Friday, September 13, 2013

Why Soldering?

I need to take a quick breather before attacking a long post on soldering tools, another on preparing your projects, one on heat application and control, and pickling and cleaning before setting you guys loose on the tutorial.

There is one question I wanted to answer before embarking on the rest:

why soldering?

I get students in my classes that tell me they only took my soldering class because there wasn't one on fusing. There are others in my cold-connections classes that tell me that soldering makes them too nervous or looks too hard. So, let me tell you what made me want to solder, what made me actually jump in, and why I think it's (more) important to learn than fine silver fusing.

A project from 2007-ish. I fabricated the bezel for each cabochon
as well as the cabochon-set box clasp that closes the bracelet.

I wanted to learn to solder because it opened up the world of fabrication to me. As I've said before, I like to cultivate long, clean lines in my work and I didn't think that cold connections would facilitate my vision as well as soldering. But, mostly, I just wanted to be able to make whatever I wanted out of metal. The ability to make permanent changes to a permanent substance really calls to me.

I will admit that there was a gap between my wanting to learn to solder and actually jumping in. I was desperately searching for a class somewhere, but short of signing up for an expensive university class (after having already graduated with an expensive non-art degree), there just weren't any around at the time I wanted to learn.

It was about eight years ago and I had been teaching lampworking classes and the store owner told me that many of her customers also wanted to learn to solder. I understood the strength of my own desire, as well as the strength of my hesitation and I decided that I just needed to give it a try. I knew that it would have been helpful to me to have someone with any amount of experience inspire me to get started, and while I didn't find it, I thought that I could be that for someone else. So, for about six months I read everything I could and practiced.

soldered and forged ring bracelet closeup
The project I developed for my first soldering classes.

While I will admit that it was sort of a sad case of the blind leading the blind (I was clear with everyone about what my experience level was), with some basic projects under my belt I had learned enough to help others start on their own path of discovery. Looking back, I'm a bit embarrassed by what I didn't yet know when I started teaching soldering but sometimes all people are looking for is someone to say, "try!" and "look what I can do!" That embarrassment was also a strong motivator for me to commit myself to continue improving my soldering knowledge and technique.

colorful - view 2
This is one in a series of fused link bracelets that I made.
I just don't want anyone to feel compelled to say,
"she just hates it because she sucks."
I hope it is apparent neither is true.

There are artists out there that believe strongly that fusing (fine silver to itself) is the way to go. I am not going to make the argument that a soldered piece is better than a fused piece. I think fused work is beautiful and, when well done, is extremely strong. However, I do believe that learning the technique of soldering is more important than learning the technique of fusing. Fusing is sexy because it doesn't require flux, solder, or pickling. The fine silver used in fusing doesn't have any copper, so there's no oxidation, so if you get the joint to melt the metal will flow together and join itself. Here is my list of pros and cons for both soldering and fusing. I've highlighted what are, for me, the two most critical points:

Soldering is the only* way to join sterling silver, which is a common alloy in jewelry. *Fine silver can be either fused or soldered. To fuse fine silver you have to bring the temperature of the joint to the melting temperature without melting the whole thing, which takes a lot of practice.
Fusing doesn't need solder, flux, or pickle Soldering requires a lot of materials that fusing doesn't.
Soldering happens at temperatures lower than the melting point of the metal Soldered work needs to be pickled and cleaned.

Let me know if you think I missed anything critical in that list. I will also add that fine silver is softer than sterling. Fine silver can be soldered like sterling silver. PMC produces fine silver and can be both fused and soldered. Depending on your style of work, those points could be either pros or cons.

I do tend to have increasing amounts of fine silver on hand because they do make superior headpins since you can ball up the ends in a second with your torch and they look perfect and shiny afterward. But, if I were making a link and I had fine silver and not sterling, I'd only fuse it if I were content with an organic-looking piece. If I needed perfect, clean lines (which i like), I'd solder the fine silver. I know there are artists out there that could fuse that perfect link consistently, but it takes enormously consistent heat control, recognition of temperature by color, and patience than I have developed thus far.

Thanks for stopping by!

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