Mixed Metals: Tips for Soldering Copper to Silver and More

20 Nov 2011

by Lexi Erickson

 
Lexi's fun mixed-metal hearts in copper, brass, and silver.

It's like Oreos and milk or, for me, green chile and tortillas. Some things just go together. And so it is with silver and copper. Copper and its alloys really warm up the whiteness of pure silver, and I love combining the two in my jewelry. As I've said before, copper, I do believe, is my favorite metal. Nothing else hammers so beautifully, takes those gorgeous patinas, and accepts textures as well. Unfortunately, those who think "real jewelry" is only silver, platinum, or gold have not always given copper the respect it deserves; yet if the prices for silver and gold stay up so high, copper and copper-alloy jewelry will be seen more and more, especially in fun art jewelry.

 

Mixed metals at their finest, David Huang's copper vessel features gold-lined copper patina with a sterling ring on the edge.

If you have ever doubted the beauty of copper, take a look at David Huang's copper vessels. They are some of the most stunningly gorgeous metal art I have ever seen. If you think copper is a poor cousin to other metals, boy, you should see his work!

Copper has had a rough reputation when it comes to soldering. Sure, plumbers have been soldering it for decades, but the esthetics of soldering copper plumbing and a seamless joint are not a consideration, whereas we usually want extremely clean solder joins in our jewelry. Many jewelry artists think this is close to impossible. Not so.

Soldering Copper: Keep It Clean
The whole trick to being able to solder copper well is that with copper and its alloys, cleanliness is probably the most important rule. Copper, brass, and bronze have been repeatedly called "nasty metals," and that name is well earned. They oxidize rapidly when the torch is just touched to the metal, and it happens very quickly. It's important that your metal is clean of any residue and fingerprints. Always scrub your metal clean with Dawn detergent and a green kitchen scrubber, with wet-or-dry sandpaper, or 9-micron 3M finishing film. If your metal is textured, scrub with a brass brush, soap, and pumice, making sure you get in all those little crevices of texture. It is important that the water sheets off the copper.

 
Lexi's student Darcel Shelman solders copper onto silver.
Soldering Copper: Flux, Flux, Flux
Another huge tip is to use Prip's flux, available from most jewelry-supply stores. This specially formulated pinkish liquid flux is a godsend when soldering copper. Purchase a small empty spray bottle, fill it with the flux, and keep it on your bench just for copper soldering. After you clean your metal, spray a thin coat on the metal and let it dry; then spray on another thin coat and begin to heat your piece with the torch. If you are doing a bezel, be sure the bezel has been sprayed, also. Crank up the heat a bit and work fairly fast, because the longer you dawdle, the quicker the oxides will build up and the flux will burn off, no longer protecting the metal.

 
Lexi's silver Shaman figure with an etched copper overlay.
Silver Solder on Copper?
I'll answer one of the most asked questions readers write: Yes, I use silver solder and silver bezel on everything copper. Copper solder and copper bezel both oxidize rapidly and can create a real mess, so I use easy solder almost exclusively on all my copper work. Extra easy will work, too. (The reason we don't use extra easy on silver is because it leaves a yellowish line, which will show up a few weeks after soldering, unless you patina the piece.) If your soldering is neat, you will never see that silver line of solder. If a silver bezel on a piece of copper bothers you, then throw a nail or a piece of binding wire into a small cup of pickle; it will copperplate your bezel and also copperplate any offending solder.

 
sweat soldering
Soldering a Copper Overlay
If you're doing an overlay, it works well to sweat-solder the back of the top piece (meaning to melt some solder on the back of the top piece) and then pickle. Scrub it with Dawn and a scrubber, and then lay it onto the backplate, but remember to spray some Prip's flux between the layers. Then spray a coating of Prip's flux over the entire piece. Crank up the torch and go in really fast.

When doing an overlay in copper and sterling silver, it may be easier to solder silver onto copper as you are practicing. Copper has a higher melting point (1,984°F) than silver has at 1,640°F. If you are soldering copper onto sterling silver, you may overheat the sterling and the copper will sink into it. It can be done quite successfully, but watch for the softening of the silver; if it starts to look molten, pull back with the torch and let it cool before going back in.

 
In all my years of teaching I have found many teachers who tell students to stay away from copper because it is so fussy. Nope, not me; I say "Go for it!" Practice, experiment, and sacrifice a little metal in the name of learning. It's not that expensive, and you can afford to play around with it. Silver was only $4 an ounce when I was starting out, so it took me some time to get around to experimenting with copper. But I've learned what a giving (and forgiving) and gorgeous metal it is.

Now go get some copper, take a deep breath, and solder something. So what if it melts (and it will take a lot of heat!). Just breathe. It's only metal. Have fun! --Lexi

To learn more about soldering from Lexi, check out her second new soldering video, Metalsmith Essentials: How to Solder Jewelry Vol. 2. Pre-order the DVD or if you can't wait (who can blame you?) download it instantly (also in HD). 


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Comments

on 12 Jan 2012 2:10 PM

I'm with you--I LOVE to work with copper, but many jewelry buyers are very wary.  Copper with silver is a beautiful solution.....thanks so much!!

on 12 Jan 2012 2:24 PM

Thanks.  This is one of my favorite posts. So many people are afraid of copper, Im glad yu are enjoying it.--Lexi

Niecer wrote
on 4 Mar 2012 10:03 AM

Lexi, I love your articles on soldering and your jewelry.  I scanned the 10 part series from my magazines so I can refer to them (often).  I took a beginner's workshop last year at the Appalachian Craft Center to start soldering and your articles have answered numerous questions I've had since.  Two months ago I etched a piece of copper with the thought to try to fill in some of the spaces with silver solder.   Today I am sitting at my bench waiting for Pripps to dry and feeling nervous, so I googled soldering silver to copper and I'm glad I did.  You're right.  It's just metal and I've procrastinated long enough.  So, I'm breathing and ready to have some fun, come what may.  Denise

on 4 Mar 2012 7:06 PM

Hi Denise--Good luck with the piece and let me know how it turns out.  Im glad you like my articles. I have such a good time writing them.    Yes, LOL--its only metal and if you mess it up, so what.  You can try it again.  I once had a well known surgeon as one of my students, and he said  that when he made a mistake, people died. It sure put everything in perspective for me!  So go for it, girl, have fun, and if you mess up, you don't have ago have to have a funeral for it, its only metal!

Katelynne wrote
on 11 Mar 2012 9:24 AM

After soldering silver to copper, do I just pickle the whole piece? My copper looks REALLY funky. I've done plenty of silver soldering but this is my first time soldering silver/copper.

on 11 Mar 2012 10:37 AM

Hi Katelynne--yes your cooper will look very funky, but its ok.  Brush it with Dawn detergent and Barkeepers Friend or pumice and a brass brush.  You will bring the color back to it.  It solders a bit differently, but its not difficult.  It just looks like a weird color.  Let me know how it looks after you brass brush it.  Good luck.--Lexi

Niecer wrote
on 24 Mar 2012 11:15 AM

Hey Lexi, I was so concerned about using too much solder and having to file the excess off, that I didn't use enough to fill in the etched spots completely.  I tried sanding down the top by hand but the piece would have been a sliver to get it flush.  So what do you do?  Well, I'm no professional, so I put it on the bench block upside down and hit it with a hammer.  I mean it's an experiment, right?  Well, it actually worked.  Unfortunately I can't add a photo with the comment, for you to see what I was attempting, but I did learn a few things (and no one died in the process).  Thanks, again, and I look forward to your next article!

Denise

on 24 Mar 2012 12:20 PM

Denise--Congratulations!  There are many ways to do something, not just one way.  You may have invented a new technique.  I'm proud of you for keeping on with it until you were happy with it.  Send photos when you can.  Sending you a High 5!

Lexi

swani wrote
on 4 Apr 2012 12:27 PM

Hey, Lexi - great info!!  I suspect my flux is my biggest problem - it cooks away almost immediately, so the copper or brass oxidizes almost immediately, too.

Is it Prip's regular flux (not the self-pickling one)?

Thanks so much!

on 4 Apr 2012 3:49 PM

Hi Swani--Prips is a regular flux.  I prefer it for copper, though some jewelers use it for silver, too.  I've not been too happy withh it as a silver flux, so I have stuck with my white paste because its such a good temperature indicator.  But it is totally personal opinion.  I do put pieces I used Prip's Flux on  into a pickle after the solder has flowed.  The 'self pickling" fluxes only means that it helps keep the piece cleans as you are soldering, such as Prips keeps the metal really clean instead of allowing all that nasty oxidation to  occur. Pieces still need to go into the pickle after soldering  

swani wrote
on 4 Apr 2012 7:30 PM

Hi, Lexi - When I searched for Prip's flux, I discovered that, besides the "regular" flux, they make one specifically labelled "self-pickling," which also appears to be a different color than the pink-ish "regular," so thanks for clarifying which one you use.

Also, thanks for the tip about not using it with silver - which "white paste" flux do you use for silver?

Honee wrote
on 2 Oct 2012 5:52 PM

Lexi - your soldering techniques have served me well and I'm really beginning to get the hang of this!  thanks for all the articles and tips!

jodon1960 wrote
on 8 Nov 2012 8:37 AM

I recently purchased a gorgeous mixed metal pendant.  The primary metal is copper with silver designs soldered to it.  I just love it.  I have worked with silver for several years.  I took a few classes and just kept going on my own.  I have a micro torch.  It works awesome on silver.  I have a large plain copper cross and wanted to add some silver designs on it like the pendant I purchased.  I tried and the silver wouldn't solder onto the copper.  I read where I need to get some easy solder.  I need to do that.  I hate to get another torch.   Is there any way this one will work?  What do you suggest.    Jo

on 11 Nov 2012 10:36 AM

Hi Everyone--sorry, I must have missed some of these email questions.  Computer malfunction?  I wasn't notified when the questions came in.  Sorry

First,  Swani--I use Ultraflux which I get from Indian Jewelry supply  (ijsinc.com)  Ive been using the same white paste flux for years and like the way it works.  It really protect against firescale.  

Honee--Glad these tips are working for you. I'd love it if you sent me some pics of your work.  

Jodon--try getting some extra easy solder.  As it ages it turns a yellowish color,  which can match copper.   It's much easier to use than that horrible copper solder which oxidizes so rapidly when you heat it.  If you are soldering silver will with your small torch, this may be the answer.  Copper does take a lot of heat to solder, though.  Good luck.  Let me know how it goes.

Lexi

danpv wrote
on 16 Nov 2012 7:49 AM

Great helpful article Lexi.

I'm trying to solder sterling silver onto 18 gauge copper.  

Is Firescoff similar to Prip's flux?  I'm guessing that my little jumbo butane torch isn't enough firepower.  Would a regular propane torch from the hardware store be sufficient?  TIA -Dan

danpv wrote
on 16 Nov 2012 7:50 AM

Great helpful article Lexi.

I'm trying to solder sterling silver onto 18 gauge copper.  

Is Firescoff similar to Prip's flux?  I'm guessing that my little jumbo butane torch isn't enough firepower.  Would a regular propane torch from the hardware store be sufficient?  TIA -Dan

on 16 Nov 2012 11:53 AM

Hi Dan--thanks for writing--

Firescoff is a ceramic flux, and I don't know the formula for it. Prip's is especially formulated to keep copper clean while its being soldered.  I have tried Firescoff on copper, and found it to be a very good flux, but for cleanliness, I like Pripp's better. I have never really had a copper soldering failure with Prip's.  This may not answer your question, I know.  I have mixed Prip's and Firescoff together, and didn't have very good results. whereas I have mixed Firescoff and Ultrafllux, the white paste flux I use, and had great results.

As far as a propane torch from the hardware store is concerned, I guess you are talking Bernzomatic torches.  I don't use them, but Jeff Fulkerson does, and really loves a couple of models.  He uses them on copper all the time.  They should work fine.  If you have questions about Smith acetylene torches, that's the ones I prefer.  They have lots of firepower or can the the most delicate of things.

Good luck.  

Lexi

RitaHayworth wrote
on 19 Dec 2012 2:44 PM

Hi Lexi,

thanks so much for your tips on here, priceless!

I wonder if you can help, I am trying to solder a long and thin strip of brass onto a slightly thick rod of copper of the same length. The easy solder does not run at all and I have already been too close to overheating the brass (and I don;t want to alter it as it has some fine etching on it!).

One bit of solder melted slightly and is now holding the strips together, so I can;t even take them apart to clean them.

Any chance you have a helpful idea? I am pulling my hair out (not really :-) )

thank you!

on 30 Mar 2013 5:00 AM

Hello Lexi,

Great tips on soldering!

Can you please share your thoughts on soldering copper jewellery in a kiln.

Best wishes,

Iliana

kennaj wrote
on 2 Sep 2013 1:57 PM

I "love!!!" copper and work with it big and small. I am having a lot of trouble soldering copper to copper or copper to brass. The surfaces are clean and pickled and I flux. I am using copper solder and the flux lights on fire and the solder burns to a crisp and falls off (not melting). I have tried sweat soldering and the same thing happens. I have looked up soldering copper and can't find what I am doing wrong. Any suggestions? Thanks and love the site and your work.

landerson88 wrote
on 27 Sep 2013 12:22 PM

Hi Lexi,

I am completely new to soldering and am looking to solder a jump ring to a vintage brass stamping that I have. I only have generic jump rings from michaels...I don't know what type of metal they are. I have a few questions. 1. Can I solder this type of jump ring to a piece of brass? 2. If not, what type of jump ring should I buy that I can solder to the brass? 3. What type of solder should I be using? 4. Should I use a torch or one of those soldering guns?

Thanks so much,

Lindsay