Soldering 101: Glossary of Terms and Tools
It's hard to feel like you've mastered any technique if you aren't familiar with the terms associated with it. Soldering is no different–even as you get comfortable with moving your flame around while keeping an eye on the state of your flux and the color of your metal, pat-your-head-rub-your-tummy style, you still want to be able to fully understand what you're doing when you're soldering–and the tools you're using to do it. This handy glossary of some common soldering terms, excerpted from soldering articles by my metalsmithing teacher and soldering queen (and contributing editor to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist), Lexi Erickson, will help you get your feet wet in the world of soldering and prepare you to learn more.
An alloy is a mixture of two or more metals.
Cupric oxide is a reddish oxide that forms when a piece of sterling silver is heated. This is usually removed by immersing the object into warm pickle. Cuprous oxide is a dark purplish stain that not only occurs on the surface of the piece you are soldering but also much deeper into the metal. It is difficult to remove cuprous oxide (firescale), but it can be removed by sanding the piece until all discoloration is gone.
Firescale is the common name for a purplish stain that shows up on sterling silver when it is soldered. If you are careful, very little firescale will appear during annealing. In sterling, firescale is caused by air mixing with the copper in the sterling, and using a flux solution will minimize the firescale. When soldering brass or bronze, the firescale looks like copper, which means the alloy was overheated, causing the copper to surface.
Flow point is the temperature at which solder will flow into and fill up a join by capillary action. This temperature is between 85-120°F hotter than the melting point. The melting point is the temperature at which solder will ball up.
Flux is a borax-based solution mixed with water, alcohol, or mineral oil, that will reduce the chance of firescale on sterling silver and copper alloys. It also keeps the metals clean as they are soldered. Most jewelers today use a premade commercial flux for all soldering processes. Prip's Flux is a commercial liquid flux which works well on all metals and is the best flux to use on copper alloys. Anti-flux is anything nonflammable that will adhere to the metal and keep solder from flowing onto an unwanted area.
The mill side is the manufacturing side of your metal. The manufacturer alloys and rolls your metal into sheet or other milled products such as wire, bezel wire, and so on.
Pallions are small chips of solder cut from a sheet or flattened wire. They are usually 1mm or smaller in size.
Pickle: Pickle is sodium bisulfate, a white granular powder, used for removing oxides from metal after soldering. It is mixed at about 3/4 cup of pickle to a gallon of water. Citric acid may be used as a pickle, but Lexi uses PH-Down, found as a pH balancer for swimming pools, because it's much cheaper and readily available at the local pool supply store.
(Why is it called pickle? According to Charles Lewton-Brain, possibly because German jewelers used an alum solution to clean their soldered work, and alum was used to make pickles, too. It might have started as a simple jeweler's inside joke!)
A pickle pot is an electric pot, which may be a commercial pickle pot, a Crock Pot, or even a coffee cup set on a mug warmer pad, which holds the liquid pickling solution and keeps it warm. Pickle works best when it is slightly warm, not boiling. Almost any ceramic or glass container can be used for holding warm pickle.
Solder is an alloy of fine silver and zinc. Fine silver is too soft to be used by itself, so it is alloyed. Sterling silver is 925 parts per 1,000 silver, with the remaining 75 parts usually copper. Both brass and bronze are alloys, mixtures of copper and other metals. Copper is often used unalloyed.
Solder ghosts are places where your solder has flowed outside of the seam.
Solder picks are tools used to help place and move solder. A sharp solder pick can also be used to push molten solder into place along a join. Solder picks vary in materials, price, and flexibility.
Your soldering station is where you do your soldering. This area must be fireproof and stay free of any combustible materials, such as paper towels. You may use large ceramic tiles and lay firebricks on top as a soldering station, or you may use a metal soldering station. Whatever you use, keep it clean.
To learn more about soldering from the queen of soldering herself, you must treat yourself to Lexi's soldering DVDs, Metalsmith Essentials: How to Solder Jewelry and How to Solder Jewelry, Vol. 2. Learn from the best, like I did!