Betsy’s Private Jewelry Lessons, Part 1: Soldering
In an effort to improve my jewelry skills and rethink them completely, I’m spending the next couple months taking two-hour lessons from Jake Idema, who has been repairing jewelry at Bolenz Jewelers of Alpena, Michigan, for 17 years. We’ll work on soldering skills. He’ll teach me how to make a box clasp and a hinge. I’ll learn how to flush set diamonds and build a basket prong setting from scratch. When both of us are done, Jake will have well-documented teaching experience. (I’ll write about what I learn in some of these blog posts.) And I’ll get a ton of experience, especially if I practice.
ABOVE: Professional jeweler Jake Idema uses a razor blade as a heat shield while repairing a gold chain with a tiny speck of solder.
But there is a problem. Jake does everything completely different from the way I was taught to in Denver. He uses Bitterns flux in tiny drops when soldering; I spray everything with a snowy coating of Prip’s flux. He uses chain-nose pliers to cut his solder chips, bending the thin metal back and forth in a few quick motions. I use Lindstrom full-flush cutters – which sends my chips flying into the air if I’m not careful.
So, my brain is in for a challenge and a treat. Working with Jake pushes me way beyond my comfort zone and on in to new territory.
Note: Jake’s training is more classical. He was trained by his father, beginning at a young age, and took over his father’s position at the store when the man retired.
Today’s Jewelry Lesson: Fine Soldering
First, I’ll learn ultrafine soldering by snipping the jump ring off a thin, white gold chain and reattaching it with silver solder.
Jake demonstrates. He lays the chain out on a ceramic honeycomb soldering block (they last forever and have holes you can stick pins in for holding parts). He positions the jump ring at the end of the chain and covers the rest of the chain with a stripped-down razor blade. Then he dips the tips of fine tweezers into a jar of borax mixed with alcohol and places a tiny drip onto the chain. He burns it off in a split second with an oxy-propane Smith torch. The flame seems to be needle fine and less than 1/8 of an inch long.
Then he cuts a microscopic piece of solder off a sheet, barely dips it in a drop of Batterns flux he has pooled on a piece of agate, and positions it where the join is to be made. A split second of heat from the torch and the soldering repair is complete. Then it was my turn. But rather than have you wait hours while I try to pick up that tiny chip of solder, I’m going to summarize other things I learned from my first private jewelry making lesson.
9 Soldering Lessons Learned
1. A torch holder is really handy. He made his. It allows you to hang the flaming torch in a safe place between soldering steps, so you don’t have to repeatedly light it.
2. When turning on a torch that uses gas plus oxygen, turn the gas on first and light it. Then slowly turn on the oxygen. When turning the torch off, turn the oxygen off first, then the gas. (I made Jake jump when I did this incorrectly.)
3. You do not need to lubricate your flex shaft. Jake’s been using the same one at the jewelry store since he started there 17 years ago, although he did replace the handpiece.
4. After quenching a soldered piece, Jake pickles it, then rinses it in a solution of water and baking soda to neutralize the chemical. Then he rinses the piece in water.
5. When soldering sterling silver, even a bezel, Jake does not flux and heat up the whole piece – only the join he is working on. Note that he puts the Batterns flux exactly where he wants the solder to flow.
6. To protect his eyes from optical radiation, Jake puts on tinted glasses every time he solders. I use an OptiVISOR and probably could put tinted glasses on under them.
7. For cleanup sanding, Jake uses 3M Aluminum Oxide Cartridge Rolls from Japan. Each roll contains 9 inches of sand paper. When the surface wears down, peel off the paper to uncover fresh grit.
8. Jake uses bow closing pliers as a handheld vise to hold tiny objects for polishing. Despite their name, these metal benders appear to be used by watchmakers.
9. Use Platinum Blue polishing compound as the last step when polishing your sterling silver projects.
Consider Private Jewelry Lessons
I have known Jake for five years, seeking his professional help when I’ve had problems with jewelry projects. We’ve also shown our jewelry at the same gallery. If you know someone, consider hiring them to give you some private lessons. I’m paying Jake around $90 a session.
Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.