Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Soldering: The Setup

I like to work big - in fact, the bigger the piece, the happier I am. Somewhere along the way, I heard that larger pieces just aren't possible with culinary or butane torches.. but that's all I've ever used, so I just continue to push the envelope.
Clockwise from left: a hollow bead, a Big Ass Ring, and a Big Ass Ring in progress. Each of these is between two and two and a half inches at the largest point.
I have a variety of butane torches that I use for different techniques, and with the exception of pinned stones (which I haven't yet been able accomplish consistently) I haven't encountered anything I wanted to try that they haven't been able to handle. (I wrote about my favorite torches earlier this year.) But my soldering setup is the thing I get the most questions about - and it's really pretty simple.

I start with an oversized floor tile - any ceramic tile from your local home improvement store will do. I add to that a lazy susan base (from the same home improvement store) and a Solderite board. (I get mine from Contenti).

In order to use the setup safely, the Solderite board needs to be secured to the lazy susan base. I use UHU adhesive putty - the stuff you use to keep pictures from going crooked on your walls after you hang them.

It doesn't take much to secure the board to the base - just small pea-sized pieces in all four corners.

Then do the same thing on the bottom corners to secure the base to the tile. This allows the board to be turned while soldering, eliminating the need to move the torch around to heat the entire piece. 

For a lot of folks - especially people new to soldering - the process of keeping an eye on the flame, the solder, the piece and the pick, all while trying to keep the piece heated evenly, is a lot like patting your head and rubbing your stomach while standing on one leg. I first saw the turntable idea in a workshop with Richard Salley and Jessica Jordan, though an annealing pan under the board works in very much the same way. In either case, a turntable of some kind under the board means the torch doesn't need to be moved, which makes it much easier to keep track of where the flame is pointing - a much safer experience for newbies. 

Tim McCreight, in his wonderful book The Complete Metalsmith, suggests using balled up or woven binding wire on top of a soldering board as an alternative to a tripod setup. I prefer a very thin gauge of wire and a moderately dense platform of wire woven around a fairly thick coiled frame - but you should experiment to see what works best for you. The goal is to create air space between the piece and the board, which allows the heat to be amplified and reflected or bounced up to the bottom of the piece.  

The final essential items in my setup are - from left to right - a soldering pick, a pair of diamond tweezers for placing solder pallions, and a pair of long blunt nose tweezers to pick up and move hot items. I have insulated tweezers and a third hand, but I rarely use them. Even for multi-step fabrication projects, this setup is all I need most of the time.

So if you want to work bigger but aren't ready to move to tank-based torches, give this setup and a larger culinary torch a try - you may be surprised by how much you can do!

Until next time -


  1. Thanx Francesca, I appreciate seeing your set up. The turntable is a great idea.

  2. What a great idea of using a turntable - thanks for sharing


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