The most important thing about stained glass soldering is not to let yourself get discouraged. Lots of panels get sold, for rather high prices, that have pretty rough beads. That's not to say you should stop trying to improve yours, just that it's not as important as other aspects of the piece like design, your choice of glass and your enjoyment of the creation process.
There are lots of "tips" folks can give you about how they solder. Most of them will amount to so much arm waving and boil down to, relax and focus on the details of how you're making the bead. Notice when it seems to work better and worse and very slightly adjust what you do accordingly. You will probably improve through slow, unsteady increments. Don't expect instant progress.
There are a few things that can help a whole lot no matter what techniques you use. You probably know most if not all of them already and I'm sure I'm forgetting some obvious ones.
- Visit your friendly neighborhood stained glass studio and take a class, get advice and spend some money. While what you learn will probably be valuable, don't be afraid to ignore it and experiment on your own. Stained glass is like most everything else, what you're taught isn't always best, but it's usually a good foundation to build on.
- Solder your foiled projects promptly before the copper has a chance to tarnish. If an un-soldered project sits around too long, use a wax-free liquid tarnish remover and clean it well before trying to solder it.
- Use a small amount of a really good flux. Everyone seems to have their favorite which works well with their technique (solder, speed, temperature, etc). Experiment with a few, in various amounts, before settling on one to really get used to. Some behave so badly that I'm amazed stained glass retailers sell them let alone that they're so popular. My favorite is a great water soluble paste called 05-23 from Johnson Manufacturing. Johnson's phone number is 563-289-5123, ask for a sample.
- Use high quality solder that is very pure and clean. That is, don't just get the cheapest plumbing solder you can find at your hardware store. Good solder really does make a difference. I'm an advocate of using lead-free solder.
- Use an appropriate soldering iron and tip. I personally like the Inland InstaHeat because its ceramic heating element helps it hold a very even temperature, but there are many good ones to choose from. Don't waste your money on an 80 Watt iron, but spend the little bit extra and get a 100 Watt model.
- Keep your iron tip brightly clean with very frequent swipes on a damp (natural or cellulose, not plastic) sponge and a Sal Ammoniac block. You'll never get a smooth bead with a dirty iron.
- Adjust your soldering temperature to match your solder and the width of your foil/bead. A separate temperature control is well worth the $15-$30 you can order it for. One is especially important if you use different types of solder. Getting your iron temperature right (for your technique) is one of the most significant things that will help you get a really smooth bead.
- Don't worry over any given bead too long at one time. Most flux breaks down quickly and begins to hinder more than it helps. Once it does, the solder oxidizes such that it will never be bright and shiny. (You can fix it so it will still take a patina well using extra fine steel or bronze wool.) You also run the risk of cracking your glass due to overheating. Let a problem area alone to cool down completely, clean it, reflux it lightly, and tickle it again. Force yourself to stop before it's "perfect" or it's very likely to get worse instead of better.
- Don't even try to finish solder an area that's dirty with, for example, foil adhesive. You'll lose (almost) every time. Clean it and start again.
- If you use lead-free solder, you can clean up your final soldering job in a variety of ways, some of which purists might regard as cheating. The minimal step is to clean it up with extra fine steel or bronze wool, then wash and rinse thoroughly. A more extreme step, for those truly special pieces, is to use a flex shaft or Dremel-like tool with fine rubberized polishing wheels (e.g. Cratex) to polish off the last of the most stubborn freeze lines. You can also use a little felt or leather wheel to buff the bead after applying the patina. Doing this with leaded solder would be a serious health hazard, which I do not recommend.
- Read and listen to every soldering tip you can and experiment with them all. Many are quite contradictory, which doesn't necessarily make them wrong. There are lots of tips on people's Web pages. If you haven't already found better pages of links to start you off, my Forums and Resources page has lots of stained glass and mosaic resource links and my Studios page has links to upwards of 500 studio Web sites.
- Practice good shop safety, including ventilation, no matter what solder and flux you use. There's little point in endangering your health while striving for perfect craftsmanship.
I'd like to add a bunch of links to other people's soldering tips web pages. Please let me know of any that you find.
Inland's "How to Solder Like A Pro" has some useful information. However, I take exception to some of their comments on lead-free solders and paste fluxes. Specifically, the lead-free solder I use takes patinas beautifully and the paste flux I use easily washes off with plain water and does not sputter as they say pastes fluxes do.
Inland's "How To Use Stained Glass Tools"
Inland's "How To Do Stained Glass"
Soldering Techniques for Stained Glass by Charles Warner (of Warner-Crivellaro) is worthwhile, though it too does not treat the subject of lead-free soldering adequately.
Karal Studio's Techniques Page
A & A Products' Tips Page
Dodge Studio's Safety Tips
Mark Stine's "How to Tell Good Craftsmanship from Bad in Stained & Beveled Glass" Delphi's Tips & Techniques
Visit my other Stained Glass Artwork & Mosaic Mortar Material Matters pages for lots of links to resources, manufacturers, suppliers & studios:
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