Silversmithing is a technique where objects are fabricated from sterling or fine silver. All sorts of objects can be made by a silversmith, including trophies; ornaments; utensils and of course jewelry.
Today’s post is an introduction to the art of jewelry silversmithing. If you’re interested in making your own silver jewelry, this article explains more about the process involved and some of the tools you’ll need to get started.
Silver metal comes in either flat sheets or wire. It’s then cut, shaped, soldered and polished into a piece of jewelry through silversmithing techniques. This is a breakdown of the steps involved.
1. Sawing / cutting the metal
If using flat sheets of metal, a silversmith will use a special jewelry saw to cut out shapes or strips for making a piece of jewelry. When working with metal wire, wire cutters are needed to cut a length to size.
The type of jewelry saw used is important. Blades are available in different sizes – some are for all round use for example and others are better suited to more intricate or detailed work. The smaller the size number of a blade means more teeth per inch on the blade itself.
The quality of a saw’s blades is also crucial for a silversmith. Blades need to be top quality to ensure the best results. They should be regularly lubricated with Bees Wax or similar, which helps with keeping a steady sawing rhythm.
Once the metal has been cut, the rough edges then need to be filed down using a jeweler’s file, before the piece is shaped and soldered. Filing also needs to be done later on in the process, once soldering has taken place.
Jeweler’s files come in various types too. A file graded to a size 0 or 1 is used when heavy filing is required. These files will quickly remove sharp edges of metal. Files graded to a higher number have a finer cut and are generally used for detailing.
3. Hammering and shaping (metalwork)
Silver metal is shaped while it’s cold. It can be hammered, textured and bent into shape using a raw hide jeweler’s hammer. There are many different types of hammers available. Silver metal can be shaped around a ring, bracelet or neck mandrel to make the required curves, or hammered and textured on a flat metal block.
To attach two pieces of metal together, for example to join a ring band or to add detail to a piece, a solder will need to be used. Solder is available in flat sheets or wire too.
Before solder is used, a silversmith will clean the shaped metal in an acidic solution which is referred to as “pickle”. Then they will apply something called “Flux” – a treatment that keeps the metal clean while it’s heated and helps the solder to flow.
The metal must be heated with a torch to the right temperature before it can be soldered. This can be tricky to get right at first but a general rule of thumb is to ensure that the metal is glowing red before adding the solder to join the metal together. After soldering, the metal is cleaned again in the “pickle” solution for a few minutes.
5. Finishing and polishing
Once the silver metal has cooled, the silversmith may reshape by hammering again if required. Then, to ensure that the metal is smooth and no joins can be seen, additional filing and sanding will take place.
To finish off a piece of silver jewelry, it will need to be polished to achieve a smooth, shiny surface. This can be done by using a buffing wheel and afterwards, by hand with a cloth and rouge (a jeweler’s polish) as a final step. Other finishes can be added to silver jewelry at this stage, such as a patina or antique silver finish.
Note – for a full list of tools that you might need for jewelry silversmithing, take a look at this article.
Some silver jewelry designers use lost wax casting techniques to make jewelry. It’s useful for making particular sections of jewelry that is difficult to shape or when jewelry components need to be made in one complete piece.
Lost wax casting is the process of pouring liquid metal into a mold. First of all, a model is sculptured and carved into the desired shape using wax. This could be a ring or pendant, complete with an intricate design for example.
Then, the wax model is set inside a steel flask and covered almost entirely with a plaster solution. Some of the wax is left accessible. The flask is then heated in a kiln, allowing the wax to melt away to leave an empty void in the shape of the original model.
Finally, the empty void in the plaster is filled with red hot liquid metal. Once cool, the plaster can be removed to reveal a solid metal form which can then be sanded and polished.
The art of jewelry silversmithing
There’s no doubt that jewelry silversmithing is a great technique to learn if you want to progress into designing your own silver jewelry. We hope that this post has given you some of the key information you need about the process involved and some of the tools to help you get started.
Did you enjoy this post? You might also like to read our Introduction to Wirework.