ring to a flat back of a pendant, file a flat area on the jump ring to create a tight fit.
- When joining two jump rings to form a figure 8, file flats on each and solder those areas together.
- There may also be times when you want to use a drill or bur to form a divot to hold a spherical shape.
ABOUT JUMP RINGS
Jump rings must be completely closed, with the ends of the wire flush and fitting tightly together in order for the solder to flow from one side of the wire to the other. Even an opening the thickness of a human hair will prevent the join.
- Using two sets of flat nosed pliers on either side of the opening, twist and wiggle the jump ring together until you think it’s closed. Now hold the jump ring up to the light to make sure there isn’t even a sliver of light shining through the join.
- Now that you’ve closed the jump ring so well it might be difficult to see where the seam is by the time you position it on the soldering board. I like to use black Sharpie to mark each side of the join before closing the ring, so I know where to place the solder and where to aim the flame. The marker will burn away by the time the solder flows.
One of the most important aspects of soldering to get comfortable with is knowing how to set up the objects you want to solder so that their position works for you.
- Gravity will encourage a ball of solder to drop away from the join when possible, so I try to position ‘things’ as close to the soldering block as I can.
- If you’re making a chain, and want to solder a number of jump rings closed, just lay them flat on the soldering block with the seams facing you and place the solder inside the ring, behind the seam. This way you’re getting two of the fun facts to work on your behalf. There’s nowhere for the solder to drop, and the heat of the flame is pulling solder through the seam in the jump ring to make a very secure join.
CHAIN MAKING TIP: Only solder half the jump rings closed. Then join two closed rings with one open ring (and solder it) to make segments of 3. Join those segments with more open jump rings and solder to complete the chain.
- When working with a piece that already has one or more elements soldered to the back side (like a hidden bail or brooch findings) excavate a small cavity in the Solderite board to hold those elements so the piece can lay flat.
- If you’re putting a jump ring through the hole in a work-piece to act as a bail, the work-piece is probably going to be more secure laying flat on the soldering board, which means that the jump ring will be in a vertical position. Use tweezers to position the seam of the jump ring as close to the soldering board as possible. This way if the solder balls up and falls, it may fall near the seam and still be in the correct position. Alternately, dig a thin groove just big enough to hold the jump ring upright, positioning the join at the surface of the board.
- If you’re connecting the work-piece to chain, try to protect the chain from the heat (and potential meltage) by laying it under the work-piece (which will act as a heat sink) and away from the heat.
- You can also lay a sopping wet paper towel over items you don’t want to overheat as you solder. The towel will dry before the edges start to char, and that will give you a bit longer to work on your project.
- Use props like coins, T-pins, nests of binding wire, sheets of metal (I use small squares of titanium which cannot be soldered) to position elements and tools into a more beneficial arrangement. I sometimes place my third hand on a box lid or book to raise it into a better position.
WORKING WITH THE FLAME
- When connecting a small element to a larger element (a jump ring directly to a workpiece or an earring post to the earring element) direct the heat onto the larger piece only! The heat will eventually travel from the larger item to the smaller one. When the flux starts to burn off and you see the solder begin to melt, simply flick the flame onto the thinner element to complete the connection.
- Often I’m connecting jump rings or a clasp to chain, which are all thin, fragile items and prone to rapid melting. In that case I tend to ‘sneak up’ on the solder join by positioning the flame on the corner of the board, or an inch or so in front of the join. The residual heat of the flame will heat the elements enough that the solder begins to flow and ball up. When that happens I aim the flame directly in front of the solder area to complete the join. Sometimes I make a motion that I call ‘hit and run’, whereby I aim the flame on the join and quickly flick it away, then back on the join, then away. In effect I’m heating and cooling and heating and cooling so that I manage to avoid overheating and melting the item.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
When using sheet or wire solder and flux
- Liquid flux will start to boil, then go white and a little chalky, then turn glassy when the solder is about to flow. The solder will pull itself into a ball, then start to melt by forming a blob (don’t pull the flame away yet), and it will finally flow, looking like a silver stream.
- If using paste flux – the liquid in the paste will start to heat, may steam and boil (potentially throwing the solder chips out of position), then get chalky and glassy like the liquid flux. The rest of the appearance is the same.
- Paste solder has the flux built in, so no need to add more unless you’re unsoldering or you just want to protect the work-piece from oxidation (remember fine silver doesn’t oxidize). Paste solder will look a little ‘crispy’, will smoke as the flux evaporates, balls up, starts to melt into a blob, then flows completely.
- When the solder flows onto a metal clay item, remove the flame almost immediately. One cannot ‘draw’ the solder to follow the heat when soldering to metal clay.
- Because metal clay is more porous than milled metal, it is suggested that makers burnish the solder site well to close the surface pores in hopes that the solder will not sink into the body of the workpiece. I almost never do this and have never had a piece come apart.
- Use the right amount of solder for the job you want it to do.
- Closing a jump ring requires a ball of solder only about the size of a poppy seed (think of a bagel)
- Using more doesn’t make a better connection. It just makes a sloppy looking join that you’ll want to file and sand into a prettier profile
- When soldering a jump ring to the top of a ‘medallion’, using a bit too much solder will allow the excess to fill gaps on either side of the join, creating a ‘fillet’ or corbel shaped support (think of molding in a house), strengthening the join.
- Sometimes a piece will shift just as the solder flows, or you may decide you made a mistake adding an element, and would like to disconnect the connection you just made. In this case, position the lighter part in a third hand elevated above the soldering block (the bezel wire in the example we’ve been using). Apply flux to the solder join and heat the heavier piece until the solder re flows and the larger item falls off. Use a titanium pick to poke at the item if it’s not easily dislodged.
Note: the two pieces will separate, but the solder will remain until you sand/file it away.
- Allow a fresh solder join sit still for a couple of seconds, don’t move the third hands or other props you may have used. It takes a little while for the solder to cool and ‘set’. I’ve lost a few connections by moving the third hand too soon and pulling the two pieces out of position too quickly.
To solder larger items, one would think you would need a torch capable of putting out a larger flame. But the issue is really the amount of heat that is surrounding the item.
- Use kiln bricks to build a 3-sided ‘lean-to’ shaped structure to house the soldering board and the item to be soldered. Think of the three-way mirror in a dressing room. Add a ‘roof’ if you have the materials. This will create a kiln-like atmospheres that will hold the heat in a contained area, instead of allowing it to fill the larger room you’re most likely working in.
- If you own an Ultra-Lite or other small ‘trinket’ kiln, place the work-piece on it to heat, then use your torch to complete the soldering job. The small kiln will maintain the heat in the entire work-piece, so you’ll only have to concentrate on the solder join.
YouTube Video Instructors to check out:
More photos from Lora’s bench:
LORA HART was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and moved to historic Richmond, Virginia in 2012. Lora is the Artistic Advisor and one of twenty Senior Instructors for PMC Connection. A metal clay artist inspired by historic imagery, Lora’s work has been featured in books, magazines, and calendars and her jewels are sold in galleries and online. As a designer, educator, and creativity coach, her passion for the art and business of jewelry making has taken her across the United States to help other makers explore their own passions, develop their craft and expand their skills. www.lorahart.com @lorahart