Don’t Melt Your Bezels: How Hot is Too Hot When Soldering Jewelry and 4 Tips on How to Solder from Kate Richbourg
I melted my first bezel soldering awhile ago, and I cut my finger pretty badly in the studio last week, using wire cutters even! Whenever I make a mistake in the studio, I add insult to injury by telling myself, “You know better!”
I do know better, but I still don’t always do better. Isn’t that the way humans are with so many things? We know we should eat better and exercise, but . . . ice cream, chocolate, Chinese food. We know we should save more money, but . . . hammers, Sephora, pearls! We know when the solder should flow based on what color the metal is when we’re soldering, but . . . doubt, hesitate, melt.
This “human condition” is why I always take note of a good tip to remind me that I do know better and to help me do better–and I found lots of good reminders in Kate Richbourg’s new book, Metalsmithing Made Easy: A Practical Guide to Cold Connections, Simple Soldering, Stone Setting, and More!
“While some techniques are simpler and mastered more quickly than others, honing your skills takes time,” Kate says. “Ease and satisfaction come as you build muscle memory and see the results of your labor by completing a piece of jewelry to be proud of. The more you learn and build on your technique, the easier new or difficult things become. That’s why I wrote this book. I’m here to share my tips, steps, tricks, and methods, to answer your questions, and to coach you through the tough spots.”
Tough spots, yes. Sometimes things just go wrong, for whatever reason. I know how to saw, how to hammer, how to solder–you know how many metalsmithing, soldering, and other jewelry-making books I’ve read and videos I’ve watched! Not to mention numerous classes and years of putting it all to practice. But I still learned more about all of it from Kate’s book, which will improve my skills and that “muscle memory” that will make these best practices second nature and less likely to be skipped in the heat of the moment (no pun intended).
“What I want you to know is that I’ve been right where you are,” Kate writes. “I’ve made many of the same mistakes and have had the same frustrating setbacks and bewilderment at the variety of tools and materials that are out there. So I wrote this book with you, the home jeweler, in mind, to fire up your imagination with metalworking techniques that work in a small space or studio.”
Here’s a little excerpt from Metalsmithing Made Easy with some imagery that really stood out to me. There’s a fine line between the dull orange-red glow ideal for soldering and the bright way-too-orange heat that melts our bezels. (And “heat the metal, not the solder” is a mantra worth repeating.)
How to Solder Jewelry: How Hot is Too Hot?
By Kate Richbourg, from Metalsmithing Made Easy
One of the mistakes I see beginners make is due to fear of overheating and melting their piece [when soldering]. While this fear is valid, with practice comes the ability to “read” your metal during the soldering process. Many times I see students heat a piece, but then remove the torch just as things start to heat up and the surface starts to darken, because they think the solder has flowed. Or they worry that the piece is about to melt, so they toss it in the quenching bowl and it falls apart. The solder didn’t flow.
The thing to remember here is that the heat of the metal makes the solder flow, not the flame of the torch contacting the solder.
Here’s the method I use: Heat the metal piece evenly, using the outer, feathery part of the flame, moving the torch in slow, steady circles over the piece. Focus on the larger parts of the piece and avoid small parts like bezel wires, earring stems, or small decorations.
Remember that metal is conductive: The heat will travel throughout the piece. If you focus on heating the larger parts of the piece, the heat will spread to the smaller parts and bring them up to soldering temperature without melting due to too much contact with the flame. Solder flows as the metal emits a dull orange-red glow.
As you heat, move the torch closer to the piece so the “sweet spot” (the tip of the bright blue cone) of the flame is just above or contacting the piece. The metal will start to glow a brighter orange-red glow. As soon as you see that color change, focus the torch flame on the join where the solder is placed. Watch for a molten line of solder running along the seam. When you see that, pull the torch away and stop heating. It’s tempting to keep the torch on the piece “just to make sure.” Those few extra seconds make the difference between a perfect seam and a melted mistake. —Kate
And just in case someone needs to hear them today, here are four more soldering tips and reminders quoted from Kate’s new book.
- When using flux, it is possible to burn off your flux. Then fire scale will start to form and your solder will not flow. This is the undesirable result of uneven heating. It can be caused by holding your torch too still or too close, or by trying to solder a very large piece with a torch that isn’t big enough for even heating.
- You don’t need all three types of solder [paste, wire, sheet] right away. You can get started using one or the other, but I find that paste solder is great for the beginner, as the solder and flux are together. It is easy to place on your metal, and it stays where you put it. As you become more comfortable using solder and you fabricate more complex pieces, wire and sheet solder may better suit your needs. They give you much more control over placement and a more precisely finished joint.
- You will see the binder in the solder paste start to sizzle and smoke, then catch on fire. (Don’t worry, that’s supposed to happen!) [Editor’s note: I wish someone had told me this before I started using paste solder! It stinks, too, fyi!]
- When soldering curved pieces together, all joins need to be really flush so your dapped pieces won’t have any gaps when soldered. And remember, there needs to be a vent hole somewhere on the back plate of the piece so heat and fumes have a place to vent.
If you’re new to metalsmithing and want to expand your skills–or if you’ve never touched a hammer and want to learn from the very beginning from a very fun, very accomplished expert teacher–Metalsmithing Made Easy is the perfect book for you. You’ll learn all about basic and not-so-basic jewelry-making tools, choosing and setting up a torch, soldering and cold connections, how to use a rotary tool and a detailed look at 20+ attachments and what they do, how to size a ring band, and so much more. Then you’ll put it all to practice with 15 of Kate’s signature skill-building Samplers followed by 15 complete step-by-step metalsmithing project tutorials (some of which you see in this blog).
Even if you have some metalsmithing experience, I feel certain you’ll learn something from Kate–I always do–and improve your skills in general by following her techniques and tutorials in Metalsmithing Made Easy.
Want to save a bunch of money? You can also get Kate’s newest book in our exclusive Kate Richbourg Hot & Cold Connections Collection, which includes one of her favorite torches, the Max Flame, plus her Make Soldered Jewelry DVD that covers making jewelry and using six different torches and her hugely popular first book, Simple Soldering–all at a very special value at more than 45% off.
Learn more from Kate Richbourg with her instructional resources in the Interweave Store!