handmade jewelry & metalsmithing

Creating a More Natural, Chemical-Free Jewelry Studio

Jewelry Bench

Do you ever wonder if you really need something toxic-strength to do a simple job? As I moved my studio recently, I had to neutralize my pickling acid-creating a bubbling blue sludge volcano, mop up all traces of flux with a wearing a mask and gloves, and try not to chemically dissolve the carpet out of my new car, as I did last time I moved my studio.
So it got me thinking about switching to ingredients that are a little less harsh. My husband and I gave green cleaners a try for our home, as we hate smelling windex/pine sol/bleach. Yuck. So we gave vinegar, baking soda and borax a try. Wow. They have not let us down, and the savings are unbelievable. We even switched to pure glycerin soap, and now we don’t have to clean up soap scum from those other soaps.
But, it’s metal…it needs a really hardcore toxic action to do the job, right? Flux has got to stand up to torches that could reach 1500° to melt hard solder, and the pickling acid needs to be able to eat up the flux glass that forms on the metal. But I’m game, so I do a little research like a good librarian should, and here is how I work now:

Borax Flux

1. Flux: In blacksmithing, we used 20 Mule Team Borax to forge weld steel. An awesomely fun endeavor-as it bubbles and sprays hot molten stuff out when you smash it with your hammer. Waaaaayyy out! I used to love doing demos and watching people jump back! But anyway, British jewelers, and a lot here, use a cone of Borax that they grind into a dish (looks like a mortar and pestle) with a little water. The Borax in the box maybe isn’t so finely ground, so I pulverized it a little with the back of a spoon, and put it into a little jar with water. Accustomed to using handy flux, I will tell you the main differences: you will have to shake it , stir it and apply it fairly quickly-the borax and the water separate. If you had thrown away your solder pick because your flux stuck like glue-go get one-you’ll need it. It can bubble and jostle all your pieces around until you get a feel for the mixture. It also helps to wait a little for it to dry, which is the opposite of working with handy flux. Also different, is that you can get it all over your piece to prevent oxidation, then still control your solder flow with the torch and solder pick. If you don’t have one, I have always used the needle tool from my clay-working tools. The wood-handled ones for soldering metal where always to bulky and bendy in my experience. Advantages of Borax: easily available from the laundry aisle of your supermarket for around $5 a box. That means borax is about $1 per pound, handy flux is about $11 per pound. Commercial fluxes contain fluorides, potassium and hydroxide. You don’t want to breathe their fumes or let them touch your skin. Borax is naturally derived sodium tetraborate-the only dangers it warns you of is not to eat it or put it in your eyes. You still don’t want to breathe the soldering fumes (solder, carbon monoxide), but think of it this way–you can wash your clothes in it. It’s not scary.

Pickling Acid

2. Pickling Acid: There’s a lot of ways to pickle-sulfuric acid, sodium bisulfate, sparex, pool chemicals. And then you are responsible for neutralizing and ethically disposing of your sludge. Not to mention that you are going to be breathing some amount of it, as a big puff of steam escapes each time you raise the lid. My first alternative solution was to try Citric Acid. This can also be found at your supermarket (well, maybe your more country-ish supermarket. Food City, not Kroger) in the canning and pickling section. Also at sporting goods/outdoorsman stores with the sausage-making/meat preserving items. I used a mixture of 2 cups water (16oz) and added 3 oz. citric acid. Always add acid to water. They also say you can use 1 cup white vinegar with 1 tsp-1 tbsp of salt. But guess what-it will stink like a pot of simmering vinegar all the time. I’ve found that the citric acid has excellent results, comparable to chemicals, and is still going strong now that it’s a month old. Just add water as the water level lowers. There’s still a lot of granules floating around the bottom, but nothing funky is growing and it has no smell. It costs about $5 for 5oz. Which will make a couple batches. I worked out the cost difference to be about $2 to make a quart with either chemical or natural pickle. But the citric acid won’t eat through your clothes. It’s citric acid, as in sour candy, lemons-stuff you know. The chemical pickles have a long list of warnings-each one ending with “seek medical attention.”

Hand Torches

3. Torches: There are a lot of ways to spend a lot of money to get a simple flame. My first torch was my most expensive-an acetylene cylinder. It cost about $90-filled, I got $40 back when I turned in the empty cylinder 6 years later. The Smith hoses, regulator, handset and assortment of tips were well over $300. Of course I loved it-worth every penny. The best set up for working a range of sizes. But somehow I got over having to be responsible for that cylinder of gas-driving it in my car when I move, carrying that behemoth up flights of stairs, knowing that it could be potentially disastrous in a house fire. I was kind of relieved when it ran out, and I decided to explore other options. So, what’s actually legal to have in your home? A disposable propane cylinder, not a grilling size tank. They can even be recycled http://www.bernzomatic.com/green-key/green-key-english.aspx I use the Bernzomatic TS 4000T Trigger Start hand torch, which is about $35 at your hardware store. The propane fuel cylinders are about $2, and last me several months using them pretty heavily. You can do anything with this flame, and it is much cleaner than the acetylene-no black on your piece and it’s a nice heat. It was priceless when I had concrete floors, space, and a ventilation hood. But in a smaller area with windows and fans, it set off my carbon monoxide detector after soldering. So use it outside if you don’t have a big, well ventilated setup. I purchased the Bernzomatic Butane Micro Torch Kit at a hardware store for $25, that is filled with butane. At about $4 for 5.5 oz, I have refilled it twice and haven’t run out yet. It’s a lovely little flame to work with. However, I prefer the propane hand torch -the large neutral flame is perfect for enveloping your piece to prevent firescale. The butane flame is burning bright blue and pointy (oxidizing)-so you’ll want to coat your piece with flux, or have a terrible cleanup ahead of you. I do appreciate it’s adjustable flame, otherwise it really might be useless in soldering with thaIt has its limits, you will not be doing large pieces with this flame, and if you try, the tip will melt at extended periods of high heat. But it’s very convenient for findings, which was risky business with the large non-adjustable flame of the propane torch. I like having them both.

Dremel Stylus

4. Rotary Tool: My Grobet FlexShaft tool is indispensable. I need it to drill, to grind, to sand and polish. But when you have an old house with no nearby grounded plugs- you don’t want to blow a fuse, or fry your over $200 investment. So , I decided to try the Dremel Stylus-again, from a hardware store around $70. I picked up additional collets (quick change assorted pack-$7) so I could use my jeweler’s drill bits and flex shaft bits. And it works like a dream. It sits on a charging station, so it is cordless, but always ready to go. And to me, the greatest advantage is that it comes with instructions for which speed settings to use for which bits and materials-drilling metal, buffing with a felt wheel, grinding. The speeds correspond to the rpm, which allow you to use precisely the right speed for your bit. My polishing results are more reliable now that I’m at a steady speed rather than using a foot pedal. But be careful, if something catches, the off button is near the bit (bad design choice). It’s much more comfortable to use, being cordless and lightweight is a nice bonus. I hate that Dremel is made in China though-Grobet and Foredom FlexShafts are made in the US. But this is an affordable, capable, compact alternative to a flexshaft.

Bench and Anvil

5. Work Area: My jeweler’s bench is surrounded on 3 sides by open windows. A fan gives a nice cross breeze, and the natural light is so much better for my eyes. Although, I do have to sometimes draw the blinds to make it dim enough to watch my flame. I always wear a 3M P100 respirator (vapors and particulate) when I’m soldering or using chemicals. And a regular dust mask when I’m sanding, sawing or polishing.

Window View

6. Preventing Eyestrain: I always wear safety glasses, but how do I keep my eyes strong when I spend hours squinting at tiny objects? You must periodically take breaks to focus on something far away. Now I can look out the window at my vegetable patch, and combine that with the sounds of the birds and the fresh air, and I really don’t mind that it is hot…so verrrry hot in Tennessee! I hope this gave you some inspiration about how you can be more natural in your workshop. It’s safer and more economic, and generally we can be more creative when we are more minimalist in our processes. Pare your studio down to the basics that you understand, and you can be more comfortable and intuitive about what’s happening in there.

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9 responses

  1. Cat

    Thank you! This is helpful information and the photos are so valuable.

    November 20, 2012 at 9:49 p11

  2. I’m really excited about the pickle solution! I’m just starting to set up a soldering station, so finding this was good timing. I wanted to ask though, does the torch head for the propane tank attach directly to the tank? It seems bulky that way, I was wondering if it’s hard to maneuver.

    December 19, 2012 at 9:49 p12

    • Thanks! I love the propane torch best of all. With practice, you can easily get accustomed to the areas of the flame that are best for specific purposes. It is very comfortable to use and lasts for months without a refill due to the size of the fuel cylinder. The flame is so large that you need room, but it is very easy to handle.

      December 24, 2012 at 9:49 p12

  3. Thanks a million! I am allergic to a lot of chemicals and my studio is my home, so butane, vinegar and salt are my only friends now. If someone can find a greener alternative to Muriatic acid, I’ll be in Heaven!

    January 6, 2014 at 9:49 p01

  4. jasmineandviolets

    I love this article super helpful, I was thinking about how long time ago in 1997 lol when I first started working with metal nobody used non toxic anything.

    So glad we have these simple easy to make alternatives.

    I reposted this article you wrote on my blog

    June 5, 2015 at 9:49 p06

  5. This was a great read and I was very interested in your explanation of going from acetylene to propane. My ex left behind his mini propane, plumbers torch and a, what I call, creme brulee torch. All the classes I’ve been in use acetylene and I’ve been feeling like I should graduate! But I’m happy with my setup and I, too, like having both.

    June 9, 2015 at 9:49 p06

    • Y’know- the creme brulee torch can do a whole lot, as long as your pieces are around 1″ or less. My only complaint is that I’ll have to stop and refill it once in awhile. Did I mention that all my metals classmates were super impressed by the old pro who only used a plumbers handtorch because it was cheap and portable. It’s nice not always changing tips- I had too many acetlyene tips. I never miss the garlicky acetlyene odor. I worry less about explosion. I’m cool with my husband using my torches for his own purposes without a safety lecture. There’s a lot of advantages to mainstream/hardware store style torches!

      June 10, 2015 at 9:49 p06

  6. Jane

    And you don’t have to annoy landlords : )

    June 11, 2015 at 9:49 p06

  7. Thank you so much for writing this, great information. I am an intermediate jewelry student and was looking for information on how to start my own jewelry “studio” at home and this has helped me a lot. Thank you 🙂

    December 24, 2015 at 9:49 p12

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