Silversmithing – Tools of the Trade

In years past, it was hard to separate the black smith (or just smith or smithy) from his tools. When you said “smith” you were referring all at once to the person, his tools and the place where he worked. The same is still true today. Without her tools, today’s silversmith has nothing.

I am passionate about tools. My father is responsible for instilling an appreciation of and respect for good tools. He always said that with the right tools, you can do anything. He also said that you should always buy the best tools that you can afford. In tools, cheaper is not always better.

The term silversmith covers a very wide range of techniques and necessary tools. For some, it is still all about banging on metal with a hammer, and I will admit there is something very satisfying about pounding on metal. For others, it is mostly about soldering one thing to another. Because the solders are not soft and require higher heat than, say, electrical soldering, it is considered to be more like welding. But everyone simply refers to it as “soldering”. Silversmiths also engage in casting silver. I do not do that and will not be discussing the tools required for casting. Regardless of what you are doing, you need tools. Here are some of the basics.

If you are going to shape metal by pounding on it, you need something to pound with and something to pound on: hammers, bench blocks, anvils and stakes. There are all sorts of hammers and each one is good for one or maybe two purposes. An embossing hammer, when driven against the inner walls of raised work can elevate positions of the surface. It may also be used for planishing. A planishing hammer is useful for smoothing out imperfections and finishing surfaces of pieces that have been raised. Raising hammers are used on the outside surfaces to force the basic shape of various objects. Ball peen hammers are used for flattening, shaping or removing dents. Riveting hammers are used for forming rivets and tacking. Chasing hammers have either flat heads or domed heads. Chasing can be thought of as a sort of stamping. Specially shaped punches are used to press a pattern or design into the metal. Most of these hammers will be made of drop forged steel. But they may also be found in brass and nylon. Rawhide mallets are useful when you do not want marks of any kind left on your silver. For general all around uses, I find a domed chasing hammer to be most handy. If you can afford only one hammer, that is the one I recommend.

Bench blocks, anvils and stakes fall into the same general category. They are what you hold the metal, either sheet or wire, against as you hammer it. Bench blocks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In its simplest form, it is a square of hardened steel that sits on your work bench. The surface should be kept smooth and free of debris. I use one that is four inches square and it is a fine size for most purposes. Blocks are also available with depressions in them in the shape of half of a ball. These are called dapping blocks and require a set of dapping punches. These are useful for doming. There are a number of other blocks with differently shaped depressions for all sorts of purposes. I always tell people to get a tool catalog from a company you like and just read it. They contain a lot of good information.

If you purchase an anvil, be sure the base is very solid and that it has a low center of gravity. Even so, it is sometimes a good idea to mount it to a piece of a 2″ x 6″ board for stability. Anvils that have a cone on one side are particularly useful. Again, these come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. The size you choose will be determined by the size of the jewelry you wish to make.

Stakes are hard to describe. They are made of hardened steel and can be held in place by a vice. They come in a wild array of shapes and sizes and they are generally used for raising. There is one stake called a Cow’s tongue stake. It looks pretty much like its name. A bowl or vase that is being hammered into shape would be placed over the stake and the metal would be struck from the outside against the stake.

Whenever you hammer or bend metal, you work harden it. It becomes more brittle the more that you work with it and requires annealing to keep it from cracking and breaking. A torch (black smiths use a forge) is useful for annealing. A torch is necessary for soldering silver.

If you are going to be soldering silver, you will need, at minimum: a torch; a soldering block; pickle; water for quenching and rinsing; copper tongs; silver solder; flux and a flux brush. Protective eye wear is always a must.

When I first started soldering silver, I wasn’t at all certain that was what I wanted to do. So, I started very small. I bought a butane fueled mini-torch; the kind you might use in your kitchen for making fancy desserts. No matter what you do, you absolutely need the other items mentioned above. That is, unless your only intention is to solder jump rings closed. Then a butane mini-torch and silver paste solder in a syringe are all that you will need. Well, and something to polish them a bit when you are finished.

I quickly learned that I liked soldering silver and that in order to complete larger pieces; I was going to need a serious torch. I opted for a single fuel torch with four sizes of tips. The fuel I use is acetylene. The torch handle and tips are designed to mix the proper amount of atmospheric oxygen with the acetylene to get a nice hot flame. For the most part, the smallest size tip suffices for what I make. Occasionally, I use a larger one. I am glad that I have that option. Nothing is more frustrating than having this great idea and not having the tools you need to accomplish it.

As far as soldering blocks, boards and pads go, the smaller you can use the better. The block is a heat sink (as is all the air around it) and the larger it is, the longer it takes to heat it up and heat the metal that is sitting on it. That is why some smiths prefer charcoal soldering blocks. They are usually small and once you heat them up, they stay quite hot for a long time. And that is their main drawback. They can get so hot that it is uncomfortable to move your work around on them with you hands. Also, they tend to crack as they cool and for this reason it is best to wrap them with binding wire before you begin using them.

There is a magnesia block option. They heat and cool quickly. They are not really made of magnesium, which is quite flammable. The surface of this soldering block does degrade and become pitted with use, but they are easy to make true once again. I just move mine around on the concrete outside of our workshop with a circular motion and in a few moments it is nice and flat once more.

There is a whole host of soldering boards that can be useful. They are made from a number of different materials. Some are of transite, which is very durable, non-asbestos and withstands temperatures up to 2800°F. Ceramic soldering boards tolerate temperatures up to 2000°F. You can also purchase soldering pads made of calcium silicate. They also heat and cool quickly without cracking and can be pinned into, as can the magnesia blocks. Once again, purchase the smallest surface for soldering on that you can use. It cuts down on the time needed to reach the melting point of your solder.

Tripods with mesh screens are available that allow you to heat your work piece from the bottom as well as the top. But keep in mind, that all the air around your work will be sucking away the heat. I have one, but rarely if ever use it.

Pickle is simply an acidic solution used to remove fire scale from sterling silver after it has been heated. Sterling silver is an alloy composed of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. When you heat it, the copper is brought to the surface of the sterling silver. Copper is much more reactive with the moisture in the air than is pure silver. That coupled with the heat (heat speeds up the reaction), causes the copper to “rust” or tarnish much more quickly and the surface becomes quite black. Also, some fluxes will become quite glass-like after heating and they also need to be dissolved. Granulated pickles that you mix with water are most common and generally are not considered as hazardous materials which require a very large shipping fee. Copper tongs are required for placing and removing objects from pickle. If an iron bearing tool is used, you will plate copper onto your sterling silver. It is a good idea to mix a little baking soda into your rinse water to help neutralize the acid completely.

Silver solder basically comes in four hardnesses: extra easy; easy; medium and hard. The silver paste solder mentioned earlier is basically extra easy. You will need all but the extra easy for most projects. The first join is always made with hard solder. It melts at the highest temperature and subsequent joins will, then, not unsolder the first join. Use medium and easy solders as you work your way through your piece.

If you are using a new sterling silver called Argentium Sterling Silver, you can not use the regular hard solder with it. Argentium has had some of the copper replaced with germanium and melts at a lower temperature than traditional sterling silver. You can purchase solders made specifically for use with Argentium.

Flux is what helps the solder to flow. An anti-flux may be used to keep solder from flowing where you do not want it. I have not used anti-flux. Generally, the solder will follow the heat, so if you are careful about how you apply your flame, you should not have a problem.

Fluxes are all toxic. Care should be used in handling them and managing the fumes given off as you are heating them. There are liquid fluxes and paste fluxes. My husband likes the liquids and I prefer the pastes. I find the pastes are easier to keep where I want them. Also, you can thin them with water, if necessary. You can mix your own flux from boric acid and water. Fluxes are usually applied with a brush. Just about any small brush will do.

Earlier, I briefly mentioned polishing. After pickling, your silver will have a dull whitish coating. You can remove this with a soft brass brush dipped in a solution of dish soap and water. The soap keeps the brass from being deposited on the sterling silver. This will give a very “soft” shine to the surface.

For a brilliant, hard shine, you will need a buffing wheel of either cotton or muslin. The type that is stitched is best. It holds together longer and throws off less lint. These can be mounted in a regular drill that is mounted in place. Just be certain that the buff is rotating in a downward direction as you are looking at it. That way, if you let go of the work, it will fly down, back and away from you rather than into your face. There are also many motors available for purchase. Some will run only one buffing wheel and some will run two.

There are many grades of polishing compounds. Some will cut quickly and remove large scratches. Others are for final polishing. Ideally, you should begin with metal that is as free of scratches as possible. Once your work is soldered together, it is not always easy to get to all the areas that require polishing. The compounds are held against the buffing wheel as it is spinning at speed. This is called “charging” the wheel.

Hopefully, now, you have some idea of the basic tools you will need to begin your foray into silversmithing. It can sound very complicated on paper, but when it comes right down to doing it, it’s not all that bad. I remember my delight at my first soldering closed of jump rings. At that moment, I was hooked. Oh yes, you will melt things that you did not want to melt. That is part of the learning process. Have fun and be creative.