Studio Notes: Soldering Fun with Pick and (Ball) Chain

In the March/April 2019 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, I turned heavy sterling silver chain and wire into stock for rings and bracelets. When I ran out of those materials, I played with ball chain, wondering if I could solder tiny 2.2mm spheres together without melting them.

ABOVE: Strands of olive bead chain are held in place in channels cut into a soft Solderite board with a screwdriver and straight edge.

The secret?

First, you need an air acetylene torch with a #00 tip. In other words, you need a very tiny flame.

Second, paste solder is your friend. Never ever thought I’d say that, but it works perfectly for this kind of project. It comes in a syringe so you can stick the solder right where you want it. Once heated with a torch, the sterling silver spheres are joined together, but the links are still flexible. While paste solder doesn’t require flux to work, you’ll want Prip’s flux on hand to prevent fire scale.

TIP: You can use other kinds of chain with large links, such as 5.2mm oval rolo, 5.2mm curb chain, or anchor chain. Make sure chains are not rhodium plated or oxidized and that links are solid, not hollow.

What You Need

Torch, quench, pickle and copper tongs; a spray bottle of Prip’s flux, hard, medium and easy paste solder in syringes; chain; assortment of round sterling silver wire from 20 to 26 gauge; clasps; sharp soldering pick; fine tweezers; soft Solderite board; flat-bladed 3/8” screw driver; metal straight edge

Soldering Safety

Since your face will be close to the soldering, you need ventilation that sucks fumes away from your nose and mouth. I use a bench-mounted fume extractor. Or wear a multipurpose face mask. I use a 3M Medium Professional Multipurpose Respirator. You’ll also want magnification and safety glasses.

2.2mm ball chain joined with easy paste solder

2.2mm ball chain joined with easy paste solder

Instructions for Soldering Ball Chain

Put on your face mask. Use the straight edge and the flat screw driver to cut a 3/8” wide groove about 1/8” deep into the soft Solderite board to create a soldering jig (support). Make the groove about 3” long.

NOTE: My Solderite board packaging recently came with a label that states the product “can expose you to chemicals including silica, crystalline (airborne particles of respirable size), and glass wool fibers, which are known in the State of California to cause cancer.” Something to keep in mind as you carve.

Line up the chains in the groove so that the balls are touching each other. If using a curb or rolo chain, make sure the links are parallel. This way your finished piece will retain flexibility. Use a solder pick or fine tweezers to nudge links around if needed.

Heat the sterling with the torch flame and spray with Prip’s flux, alternating between the two until you’ve built up a snowy white coat. Squeeze a tiny amount of hard solder between the beads where they touch. Heat each join one at a time with a tiny flame until solder connects the links. Then move on to the next join. When done, quench, pickle and rinse well. Insert a fine gauge wire into the needle when done to keep paste solder from drying out.

Practice on short runs of scrap chain until you get a feel for this technique. Make sure you aren’t overheating the metal.

TIP: Paste solder doesn’t hold up well under constant reheating, so your goal is to get good enough to do this highly detailed soldering in one pass.

3.2mm sterling silver bead chain with a carved, half-drilled pearl

3.2mm sterling silver bead chain with a carved, half-drilled pearl

For my necklace project, I added a short length of 20-gauge round sterling silver wire at the end so that I could attach a half-drilled pearl to the chain. At the two other ends, I soldered a 2” length of 22-gauge wire into each bead hole and used wire wrapping to attach a clasp and catch.

Clean Up

When it comes to polishing, I’ve found that ball chain takes a beating in a tumbler full of steel shot. If you need to do a touch up, especially if you overheated a few links, wrap the damaged section around a 3”x3” cotton cylinder buff, move your fingers out of the way, and hit it with a smaller buff on a flex shaft handpiece. (See sources below.)

7 Ideas for More Fun with Pick and Chain

Once you start thinking about chain in a new way, you’ll find yourself coming up with tons of your own ideas. Here are some to inspire you.

Strands of chain are lined up between strips of cardboard for photography purposes

Idea 1: Take a photograph of chain arranged in a pattern (above). Print the image out and glue it to the back of a glass cabochon using Diamond Glaze, which waterproofs the stone (below, bottom). Mount your cabochon in a matching bezel cup, and hang it from the chain you used in your photograph.

ideas for using ball chain in jewelry

Idea 2: Arrange your chain in a pattern in the bottom of a flat container. Knead Sculpey clay until soft and gently press into the chain, without completely filling up your container. Remove and bake 15 minutes in a 275-degree Farenheit oven. Allow to cool, and remove chain. Use as a mold for a precious metal clay project (above, center).

Idea 3: Solder five to six strands of chain together and finish with clasp to create a flexible bracelet.

Idea 4: Solder short lengths of chain together in a pattern to create a necklace or brooch. Use the solder pick to nudge parts around. Jigs help.

Idea 5: Take a close up photograph of a length of your chain against a white background. Blow it up and use it as a black and white resist pattern for metal etching on flat sheet. Turn this stock into earrings, cuffs, pendants, rings and other jewelry.

Idea 6: Plenty of chains are made with base metal. Experiment with these materials, too.

Resources:
1. Olive ball chain is from Myron Toback of New York. Wholesale only.
2. Check out this ball chain
3. 3×3” cotton cylinder buff for holding chain while polishing

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. You can reach her at betsylehndorff@gmail.com.


Master soldering and more with these resources!

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