Still Learning from Lexi: 6 Tips on Soldering, Metal Etching & More, Plus a Sugar Skull Pendant
When I first started as the editor of Jewelry Making Daily, I spent two days in Lexi Erickson’s studio soaking up as much information from her as I possibly could, first on sawing, then filing, then soldering, then cabochon setting, and finally metal finishing. I took notes as fast as I could, by hand as she demonstrated and explained what to do, and then by mind’s eye as I tried to saw and solder myself with her watchful eye helping me along.
Now, every day I spend in the studio is a day that I recite a tip or some advice from Lexi to myself as I work. “Solder flows toward heat,” is probably my favorite, or perhaps, “Solder likes to hide and silver likes to cool off.” I just think that one is funny. Here are six more helpful, ingenious tips from Lexi; I hope they’re as helpful for you as they are for me!
- When you’re choosing cabochons and find ones you love, be sure to look for signs that they are well cut. Make sure the sides are the same height all around or your bezel wire will be out of proportion. Make sure the side are also cut straight up and down, not angled smaller toward the top, which will be a nightmare to fit in a bezel. Be sure the bottom is flat (set it on a flat surface and see if it rocks.)
- I once found myself without bezel wire to finish a project that I really wanted to finish that day, so I improvised by trimming a very fine, thin piece of silver from a strip of patterned silver wire. It looked like it would be perfect, but alas, looks can be deceiving. It was much too firm and would not bend over the stone. I had to take the whole thing apart and re-do the bezel later, but if I had thought to anneal it, it might have worked. I learned about annealing bezel wire from Lexi: “To anneal bezel wire: Wrap the wire in a tight coil, secure it with binding wire, flux it with white paste flux (which will be your temperature indicator), and heat,” Lexi says. “When the flux turns clear, the wire is annealed. Note: If you lay the wire out flat and straight (without coiling) and anneal it, there’s a good chance it will melt.”
- If I’d seen this advice from Lexi first, the above scenario could’ve been avoided: “I advise my students to buy several feet of different heights/widths of bezel to have on hand, so they will always have the right size,” Lexi says. “Nothing is more irritating than to be jamming to the oldies in your studio at 2 in the morning and suddenly realize you’re out of bezel wire. Right? So if you purchase several feet of 3mm and 5mm, one of those will usually be sufficient for most stones. When you get down to six inches in inventory, it’s time to reorder.”
- Regarding the acid and water solution for etching, Lexi doesn’t follow a set recipe. “I go by color. If you make your acid the color of weak green tea, it will take a long time, possibly up to 4 hours, for a good etch, but it will be a very beautiful etch,” Lexi says. “If you make it the color of cola, it will take about an hour to etch. I use the cola color and achieve great results. Anything darker takes less time, but it may be a very uneven etch with rough design edges or undercuts.”
- We’ve covered this one before, but it’s too good to leave out. Everyone should know Lexi’s five rules of soldering: Fit. Clean. Flux. Solder Placement. Heat. These are the roots of all soldering issues. So no matter what goes wrong in your soldering process, you can trace it back to a mistake in one of these five steps. If your solder won’t flow? Probably “Clean” or “Flux.” If your bezel melts? Definitely “Heat.” If your solder gets blown away by the torch? “Solder Placement.” Seams come undone? “Fit,” for sure. It’s always one of these five things.
- Speaking of soldering, this is one I also find myself reciting after I’ve been away from the torch awhile: You want solder to flow up a seam, not just melt. Remember that the flame from the torch isn’t supposed to “melt” the solder–the flame should heat the metal, and that heat causes the solder to melt and flow into your seam. Don’t approach soldering with the intent of melting the solder or you’ll likely do it wrong.
Lexi has decades of experience teaching metalsmithing students of all levels to saw, solder, and set stones as they make metal jewelry. Lucky for us, she continues to share her expertise in dozens of metalsmithing videos and articles in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. We’ve been putting her to the test this year, having her design multiple in-depth projects and host a video in which she demonstrates how to make each one in her Southwestern-inspired series. There have been dog tags, shaman, bear-shaped stones and bear-shaped metal, leaves/feathers, petroglyphs and more, each packed full of instruction on sawing metal, setting stones, soldering like and mixed metals, and finishing pieces perfectly. Just in time for Halloween, get Lexi’s Advanced Soldering Challenge: Sugar Skull Pendant with Patina project video.
P.S. Want more of Lexi’s advice? There are seven more brilliant tips on this blog!