Monday, November 3, 2014

Setting up a Home Jewelry Studio

How to Set Up a Home Jewelry Studio

note: this is an excerpt from my book, Soldering Beyond the Basics. There is more about setting up your studio in the book. 

My students ask me all the time about setting up a studio. Most of us learn jewelry in a classroom, where the metalsmithing department is full of benches, tools, polishing and casting equipment.Translating that big space into your own studio is overwhelming, but the truth is that a jewelry studio can be as small as one table or a bench. 

Now, the words “home” and “studio” may not seem like a reasonable combination, especially when considering using jewelry tools, torches, flex shafts and such. It naturally brings up common questions, like is it safe? where should I put my studio? can I solder at home? The answers are yes, almost anywhere, and absolutely. I’ve worked in goldsmith shops and lots of studios. They were parts of retail shops, home studios or office spaces. The floors ranged from wood to carpeting - not your first choices in fire safety. Bench tops were made of wood, walls were normal dry wall. And yet, we never had a fire. Why? Because we practiced commonsense safety rules. 


Later, when I became an independent jeweler, I took what I learned about work place safety to my home, where my studios ranged from spare bedrooms, half of a room, a shed in the yard, even a little 6x6’ space outside of my bathroom! That tiny space contained my bench, a casting machine, polishing motor, kiln and everything else I used to solder, fabricate and cast jewelry. Your studio can start with just a bench or sturdy table, with just a little organization. And once it’s set up, you can make jewelry anytime you want. As long as you don’ wake up the neighbors!

Basic Safety Rule #1: The flame stays where it belongs.
The first safety rule to learn is to keep the flame where it belongs - in the soldering area! This includes igniting the torch, which for some reason, most beginners think should take place while pointing the torch in the air, at the table, into the bench or even at each other! The only surfaces that can safely take the intense heat of any torch are your solder board, charcoal, fire bricks, etc. Everything else burns: you, your table, the carpet, etc. 

Setting up for Safety

Obviously soldering is the number one concern for safety. Sawing, filing, even polishing with the clean bits I recommend are benign when compared to flames and red hot metal. With a few simple precautions, you can solder safely at home.

Protect your Table
Heat will eventually pass through a solder board and burn an unprotected table. Work on a flame proof table or protect the table you have with something fire-proof. Not everyone has a steel table. Most benches and tables are made of wood.Put something under your board, like a 1x1’ ceramic floor tile.  Keep the solder area clear of anything flammable, like paper or plastic.

The next level of protection would be to cover the table top with concrete tile backer board, available at hard ware stores. Score it with a utility knife and then snap it to size. Want more protection? Set up a torch station with some landscaping bricks.  [ B ]  This is a good choice for tank torches, especially if they have large tips with big hot flames. A station like this can handle soldering, annealing, even casting ingots. Put a sheet of steel down as a base to catch small parts. The brick wall around the sides help to keep the flame where it belongs - inside the work area. 


Protect your Room
Let’s face it - gravity works even in the studio, so eventually something hot will fall on the floor. If you care about your floor, protect it with a remnant carpet or mat. Just confirm that anything hot that falls on your safety mat is quenched and doesn’t smolder.If you set up to solder less than 3 feet from a wall, protect it with a sheet of concrete tile backer board. 

Where to set up your studio

The best place to set up your studio is in an open space that has some natural ventilation, like near a window. The worst place to set up would be in a confined space, like a walk-in closet. Even though this book emphasizes safer tools and chemicals, there are still some fumes that could affect your health if you solder full time for years. Solders contain zinc, and when they flow a little is released as gas. Some flux contains fluorides, which also create fumes. Non-fluoride fluxes are a healthier alternative. Keep your face back from the solder area. Hovering your face over the board is a one way ticket up your nose for heat and fumes. 

A simple way to increase ventilation is to work near a fan. The fan should blow away from your solder area, to draw the air. A low budget ventilation system can be made with ducting from the hardware store and a window fan. The ducting sends any fumes out the window. An kitchen exhaust hood works, too, but has to be installed. Lightweight respirators and dust masks rated for minor fumes from soldering are available from jewelry suppliers.  

Set up your studio near a water source, to refill quench bowls, pickle pots and for cleaning. The best choice would be a utility sink, something not shared with food or dishes. In my studio that was in a small building in our yard, I filled a container with a spout, like a drink cooler, and used a big bowl to make a quick sink. The pickle pot can be on the bench with a tray to catch spills, or near your sink. 

Good lighting can make a big difference in your studio. Natural light is best, but it’s easy to add a good lamp to your work area. Daylight matching bulbs are good for reading detail and color. One draw back to too much light is that it’s difficult to see the first stages of heat on metal, as it glows a light pink, especially on silver. Dim the light or use a shade. A soldering station with bricks can have another steel sheet across the top for a hood, providing shadow while you solder or anneal. 

Jewelry Benches vs. Kitchen Tables
One or two sturdy tables can make a perfectly usable work area for jewelry. One of my benches was made with a table top on top of two drawer units. Use solid wood tops to withstand hammering. Lighter tables can be braced against a wall. Bench pins, for sawing and filing, can be clamped to the table or screwed in place. The drawers were used to store tools. Labels made it easy to put them away - if a tool has a home, it has a place to go. 



Normal tables are low for jewelry work. Sawing, filing, even soldering is best when the table is raised to counter height, about the level of your clavicles. If the work is too low, then your neck and back will hunch, causing injury and pain over time. When seated, your eyes are close to the work, which promotes better posture. [ D ] Use an adjustable chair to raise and lower yourself for the job at hand. Down to be closer to the pin to see better while filing, sawing, or setting. Raised for soldering. The soldering area can be raised with a stack of fire bricks or charcoal blocks, and the pin can be put in a bench vise, adding another few inches of height, if the chair can’t be lowered enough. 



Filing and sawing make a lot of dust, and sterling dust is worth money. If you file over a tray, you may be stunned by the amount of dust that piles up! Filings and small bits of metal can be recycled for credit or cash at a metal refinery. A table doesn’t have a tray, like a bench for catching metal, but with a little imagination, one can be added. One solution is to wear your tray! Wear an apron that is hooked to the underside of the table. The apron makes a bag underneath the pin, catching filings. Snapping the bottom of it gathers all the bits in the middle for collection. Just don’t forget to take it off before you get up!  

A jewelers bench is ergonomic helps you organize your tools. It’s like customized tool box with a place to work! [ E ] Benches can cost under 200 dollars or over 2000, and are simple enough to make your own, if you or someone you know is handy. The height can be customized for you by sawing the legs, and most come equipped with a sweeps tray for filings, drawers for tools, and a bench pin. The top of the bench is a little high for some tasks, like hammering, but you can stand, put the anvil in your sweeps drawer, or use a lower table.




Make your bench work for you by making places to store your tools within easy reach. Bench aprons can be attached that telescope out with hanging storage for files, pliers, and hammers.  [ F ] The shelf inside the bench can hold lengths of inexpensive plastic pipe, to organize your files.  [ G ] And there are lots of bench accessories that save space, transforming themselves from a bench pin to a solder board, for example.  [ H ] An organized bench packs most of what you need into a small space. 


Check out pictures of real home studios submitted by our students on our Facebook page.




A great resource for lots of ideas about how to organize your bench and studio is Charles Lewton-Brain's book, The Jewelers Bench Book. One of my favorites! I highly recommend it. 


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Preview of my new soldering book: Soldering Beyond the Basics

I've been working on the final edits on my new book, Soldering Beyond the Basics: Techniques to Build Confidence and Control. It's due to hit bookstores in June, 2014. I thought I'd share a few pages.

It sounds completely vain to say this, but the proofs look awesome! Sure, I wrote the text and took the pictures, but my editor and the artists who designed the layout and illustrations transformed it into the stunning work of eye-candy. It's not often you get something that is gorgeous and full of great information. The beauty of the layout should keep students turning pages.

This new book takes off where my first book, Soldering Made Simple: Easy Techniques for Kitchen Table Jewelers left off. It is packed with more tips and tricks for soldering, working with mixed metals, soldering gold and gold-filled, and lots of stone setting: including multiple versions of bezel, prong, tube and flush settings. This book also includes helpful info about how to set up small torches, like oxy/propane torches, and how to set up a home studio. But most of the projects can be soldered with either oxy/propane torches or butane cooking torches. It's still chock full of home studio friendly techniques.

Here are a few preview pages from the new book. Hope you like them. If you do, you can pre-order it from me at SilveraJewelrySchool.com. We usually get copies before even the biggest online retailers and you can ask to have it autographed.










Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Which soldering surface is best?

Choose your soldering surface 
Your choice of solder surface can to help you solder or stop it cold. 

In general, choose colder surfaces to slow it down , hotter surface to speed up heating. For example, for small jump rings, soldering on heat reflective charcoal can make soldering go faster, or make it easier to melt them! If you move them to the solder board, the heat will be dissipated a little, slowing it down enough to work more carefully. 

Hotter surfaces: charcoal, fire brick, honey comb, solderite 

Colder surfaces: ceramic solder board, transite, Silquar

Always place soldering surface on heat buffers--tiles, sheet metal, or concrete backer board-- to prevent burns.



Soft charcoal/Hard charcoal
Charcoal blocks create a reducing atmosphere and reflect heat back on the article being soldered, making the flame more effective.


Pros: Very inexpensive, soft enough to secure pins in for holding workpieces, can mold surface for shaping metal balls,

Cons: Can crack- bind with wire before using. Will wear down over time. Black charcoal powder is messy. Needs to be ground down on a hard surface like concrete or coarse sandpaper. Wear a dust mask! 


Honeycomb block
Contains no asbestos, lightweight block reflects heat. Perforation holds pins (18ga.) to keep your work in place while heating. 

Pros: Lightweight, asbestos free, inexpensive

Cons: Solder can fall through the holes


Solderite, Kiln Brick
One of the benefits of these materials is that they can be drilled or cut as needed for your soldering projects. Solderite is made as a solder board, but was developed as a synthetic substitute for charcoal. It's reflects more heat back at your work than most solder boards. Kiln bricks are readily available from ceramic suppliers - they're used to build kilns. Buy K23 bricks, which are soft enough to cut or press in pins, etc.

Pros: Economical, formable, easy to clean up

Cons: Solder can fall into the large pores of the kiln brick. Kiln brick is softer than charcoal and pins can come loose during soldering. Solderite can be burned and pitted by the torch, which means the boards can wear out faster than other solder boards. Flux can harden on kiln brick, making it hard to sand back to a usable surface. Try pouring boiling hot water over the brick into a bucket or utility sink to remove flux before sanding. 

Ceramic, Silquar, Transite Solder Boards
I'm always surprised to see any jewelers who don't use a solder board, using only charcoal or fire brick instead. Solder boards offer a reliable, easily cleaned surface for soldering, preparing your solder and more. These hardened materials can withstand the intense heat of the torch,  but they dissipate heat quickly. 

What does that mean for soldering? Let's say you have a bezel setting and you're soldering it directly on the board. The sheet metal base will be cooled by the solder board, and so the solder won't flow, or it will flow up and onto the lighter, easily heated bezel wire. One trick I use for bezels, other than using a tripod to raise it so that I can heat from underneath, is to preheat charcoal. I'll heat the surface to cherry red and then place the fluxed and prepared setting to solder on top. The hot charcoal heats the work from underneath as I continue to heat from the top.  

Pros: Tough surface, easy to clean with boiling water in a utility sink or bucket. Highly recommended. 

Cons: On the pricey side for Silquar, but in general inexpensive


Lump pumice & annealing pan
Volcanic pumice reflects heat beautifully, and it's nice to be able to rotate your work as you solder or anneal. But this set up is a nightmare for small detailed pieces - anything that can get lost in those pebbles!

Pros: Good for annealing large workpieces, can custom position pieces, rotating pans allow for quickly changing position of piece.

Cons: Pumice must be held in a container for some sort. Pieces and solder can get lost easily in the pumice. 


Magnesia Block
These lightweight blocks are a lot like kiln bricks, but easier to press pins and parts into for soldering. The surface is very powdery and things can get a bit messy quickly when using magnesia.

Pros: very soft material can be pinned into or press objects for solding into surface. Very inexpensive.

Cons: Difficult to clean. Needs to be ground down on a hard surface like concrete or coarse sandpaper. Wear a dust mask! 


Not appropriate for soldering directly on: 
household clay tile, red brick, stainless steel, wood.