New Tool Alert!! And warning – this post is techy and likely to be of no interest to anyone who doesn’t use heat on their metal; it’s going to contain information I’d have liked to have known before purchase.
I expect this to be the first in an intermittent series of posts about the new blowtorch I’ve bought. A significant investment, an Aquaflame uses hydrogen gas rather than propane / acetylene / butane and oxygen to produce the flame and heat needed for working with precious metals.
Until now, I’ve used small, hand held blow torches – similar to those sold in kitchenware shops – refillable using the small canisters of butane that people use to refill cigarette lighters, supplemented with a portable plumbers blowtorch when I’m brave enough (which is rare!)
These are limited in what they can achieve, even though I’ve been known to have one lit, standing on the soldering station, directed at a kiln of bricks to provide background heat, and then another in each hand. I’ve basically outgrown them and needed to upgrade if I wanted to move on to the types of metal working I’d like to add to my skill set.
A hydrogen torch (aka a microweld, aquaflame, hydrotorch) works using
magic, witchcraft electrolysis – here’s what it says on their website:
Aquaflame produces gas from water and works on the principle of electrolysis. Electricity is passed through an electrolyte solution resulting in the production of hydrogen and oxygen. The gas is then passed through a MEK (Methyl Ethyl Ketone) solution that gives a flame with the optimum working temperature of 1850 ° C. (3365 ° F). This produces a highly efficient and low cost high energy heat source. The only by product other than energy is water. The flame is clean and safe with no toxic effects.
The other option would have been a micro torch (most likely a Little Smith) which, although cheaper, and possibly better for larger work, would have necessitated keeping acetylene and oxygen canisters (or an oxygen concentrator machine) in the studio.
My studio / workshop is a converted bedroom, upstairs in our 1930s semi-detached, 10 paces away from our bed. I decided I wanted to upgrade in 2019; got permission from the insurer that it would be acceptable, and then had regular nightmares about the canisters exploding.
Life is too short to invite extra stress into it, so I ruled out the Little Smith and looked into other options
Eventually, I decided on a hydrogen torch and then opted for Aquaflame over the other main UK brand MicroWeld solely based on the interaction I had with the companies when trying to make my decision. One was very keen to help answer all (and there were many!) of my petty and silly questions, the other ignored me.
I put myself on the waiting list for a reconditioned one, and on 25th May 2021, she arrived.
It’s incredible the difference the precision flame makes. I’ve gone from using a wide flame coming from a torch tip of a centimetre wide, to one that’s coming from a hypodermic needle tip of less than a millimetre. As a result, I’m having to relearn every technique, and have been beginning from the basic – balling silver for earwires and headpins and the balls I like to use for embellishments before stepping up to multiple settings and large bangles
It’s like owning a small, slightly temperamental dragon, and I’m in love.
As you’ll know, I name all my significant tools, so clearly she needed a name. My intention had been to name her for the mother dragon in Ivor The Engine – but it turns out that’s she’s got the same name as my first primary school teacher, so it felt far too cheeky given I tend to curse a lot whilst using a torch; instead, she’s #SmeltyMelty.
I’m sharing my progress with the wonderfully supportive jewellery Facebook group The Jeweller’s Bench Cafe run by my favourite tutor Joanne Tinley, but thought it would be sensible to also document it on my blog so it can double as my notes!
I’ve learned the following – Tips supplied range in size from 20 to 24, with 20 and 21 being properly feisty, 22 being significantly smaller than 21, and 23 and 24 super delicate. I could also use a #19 or #18 as there’s just me, but it didn’t come with them. I shared small videos of these with my jewellery gang, but I’ve now uploaded them to YouTube here
I have used #20 to successfully ( and deliberately) melt 6g of scrap, in about 35 seconds on my charcoal block but not so successfully to melt 8 grams in my not terribly clean crucible.
7g is as much as I’ve been able to achieve with my traditional handheld butane torches, and that took either a plumbers torch (comes with a side of free nausea and terror) or a pair of handhelds, and about 20 minutes of said terror and nausea.
Initially I only tried smelting for 10mins with the aquaflame, because I decided the flame and the metal were too bright for safety.
I’ve used the #24 for soldering jump rings (from 0.8 to 1.2 and up to 11mm in diameter) and the ends of earwires that are about 2cm from an earring, with no change to the Liver of Sulphur patination, which suggests I’ll be able to do delicate work with stone set pieces.
I’m using #23 most often for ring bands up to 2mm, and #24 for studs.
The #22 is also working really well for annealing short shank lengths.
The main difference I’m noticing with the actual solder is that the piece will heat more rapidly than with my handhelds, which means that the solder will melt earlier in the process – but crucially, I’ll need to hold the heat for a couple of seconds longer to make sure it flows through the whole joint, as there’s less ambient heat to drive it through. I’ve had lots of pieces where I thought that I hadn’t successfully soldered, but it was because the flash of the molten solder simply isn’t as bright or as obvious as with my trusty dremel.
Whilst sweat soldering, it was much easier to ensure that no solder spilt over the sides of the settings, because I used the #24. The other things, are:
- It’s not as huffy, so the pallions are less disobedient
- There is less ambient heat in the workshop
- The hottest part of the flame is much further along than I’d expected.
- Firescale is definitely reduced
- It’s not really any noisier than a regular handheld butane torch
- The whole piece will heat more rapidly
- solder melts earlier
- The joint needs heat held on it slightly longer than I’m used to
- The colour of the flame means the flash of the solder flow is less visible
- It doesn’t need to be left running, so I have it on for only a minute before actually soldering
- It doesn’t appear to use any meaningful amount of electricity (conveniently I’ve just had a smart meter installed)
- I needed to top up the MEK for the first time after 3 weeks of use
I am gradually repeating regular processes and trying out new with it. This is something I know I’d have struggled with using my handhelds- the cups would either have moved, dropped off, or melted, but I was able to successfully use all hard solder for all 4 cups using the #23 tip(4mm stones, 2mm band) as a side bar, these were really gorgeous shades of stones – faceted green amethyst, green tourmaline, London blue topaz and faceted blue topaz
I’d never have achieved this with my handhelds – four 4mm bezel cups, on a 2mm size L.5 ring, all the bases next to each other. I used the #23 for this
Nb. this was a customer request and the settings are deliberately slightly skew-whiff to fit with all the rest of her jewellery!!
Ordered some #19 and #18 tips, and successfully smelted 8g of silver in les than half the time it’d have taken me to do it with a plumbers torch and the biggest of my small ones.
I then used tip #21 to anneal it before making square wire with #MorrisTheMill
And – Bangles!
I used tip #20 for 3 different bangles – annealing and soldering:
- 1.1mm thick, 220mm x 6mm
- 1.1mm thick 220mm x 9mm
and also to reticulate 220 x 9 x 1.1mm which I then soldered into a bangle
It was much faster and easier to control than my handhelds