Why are there different solders and how do I use them?

Learning to solder silver (and copper and gold!) opens up a whole new exciting world of jewellery making, but sometimes all the different terms can be a bit daunting when you're first getting started!

Take the different types of solder for example.... you can buy it as strip, wire and even paste. And then there's the names - what do hard, medium and easy actually mean?

Read on and I will explain it all!

First of all, let's get the names sorted.....

Silver solder is an alloy of metals designed to have as close a colour match to silver as possible, but with a lower melting temperature than silver itself - you want the solder to melt well before your work does! The photo above shows Hard, Medium and Easy solder strip, usually the most common way that silver solder is sold in. There are also a couple of syringes of solder paste in the background, and I'll come back to those later.

Hard, Medium and Easy simply refer to how hard or easy the solder is to melt. Hard has a higher melting temperature than medium (ie. it is harder to melt), medium has a higher melting temperature than easy, which is the easiest to melt! The different types of  solder all form nice strong joins if used properly - the names refer to how hard or easy they are to melt, not how hard or strong the join is.

By the way, you can also buy enamelling solder that has an even higher melting temperature so that your hard work doesn't fall apart when you pop it in the enamalling kiln, and extra-easy solder which has an even lower melting temperature than easy solder. I find that extra-easy solder is a bit sluggish to flow and so only use it if I really have to.

But why do you need different melting temperatures?

You will often need to solder more than one join on a piece of work, and when you solder the second join, you don’t want the first to remelt! Working down through the melting temperatures of solders for each new join helps is one of the easiest ways to protect the previous joins.

Take the beautiful labradorite pendant shown here as an example. The bezel (the silver collar) around the cabochon stone was soldered closed with hard solder, and then after it was formed into the perfect size and shape it was soldered onto the base plate with medium solder as the temperature needed to melt the medium solder wasn’t high enough to remelt and weaken the hard solder join.

The decoration and the bails on the back (just out of sight!) were soldered in place with easy solder. They were only small pieces to solder on, so as long as I was quick and careful with what I was doing I could use easy solder on a few joins without affecting any of the previous solder joins. That shows you that it is definitely possible to do several solder joins with the same melting temperature of solder.

If I only need to solder one join, for example on a bangle or in a project like the Simple Hammered Rings class,  then I just use easy solder as it’s, well, easier to melt! Some people  prefer to use medium solder as it can be a better colour match to the  silver, but if you tidy up your solder join well enough you shouldn't be  able to tell that anyway.

How to use solder strips

Obviously a long strip of solder is too big to use as it is! Use snips to cut it into small pieces - these are known as pallions. I like to cut my pallions rather small, and to make that easier I roll the ends of my solder strip through my rolling mill to thin them before cutting up the strip a little and then across the strips to create little squares.

By the way, you do need to mark your different solder strips in some way. Some people stamp H, M or E down the length of the strip, others colour them with different coloured sharpies. I curl the ends of mine over - the more curled over they are, the higher the melting temperature!

What about solder paste?
Solder paste is a modern form of solder and can be bought in syringes or pots, most easily in syringes, and with Hard, Medium and Easy melting temperatures. Some people love it, others hate it  and say it’s cheating! I say it has got its place and can be useful  for fiddly work  (chains for example), but it is a more expensive way of buying solder so do bare that in mind. I would always recommend that you get confident with using solder pallions and flux and don't get too reliant on paste, thinking that it is easier to use, as all the forms of solder have their place.  

Solder paste is best described as ground up solid solder mixed with a flux and a binder so that it’s ready to use. It is, as you would expect, a little sticky which can make it perfect for when you've got a soldering job that needs the solder to stay in an awkward position - the Sea Waves Ring class is an example of this!

Using solder paste on small repeat jobs such as chain links can also make the soldering job go quicker! Do watch out when you open a new syringe though as the paste can "snake" out further than you need it to. Pull back on the syringe a little when you've done to prevent waste.

And lastly, solder can also be bought in wire and panels....

Both  of these are the same solid form of solder that you can buy as strips,  just in a different shape, and sold in the same Hard, Medium and Easy  melting temperatures. Wire solder is particularly useful for delicate  soldering jobs, allowing you to cut tiny pallions. Panels are small  rectangles of solder. Gold and Platinium solders are most easily bought  in panel form, although gold solder paste is now available on the  market.

If you are soldering gold you will need to consider both  the melting temperature of the solder that you need and very importantly  the karat of the gold you are  working with to make sure that your  solder colour matches your gold. The photo shows two panels of gold Easy solder, one 9k and one 14k. The colour difference is subtle but the 14k panel is slightly more yellow.

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Joanne Tinley

The Jeweller's Bench is run by Joanne  Tinley. She has been making her own jewellery for as long as she can  remember and left her first career as a school teacher to set up  business as a  jewellery designer and tutor nearly 15 years ago. She is  self-taught and like many people started with wire and beads. Learning  how to solder, however, opened up a whole new world of jewellery making,  one that she is keen to share! There is something so magical about  watching solder flow through a seam, joining  two pieces of metal  together smoothly.