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The Work Room is the Creative Journal of Wendy Sue where she shares her creative journey in all things handmade. The Work Room also offers an alternative to your typical jewelry making workshops. Scroll down to the end of the page to see how you can learn to make your unique piece of artisan jewelry online.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Beginner's Silversmithing : Part III - Of Sheets & Wires

Well, the very first lesson in the course was in melting silver to make them into silver sheets and wires. When I say silver, silver here refers to sterling 92.5 silver. That's the 'standard' silver that silversmith works with anyway.

If you still haven't know by now 92.5 silver means the metal consists of 92.5% silver and the remaining 7.5% is an alloy and I think I've mentioned this before that the reason for this added aloy is for the added strength of the metal as silversmiths abuse work (which I think explains why 925 silver is a popular choice. A sufficiently strong precious silver metal perhaps?) on it to create their masterpieces.

I reckon this is probably the very basic of silversmithing, making your own silver sheet and wire because after all, if you think about it, most pieces of jewellery is made either from metal sheet or wire. No....wait a minute, dare I even say ALL?

But the irony is that despite it being the basic, it's probably only after many years of involvement in silversmithing that one will only start to make their own silver sheet and wire. Why, you ask me?

THIS is why.

Looks like some kind of a bigger version of a pasta machine, doesn't it?

Well, the name is rolling mill. I does have the same function as a pasta machine but the difference is that it rolls metal out of it rather than a flour dough.

So, what's the problem? Problem is everyone can afford a pasta machine but this baby here is going to burn a major hole in your pocket. No, wait .... I think it's close to destroying your garment even!

I think this model of rolling mill is probably going to cost you almost £1000! So, which is why, this is only something you will be investing in after years of involvement, so that you are already DEAD SURE that this is what you want to do.

Now you get the picture why this basic is only something that a silversmith is going to invest in much later.

Let's test drive this baby, shall we?

What else do you need? Silver ingot.

Where to get silver? Why, melt them from silver scraps.

What? You think it's gonna be from nicely shaped silver bars or something like how you get them from the sellers? Naaaahh. It's the bits and pieces leftover from working with the earlier pieces. Silver is after all precious metals and even one tiny bit has got its value because it is reusable.

We're really getting to the grass root of silversmithing here.

Let the melting begins......

I think the black thingy where you see the silver was being placed on to be melted is what is called a carbon block, if I'm not mistaken. And the torch I'm using here is from Microwell (I hope I got the spelling right!). Well, you can also use handheld torch but Microwell is a better one and more expensive too no doubt! You can change the tip of the nozzle for Microwell torches which control the size of the flame which gives you a better precision.

Ok, side track a bit here. You know, the silversmithing course was the last one I attende and the earlier two courses all needed the use of a kiln. So, for some strange reason,I was kinda 'zombified' into the kiln trance... and I blurted a question whether you need a kiln in silversmithing.

I know. Like, what question is THAT?! Hahah! This is the most traditional and conventional method in making jewellery whereas a kiln was a more modern invention. You can just imagine the puzzled look on Yvonne's face while shaking her head and telling me no, you need not. Heheh! Well, like I said..... the earlier two courses has zombified me into some sort of a 'kiln trance'. :P

Melting away......

Before you actually direct any heat onto the metal to melt it, you need to add a layer of flux onto it. Generally, flux is a substance added to a metal to lower its melting point.

The flux used here, which I've also come to realized to be probably the cheapest one around is the borax cone. It costs only like around £2 for a cone. Quite a big one which will probably last you a while. I've heard vaguely about other types of flux which probably cost more, I don't know. I'm guessing this is probably also one of the older methods? *shrugs*

I mean, Yvonne has been making jewellery for almost two decades now and this fact is quite apparent from her tools in the workroom! :P

Alright, back to what we were doing.

So, what do you get after melting those silver scrap? Why, silver ingot of course!


Ok, now this is how we will be making use of the rolling mill.

There is two parts of the tolling mill, the top and the bottom part.

The top part .....

Looks just like your kitchen's pasta machine. And this is the part where you run the silver ingot through to make silver sheet.

Placing the silver ingot in between the rollers.

You the move the two rollers closer together the thinner you want the sheet to be.

And this is the resulting silver sheet for you to create your masterpieces!

The bottom part of the rolling mill......

This part is used for making wires. You see how it is actually rigged in different sizes? That is for you to run the silver ingot through to make the different sizes of wire.

Note however that this is only to make square wires. There is still an additional step to put them through to make them into round wires which I'll mention a bit later on.

And do you see the triangular pointer thingy at the bottom? Well, that's just what it does. It points to you which rig you're already at, so you know which rig to put the silver ingot through next.

Basically, you'll need to work from thick to thin. Well, I reckon that's common sense too. You can expect to get the wires out at the precise thickness that you want the first time running them through the rolling mill.

This is roughly how the silver ingot will look like after running it through the rolling mill a couple of times.

And after running it through a couple more times (well, a LOT actually!), you'll eventually see a piece of square wire taking form.

And it's just as amazing to see how by melting silver scraps and running it through the rolling mill to get this short piece of wire which eventually lenghthens into a longer piece! It's almost magical! LOL...

One thing you mustn't forget to do in between running the silver through the rolling mill is to anneal the metal.

You've heard me mention this word 'anneal' before in my lampworking posts but what annealing metal roughly means to heat the metal enough to alter its composition but not to melt it. Erm, does that makes any sense? I'm explaining it in how I understands it.

Basically, by running the silver through the rolling mill, you are attempting to change the molecule structure of the metal which in its cold state is very difficult if not almost impossible due to the metal's strength (remember the 7.5% alloy for added strength I mentioned earlier?).

So, what annealing does is to soften the metal for you to be able to change the molecule structure without maybe cracking it. You'll notice that as you are running it through the rolling mill, it will get harder and harder to run it through. When it becomes very difficult to run it through, that's when you know you'll need to anneal the metal already before you'll be able to run it through the rolling mill again.

Just in case if you're wondering the white board placed right in front is a necessary safety precaution or something.... well, it's not. It's just to block the glare of the sun just so you can see the flame clearly and not to overheat the metal till you melt it. :P

Next, to make the square wires into round wires, you'll need a draw plate.


You can probably guess what to do with a draw plate already.

You see all the different sizes of round holes on the plate? Well, that's for you to run your square wire through the shape them into round wires and depending on which wire size you want, you run it through the necessary holes and similarly with the square wires, you need to slowly run the through the bigger holes down to the smaller ones before you eventually get to the size you want.

This is how you do it.

Secure the draw plate onto a bench clamp.

And pull the square wire through the holes on the plate using a pliers.

Honestly, there's so much work going into making round wire that it makes you wonder why is it that square wires are more expensive than round ones and it seems that it is due to the angle edges of square wires that gives it more weight that makes it expensive!

To tell you the truth, all the above is not easy work. From rolling the silver ingot through the rolling mill and pulling the square wires through the draw plate. It's all hard labour work! I mean, seriously.... these are physically intensive activities, I kid you not.

Of course it's something you can develop over time but definitely not months. We're looking at years here. I think this is the first time I actually needed so much physical strength to make jewellery. This is nothing like you round nose plier and wires or fishing line and crystal beads. This is hard work lor!

Of course and no doubt, for people like Yvonne, it already comes naturally but for a noob beginner like me ..... *shakes head* .......

After going through all these, I couldn't understand why one would want to bother with making silver sheet and wires when you can just conveniently buy them! It's so labour and time consuming!

But then you realize, that's how you can make use of your own silver scrap. The process above is probably the same for big companies buying back your silver scrap but because they are big companies, it's done in a more cost effective larger scale.

Well, no doubt you also have better control in your design. Say, for example when you want a 1.25mm thick silver sheet or 2.5mm thick wire.

Convenience or control? You make the call.

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