Handcrafting your own sterling silver jewelry comes with a lot of perks. The greatest is creating unique and customized designs that stand out from the mass-made ones.
Soldering is an indispensable part of the whole process. It opens up opportunities for unlimited creativity with metal.
Perhaps you are a budding jewelry silversmith and have been curious to know:
Can you solder sterling silver? Yes, you can solder sterling silver, similar to other pure jewelry metals like gold, copper, and silver, as long as you have the right tools and materials.
We understand that soldering can be pretty scary and intimidating for first-timers, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a go. Getting the hang of things isn’t as hard as you might think, and once you do, it will give your creations a professional edge.
If you are clueless about where to start but are willing to learn about soldering sterling silver, this article is for you. We’ll guide you through the step-by-step process and the necessary tools of the trade to help you begin.
What is Soldering Anyway?
Before diving deep into the process of soldering sterling silver, it’s always good to start with the basics.
First of all, what is soldering? Soldering is joining two or more metal parts using a solder. Solder is a metal alloy that is heated and fluxed where the bond is needed to fuse the parts.
It then melts, cools solid and is polished, becoming a seamless part of the design. When well-executed, the soldered joining is virtually invisible.
It is worth mentioning that solder is not a metal filler. Soldering will not close gaps. It only helps the atoms of two metal parts flow into one another. The two parts, therefore, need to be in close contact for them to bond with soldering.
Tools Needed to Solder Sterling Silver
Soldering requires a significant initial investment in tools and supplies. Because you are just getting started, we’ll keep the list essential only so your budget doesn’t balloon.
However, as your skills advance, you’ll need to add more, bigger, different, and maybe better versions of what you have.
Here’s what you need to solder sterling silver:
Soldering Board, Block, or Mat
This is a fireproof surface that comes into direct contact with the flame when soldering. It should be heat resistant and flame retardant, and is placed in front of you at the top of your workstation.
These come as blocks, mats, or boards made of silicone, ceramic, charcoal, magnesia, mesh, and other materials that can withstand temperatures as high as 950°F up to 2000°F.
This honeycomb ceramic board from Euro Tools is a great choice. It is super sturdy and comes with orifices where you can insert T pins to hold the pieces you need to solder steadily. The design also prevents pooling of liquid flux when applying with a brush.
One of the most frequently asked questions by novice jewelers is, what kind of solder do you use for sterling silver? Since you are soldering sterling silver, you should be looking for a silver alloy solder that is at least 65% silver.
You’ll find silver solder at various melting points but with the same hardness labeled as easy/soft or hard. Solders are offered as paste, wire, sheet, or chips. As a novice, a soft wire like this solder wire from uGems makes an easy start.
Flames cause metals to oxidize and change color. Flux is a pasty or fluid substance applied to sterling silver to act as a reducing agent and prevent oxidation. It also helps the solder flow better.
Aquiflux self-pickling jewelry flux is a beginner-friendly choice. It comes in a spray bottle for easy mess-free application.
It is also transparent, which enables you to assess the precision of the joining with clarity. What’s more, it is self-pickling, but you can go ahead and pickle further.
Torch and Fuel
To solder sterling silver, you’ll also need a flame torch. The variety can be a bit overwhelming as there are so many different types and sizes.
You can go straight to a professional-grade torch, so you only need to buy it once. But it’s better to start with a smaller, lightweight, portable micro-torch like the Bernz-O-Matic and upgrade later when you feel more confident.
When shopping, please note that a soldering iron is different from a soldering torch. A soldering iron will not work for this type of soldering. An actual jet of blue flame is a requisite for soldering sterling silver.
While we’re on the subject, ensure you fuel it first before rendering your new flame torch useless! This is a familiar oversight among newbies.
The torches do not come pre-filled with gas; neither do they come with gas tanks. Therefore you’ll have to fill them up with appropriate gas. Go for butane or propane torches as the gas is typically easy to find at a local gas station.
A soldering pick acts like a heat resistant finger. It helps you make fine alignment adjustments to the solder or jewelry while hot in case of any shifts.
They are pretty inexpensive, like this Deluxe titanium set of three soldering picks.
Cross Lock Tweezers
Cross lock tweezers assist you hold the piece of jewelry or wire in place as you solder since you can’t secure it with bare hands.
This set of three cross lock tweezers with straight, 90° and 45° curved tips enables you to position the jewelry at various angles, which makes for a nice starter set you’re sure to appreciate later.
Curved Copper Tongs
Curved copper tongs are used to dip and remove your pieces from the pickle bath.
We know you must be wondering, can’t I use my regular tweezers for that?
Well, it is not recommended, because iron, steel or other metals commonly used to make tweezers will react with the pickle, contaminate it, and stain your sterling silver jewelry with an oxide. Copper doesn’t. So a set of copper tongs is ideal for your soldering needs.
This isn’t the kind you eat, of course! Pickle is an acidic cleaning solution to use on sterling silver after soldering. It eliminates the blackish or reddish fire scale restoring the original beautiful silver color.
An old or spare crockpot you never use in the kitchen is the best vessel for holding the pickle bath. However, it should never go back to food preparation again!
Sparex is a popular and effective soldering pickle. Be sure to adhere to the mixing and usage instructions.
Quench Bowl and Cleaning Rag
A quench bowl is nothing fancy. This is a simple ordinary plastic or glass bowl that you put plain warm water to cleanse the soldered joint from any residual flux. Use an old rag to dry afterward.
Keep your quench bowl and cleaning rag separate from other household items. Even if you clean both of them well, it’s not worth mixing them up with your other supplies!
Last but not least is your sterling silver. It is unthinkable to use your actual sterling silver jewelry or final pieces for practice.
You can use old broken jewelry like a chain you don’t care about much, a sterling silver wire, or open jump rings, until you’re ready to do solder “real” pieces.
How to Solder Sterling Silver in 9 Easy Steps
Once you have gathered all the supplies mentioned above, it is time to get down to the real business. As challenging as it may seem, soldering is magical, and that feeling you get of being some kind of super-intelligent scientist or engineer should melt the jitters away.
With this step-by-step guide, you should be able to solder your sterling silver successfully. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to solder properly:
Step 1: Ensure safety.
Safety is a top priority when it comes to soldering at home.
Please take all the necessary safety precautions to avoid potentially setting yourself, others, or the house on fire. These include:
- Use a stable table or surface with a large wooden slab or ceramic tile on top.
- Avoid baggy clothing with long loose sleeves or ribbons. Don an apron and closed-toe shoes.
- Secure hair at the back of your head if it’s long enough.
- Check that the torch is in good working condition and not leaking.
- Have a pair of safety goggles on during the entire soldering process. Never watch the flame directly with your eyes.
- Never point the torch toward yourself or other flammable objects in the vicinity. Keep everything at least 3 feet away from the flame.
- Have a fire extinguisher can and first aid kit nearby in case of any accidents.
- Prepare everything you need in advance including the quench bath and the pick solution. Keep these and other tools within easy reach.
- Always work in a well-ventilated area.
Step 2: Cut the solder wire.
Cut the solder wire or sheet into a small piece, not more than 2mm. Set it aside. You can skip the cutting part if using chips. For the paste, you’ll squeeze a dollop somewhere near the corner of the soldering board.
Step 3: Apply the flux.
Place your sterling silver on the soldering board. You can curve it into a ring for a wire or use an open jump ring.
Apply a coat of flux on the open ends of the ring to be joined. If using a 2-in-1 solder flux paste, you can skip the flux application.
Step 4: Place the solder.
Put the solder in place using the soldering pick, aligning it with where the joining should be. The solder should go under the joining ends.
Step 5: Heat evenly.
Now pick up your torch in your non-dominant hand and turn it on to the highest setting. Have your soldering pickle on the dominant hand in case anything moves out of place.
Point the flame tip towards the sterling silver ring from above while circling the object. The movement depends on what you are soldering, whether straight like a chain or round like a bangle. The aim is to promote even heating here.
Step 6: Focus on the bond.
Next, focus the flame directly on the solder where the bonding should take place but still move back and forth.
You should never aim the flame in one static position. The spot temperature build up can potentially melt your sterling silver.
Step 7: Reach the flow point.
At flow point, the solder will start to melt and flow through the joining. Remove the heat and turn off the torch. Allow a few minutes to air and cool.
Step 8: Clean it.
Using copper tongs, pick up your sterling silver and dip it in the pickle solution. Leave it in there until it turns white. That is how you know it is clean.
Step 9: Finish off.
Extract the soldered sterling silver from the pickle solution with the copper tongs. Dip it into the quench bath to rinse off traces of pickle acid and then dry with a rag.
You can try to tag it just to be sure it is hard enough, then polish it.
And that’s how you solder sterling silver!
You’ll most certainly not get it right the first time.
The most common issue you’ll encounter when soldering sterling silver is the solder not flowing at all, or flowing in one direction.
Here are the issues that could be causing it, and how to fix each one:
1. Dirt, oil and grime stuck on your sterling silver or the solder
Solution: Use fine sandpaper to clean your sterling silver pieces before soldering. Ensure your hands are clean, too.
2. Too little or too much heat
Solution: Use the correct size torch and temperature setting for the size of the work. Also, ensure there’s uniform heat distribution. If the solder is flowing in one particular direction, move the heat to where you want it to flow.
3. Forgetting flux or using the wrong type
Solution: There’s no soldering without flux. If you inadvertently forget to apply flux, pickle the sterling silver to remove fire scale and start afresh. Check that the flux you have is suitable for sterling silver jewelry.
4. Space between the metal joint or the solder and the metal
Solution: The end of the joining pieces must meet for the solder to flow. You can use pliers to tighten the joint and close the gap. It is critical that the solder also touches the metal to allow heat transfer.