Our original tutorial on “How to solder jewelry with Simply Swank Tools” has been very popular. Unfortunately, we no longer are able to supply several of the supplies mentioned in the original post. I have attempted, here, to provide information on currently available products, and to answer some questions.
Solder is a confusing topic. There are two completely different soldering methods used in jewelry making, yet people rarely explain which type they’re talking about – much the way people say they spent the weekend simply “at the lake.” (If they are your friends, you do know which lake … and hopefully this post will help you make friends with solder!)
Solder is a metal alloy that is melted to connect or coat metal pieces. Soldering is the act of melting and applying solder.
The two soldering methods are:
- Soldering with a torch. Often called hard soldering, brazing or silver soldering, although copper, brass, gold and other metals can be torch soldered. There are different grades of hard solder (which melt at different temperatures, and just to confuse things further, are called easy/soft, medium and hard). There are also different solder formulas to match the color of various metals. This post talks about copper wire solder, which is meant for torch soldering.
- Soldering with a soldering iron. This is often referred to as soft soldering, and is used with base metals (like pewter) and plated metals. This is actually ‘tinning”, which means adding a layer of solder to a metal base. The solder is made mostly of tin and has a (relatively) low melting temperature. Soft solder is pewter or silver colored. Never use a soldering iron with precious metal jewelry: it will ruin the jewelry.
Therefore, if jewelry is made of silver or gold, it has to be torch soldered. Successful soldering requires heating the metal pieces, not just melting the solder, so if the piece is very large or thick, it’s probably torch soldered as well.
First off, not all soldering irons are created equal. There are many varieties on the market and most were not designed for jewelry making. The two most important things to look for are tip style and wattage. We recommend a minimum of 60-watt soldering iron with a chisel tip. The pointy tip irons are designed for tiny electronics like circuit boards and are of little use for jewelry, other than sealing jump rings. Lower than 60 watts might not heat up enough. The 60w Hakko soldering iron meets both requirements! The 100 watt Choice Iron and Rheostat combination provides greater control over temperature.
Soldering iron tip comparison
The iron on the left has a pointy tip (not recommended). The iron on the right has the recommended chisel tip, but needs to be cleaned! Soldering is difficult when the tip is black and crusty. Try using the wet sponge to clean the heated iron. If you can’t clean it any other way, let the iron cool and then gently sand off the gunk.
Next, the solder itself. It is important to use lead-free solid-core solder. Avoid solders that have rosin or acid cores. Rings & Things sells Choice, SILVERGLEEM, and Staybrite silver solder. All 3 work great with soldering irons; Staybrite is more expensive because of its higher silver content and included flux.
Here is a condensed version of the process:
Preparing to Solder a Glass Pendant
Prepare your work area. Remove extraneous (burnable or meltable) items from the immediate area. I like to use a cookie sheet with a Non-Stick Craft Sheet on top. The craft sheet allows for easy clean-up of the drips and spills of solder that will inevitably occur.
Copper tape creates the metal base needed for the solder to flow onto.
Sandwich images between 2 pieces of glass and wrap edges with copper foil tape, peeling off the tape as you go. If you plan to add a bail or jump ring, overlap the ends of the foil tape where you are adding the hardware. Fold the tape over from the edges to the front and back of the glass, being careful of the corners (think of it like wrapping a gift). Burnish smooth (a sharpie pen works well for burnishing). Clean with alcohol to remove any oils from your fingers – a clean surface is the best soldering surface!
Shaping the solder coil into a snake makes it easier to feed onto your soldering iron.
Prepare the Soldering Iron stand by adding a few tablespoons of water to the sponge in the reservoir.
If this is your first time using the iron, you will want to “tin” the tip the first time you heat it up and always maintain that layer of solder across the tip. By tinning the tip, you prevent the iron coating from oxidizing, which is a real problem when you have hot iron tips. Oxidation can corrode your tips forcing you to replace them more often, and the hotter your iron the faster they will oxidize. Tip tinning creates a layer of solder between the air and the iron, keeping oxygen at bay.
Plug in the soldering iron and allow it to heat up for a couple minutes. Touch the tip to the damp sponge. The iron is hot enough if the sponge steams a bit when you do this. Holding the solder in one hand and the iron in the other, briefly touch the solder to both sides of the tip. You may have to “rub” the solder onto the iron to start it flowing.
Now that your tip is properly tinned, you can start soldering. Try to solder immediately after tinning the tip, the sooner the better. Tinning improves conductivity and makes soldering easier, as well as quicker, which is a good thing. Periodically while you are working , (when the solder doesn’t seem to be flowing well), clean off any globs of solder on the sponge and re-tin the tip. Keeping the tip clean is important but constantly wiping it on a wet sponge will lower the iron temperature, and can cause early tip failure. Properly cleaned tips are bright and shiny.
Keep the iron in the stand whenever you are not actually soldering with it. Unplug the iron whenever you are working on another portion of the project for more than a few minutes. This is not only a good safety measure, but it will also extend the life of your soldering iron. When you are not using your soldering iron, you should keep a layer of solder on the tip, so before putting your iron in storage, apply a fresh layer of solder to the tip to prevent it from corroding. If you will not be using your iron for an extended period of time, you may want to store it (after it has fully cooled) in a zipper type bag to protect it further from corrosion and humidity.
Soldering a Glass Pendant
Apply flux to the copper tape. Touch your hot soldering iron to the solder to pick up a blob, and run the iron over the copper tape. Repeat. Repeat. (Some people melt the solder onto the tip of the iron and transfer it to the piece. I find I have more control by applying the solder directly from the roll to the tape.) Often you can pull the solder from the edges of the pieces to the front and back taped portions. Completely cover the copper tape with solder. If it looks lumpy, run the iron across the bumps to remelt the solder and smooth it out. Be sure to clean your soldering iron’s tip frequently. If the solder isn’t flowing, either the tip is dirty, your piece is dirty, you need more flux or you aren’t heating the piece sufficiently. Clips, clothespins or a third hand tool are all helpful tools for holding your piece while protecting your fingers.
The piece above is being held in place with binder clips, allowing me to hold the spool of solder in one hand, and the iron in the other.
Here I am holding a piece steady with bent chain nose pliers. Since flux can damage tools, and you may drip solder onto them, dedicate an inexpensive or already damaged pair for use in soldering.
Add a blob of solder to the point where you’d like to attach your jump ring. Apply flux to your jump ring. Use pliers or a hemostat to hold the jump ring on the blob, and reheat the blob with the iron to secure it in place (watch out: the blob will melt quickly, and the jump ring will sink into it. Do not maintain the heat on the blob or the jump ring, or it will all melt together into a mess). Clean off any extra flux with window cleaner or rubbing alcohol, file rough edges, buff with a polishing cloth, and you’re done!
Making soldered pendants is totally addictive. Microscope slide glass is an affordable way to indulge your pendant-making habit.
The Rings & Things Glass Soldering Supplies provides all the basics for you to start out with a new skill. Just provide your own scissors, water, and work surface, and you are ready to go.
So, DIY and make some unique and meaningful collage pendants of your own!
Hint: If you love the soldered piece, but don’t like the bright and shiny finish, Novocan Patina will darken the solder covered parts.