Soldering Jewellery

Introduction to Soft Soldering Jewellery

This is not so much a project, but a guide to help answer some questions and to address any queries or misconceptions that people have about soldering jewellery. The bracelet is used as an example displaying how soldering can be utilised.

 

Hard and Soft soldering

There are two main forms of soldering, soft soldering and hard soldering.


Hard soldering involves a open flame torch, pressurised gas and, almost always, added oxygen. Hard soldering is preferred but more costly and somewhat more labour intensive. However, when it comes to sterling silver jewellery, it is the only option. The solders used are made of silver alloys. Note: even when all materials used are sterling silver, once a “soft solder” is used you are not allowed to mark or call your jewellery “Sterling Silver” or “925”.

Soft soldering is almost always used in fashion jewellery since it is relatively cheap and easy to learn. On the downside you will need to electroplate the articles that you make (See comments at the end). This form of soldering cannot be used on Sterling Silver jewellery. The reasons for this are simple; the solder used is not silver but a greyish coloured tin alloy. You cannot use a soldering iron on solder designed for sterling silver, as it will not melt. Melting temperatures will vary depending on what solder alloy combination is used. However, you generally can only use one kind of solder.

Metals

Since there is no “quality mark” involved when using soft solder, this leaves you open to use all kinds of base metals and their alloys. Yes, you could still use Sterling Silver if you wish, though, it should be noted that it does not mean you can call the finished piece “Sterling Silver.”

 

Preferred metals are brass and copper based since they conduct heat very well and electro plate easily. Stay away from anything else. You can also use plated parts, preferably silver or gold plated. Nickel and Rhodium plated parts are harder to solder, and are less desirable for this reason. The bracelet created for this example uses Sterling Silver as the base frame for its malleability (Picture 1). Additionally, since it will have lots of wear from rubbing against the wrist, it will still look silver when parts of the plating wear off. Other parts are copper and brass alloys in raw (not plated) as well as silver and gold plated findings. Hence the multiple colour scheme (Picture 3)!

 

Jewellery Soldering Tools

Tools for jewellery you will need are basic.

 

The electric soldering iron should be 80 watts. Don’t try and save money by getting some cheap 25-watt iron, these are designed for electronics and will not generate the required heat. You should later consider an adjustable iron, which regulates the wattage between 75 and 100W for more detailed work. The tip of the iron should be a fine chisel tip, note that several sizes are available, get the smallest possible tip. I don't use the pointed tip available since, although it can get you into small spaces, it tends not to disperse enough heat. Select a soldering iron that also offers replacement tips for sale.

 

Required equipment

Solder & Flux

Because of health reasons, a lead-free solder is a must, despite the fact that lead-based solder is easier to use.

 

I understand that many people struggle with lead free solder, but plenty of flux should take care of the problem. You will find that although solder often is sold in fairly solid sticks, lead free solder comes in small containers or spools only and is the thickness of fine spaghetti. Often these are cored with a flux, which is not a necessary requirement, and rarely has enough cored flux for the job at hand. I use an Australian Solder made up of 95% Tin and 5% Antimony. I understand that Antimony is not that great either, but still must be better than a solder that uses 40% or more lead. However, flux must be bought separately regardless of whether or not the solder already contains it. My preference here is flux in a paste form, although it is available as a liquid or in the form of a soap bar. A brush is also required to apply the flux.


All tools and materials are available from hardware stores, some stained glass suppliers, and most electronic shops. Please triple check prices on soldering irons, there are vast differences between suppliers, even for exactly the same model. 

 

Soldering and assembly

So lets run through this “project”. I started of by creating the frame by bending the shape by hand and cutting equally sized braces to make the frame more stable. Although it would be possible to achieve a nice straight frame by firstly creating a flat band, soldering the braces, and than bending the whole thing into the shape of a bracelet, although I find this method to be less desirable. This is purely because soft soldering, as the name indicates, is soft and will not form a very strong bond. Unlike hard soldering, it may not stay bonded when stressed through shaping.


To solder the 1.6mm thick wire together where it meets and insert the braces, I placed the article on a piece of pine. Wood will insulate the item to be soldered so that maximum heat will get to the bracelet. Some people will also use cloth pegs to hold pieces when soldering. I would suggest that you have as little contact as possible with other metals such as pliers so that little heat is lost when soldering.

 

The soldering iron should have a clean tip. Since the tip wears, occasional filing is necessary. A damp sponge is the best way to keep the tip clean. Once black residue or oxidisation has occurred it will be almost impossible to solder, so keep the tip clean by wiping it. My preference is to apply solder to the hot iron first (the solder will melt on contact with the iron and adhere to it). Start of with small amounts and work your way up to larger amounts, as required. Apply flux with the brush to the areas that will be soldered. Now press the tip of the soldering iron against the joint and you will see the flux giving off smoke and the solder starting to move along the wire. I tend to apply solder to the parts separately first, join them up, apply new flux, and than re-heating the lot so that the parts solder together. You may notice that if you have two different sized parts that without doing this all the solder will continuously run to the smaller part only. Once the flux has been burned off it will be harder to reheat the solder. This is beneficial when it comes to adding multiple parts. Should you need to re-heat the joint, just add flux. By the way, keep your work clean, or all the black soot and old flux will stop parts from bonding. I gave my piece a good scrub with a tooth brush and some detergent once in a while.

 

After the frame was created I started to add the parts and settings by binding most of them with a fine stainless steel wire (~0.2mm). Stainless steel binding wire will not as easily bond with the solder and can fairly easily be removed afterwards. Don’t use a brass or copper wire for this job! Once the parts were in place I repeated all the previous soldering steps.

 

Wired up frame

 

 

Now a word of caution and a few tips:

  • Avoid breathing in any fumes when soldering and wash your hands before eating. 
  • When using settings leave at least a 1-2 mm space between the settings or you will run into trouble when fitting the stone since many settings are slightly smaller than the stones so as to hide the base.
  • Solder loves to fill small gaps. When the claws of two different settings are lined up opposite each other the solder will join these together and the claws will become useless. Try and offset the claws.
  • Although most Swarovski stones can be set prior to plating, stones with effects such as “AB” coatings are not suitable for this.
  • Plating will adhere to them in spots since most of these coatings contain some metals.
  • Soft solder cannot easily be filed or sanded. Files block up quickly with the solder and are hard to clean afterwards.

  •  Once all parts are soldered give it a quick clean. No need to go overboard with it, your electroplater will further clean the piece prior to plating.

Removing Solder:

There are ways to remove any excess solder, known as de-soldering.

  • Start off with a clean soldering iron without any residue solder. When reheating a joint some solder will adhere to the clean tip, repeat this as often as required.
  • Small filigree parts can also be cleaned by heating the area and giving it a quick hard blow of air, but watch out for flying hot solder!

  • Solder is also pretty heavy and simply turning the piece over while hot can result in the liquid solder running relatively clear from an area.
  •  

Electro Plating

Plated and finished Bracelet

Since silver plating involves the use of cyanide you will have no option but to use a professional. This may be a little bit out of most people’s budget unless you intend to create a small production line. Perhaps sit down and talk to your local plater on how to save money. Some of them will leave the wiring up of jewellery to a plating frame to you. Anyway, plating the bracelet shown cost $49.50, which is the minimum charge by one of the better plating companies in Perth! I suspect that the same price would apply had I given them two or three at the same time.

 

On the other side of the coin I can get two litres of findings (containing hundreds or even thousands of parts) barrel plated for under $200. You may also consider that there are different qualities of plating, with “nickel free” plating alone being more than 30% more expensive than normal plating. Different thicknesses of plating are also available, especially in gold and than there are anti-tarnish coatings as well. Unfortunately, some more exotic plating colours and effects are just not available through Australian companies.

 

However, if you are interested in plating yourself, some metals such as nickel, copper, and even some variations of gold can be plated with equipment from around $600. Please stick to Australian supplier and start by finding out which chemicals are available locally. Any attempt to import chemicals will be a fruitless and costly experience. You may also need approval from your council regarding storage and disposal of chemicals.

 

Further reading:

Simply Soldered, C. Edelmann Avery, Design Originals No.5243. Basics of Soldering and introduction into copper foiling and decorative soldering.

Internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soldering

General soldering information in part more technical, rather than specific for fashion jeweller