This page will teach you how to make one of the simplest possible sterling silver pendant designs incorporating a stone within a soldered setting. 20 years into making a living as a silversmith, I still find myself occasionally returning to this basic design for some cabachons. Its primary advantage, compared to more complex settings, is that the resulting pendant is all about the stone. Some pieces of artwork just don't need fancy frames, and some stones just don't need a lot of ornamentation around them! It is simple, elegant, and a great place to start if you want to learn jewelry making. This project will introduce basic tools and materials and the basic process of cutting, bending, and soldering sterling silver.
You will need to start by selecting cabachon for setting. A 'cabachon' (cab for short), is a bit of rock or mineral cut in a low, domed shape with a flat back, specifically for setting into a cup, called a bezel, in a jewelry or other ornamental design. This simple pendant starts with a basic cabachon. It doesn't have to be turquoise. Just about any type of stone will do, but it will be easier if you start with a stone smaller than a nickel, but not much smaller than a dime. Making settings for larger stones is much harder, and making settings for smaller stones is a little bit harder. You can find cabachons at gem shows, from local lapidaries (stone cutters) in your region, through various sellers on the internet, or through online or storefront jewelry supply companies such as Rio Grande Jeweler's Supply, who I will be referencing for several of the chemicals and tools used in this project.
If you are a beginner, select a cabachon that is somewhere around 15 to 25 mm in its largest diameter. This means not much larger than a US nickel or smaller than a US dime. Settings of this type can be constructed for objects with a wide range of shapes and sizes, but cabs in this size range are the easiest to work with. Don't start with something terribly expensive. When you first start out doing silver work, you will occasionally damage both metal and stones.
The first task is to construct the bezel itself. The term 'bezel' means several different things. In this instance, it refers to a thin, upright strip of malleable fine (.999) silver that will surround the stone and mechanically hold it in place. The term 'fine' or '.999' silver refers to silver that is 99.9% pure. It is much softer than sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure. This is why it is used to construct the bezel. The soft, fine silver wire will be bent down when we are done, in order to hold the stone in the setting. Silver bezel wire typically comes in a spool, and can be purchased either by weight or length. The material used in this illustration is 1/8 inch (3.18 mm) by 28 guage 'Plain Strip' (item # 101-001 in the 2014 Rio Grande catalog). Various types of fancier bezel materials can be purchased if you prefer.
To form the bezel, lay the stone flat on a flat table or bench surface, and wrap the wire around the stone. The length of the bezel wire should be about 1 mm or so greater that the circumfrance of the stone. I typically mark the point where the wire overlaps itself using a snap knife, because it creates a very precise line, but many people use a fine tipped marker or a sharp scribe. This is a matter of preference. Cut the bezel on the line that you have marked, making sure that both ends are square, meaning very straight and perpendicular to the length of the wire. A good cut, with the ends matched together, is shown below. I use a pair of sharpened tin snips to do this kind of cutting, but most people use a bench or shop shears. Bench shears are a basic jewelry making tool, and a wide variety are available through jewelry supply and tool companies. The edge of your shears must not be serrated. After cutting the bezel wire to the appropriate length, bend it gently to get the ends of the wire to match very precisely, as shown below, for soldering. Don't worry too much about the shape of the bezel at this point. After yous solder the seam, you can simply drop it over the cabachon in order to shape it precisely to the stone.
To solder the bezel, you will use 'hard' (.75) solder. The term 'hard, refers to a high melting temperature solder. 'medium' (.70) melts at a little lower temperature, and 'easy' or 'EZ' (.65) melts at an even lower temperature. Solders with different melting temperatures are used for different processes in jewelry work in order to avoid melting your solder out of a previous seam when reheating the piece for a subsequent soldering step. Hard is the highest temperature solder commonly used. We are using it here because melting the solder out of a bezel seam is a very common cause of cussing at the bench, and using the higher temperature solder gives us a degree of insurance. In the picture below, I've laid the bezel on a non-asbestos brazing board, with the seam sitting directly on a tiny snippet of hard solder, applied a drop of flux to the seam, and heated it with a propane torch until the flux has 'flashed', meaning it has dried and turned to a white powder or crust. Different jewelers prefer different fluxes, but they all really perform pretty similarly. I prefer a product called Cupronil. Handy Flux is also popular. I apply flux with an eye dropper, but many people prefer a brush.
Always wear eye protection, appropriate respiratory protection, such as a dust, mist, fume respirator mask, and dense cotton weaves or other fire resistant clothing when using the torch. Nylon and many other synthetic fibers ignite easily and spread flames quickly. Worse yet, they can stick to the skin when burning, making otherwise ordinary burns into potentially life changing tragedies. Bench safety is easy, but only if you take the time to consistently practice it.
Also, do not leave the stone or flammable/meltable materials anywhere near the flame when soldering. A sudden flash of 2000 to 3000 degree (F) air may not immediately destroy some stones, but then again, it might. After 20 years at the bench, I've got a very oddly shaped pair of scissors and a permanently numb area on a thumb from moments of inattention. Respect the torch as if your life and property depends upon your professionality in handling it, because it does. A burn from a propane torch is very different from the kinds of burns one receives while cooking. Never, ever, opperate a torch at your jeweler's bench in anything but a state of absolute clarity and awareness.
After flashing the flux, heat the bezel gently with the torch, keeping the flame always in motion in order to heat the piece evenly. If you heat the piece unevenly, uneven expansion may cause the metal to deform, opening the seam that you are trying to solder. When the solder flows, it will do so abruptly, most likely completely filling the seam.
After the solder flows to fill the seam, let the bezel cool. Then pick it up with your fingers or with tweezers, and drape it over the stone. By pushing it down gently over the stone, on a flat surface, you can fine tune the shape of the bezel wire to the shape of the cabachon. I often use the flat, outer surface of a pair of pliers to gently shape the bezel to the stone. Be sure that you don't bend the top of the bezel down over the stone. At this point, you want the wire standing straight up. The picture below shows the bezel fitted to the stone after soldering, and the square tipped pliers that I sometimes use as a gentle shaping tool during this step. You may notice that the bezel wire is very soft and flexible at this point. The heating and rapid cooling from the soldering has 'annealed' the bezel wire, making it 'dead soft', so you have to be a little bit careful to avoid bending it in ways that you do not want.
The next step is to make the plate, or back plate, of the setting. For this, we will use a piece of 26 gauge sterling silver sheet. Typically, every part of a piece of silver jewelry except for the fine silver (.999) bezel is made of sterling silver (.925). Sterling silver is stronger offers better wear characteristics - holding a polish, keeping its shape, and protecting the stone more effectively than fine silver. We use fine silver for the bezel wire only for its maleability, since it will be bent and compressed, later, to permanently hold the stone in place.
Twenty-six gauge sheet is a good choice for a stone in this size range. If the stone is larger than about 25 to 30 mm in diameter, I will typically use 24 gauge for the plate in order to add strength and to resist deformation during heating. For very large stones, larger than 50 to 60 mm or so in diameter, I may use 22 gauge sheet. I seldom use anything lighter than 26 gauge or heavier than 22 gauge for the plate, as this is the structural backbone of the piece. Another quick tip: I like to write the gauge of a piece of metal directly on my sheet when it arrives at the shop, as shown below. This avoids confusion later if various materials are stored together. I do the same thing with sheet solder of different temperatures. Then ink from the marker disappears the instant the metal is heated.
To cut the metal for my plate, I typically set the bezeled stone directly on the silver sheet, mark a line around it, giving myself a little extra metal to work with, and then cut the plate out of the sheet with my bench shears. It is quick and easy. Note that I've drawn a square around my bezeled stone instead of following its rounded shape. Cutting straight lines keeps me from bending the remaining sheet during cutting, meaning I don't have to later straighten an unneccesarily damaged piece of metal. You'll cut away a little more metal, later, as scrap, if you do it this way, but you can use scrap in other projects. I find it more efficient in the long term. I've probably left a little more extra metal here than is strictly necessary.
Jump ahead to the section where I talk about putting a 'Sterling' stamp on the plate, and decide if you want to do it now or later. If you want to do it now, draw some orientation marks on the metal to assist with aligning the mark upright and towards the center or bottom-back of the plate. Flip the plate, put it directly on a flat steel surface, align the stamp, and then give it a good tap with a hammer. I suggest practicing on scrap first.
Next, you will want to solder the bezel to the plate. There are people who perform this step with the bezel and plate sittng directly on a non-asbestos brazing board, as we did with closing the bezel seam, but I think it is much easier if you are using a soldering screen. A soldering screen is a screen of steel mesh that is raised on some sort of support so that it hovers above your work surface. This allows you to move the torch around the piece that you are soldering, heating from above, below, or from the sides if you prefer. Nice tripod soldering stands are available through Rio Grande and other jeweler's supply companies, and sections of screens of varying weights are also available seperately. 'Soldering Tripod Kit with Steel Screens' is available as item #502-085 in the 2015 Rio Grande catalog. Mine is makeshift, composed of welding mesh, a C-clamp, and a piece of an old sifting tray. I've made several thousand pieces of jewelry on it, and prefer several things about it, but it is not superior to the 'real' thing. Do NOT use a galvanized screen for soldering. The fumes produced upon heating are toxic,
There are several reasons for using a soldering stand and screen. The thin metal of the bezel can melt or slump during subsequent torch work, or the solder can melt out of the seam that you created when you closed the bezel. Heating from both below and above lets you heat the piece with more control, avoiding these problems.
To perform the soldering operation, Put on your safety equipment, center the bezel on the plate and put it on the screen. Apply flux to the seam between the bezel and plate [A], and heat gently with the torch until it boils to a white powder or scale [B], then stop. Place snippets of EZ (.65) solder, cut from a sheet of solder, at 2 or 3 places along the inner wall of the bezel. I've used 2 in the picture shown [C]. Heat from below with the torch, keeping the flame constantly in motion. Watch closely, and when the solder begins to flow or slump, or when you think it is about to, bring the torch to the top of the piece and apply heat from the top, moving the torch in a circular motion or 'painting' the piece with the flame. You will see the solder flow and fill the gap. If the solder stops flowing before the seam is closed, it is far more challenging to complete the task, so it is best not to pull the torch away until it is done. As soon as the seam is closed, pull the torch away, and turn off the torch. Though intimidating at first, with a little practice, this is pretty easy.
Pickle is a chemical used to remove the remnants of flux and discoleration of the metal produced during soldering. To prepare your pickle, follow the instructions on the package. The pickle product that I use is the 'Rio Pickle for Nonferrous Metals.' Most people use their pickle hot because it works faster, but pickle will work just fine at any temperature above freezing, though you may need to leave your piece in the pickel overnight to get it clean at lower temperatures. You will need copper tongs to remove your work from the pickle. It is not necessary to pickle the piece at any point priot to this, but you must pickle it now for both functional and safety reasons. If you cut or file a piece of metal that has 'glassed' flux on it from soldering, you will fill the air with a cloud of microscopic irritating glassy dust particles.
After you remove your work from soaking in the pickle, use bench shears to trim excess silver away from the outer edge of the bezel. Take it slow and be careful. If you cut into the bezel, the piece is scrap, and you will have to start over. Having to start over is no big deal... its just annoying. Once you have trimmed away the excess metal, the component that you are left with is called a 'bezel cup.'
While you are at it, cut a piece of 12 gauge half round wire that is about 1 inch (about 2.5 cm) long. You will be using this as your bail in a future step. A 'bail' is the loop that a pendant hangs from.
It is kind of nice to have a piece of scrap leather on your bench as a work surface during this sort of process, as it gives you a comfortable place to rest your knuckles and makes it easy to pick up scraps and filings to dump in a silver scrap container for eventual use or trade in. You will see scrap leather behind my work a lot, as I make this a habit in order to make my job easier.
Using a basterd file, put a taper on one end of the piece of 12 guage half round as shown below. When the piece of wire is soldered to the back of the pendant a few steps ahead, this taper will ensure that there is no rough or sharp spot where the bail connects to the setting. Tapering the end of the bail should just require drawing it down the file a couple of times with a little pressure.
Next, file the edge of the trimmed bezel cup until it is neat and smooth. I hold the file firmly in place for this step, and draw the bezel cup against it, rather than trying to hold the cup and move the file. It is much easier. You will probably find an angle and motion that is comfortable for you fairly quickly. Remove any remaining lip of metal from the base plate, but be sure that you don't file through the bezel wall.
Next, see if your stone fits the cup. If it doesn't, due to shrinkage of the cup during soldering, trim the stone slightly using either the file or a cheap diamond knife-sharpening stone, depending upon the hardness of the stone. If you are working with a hard stone, and need a diamond stone to trim it, wet the surface of the sharpening stone to extend its life. If you force the stone into a tight bezel cup, you may not get it out without destroying your work, but a bit of sticky bee's wax can often be used to pluck a stuck stone from a bezel cup. When the stone will rest easily in the cup, hold the piece up, and mark the top and bottom to indicate the direction it will hang. This will guide the placement of your bezel. It is surprisingly easy to put a bail on a pendant at an odd angle, and moving the bail once it is soldered down is much harder than just getting it right the first time by taking the time to mark your line. Flip the bezel, and use a straight edge to connect your top and bottom marks to make an orientation line across the back of the stone.
Working on your non-asbestos brazing board, place a small chip of easy (.65) solder at the point where the attachment will be made. Rest the end of the 12 guage half round wire that you put a taper on directly on the solder, as shown, overlapping the bail onto the pendant by at least 3/16 inch or so (about 5 to 7 mm). I like to put a slight bend in the bail, so that it rests flat on the pendant while the other end is resting on the soldering pad surface.
You can use a nickel to pin the piece in place while soldering it. US nickels are still made of nickel at this writing, so work well for this, but do not use pennies, as they are zinc, and can combust.
Use your safety equipment, flash the flux, reposition anything that moved when the flux flashed, and then apply the heat evenly and slowly. For this operation, you will need to keep the heat largely on the pendant itself, and less-so on the bail. Small pieces of metal with large surface areas heat up much quicker than large, flat masses of silver. If you don't weigh down the end of the bezel with a coin, as shown, you may find that it jumps out of place when the solder flows; a problem that is both frustrating and hard to fix once it occures.
While I'm not going into a lot of refined technique tips in this article, I'll point out that many smiths prefer to always handle their torch in their off hand (your left hand if you are right-handed), leaving their dominant hand free to operate torch controls and handle a small pick with which to push things around and make fine adjustments during soldering. I use this practice exclusively, and suggest it to all students.
Once you've soldered the bail in place, hold the piece up and check on the orientatin of the bail. If it is lined up extremely poorly, you can set the piece up exactly as before, and with the nickel in place to keep the bail from jumping around, heat it just until the bail can be moved. You can use a steel or titanium pick to push it slightly. Attempts at repairs like this don't always work, and sometimes you just wind up with scrap. If this happens, breath, and start over.
To put your sterling stamp on the back of the pendant, you'll need an ordinary hammer, a 'Sterling' stamp, and something to support the plate of the bezel while stamping. One of the simplest solutions that I have seen for backing the metal while stamping is to drive a large-headed nail or spike deeply into a heavy block of wood. You can rest the bezel cup over the nail head, align the stamp how you like it, and then while holding both the pendant and stamp in place, tap the stamp once, lightly but firmly, with a hammer. I use a construction spike welded to the side of a small anvil as a stamping surface, though the most elegant solution that I have seen, by far, is a plier like device that is used to 'press' the stamp into the metal. I suggest practicing on scrap first. Though you will have much less control over placement and alignment of the stamp, you can also just stamp the back of the plate with it resting on a flat steel surface before you solder the bezel to it. I've mentioned this possibility earlier in this text. The photo below shows the stamped pendant, the sterling stamp, and an ordinary hammer. This process really doesn't require any special equipment.
Using round-nosed pliers, roll the bail forward to create a loop as shown below. I've shown the flat nosed pliers below as well, because I sometimes use them to give a slight backward bend to the bail before rolling it into a loop, though it isn't strictly necessary. The round nosed pliers that are shown here have been blunted per my personal preference, meaning I've shortened the tip, so they may look a little different from ones you purchase or own. Over time, jewelers and other metal workers tend to steadily alter their tools.
Pickel the pendant again thoroughly.
At this point, the metalwork is complete. All we need to do is polish the metal and set te stone. Most people use a buffing machine with a rag wheel and abrasive compound to accomplish polishing. Since I am teaching this introductory piece with the absolute minimum of tools, I've done this one with nothing more than 1500 grit sandpaper and a polishing cloth. Twenty years ago, when I first started making jewelry, I finished somewhere between my first 50 and first 100 pieces with nothing more than this basic equipment. It works just fine. I'll discuss other methods of polishing in future articles.
Sand every surface of the piece to a smooth, shiny finish with your sandpaper. Even very fine sandpaper will leave a slightly brushed finish on the surface, composed of microscopic scratches. Try to the leave each surface with all of the sanding scratches going the same direction. Once you have a bright, sanded surface over the entire piece, polih it thoroughly with an ordinary silver polishing cloth. You don't have to get it 100% perfect. You will be polishing it a bit more after you have set the stone.
Traditional setting of a stone requires only two tools: sawdust and a bezel pusher or bezzel roller. I use a bezel roller exclusively, and have no idea why bezel pushers even exist. The sawdust provides a cushion behind the stone and raises the stone to an optimal height. The preferred sawdust is fine grained hardwood of the sort that comes from a bandsaw. It is important that it is very dry. You can get this from woodworkers.
Lacking sawdust, people have used all sorts of things to raise stones to a convenient height. Layers of acid free paper would not be a bad choice, but adhesives are not a good idea. The stone is not glued in, and using glue eliminates the possibility of future repairs, in addition to doing nothing to raise the level of the stone to an appropriate height.
A cabachon is, by definition, a stone that is cut with a flat back and beveled sides rising to a domed top. The slope of the sides is what allows the stone to be permanently fixed into the setting. We used fine silver for the bezel wire rim specifically in order to make this possible. A bed of sawdust is placed in the bezel cup, the stone sits on top of it, and then the bezel roller is used to push the bezel down over the rim of the stone. The tapered sides of the cab allow the bezel to roll down over a portion of the upper surface of the stone, capturing it within the setting. The sawdust allows for some compression behind the stone, creating a tighter setting. By varying the thickness of the sawdust bed, you can raise or lower the stone in the setting. Below, I've filled the setting about 1/3 deep with sawdust, and gently smoothed it to an even surface. It is worth taking significant care in preparing the bed, and doing it over more than once if necessary, in order to get the stone seated nicely. Until you lay the bezel down over the stone, you can use a sticky bee's wax stick to remove the stone from the setting without disturbing the bed.
Once you've got the stone set in the bezel cup at a depth you like, the bezel roller is used to press the bezel down over the edge of the stone. I typically use a rolling or rocking motion with the tool, pinning down sections on opposite sides of the stone before working my way around the stone in a circular fashion. This step is pretty easy, but deserves care and patience. You don't want to slip and mess things up at the last minute, but you don't have to do this very many times in order to really get the hang of it. Close the bezel firmly all the away around the cabachon.
After you've close your bezel, you can polish the piece more thoroughly with you polishing cloth. The polishing cloth that I've used here is a 'Sunshine' cloth from Rio Grande.
Thats pretty much it! The best way to learn is to patiently work at it a little at a time, and don't be afraid to screw up! Few things in life go perfect at first, and you can always use your scrap to make other things. One more thing: Always us your safety equipment!