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Know your Metal
Metal smith work involves working with a variety of metals. The metal you create with is completely up to you. It is important to understand the properties of metal before you begin your project. Copper, Brass, Silver and Zinc are often used and all have different makeups with different melting temperatures.
All metal sheet and wire is available in different thicknesses. It is measured in terms of a scale called the Brown Sharpe (B&S) gauge system. The numbers run from 0 being the thickest to the thinnest at 36. Jewelry is typically made from 18 to 26 gauge metal.
Copper is a less expensive metal and easy to work with due to its malleability. It is a good metal to practice new techniques as you work up to the more expensive metals. Copper can be sawn, bent, and soldered with silver solder. Copper is very susceptible to firescale is usually cleaned after heating. The melting point of copper is 1981ºF.
Sterling Silver is a made up of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. The mixture is why Sterling is often marked "925.” Most Silver jewelry is Sterling Silver. Similiar to copper, it is very soft and can be sawn, cut, and bent. Because of the copper alloy it will develop firescale when it is heated or annealed and must be cleaned after firing. The melting point of Sterling Silver is 1640ºF.
Fine Silver is the purest form of Silver. It is unalloyed and the whitest of all metals. It is the most malleable. Because it does not contain copper, it is resistant to firescale. Fine Silver has a melting point of 1761ºF.
Zinc, often referred to as nickel silver or german silver, is an alloy of 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc. It is a strong alloy and resistant to oxidation. However, it takes on a dull grayish color, making it less appealing than silver. Some people are allergic to zinc, which make it less favorable to use for jewelry. It is a good metal for beginners to practice designs and techniques. The melting point of zinc is 1960º F.
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. The proportions vary according to the type of brass. Jeweler's Brass is an alloy of 85% copper and 15% zinc. It's also known as red brass, NuGold, Jeweler’s Bronze or Merlin’s Gold. This alloy is a good color match to 14K yellow gold. When soldering brass, a brass solder wire or paste will be a good color match to jeweler's brass. The melting point of jeweler's brass is 1810º to 1880º F.
When soldering or mixing metals, pay close attention to the melting temperatures. Metals are joined by solder. In jewelry making, hard solder is used to hold joins and flows at 1450º F. Easy solder, which is also used, flows at 1325º F. It is very important to plan the order of your soldering. Metal and solder with high melting temperatures should be the first steps in your project, followed by those materials with lower melting temperatures.
There are many more metals to experiment with, such as aluminum, steel and other alloys using precious metals. Copper, silver, brass and zinc are excellent metals to start with if you are new to jewelry making. Experiment and enjoy!
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