I'm no health professional, so I won't begin to describe the health risks associated with lead. All I'll say is that the risks are well known, very serious and totally avoidable. My stained glass work is exclusively lead-free.
There are lots of different kinds of lead-free solder which have very different properties. Many are more or less suitable for doing stained glass using the foil method. Folks say that different brands and qualities of 60/40 behave better or worse than others. While this is true, it dwindles into insignificance compared to the differences between various lead-free alloys which contain very different metallic elements in various amounts. They melt at different temperatures and form beads and take patinas quite differently as well. Some, which typically melt at lower temperatures even than 60/40, contain highly toxic elements like cadmium and/or antimony. What stained glass crafters usually mean when they talk about "lead-free" is "non-toxic." Those more desirable solders usually melt at a higher temperature and contain various amounts of tin, copper, and silver.
The least expensive are usually "pewter" solders, but they are relatively dull and grey in color and I don't personally like the way they behave for beading. There's another kind called Silvergleem (aka Evergleem, 96% Sn & 4% Ag) from Canfield that's far stronger and shinier, but it commonly retails for about $20 per pound. That's not justified by its 4% silver content, though some folks want you to believe it so.
My Favorite Solder: IA-423After weeks of searching around (quite a while ago) I found one, not yet readily available through stained glass suppliers, that is made primarily for the electronics and automotive industries. It's called IA-423 from Johnson Manufacturing. It's a relatively recent eutectic alloy (93.6% Tin, 4.7% Silver, 1.7% Copper) discovered through a U.S. government funded program at the Ames National Laboratory (see their news articles: 1, 2, 3, & 4). I buy it in quantities of only ten pounds at a time for about half the price of the Canfield and I like it better in every way. It does cost more than 60/40. It is a bit trickier to use due to the slightly hotter soldering temperature of 423 degrees Fahrenheit (217 Celsius), but you do get used to it. You do have to be more conscientious and careful not to overheat and crack your glass. However, it results in a superior product that is significantly stronger and better looking. It's smooth, bright, shiny and takes patinas beautifully. You don't have to worry about poisoning yourself, your family, your pets, your staff, your clients, or the environment. For me it was an easy choice.
If your stained glass supplier does not promote the use of lead-free solder, perhaps you could encourage them to. There are some obstacles that you may need to overcome. First, if someone has been using leaded solders for years, it is difficult for them to give even a good lead-free one like IA-423 a fair trial. They sort of have to re-learn to solder, since the alloys behave differently. Second, they have to deal with the more expensive stock and actively market it in competition with 60/40 rather than as a luxury good like Silvergleem usually is. Third, they need to offer a carefully balanced explanation of the hazards of lead rather than minimizing them to current or potential customers. There doesn't seem to be anything unique about folks working in stained glass compared to other fields when it comes to how they generally react to being told by others that what they've been doing for years is unduly hazardous or environmentally unfriendly. Many have a tendency to deny the problem which, therefore, only goes away slowly, often involving both generational and legislative forces.
Fortunately, none of the impediments of traditionalists need to inhibit you from happily proceeding to use more modern and safer materials and methods. For more suggestions on how to solder successfully, you might want to read my soldering tips.
My Favorite Flux: 05-23For foil work, my favorite flux by far is a water soluble, nice smelling paste called 05-23 which also happens to be made by Johnson Manufacturing. You still need to use good ventilation, since the stuff isn't good for you, but at least it doesn't reek and make you cough.
It's pleasant to work with in every way including cleanup, since it easily washes away with water and is residue free. It works well over a wider temperature range than most common fluxes, which is important when using lead-free solder. I've found it more effective than any of the liquids or gels that I've used previously.
Where to get the stuff:Johnson's phone number is 1-563-289-5123. And no, I don't have any business or other relationship with them other than that of a well satisfied customer. Their catalog and products are useful and now they have a great Web page which includes their catalog and technical bulletins in PDF format. Their email address is email@example.com.
Multicore Solder is licensed to produce and market this alloy internationally, though they call it something else. It's manufactured at their Canadian plant, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 1-514-645-2375. Nihon Superior Co is licensed for Japanese production.
Other Interesting Sites Related to Lead:
- Occupational Safety & Health Administration's "Lead"
- The International Tin Research Institute's Lead-Free Solder Legislation Page
- Angela Babin's "Lead Hazards in Art"
- National Institutes of Health: What is Lead Poisoning?
- ATSDR's Lead Toxicity
- Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety Publications
- Haz-Map's Lead Facts
- Specialty Systems of South Bend, Inc.'s "About Lead Hazards"
- Lead Safety (OSHA 1910.1025 & 1926.62)
- Oregon Health Div's "Lead Dangers & Health Hazards"
- Kansas Dept. of Health & Env. Lead Poisoning Prevention
- National Safety Council's Lead Poisoning Prevention Outreach Program
- Centers for Disease Control's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
- Consumer Products Safety Commission's ...Lead in Your Home
- EPA's National Lead Information Center
- EPA's OPPT Lead Programs
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