Tool Time Tuesday – Essential Soldering Setup

I am often asked what tools are needed when one wants to get into soldering. There are so many tools that you can buy. Not all of them are necessary, and there are some that I just cannot live without. This post is about those that I just cannot live without. Now, keep in mind that I am still fairly new to jewelry, yes, it is true. I only  learned how to bezel set a stone 3 years ago. I began playing with wire only just a couple years before that. With that said, this is all based on my opinion and personal experience while teaching myself and others.

When I took my first soldering class the instructor gave us a sheet of recommended tools.  That is where I began. I searched for the best prices and bought in bulk where possible to save a few dollars. With that said, I spent over $500 on my first set up. I have since found better suppliers, some wholesale, and am just wiser as to what is really needed. I offer a kit to my students at a rate MUCH less than I paid.

Here are the 15 items I consider ESSENTIAL to be successful in soldering. This is a basic set up and meant for small scale jewelry items.
1- Butane Torch
2 – Butane for your torch
3 – Soldering Pad/surface
4 – Soldering Pick
5 – Insulated Cross Locking Tweezers
6 –  Needle File Set
7 – Flux
8 – Flux brush
9 – Saw Frame
10 – Saw blades for your saw frame
11 – Bench pin and Anvil Combo
12  – Straight Shop Shears
13 – Copper Tongs
14 – Pickle
15 – Pickle Pot

If you are going to get into bezel setting, I would suggest that you also add:
1 – Prong/Bezel Pusher
2 – Bezel Rocker
3 – Burnisher
4 – Ring Clamp

Here is what my soldering station looks like.Soldering_StationThe first thing I would like to point out about my set up is the two black hoods over the table. This is my ventilation system. This is something I came up with my father-in-law as we built the studio. I knew I needed to have some way of pulling away the dangerous fumes that would be created during my classes and as I worked. It is actually a modified woodworking system.

My table will comfortably sit 3 people at a time. My Acetylene/Air torch is easily seen on the right hand side of the table. That torch is only a year old. It is my “big girl” torch.

Let’s look a little closer at some of the items on my soldering table.
Main_setup

This is a typical set up that I use every time I solder something together.
A – These two bottles contain flux. The yellow fluid is a self pickling liquid flux. The short fat container is a paste flux. Flux is used to absorb oxygen and keep oxidation at bay long enough for your piece to get to temperature so that the solder can flow. The way I apply my flux is with a simple paint brush.

B – This is my soldering surface. In this case it is a 6″ x 6″ Solderite Pad. It gets pretty dirty from the flux and torching, but can easily be resurfaced. I will show some other pictures later int his post.

C – These are two styles of Soldering Picks. My favorite is the shorter one as it is smaller and has a finer tip. These act as your fingers when you are soldering. You do not want to be touching red hot metal with your fingers when soldering, so you would use these to keep things in place, or move them, help direct your solder, hold things together, etc. I hold this in my dominant hand while my torch works in my non-dominant hand. This takes a bit of getting used to, but it works for me.

D – Two types of Tweezers. The one that is ESSENTIAL is the insulated cross locking tweezers. You want them insulated because the metal will get hot as you are soldering and transfer that heat right up to your fingers otherwise. The other pair is a fine tipped pair of tweezers. I especially like these for placing my solder or laying down detail items into place.

E – A good pair of 3rd hands is always a good investment. I didn’t list this in my Essential list, because there are other ways to accomplish what you can do with them. But it is still a handy tool to have.

F – No metalsmith should be without a black sharpie. There are just so many uses for them, including being able to tell if you are at the right temperature for annealing your metal.

quenchbowl

A Quench bowl is VERY IMPORTANT. After heating your piece you should quench it to cool it off. It makes the BEST sound when you dunk a hot piece of metal into the cool water. Just be sure that you dunk the ENTIRE piece into the water or your piece will remain hot. I even dunk my tweezers and soldering pick to cool them off. Here I have used a ceramic coated steel bowl. It had been chipped and was no longer safe for using with food, so naturally I pulled it into the studio. I also have small glass and stainless bowls that I use for quenching. It just depends on the size of piece I am working on.

charcoalBrick
Other soldering surfaces I like to use are a ceramic soldering board and a hard compressed charcoal block. I also have a couple of annealing pans with pumice, one is 12″ round and the other is 7″ round. You can also use fire bricks. They are all great for reflecting heat back onto your piece as you work with your torch.

resurfaced1
resurfaced
I mentioned above that sometimes these soldering pads get really dirty. Here you can see on the left one of my soldering pads that has been quite well used. There are pits, dark spots, spots with hardened flux, etc. These things can make it difficult to see what you are doing, as well as a really gummy mess when soldering. Every now and then I will take my pad out to my driveway and resurface it by laying it flat on the ground and running it in a figure 8 motion to sand away the surface. The pad on the right was resurfaced not too long ago and is beginning to get used again.

Butane_Torches
This is my little army of torches. I absolutely ADORE my Blazer torches. For a long time this is all I used. I knew it was time to get a bigger torch when I was holding three at a time  (yes, you read that right) to get my solder to flow on larger pieces. I will totally vouch for the durability and consistency of the Blazer torch. They are more expensive, but worth EVERY PENNY! The Jumbo Torch on the right is a newer torch for me. I began using this one back in the fall. I LOVE it. Now in my kits, I offer my students the option of which torch they would like. Most will buy the one that doesn’t come in the kit.

The Jumbo torch isn’t quite as hot as the Blazer, but the flame is larger so you are able to get and keep a larger piece at temperature. The Blazer works best on smaller pieces, say 1 1/4″ x 1 1/4″.

Butane
The two torches above are both butane torches. They are perfect for small scale projects and you don’t have to worry about having gas and oxygen tanks. When I first got into this I worked at my kitchen table and then progressed to the formal dining room where I set up a small student computer desk as my bench. You still need to have good ventilation, but like I said, at least you don’t have the big tanks hanging around. I really like to use Triple Refined Butane, but have found that even regular lighter refill butane will work.

Pickling

After soldering a piece, it is typically pretty oxidized and not very pretty. I remember taking my first soldering class and looking at this awful black charcoal-looking chain and b
eing so disappointed with how it looked. You can use a solution called Pickle to remove this oxidation. Your piece won’t be bright and shiny yet, but at least you get back to your original color.

There are a number of solutions that can be used for pickle, and perhaps that might be worthy of its own Tool Time Tuesday. But for now, I am using a couple of differing things. I started out by using Sparex #2, but it was so dirty I couldn’t stand the stuff. Then I found Rio’s pickle and really liked that. But I wanted something I could get locally and I tried Ph- or Ph Down. It is a swimming pool chemical.

Pickle works fastest when it is warm so I put mine in this little 1 1/2 quart crock pot. Things to remember with Pickle; depending on what you are using, you do not want it on you or the fumes up your nose. Always open the lid away from you to keep the fumes out of your face. NEVER put steel tools in your pickle. Use copper tongs instead.

When I have small bits and pieces I will place them in a small plastic container with holes in the bottom. This saves me time trying to fish them out of the pickle.

Always take your pieces from the pickle and dunk them in a container of baking soda and water (black bowl above) to neutralize the acid of the pickle.

Fireout

One item your shop shouldn’t be without is a good fire extinguisher. Make certain to get it tested or buy a new one every year to make certain you are covered in case of a fire. Here is a question I ask all my students. Where should you place your extinguisher? The answer is on your way out the door or at least away from your bench. You don’t want to have to reach into or through the fire to grab it.

Other tools I cannot live without
Bench pin and anvil combo

I love my bench pin and Anvil combination. For a long time I didn’t own a steel bench block. I just used the steel surface of this device for that purpose. The bench pin is great for supporting your piece while sawing or piercing. And I don’t feel bad about cutting or drilling into it as replacement pins are very inexpensive. This particular bench pin is my original. Believe it or not, it does actually get quite a bit of use. But I don’t drill into mine. I have another surface that is used for that.

sawframes
I cannot live without my saws. I have about 6 of them. I have a couple that are much larger than these even. Saw blades are also easy to break  and are sold by the dozen.

shop_shears
As you can see, I have quite the assortment of shop shears. I really like the straight tips, but they also come with a curved tip. I just haven’t used it much and haven’t found the need for it. But others swear by them. I guess it is just a matter of personal preference.

These are great for cutting solder, sheet metal and thicker gauges of wire. My favorite pair in this shot is the middle pair. They are french style shears with a spring.

One Item that I don’t have a picture of is a needle file set. A good set is going to have a variety of shapes so that you can get into various areas of your work.

As always, if you have any questions or comments I would love to hear them. Hopefully this answers a few questions you might have about soldering set ups. Please let me know if you would like further information on any of this. I am happy to share what I know.

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15 thoughts on “Tool Time Tuesday – Essential Soldering Setup

  1. Anonymous

    OMG melissa…. this is wonderful article. You made it very very very complete. Thanks so much!!!!! Now I take my time to read all with heart…. 😉
    x Dian

    Reply
  2. Sue Lipp

    Hi Melissa,
    I just love tool time Tuesdays. I learn something every week. Rather than using sparex as a pickle, I have been using kosher salt and white vinegar. It may take a little longer, but I don’t think it is as toxic.

    Sue

    Reply
  3. Melissa Muir

    Thank you Jeanne. I am glad you like it.

    Dian, I wrote this one especially for you. 🙂 Hope it helps. Let me know if you need any more information.

    Sue, what are the ratios you use? Do you warm it up also? Or just work it cold?

    Valerie, I have had and tried titanium picks before and I didn’t care for them much. Perhaps I just didn’t have a good one. I will see if I still have mine and let you try it. But I love my Tungsten pick.

    ~Melissa~

    Reply
  4. Diana

    Melissa,

    I’ve just started using pickle. I’m using Sparex #2, in a new crock pot. I followed the directions on the bag, and used only copper tongs in the pickle, but the solution is a bright yellow. Is that normal? It removes the firescale just fine; the only problem is that it’s too opaque to see the items inside, making it hard to fish them out when they’re done. Do you have any insights on this?

    Reply
  5. Melissa Muir

    Sigh, I wish I could say more about sparex #2. I hate the stuff. I used it when I first started out too. I hate that it is so murky you can’t see what you are doing, it smells awful and it gets a thick crusty crap on the top of it. I did find that once the crust forms and you skim it off, the solution isn’t as opaque, but it takes a while before it gets to that point. 

    I actually just threw out the rest of my sparex. I won’t use it again if I can help it, for the reasons mentioned above. Yes, it will still work fine for you if you choose to continue to use it. I actually really like the Ph down or Ph minus that people use in their swimming pools. It is nice and clear and easy to mix up. 
    Don’t know if that helps or not. One thing you can do is create or get a small plastic basket and put your pieces in that and submerge it in the pickle. It will make getting your pieces out much easier. 
    ~Melissa~
    Reply
  6. Rob Libby

    Melissa, what are you using to pull the air out? Fan ? I would love to learn more as I am setting up a soldering area.

    Reply
  7. Melissa Muir

    Rob, 

    I had a woodworking dust collector that was pulling the air out. It was pretty powerful, and also not so quiet. It wasn’t horribly loud, but you had to talk louder to be heard over it. I don’t know the exact model, but it was made by Delta. If you would like to know more, just let me know and I will find out which one I had.
    Melissa
    Reply
  8. Jolene

    Thanks for exhibiting the actual tools. It meant that I didn’t have to do an internet search on those tools that were unfamiliar to me.

    Reply

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