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  • Silverwork

    Well, as if I don't have enough other projects going right now I have decided to try my hand at silverwork. I have a ton of it that I need for new dance clothes for my family so I figured I should see if I am any good at it. I have been picking up a few tools and am waiting on some sheet metal to arrive so I can start muffing it up a bit.

    Any of you all out there that have tried your hand at this that would like to offer up some hints or tool and supply vendors please feel free to speak up...lord knows I could use the help.

    Oh yeah, I am talking about plains style for hairplate, conch belts, etc. and not the type like squash blossoms and that stuff.

    "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo Picasso

    "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift...that is why is it called the Present." Master Oogway - KungFu Panda

    My comments are based on what I have been taught and my experiences over the years I have been around the circle. They should in no way be taken as gospel truths and are merely my opinions or attempts at passing on what I have learned while still learning more.

  • #2
    I've never done plains style pieces, although in my undergrad days I experimented with using German silver and some of the motifs from this type of work in a series of pieces featuring beadwork inserts that I did for my senior show.

    I don't know if you planning on doing it the old way and cutting the metal with chisels.... If not then you may find investing in the Herkules White Label or Antelop Blue Label saw blades is well worth it. There are some very tempting cheap ones out there, but they snap under the least stress and if you are just starting you'll be combing saw blade fragments out of your hair for days:) (This is the voice of painful experience speaking.) Steal your wife's beeswax for beadwork to lubricate your saw blade, since German silver is as "sticky" as brass and clogs blades and files quickly. A old toothbrush is real handy for cleaning your files.

    IJS -- Indian Jeweler's Supply: -- out in Gallup has a good range of stamps and other supplies -- including the 60 million grades of emery paper you wind up needing and being unable to find at the local hardware store:) Most of IJS's stamps are made for the NA market and have the right motifs (makes sure you get a good giggle over the kitschy stuff for the cheap tourist trash, LOL). They also have -- or at least had -- a good range of unusual forms of German silver including wire, gallery wire and bezel. The wire is real nice because I found that silver and nickle jump rings really stand out against the German silver. I had to make my own jump rings for attaching some of the dangly bits. I gained a fair amount of respect for the creativity and ingenuity of the classic smiths of plains silverwork after doing some mechanical attachments in German silver.

    If you can beg or borrow time on someone's buffer (lots of high schools have them and sometimes you can make friends with the local shop/art teacher and use it) you will save yourself a lot of elbow grease. Rouge will put on a nice shine. IJS has some nice rouge tapes and strings that really help with tight inside edges. A touch of Turtle Wax delays tarnishing and protects from skin oils, especially if you can avoid touching the work with bare hands between the final polish and waxing.

    IJS also has the solder for German silver, although regular silver solders will work. Be aware that both will wet German silver well and leave bright and deep solder ghosts on the piece. I found I really had to think through solder placement.

    Speaking of soldering, German silver has a considerable coefficent of thermal expansion and pieces being joined will move considerably. I found a cheap propane or Map gas plumbers torch worked as well or better than my fine pointed jeweler's torch. The relatively large flame works well to get an even heat on larger pieces. I did notice German silver fire scales badly -- worse than brass because it is so light -- and Sparex barely touches it. The Borax paste fluxes help with this, even if they are a bear to get off afterwards. A good run under under a buffer charged with tripoli or a fine emery will get any firescale.

    Now at the risk of lecturing -- like I haven't been -- PLEASE wear safety glasses while working and goggles while using Sparex, pickling solutions, fluxes, Liver of Sulfer, and the buffer. I have seen too many eye accidents in my days in the studio (never in the lab because people wear their glasses there). No piece of jewelry is worth risking blindness. Also make sure you have good ventilation around the pickles, torches, and patinas. A dust mask is a good idea while buffing and during heavy filing and sanding.

    Have fun. Jewelry/Silverwork is a wonderful way to relax.

    OLChemist (who is hoping she doesn't kill this thread like the last three she has responded to.)


    • #3
      Thanks for all the info!

      I am planning on doing things in an old style but not necessarily in an old way every time...LOL. I see no problem with using modern tools. I am going to have to call IJS and ask about stamps. That is one thing that I haven't been able to find so far. In fact I have been making my own up to this point. I still have to temper them, but it has been fun cutting, filing and grinding them out. I have some pretty nice ones so far but I think ones with larger designs I will just buy since it would be very time consuming to make. My first order of silver and brass should be here by Thursday so I can start to get a real feel for it after that.

      Chemist perhaps you could explain a few of your terms like pickling, firescale, wet, etc. I think I know what you are talking about but since I am new to this I could just be fooling myself.

      I have a couple of friends that have done this work before and have been talking to them but it never hurts to get all the info one can. Once again Thanks for your input, I really appreciate it.

      "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo Picasso

      "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift...that is why is it called the Present." Master Oogway - KungFu Panda

      My comments are based on what I have been taught and my experiences over the years I have been around the circle. They should in no way be taken as gospel truths and are merely my opinions or attempts at passing on what I have learned while still learning more.


      • #4
        "OLChemist (who is hoping she doesn't kill this thread like the last three she has responded to.)"

        LOL I dont' think you killed them..I think you just were knowledgable enough to have said it all!!
        Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic


        • #5
          You'll be sorry you asked a chemist....

          Some of this may not be useful. As I said, I work mostly in sterling and using a different range of skills. I was trained in western and Navajo traditions, I was unaware the Lakota even had a metalworking history until I saw Micheal Zeipher's work. So I am not terribly knowledgable about Plains metal working techniques.

          Wetting occurs when the surface energies of two substances are similar and molecules of the differing substance can form intermolecular (not chemical) bonds. Think of water on very clean glass; the hydrogen atoms in the water molecule being very slightly positively charged are attracted to the oxygen atoms in the silica molecules in the glass. Solder alloys do the same thing. And like glass, contamination will interfere with this keeping the solder from flowing. For this reason metal surfaces to be joined need to be scrupulously clean -- including the solder rods and pillons. (The machine oil on new tools can really cause problems here. Cleaning your tools with rubbing alcohol will remove the oil with out promoting too much rusting.) Also, this is one of flux's purposes in soldering; it blocks oxygen from reaching the hot metal and forming oxides that can prevent wetting.

          One of the practical upshots of this phenomenon, is the deposition of a solder residue everywhere it flows -- including where the pillons sat or the rod touched. Because the elements added to the metal in the solder to form the eutectic mixture also alter the reflectivity of the metal, different color marks will get left wherever the solder has touched. These ghosts have to be filed or sanded off.

          Pickles are solutions used to remove the surface oxides and flux residue. These are usually acids of various strengths. Sparex #2 is the most common pickling solution used by smiths in the US. It is a powder that is dissolved in water. It is relatively benign compared to 10% sulfuric acid which is also widely used. Sparex will not cause the rapid skin burns that sulfuric will, although it is still corrosive and care should be taken to avoid skin contact and safety glasses MUST be worn when handling. Wash your hands after handling. Sparex is not too aggressive and has a slow reaction rate with oxides and therefore must be used warm. A yard sale hot plate or crockpot (but not one with brown glaze) is good for this.

          If you choose to use sulfuric acid remember ALWAYS ADD ACID TO WATER not the other way around. As acid is added to water the acid molecules ionize -break apart -- and the process releases a lot of heat. Adding water to acid can cause with acid to boil and spray. As you can imagine this is not a good thing :). Again, always wear googles and gloves around acids.

          It is a not uncommon practice to plunge hot pieces straight into pickle solution. A lot of people will tell you that this will more rapidly and effectively remove firescale. This is not a good idea. First it tends to spatter the pickle -- flying acid is never good:). Secondly, it will rapidly contract metal, trapping acid in cracks and crevasses in the work. The trace acid will eat into your work over time. Indeed, this can be a problem in work with poor joins or lots of little gaps. A soak in a sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) solution will nuetralize any trapped acid.

          Ferrous metal tong and tools should never go in pickling solutions. And pickles should be heated and stored only in glass or ceramic containers. The iron in steel and certain binding wires will start an electrolytic reaction, which will leave a thin film of red iron oxide on your piece. (This is why brown glazed pottery is out -- the brown color is produced by iron (II) oxide.) It is also important to remember rouge and other buffing compounds contain iron -- as well as wax.

          Firescale is primarily copper (I) oxide that forms by the reaction of oxygen with hot metal. The very properties that make copper so good for metal work and electrical wire also make it easily oxidized. The oxide layer is only a few hundreds of microns thick but it is so black it can really effect the appearance of a finished piece, not to metion interfere with subsequent soldering operations.

          Firescale can be controlled, although not eliminated. First a good layer of flux will help. This is why borax fluxes are worth the effort even though there are lots of easier to use products with more fluxing power than boron. The borax melts and forms a lovely oxygen excluding glassy film. Using a soft flame rather than a hard flame helps too. A soft flame is just a touch oxygen starved. Giving your pickle enough time to work will help remove what does form. On white metals like sterling and German silver, subsurface oxides form a highly visible black shadow. The only way to get rid of this is emery paper or a fine (non-ferrous) wire brush and elbow grease.

          German silver and brass both contain a fair percentage of zinc. Zinc is low melting and will volatilize; this will alter the surface composition of the metal. It is not uncommon to see a pink film of pure copper form on the surface of brass or German silver. This is caused by the reduction of copper oxides combined with the loss of the zinc. This film can be removed the same way as subsurface firescale. (This is where the 60 million grades of emery paper come in, LOL)

          Finally, are you sorry you asked a chemist -- and former college prof to boot -- a question?



          • #6
            yes...just one... you want to teach me? LOL
            Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic


            • #7
              Blackbear, would that be chemistry or silver smithing? :)



              • #8
                Powwow Bum, I'd go ahead and make your own punches and stamps, they give you a lot more personalized work, I think.

                Use a good quality steel (file haft, screwdriver,drill bit, etc....), and bring to red heat. Let it cool slowly (annealing) and then grind-file pattern into the tool.

                Then bring it back up to a red hot heat and quench in oil. This will make a very hard and brittle tool. Slowly heat to a peacock blue and quench it again. This will give you a hard yet strong tool to do the stamping with. If you screw up the tempering process start over again.

                The same techniques are used to make rocker engraving tools which are simply shaped like small chisel shaped screwdrivers.

                While we are on the subject of soldering, let me ask this question. I've asked several places, and get less than a satisfactory response.

                What did the old timers use for a flux when they were out on the Plains and traveling around from camp to camp? I know that they made a few soldered pieces such as finger rings, bridles, crosses etc....

                I've been trying to find out a suitable flux for the last couple of years. I want to be able to solder on a campfire. I can but I have to use a modern flux.

                I've also been told by several different people that the old German Silver work was soldered with just plain old lead for bullets, I assume. I've done this too, but once again I've had to use modern fluxes.

                This flux deal has really gotten me very curious.


                Ken Weidner


                • #9
                  My understanding (albeit very limited) was that solder was sold back then. It was applied with irons heated in a fire. I also suspect rosin (a flux) core lead solder may have been availible then.

                  I imagine the lead sold for casting bullets could be used to make solder joints. If you look at the kinds of stuff sold at the trading posts back then, I imagine you would find solid fluxing agents -- borax maybe. A fair number of chemicals were sold for metal processing and prospecting -- things like mercury. I have seen bullets cast at museums and a powder fluxing agent was added to the ingots right before full melt.

                  Fusing may also have been done. It is still done today in Africa to produce granulated surfaces and filagree work. It requires exquist control, which many difernet ethnic groups have accomplished under less technically advanced conditions. There may have been some casting too. I know, in that era, much of the Navajo stuff was cast to avoid the problems of soldering.

                  This is one bit of history I personally avoid. Lead solders produce lead fumes. I don't like breathing lead and I like children breathing lead or being around lead filings even less. Adults do not suffer the magnitude of brain damage children do from lead.

                  Anyway, that is my two cents on soldering in the old days.



                  • #10

                    Luckily I am scientifically your explanations were right up my alley. I have no regrets asking you cause I got very thorough explanations and that is what I like.


                    I am have about a dozen stamps made so far out of cold and hot rolled steel rods from my local Ace hardware. I have enough rod cut to make about another fifteen and should be finishing them up this week. I also am making rocker engraving tools out of the same kind of metals but just band form instead of rods. I am figure I will make about 4 - 6 different widths so I won't have to double up in areas that need wide coverage. I also thought of making a fine sharp pointed tool for scratch engraving (similar to carving in woods but much more shallow). As for the tempering...I have some info on it and my try to do it myself, but my info said to take the metal to a straw color then squelch it in oil and only called for one heating. Now I also know a local blacksmith and may have him just do them all for me. Lord knows he has a better idea and the equipment to do it right the first time, all depends on how much he will want to do it for me.

                    As for you question on flux back in the day...I have know clue. I can so though that I have noticed that most of the older crosses that I have seen were riveted rather than being soldered. By no means am I saying all were but just that all the old ones I have seen.

                    "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo Picasso

                    "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift...that is why is it called the Present." Master Oogway - KungFu Panda

                    My comments are based on what I have been taught and my experiences over the years I have been around the circle. They should in no way be taken as gospel truths and are merely my opinions or attempts at passing on what I have learned while still learning more.


                    • #11
                      Ol Chemist

                      Thanks for all the imput, it is really great.

                      I agree that they must have sold a flux of some type, but I'd like to know WHAT they used. I've tried Borax as I know it was used as a welding flux for blacksmithing. I've made many welds using borax, but it doesn't seem to work for me on this German Silver for soldering.

                      Maybe I should mention that I used to also do a lot of Blacksmithing and forgework also, so I'm familiar with those old ironworking techniques.

                      PWBUM: It might be best to have a smith temper your tools for you the first time, but if you watch him, you can probably do your own, once you see how. Regardless who tempers your tools, if you make your own, it seems to make it a lot more personal, at least to me. It's amazing though how many designs you can get from a few simple tools!

                      I agree that some of the crosses were riveted, I haven't actually seen very much old silver work personally. I've been relying on photos and books. But I know that they made rings and bridles at the camps themselves. I've got some theories on the evolution of the bridles, but the rings were something else, and I can think of at least one cross that is soldered.

                      I know that a friend of mine was one of two people who discovered the Cheyenne-Sioux campsite on Pawnee creek that General Hancock destroyed in April of 1867. When they found it, they found shards of German Silver on the surface where they had been working it in camp. Now whether or not they were going to solder it or not, we'll never know, but they were cutting it with chisels then and then filing it smooth.

                      This is a fascinating topic to me as you can tell.

                      Thanks for starting this thread.

                      Ken Weidner


                      • #12
                        Dang after reading this...I'm thinking about giving it a go myself!!!! Maybe if I don't screw it up to bad I may actually decide to pay for these classes with a local guy here in anchorage and really lear what the heck I'm doing...LOL!!!!
                        We the unwilling, lead by the unknowing, have been doing so much with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.


                        • #13
                          Hey. PB49

                          Are you taking orders yet? :D

                          (thanks for all your help this weekend... I'm gonna be thinking of ya when I'm dancin')
                          This is life, and I'm lovin it!


                          • #14
                            I got another question. Is there a preference or should I say which size jewelers saw and blade size works best? Also is there a certain brand names that work better than others? Off brand stuff is fine for groceries and over the counter medicine, but when it comes to tools it is a completely different story. I got a catalog in from IJS today and I'm perusing it trying to figure out what I want or may need to buy tools wise.

                            "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo Picasso

                            "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift...that is why is it called the Present." Master Oogway - KungFu Panda

                            My comments are based on what I have been taught and my experiences over the years I have been around the circle. They should in no way be taken as gospel truths and are merely my opinions or attempts at passing on what I have learned while still learning more.


                            • #15
                              My rule of thumb is 2.5 teeth to the thickness of the metal. Obviously then the size varies with the gauge of the sheet. 2/0 is a good general blade, I use about twice as many of these as anything else. 3/0's are handy for 20 ga. and 22 ga. 3/0's are good for cutting wire for jump rings, as the narrow width leaves a narrow gap.

                              Herkules White Label are my personal favorite. I like a less springy blade. Antelop are good. I don't have a current IJS catalog to know for sure that they have them. If you can't find them, generally, the German/Swiss blades are better. There are others out there and starting out you may not really be able to tell the difference, since you will likely break more blades with technique problems than metal fatique. Keeping the saw frame upright, using light pressure, supporting your work properly, and rotating the work and not the frame to cut curves will improve blade life.

                              There is a reason saw blades are sold by the gross:) You'll need 2-3 dz.

                              Purists scribe their cutting lines directly on to the metal. This can leave unsightly marks if you cut outside the lines. I favor drawing my outline on tracing paper and affixing it with rubber cement. You can saw right through the paper and peel off the remainder when finished. This and wax lubricant will leave a residue which must be removed before soldering. But since you will file and emery your pieces before soldering this will not be a problem. If you are concerned a mild heating and pickling will take care of this problem.

                              Saw size is dictated by the depth of any interior cuts you wish to make. I find a 4" throat is good for most pieces. A 6" will cover most everything you would ever want to do. Remember the physics of the situation, the frame is a spring, (it has to be to tension the blade) the longer the throat the more "bounce" and the greater the stress on the blade.

                              I like the Swiss cast tool steel frames (the ones with the black handle and the notched nub at the upper end. I have used but did not like the extruded frame saws. Now to be fair, I learned on a 4" Swiss saw and it feels the most comfortable in my hand. A good saw will last you a lifetime. My is 21 years old and has had two new nuts and the mating faces reground in all these years. (There's a little surface rust but then again I don't look as good these days either,LOL.)

                              Hope this helps.



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