Silversmithing For Beginners
Silversmithing is traditionally the field of a master and apprentice, but these days it’s becoming something more and more people do at home. While that model works great, not everyone has the chance to go down a traditional route to silversmithing.
The truth is that you can learn a lot about silversmithing right at home. You just need to be willing to put in the work. Let’s go over the basics and talk about where you can go to learn more in the future!
What You Need to Start Silversmithing
You need some tools and supplies to get started in this field. You don’t have to break the bank, however, you can make do with just a few simple tools.
For a more in-depth look at basic tooling, see our guide to silversmithing tools which goes into more detail on choice and necessary tools.
To start with, the cheapest route is just to pick up a butane torch. You’ll need something a bit heavier than the novelty torch lighters you can buy in smoke shops.
If you’re planning on starting with very large pieces, you may want to pick up a plumber’s torch instead. These are usually powered by propane, which may be an issue for your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance.
Use something like the Orca if you need a bigger torch, but make sure that you have the room to run it. The hose-type heads are better than the one pictured above, most cheap torches can’t be inverted and you’ll have to get creative to get the flame on point.
If you have a dedicated space, you can also use an oxy-acetylene torch. The Little Smith is the industry standard, but don’t mess around with knock-offs when you’re using an oxy-acetylene torch.
A bad butane torch may fail. A bad oxy-acetylene torch part can cause much bigger problems.
I use a Dremel torch and go borrow an oxy-acetylene setup in a relative’s garage if I need to do bigger stuff. Neither is the best at what they do, but they work well.
Hammer and Mallet
You’re going to need some hammers.
To start with, a small ball peen hammer is the cheapest route. Most of these will quickly mark up on the face, but it’s less important when you’re beginning. If you have one in the garage between 1-3lbs without any huge marks on the head you’re good to go.
You don’t need to start with a rawhide mallet, but a rubber one will come in handy. You’ll use the steel hammer to flatten metal and the mallet to move the entire piece.
A small anvil or stamping block is a wise use of money in the beginning, but even a piece of ⅛” sheet metal will work. Just make sure the surface is reasonably smooth.
Pliers and Cutters
Flat nose and round pliers are a requirement to position your silver. There’s really no way around it, and they’ll have to be purpose-bought.
That said, they don’t need to be high end to start.
There are a bunch of ways to cut metal, but as a beginner, a big pair of flush cutters will do what your saw can’t. The red pair on the left in the picture are my recommendation. I’ve abused them far beyond what they should be capable of and they’re easy to re-sharpen with a file.
Other specialized pliers are also welcome, but not required for a beginner.
Skip the expensive saws to start. What you need is a basic model that can maintain tension, and that’s all you really need.
I recommend this set, so you get a bench pin as well. The blades that come with the set are trash. You can keep them around for emergencies, but learning with bad blades will give you the impression sawing and piercing work is much harder than it needs to be.
3/0 or 4/0 blades are a good place to start and they’re what ends up being used most often. Most jewelry supply houses have their own in-house brands, but I’d hold off on ordering from them to start unless you’re already getting your metal there. You can find stuff like Pike blades at a lot of online retailers.
You also need a few basic supplies to get you started.
- 3-in-1 Oil– A good lubricant for your saw, necessary for tool maintenance, and generally nice to have around. Waxes work best for sawing and using burrs on a rotary shaft, but you need a good liquid lubricant in your workshop and they won’t replace it.
- Silver Solder– I recommend wire to get started. You can pound it flat and then cut it into chips, use it directly, or cut off bits for other types of soldering. This is not hardware store solder, buy from a jewelry supplier.
- Flux– Required for silver solder to flow. Also necessary for melting silver, since it reduces oxides.
- Sandpaper– A variety of grits is best. For mirror finishes you’ll need up to 3000 or 5000 grit. Wet-dry automotive sandpaper is my go-to.
- Polishing Cloths– Yes, a Dremel or Flexshaft is better for polishing but these work great for finishing up hand sanded pieces of metal.
You’ve got to protect yourself in the workshop.
PPE doesn’t matter until it does. I’ve been lucky, my worst injuries have been from slipping gravers and carving dangerously with a bench knife to make a wooden swage.
A single hot piece of metal can do enough damage to hurt for weeks and will probably need medical treatment. Just wear a fire-resistant apron to avoid the problem entirely.
Likewise, don’t risk your eyes. You should have a good pair of safety glasses as well. Wear them anytime you’re taking tools to metal or heating anything.
Any type of trimming with shears or cutters and anytime you heat metal are the big ones. I’d recommend just getting a comfortable pair and leaving them on.
Do yourself a favor and get a box of nitrile gloves as well. They’ll keep your hands clean during polishing and you need them for patinas and other chemical processes you may choose to do in the future.
While this may seem like a footnote… PPE isn’t optional.
You’re dealing with extreme heat, reactive metals, and even caustic chemicals at times. Protect yourself, an apron or a pair of goggles can turn a horrifying accident into something to laugh about.
Beginner Techniques to Learn
The world of jewelry making is enormous but solid basics can create most pieces. The following skills are among the most important to develop, and a solid foundation in them is the first milestone you should seek.
Soldering silver is not a simple process. There are tons of things to keep in mind that a beginner may not be able to account for.
Almost all silver soldering actually takes place at brazing temperatures. The actual difference between the two is minimal and easy/soft solders sometimes go low enough to dip into regular soldering territory.
A proper joint can be worked as one piece. I recommend trying to snap the connection after soldering a piece. Don’t go crazy, but I’ll usually flick it repeatedly with my finger or even tap it with a very small plastic mallet.
The basic outline is as follows:
- Prepare the pieces to be soldered by cleaning off all surface oxides with an abrasive or pickling until white.
- Make sure the joint is 100% flush, or as close as possible.
- Paint the area with flux paste or solution, making sure to cover the entire joint.
- Optionally, you can use something to stop the flow. I use a graphite pencil, but there are purpose-made compounds for it as well.
- Place your solder along the joint. Learning how much to use will take time, but try for one small chip every linear ½” or so to start.
- Heat the pieces of silver to the proper temperature with your torch. The torch should be constantly moving, never still. You usually need to heat all of the metal in a piece.
- The solder will flow at the right temperature, creating a silver sheen over the heated metal. It should flow on both pieces. Avoid the temptation to focus directly on the joint and keep the torch moving.
- Remove your torch once the flow has reached both pieces.
- Allow to cool until black temperature, then dip in water.
- Place in your pickle solution or begin abrading the firescale off the piece.
That sounds complicated, doesn’t it?
What you don’t see in that short explanation is how fiddly all of this is. Brushing on flux, for instance, is often an enormous pain since small pieces like to move with the brush. Or you may have a bezel which simply doesn’t sit flat on your sheet.
The key to soldering?
Every little bit of the process you rush will create complications. Approach each piece with that in mind and you’ll do well.
One thing that needs to be clear for the beginner: silver solder does not fill in spaces. The joints need to be as flush as possible before you even flux the piece.
For a more in-depth view, check here.
Basic Forging and Forming
Forging is the fine art of smacking metal and making it bend to your will.
Well, technically forging is using a hammer to change the thickness, cross-section, or curvature of a piece of metal.
All silver forging is done cold. Always.
You can heat up silver and hit it if you want to find out why. Silver tends to shatter when hit while heated, and loses heat rapidly. That said, you’ll still need to anneal the metal frequently or risk it getting too brittle so it’s not a heat-free process.
Hammering is best done on a polished surface made of steel. While that’s ideal, most of us end up forgetting our block needs oil sooner or later and have some level of oxidation and roughness to it. Just be aware that any rust or uneven surfaces will be transferred to the metal.
Forging is a good way to make small bits of sheet metal from metal scraps if you don’t mind the time spent.
Forging can also involve mallets, which I often use to bend pieces around mandrels. You can also use a hammer on a rubber block.
The general rules for hard versus soft hammers and surfaces are:
- Mallet on Soft Surface- Little marking, but metal can be formed. Mostly used for work hardening a piece with a rawhide mallet and a rubber block.
- Hammer on Hard Surface- This is how you move metal. Use for any serious forming, such as flattening a piece of silver.
- Mallet on Hard Surface- Non-marking but puts a lot of stress on the metal. Use for quick work hardening.
- Hammer on Soft Surface- Mostly non-marking depending on the hammer. Good for work hardening.
There’s no real way to teach forging but just to do it. We all develop our own taste in hammers and techniques over time, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
A jeweler’s saw is a strange tool. While it looks like a small hacksaw at first glance, we use the very fine blades differently.
A jeweler’s saw should be used with a bench pin or something similar. The idea is to go straight up and down, moving the piece around the blade rather than moving the saw through the metal.
Piercing involves using the saw to make internal cuts. You do this by drilling a hole in the metal, then unhooking the blade on one side. You’ll then pass the blade through, get the weight off the blade somehow, and reattach on the other side.
Due to the fine blade, piercing can create very fine details in skilled hands.
A jewelry saw’s blade should sing a bit if you flick it. Too little tension will cause the blade to fold on itself and break.
If you’re having trouble cutting, chances are your piece isn’t secured enough. If the piece moves with the saw then you’re going to have trouble cutting at all.
You should also lubricate the saw blade with a thin layer of wax or oil to help keep things moving along.
Like forging, using a jeweler’s saw is a skill you learn by doing. If you find that silver is too expensive, I recommend using copper or brass sheet to learn.
Basic Terminology for the New Silversmith
The biggest hurdle for the smith learning from home these days is knowing what to look for when they’re seeking information. If you don’t have the right words, then you’re kind of shooting in the dark.
For that reason, I’ve put together a small glossary that will hopefully let you explore further. Learn these terms now and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble in the future.
First up, we have our metal to consider. You need to know what you’re working with, and whether or not something is worth buying.
- Sterling Silver/925 Silver/925 – These terms all refer to sterling, which is frequently used in jewelry due to its toughness. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper in 99% of cases, especially if you get it from a supplier.
- Fine Silver/.999 – Pure silver, or as close as you’re going to get since it’s impossible to remove every atom of every element from the metal. Used for embellishments and bezels, it’s rather soft but doesn’t tarnish as quickly as sterling.
- Argentium – Argentium is a sterling silver variant that contains ~1% germanium. This makes it highly tarnish-resistant but changes the way the metal acts when heated. Argentium silver is most often used due to its easy fusing compared to sterling silver but brings its own complications. Learn more here.
- Coin Silver- 90% silver, sometimes seen in older coins. This is rarely used since it can’t be marked as sterling, but it can be brought up to 92.5% copper by combining it in the right ratio with fine silver.
- Tibetan Silver- Avoid like the plague. Tibetan silver is a catch-all for some rather dubious alloys used in jewelry sold in Asia. They most often don’t contain silver at all and may contain toxic metals like lead or allergens like nickel.
- Nickel Silver- Not silver. Not able to be sold in Europe. Causes a ton of problems with metal allergies. Nickel silver is worthless as jewelry, but it can be used for decorative items not worn.
Heated Processes Terminology
You do a lot with your torch. The following processes all require heat and are some of the common processes you’ll be doing.
- Annealing- Heating your silver and then quenching it can soften the metal to allow further forming or prevent the metal from breaking when it’s been work-hardened too far during forming.
- Soldering- Technically, we’re brazing due to the temperature but you’re not going to change entrenched names. Soldering involves heating solder until it flows between joints. The expanded pores during heating make the bond solid and a good joint can be worked as one piece of metal from there.
- Reticulation- Heating the surface of metal until it begins to melt and creates a texture. Reticulation can also be done by fluxing a piece and sprinkling it with silver dust before heating.
- Fusing- Heating metal until it sticks together. This is uncommon with sterling due to difficulty. It’s a bit easier with fine silver and much easier with Argentium-type sterling.
- Quenching- Sticking hot metal in water in order to cool it down. Usually in a dedicated container in the soldering area.
You’ll also want to know the following terminology to make the most of anything you’re learning.
- Black Temperature- A piece that is “black” just means the silver is no longer glowing in dim light. Usually, you’ll quench at this temperature for the best results.
- Oxidation- Silver is a reactive metal and readily combines with atmospheric oxygen. You’ll want to avoid it as much as possible, especially during metals where oxides can bunch together and create air pockets.
- Firescale- Not to be confused with firestain. Firescale is the black, oxidized portion of silver after a heating process. Pickle solution or a mild abrasive will remove it quickly.
- Firestain- Pooled copper underneath the surface of silver due to overheating the metal, usually for an extended period. Needs to be removed with an abrasive and often shows up as a dark shadow when polishing.
Forming processes are one of the main things we do as silversmiths. Moving metal can be done in a wide variety of ways and the terminology gets confusing in a hurry.
The following terms should get you most of the way to understanding:
- Forging- Moving metal with a hammer, usually on a hard surface. This can be done for visual interest, practical reasons, or just to get things lowered a bit. Forging requires frequent annealing to prevent cracks or other problems.
- Rolling- Done with a rolling mill. The high pressure causes the metal to move in the same direction as the rollers, thinning metal while increasing the surface area. Rolling can also refer to using the shaped holes on a combo mill to create a wire.
- Swaging- Swage blocks contain places where the metal can be placed to beat into a certain form like a rectangle. Swaging is simply smacking metal into shape by hitting it on a shaped surface.
- Texturing- Applying a texture to the metal, often with the back end of a ball-peen hammer or stamps. Texturing also refers to rolling metal through a mill with a texture plate. These plates are mild steel with a texture etched into their surface that transfers to the metal.
- Pressing- Using some kind of hydraulic or electric press to push silver into shape. This is usually accompanied by an impression die, which creates a surface for the silver to conform to.
- Burnishing- Using a steel or agate tool to smooth out the surface of metal by repeatedly passing over it. Burnishing leaves behind a smooth, hard surface and is used to force metal over the edge in flush settings.
- Sanding- Sanding is just using an abrasive to change the surface of metal. Smaller particles are indicated by a higher grit number and make a smoother surface. Sanding removes metal and requires polishing for a bright finish.
- Polishing- Polishing is the final step after abrasion. It’s usually done with a felt wheel and some kind of polishing compound like Zam or rouge. It smooths the surface of the metal but actually removes very little.
Setting stones is it’s own artform, and some jewelers specialize in only putting them in. Each setting has it’s own use. The following are the most common:
- Bezel Setting- A bezel is a thin strip of metal around the exterior of a stone. The metal is carefully measured for the perimeter of the stone and filed or sanded to height.You then press the rim over the stone. The metal protects the stone and holds it in.
- Tube Setting- A variant of bezel setting. You can purchase thick walled tubes and cut portions off to avoid having to cut a bezel for every piece. Your tube should be ~.5mm larger than the stones, so a 3.5mm tube for a 3mm stone. Very common in artisan jewelry and a remarkably fast way to add accent gems.
- Prong Setting- Done with either a wire basket or sheet metal collet. These settings use prongs to hold the stone into place. The area underneath the stone is called the seat.
- Tab Setting- Sheet metal tabs are cut into the backplate of the pendant, then folded over the stone to hold it in place.
- Flush Setting- The stone has a seat cut into sheet metal carefully. You then push the stone in and use a specially shaped burnisher to create a metal rim that holds the stone in. The appearance of a good flush setting looks like the stone was just pressed into the metal.
- Bead Setting/Grain Setting/Pave- A specialized technique where a seat is cut into the metal before using a graver to create a small curl of metal from the side. This is then set with a beading tool, creating a round bead of metal that locks the stone in place. Pave refers to a specific pattern, but is commonly used to describe any gem-studded area on a piece of jewelry where there’s little room between the settings.
It’s hard to avoid doing a little bit of chemistry while you’re smithing. The following are common terms that’ll help you understand what people are talking about.
- Patina- Refers to a patina intentionally placed on a piece using chemicals, rather than long-term aging of silver 99% of the time. The cause is surface oxidation, whether chemically induced or just caused by prolonged air exposure.
- Liver of Sulfur/LoS- A weak acidic mixture in gel or solid form that’s used by most at-home smiths and wire weavers. It’s safe enough to be an acceptable risk for most people, but it’s weak compared to most commercial patina solutions.
- Pickle- An acidic mixture that’s used to remove firescale after a piece has been heated. Pickle can be made at home with vinegar and salt. The main commercial pickle is Sparex, a powder that creates a dilute and stable sulfuric acid solution.
- Neutralizing- Using a saturated sodium bicarbonate solution to “kill off” any remaining acid after pickling or putting a patina on a piece. Necessary for commercial preparations of pickle and harsher patina solutions like BlackMax.
Special Note: You should learn to read MSDS data and look it up for any new chemical you’ll be working with. Even chemicals mired in “trade secrets” have to have an MSDS to allow safe handling of the material.
Methods of Further Learning
My idea was to equip you with basic knowledge so that you can do some further study. While we’re putting together a collection of guides and information right here on the site, we’re not going to be able to cover every little thing fully.
Fortunately, someone out there has covered every silversmithing subject under the sun in painstaking detail. The following sources of information are all great places to start if we don’t have what you need.
Tim McCreight’s The Complete Metalsmith is the
Get the spiral-bound one if you can and keep it on your workbench.
The other bench
It covers all aspects of metalwork, and it was my lifeline
I also wholeheartedly recommend Creative Stonesetting by John Cogswell. The name is a little bit misleading, the
That one is, perhaps, less of a bench
I’ve found buying books on specific techniques can be hit-or-miss. I have several I opened once that now live on the shelf due to a lack of depth. It’s still worth a shot, and there are plenty of books I didn’t mention that will be a great guide for the newbie jeweler.
Websites and Social Media
Right now you should add Ganoksin’s forum to your bookmarks. A quick search there opens up collective centuries of knowledge from everyone from amateurs to bench jewelers with decades of experience.
Benefit from it.
Asking questions here might not be as useful, the board isn’t super active these days and requires a paid membership. It’s the free access to the archives that can lead you to game-changing tips and tricks.
Google often returns decent results as long as you know specifically what you’re looking for.
But for my money, the best free resource for learning is social media.
Joining groups of like-minded people help keep you creative and gives you a place to share your work and ask questions. Don’t worry if you’re a bit shy, there are plenty of people who love helping out others in the hobby and it’s the best way to get direct information on your conundrum.
I use Facebook for this, having found the groups on there to be the best for hobbyists in most mediums. Just use the search bar and type in jewelry making or silversmithing and you’ll find dozens of results.
Smaller groups don’t necessarily mean they’re less active, look at the posts per day instead of just the amount of members.
If you’re the type who learns well from videos… well, you’re in luck. There are a dozen good teachers I can think of off the top of my head.
Watching someone do it is very helpful, and many of the teachers are people with decades of experience. You’d do well to learn from them.
I recommend skipping around and looking at different teachers until you find someone who has a style you like.
On that note, however, I would like to give a shout-out to “At the Bench” with Andrew Berry. He’s a good starting point with great information and my personal favorite. From there you can use the sidebar to find someone who’s perfectly suited for your learning style.
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