Burn, Baby, Burn
In one of my many exciting past artistic lives, I was a raku artist. I created pottery and fired it in a huge raku kiln in my backyard. My fascination with fire, the elements and the drastically varying glaze “surprises” always left me wanting more, itching to do it again. I was totally and completely hooked on the inconsistent results—some days spectacular and others . . . well, let’s just say my mom has a lot of my fatally flawed surprises adorning her shelves.
When my interests turned to smaller scale metal jewelry and PMC, I ran to the local Torches-R-Us shop and plunked down some moola on my first micro torch. Inside, I was jumping for joy, chanting “must play with fire, fire, fire, fire.” Well, I’ll just forgo the unsightly details and skip to the end of the story: Raku firing is nothing like micro torches, and I don’t look good without eyebrows. . . . Yup, I singed BOTH eyebrows and haven’t looked the same since. I learned some great safety tips the hard way!
If you, too, had EFT (Early Fire Trauma) or are just curious about using a torch for jewelry, sit in on my fire chat (slightly different from a fireside chat) with the lovely Denise Peck, editor of Step by Step Wire Jewelry and contributor to Jewelry Making Daily (my newest favorite blog, next to Beading Daily, of course!). Here’s our torch talk:
Kristal: What features should readers look for in a micro torch?
Denise: Micro torches are widely available online and in hardware stores for $10 to more than $100. (I haven’t found any significant benefit to the more expensive ones.) They all tend to burn at around the same temperature, 2500°F, which is hot enough for a lot of soldering tasks. Most of them have a burn time of about 30 minutes on one tank of fuel. There are a couple of key features you should look for: a flame adjuster and a sturdy base that allows hands-free use are key. Torches with all-metal nozzles tend to be better because extended use can melt any plastic parts near the flame. Also, some models come with a safety switch should you have children in the house.
Kristal: What else will they need?
Denise: You absolutely need a fireproof work surface, such as a piece of sheet metal or large ceramic tiles, to protect your table. Then, for your soldering, you need a Solderite board or charcoal block. For extra protection, I put my charcoal block in an annealing pan filled with pumice. If you’re working with fine silver wire, you don’t need solder because it fuses to itself. But if you’re soldering sterling or copper, you’ll need flux and solder. Flux is a paste that helps retain the heat where you want it and helps to make the solder flow. I dedicate pliers, tweezers, and picks for flame work, so I don’t ruin my good tools.
You’ll also need to buy fuel for the torch, which runs about $4 a can. It’s recommended that you buy butane fuel that is triple refined and sold with the torches or at jewelry-supply stores. If you use lighter fuel, it may clog your torch, and you’ll get an uneven flame. And, of course, you’ll need a quenching bowl of water to cool your pieces. If you use the torch for extended periods, it’s best to wear flame safety goggles.
Kristal: Any tips to avoid common first-time mistakes?
Denise: The most basic rule of soldering is that you must heat the entire piece, not just the join (the place where the two metal ends meet). Focusing on the join alone results in just burning away the metal there. Instead, slowly and methodically rotate the torch around the entire piece until it’s all very hot and then focus on the join to make the solder flow (or fuse the fine silver). Then immediately pull the flame away. When you’re using a micro torch, it’s important to keep the torch filled in order to get the highest heat from it. If it starts to take noticeably longer to heat and melt the solder, refill the torch.
Kristal: Beyond soldering, what kinds of projects can you do with a micro torch?
Denise: If you want to just get started using your torch, try balling the ends of 20- to 22-gauge wire to make balled head pins. Or ball the ends of a nice S-clasp. That’s the simplest thing you can do with your torch, but it adds a great artistic touch!
Kristal: Any funny torch stories to share?
Denise: When I first taught fusing with a micro torch, I purchased eight inexpensive models for the fusing stations in my class. The flame adjuster dials were plastic and just at the base of the metal torch head. After 3 hours of constant use of these torches, the dials all slumped and melted. The torches still worked, but I was mortified that I’d been singing the praises of these $10 torches! Basically, they’re fine if you’re not using them for three hours straight. But what did I know!