If the word silversmithing intimidates you, get ready to get excited! I recently had a discussion with Jewelry Making Daily's Facebook friends about what we wish someone had told us when we first started making silver jewelry. What do I wish I had known years ago? Silversmithing is not that hard. It's not an extremely difficult process for only the most advanced jewelers, using scary jewelry-making tools. Thanks to a great teacher, I learned to do it quickly, and soon you'll see that you can do it, too.
5 Steps of Silversmithing Jewelry
There are basically only five steps from the design in your mind to the ring on your finger—or whatever piece of jewelry you want to make. Many silver jewelry-making projects won't even require all five steps. By breaking silversmithing down into manageable steps and learning them one by one, I realized that creating custom silver jewelry is an achievable (and extremely fun) process.
A good silversmithing teacher will tell you that the keys to successful metal sawing are to have a good saw with the best blades you can afford and to master an effective sawing technique. Start with a 2/0 saw blade for best all-around use, and move on to a 4/0 once you get the hang of it. Later, a 6/0 saw blade is best for intricate silversmithing work. Lube your saw blade with Burlife, beeswax, or Gemlube and strive for a steady rhythm with a fluid sawing motion.
The better you get at sawing, the less filing you'll have to do. The hardest part about filing for me was remembering which direction to move the file. Hint: It's not like filing your nails! Don't go back and forth—file only in one direction: away from you.
Files are generally flat or half-round, and they are sized by number; the higher the number of the file, the finer the cut it will make. Therefore, #0 and #1 files are large-tooth files that will rapidly remove the most metal in the least amount of time. If your sawed piece has a very irregular or flawed edge, these are the files you'll want to start with to fix it. If you can only buy one file, buy a #2 file; it's a good, almost-all-purpose, medium-tooth file. For finer work, move up to smaller-tooth #4 and #6 files. Clean metal bits from files after use with a file card.
- Metalworking (Forging, Hammering, Texturing, Dapping and Doming, etc.)
A rawhide or plastic mallet can bend and form metal into just about any shape you like, around a ring, bracelet, or neck mandrel—or any curved surface hard enough to receive the blows. Silversmithing hammers are available with just about any texture you can imagine, to create any effect you desire. Practice the hammering, texturing, and other metal-forming aspects of silversmithing on less expensive metals such as copper and then move onto silver when you're familiar with what effect each hammer creates. Dapping blocks are like molds that help you turn flat pieces of metal into domed pieces of metal—that's simple enough, right? Right. Next!
The more you work with a torch, the more comfortable you'll get with it. You'll learn to tell the difference between an oxidizing (hissing), reducing (full yellow), and neutral (yellow-tipped) flame; how to move the flame at just the right speed and just the right height as you pass over your silver jewelry piece to heat it; how much flux to use to adequately protect your piece but not make a mess of your fire brick; just the right spot to place your bits of solder and what it looks like when it melts and when it flows; and how to determine the temperature of your metal by the appearance of the flux.
Tip: Turn on your Crock-Pot of pickle solution (pH Down and water) when you start a silversmithing project or a workday at your bench; then the pickle will be hot and ready to clean your silver jewelry projects when you're ready for it. Pickle cleans silver jewelry pieces before and after soldering.
- Finishing (Texturing, Burnishing, Buffing, Polishing, Patinating)
After soldering, you'll probably have to file some more, sand a bit, and clean off any firescale that the pickle left behind. Depending on what you're making, you might add more texture to your silver jewelry designs at this point. The next step in finishing your silver jewelry is to use rouge and a buffing wheel to polish the silver to a smooth, perfect shine. You can also buff out small imperfections. Whether you add patina to your silver jewelry designs with liver of sulfur or through some other means, this optional step can create an antiqued look, enhance texture and details in your designs, and completely change the look of shiny white silver to dark. It can also highlight flaws, so you have to make sure that any finishing techniques are done before you apply patina.
Naturally, this is a simplified version of silversmithing—but it makes sense, right? And now that you've seen that making silver jewelry isn't a scary, impossible undertaking, you're ready to make some silver jewelry of your own. For a home-delivered supply of inspiring silversmithing projects (along with information about jewelry-making tools, gemstones and new gem discoveries, faceting and other gem designs for the lapidary, and trends in the jewelry industry—all things of interest to both accomplished and aspiring jewelry makers), subscribe to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.
Are you a Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist subscriber? What's your favorite part of the magazine? I'd love to hear in the comments below.