Just what is the Tiffany Technique? Also known as the Tiffany Method or “soft soldering,” it’s a technique that has been used for centuries by stained glass artists, but that was brought out of cathedrals and into many people’s homes near the end of the 19th century.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was obsessed with the incredible stained glass windows he saw in churches and cathedrals. He developed a line of lamps – and later, jewelry – using the old technique of adhering copper foil to glass and soldering the glass together into gorgeous designs.
These days, the “Tiffany technique” mostly refers to soft-soldered jewelry that’s made with lead-free, silver-bearing solders. It can be used on glass, stone, and many other materials that can withstand around 450-degrees, making it an excellent choice for home-based jewelers who may not have the space for a torch set-up. All a soft solderer needs is a good soldering iron and a few basic, inexpensive supplies.
Soft-Soldering Tools and Supplies:
Ceramic, stone tile or other heat-proof surface to work on
Soldering iron and stand (read my top iron picks here)
Flux (use gel or paste – the liquid isn’t great for beginners!)
Natural, stiff-bristle brush with wood handle
Fine steel wool
Damp cellulose (vegetable fiber) sponges
Rubbing alcohol and cotton towel
Optional: third hand (this is unnecessary but makes life a whole lot easier for positioning)
For the jewelry itself:
**STOP!! The solder you use MUST be lead-free if you’re making jewelry!!
Silver-bearing, lead-free soft solder, like Silvergleem
¼”-wide copper tape (the kind used to make stained glass)
A stone or crystal of your choosing
Optional: copper wire (anything between 18-22 gauge is good to keep around)
*Note: If you’re going to be working with solder habitually, or making multiple pieces to sell, it’s a good idea to invest in a vapor mask or small fume extractor (both are reasonably priced on Amazon). Soldering does give off VOCs, which can irritate your airways. Check out this article on soldering safety. Otherwise, work in a well-ventilated area if you’re just starting out (keep a window open and have a fan going).
Now get ready to have some fun!
Use the microfiber cloth to clean each stone thoroughly with rubbing alcohol. You want to make sure there’s no residue or oil from your fingers – this assures you’ll get a good bond with the copper tape!
Loop the copper tape around your stone to get an idea of how long it should be – then tear it about an inch longer than you think it needs to be, just to be safe.
Peel the backing off the tape and position it so that the center of the tape lies along the very-most pointed edge of the stone.
Starting at the bottom, wrap all around the edge of the stone, keeping a firm hold and making sure there’s no slack. Once you’ve gone all the way around, overlap the edges by about ¼”.
Use your fingers or the wood handle of the paintbrush to collapse the tape so that it’s flush along the face and back of the stone.
Press as hard as you can so it’s flush and then burnish with the wood handle of your paintbrush, rubbing firmly so that the copper tape settles down nicely. It should look smooth, with any wrinkles rubbed firmly until they’re almost unnoticeable. This step assures you’ll have a secure foundation that won’t have your stone knocking around later.
It’s time to solder! Have you tinned your iron? Learn more about that here. Once your iron’s all tinned, if you haven’t already, plug it in and let it heat up while you add some flux. It only takes a minute or two to get to full temp.
Pull a tail of about 4” of solder from the roll, so that you can pull from it as you work.
Use your paintbrush to add some flux all over the copper tape. Don’t go overboard – just enough that the tape is covered.
Now, you can either hold the stone with your needle-nose pliers or wedge it in between two damp cellulose sponges. Damp sponges work really well to pull heat away from your piece as you work it. You want the heat to stay in a localized area for the solder to flow, but you also want it to cool as soon as possible so you don’t tire out the adhesive on the copper tape.
Now, pick up some solder with your iron – you’ll want to hold the soldering iron tip below the tail of solder and drag upward to load it.
Once your tip is loaded, touch it to the flux-covered copper tape – the solder should start flowing. It’s so exciting!!
Use the tip of your iron to pull solder around so that it completely covers the copper tape, reloading with more solder when you need it. A really great way to add the solder is by holding your tip slightly above the tape, kind of hovering so that a generous amount of solder flows, creating a kind of domed effect over the tape. The more solder you can load on here, the stronger your final piece.
If you’d like, try coating the entire piece of tape first, then go back to build up more thickness. This takes practice – don’t be discouraged if you can’t get it on the first try. Once you do it a few times, I promise it’ll be like second nature for you. 🙂
Every so often, you’ll want to wipe your tip clean with the piece of steel wool, and recondition the tip with the tip tinner (did you learn about tinning and how important it is?). If you notice that the solder isn’t sticking to your tip as well when you try to load it, it’s time to use some tip tinner. Eventually, you’ll want to keep a block of sal ammoniac near your work station for this purpose, but it’s not necessary when you’re just learning as long as you have tip tinner.
Once all the copper is completely covered with solder, it’s time to add your jump link! At this point, position your stone, top up, between the two damp sponges. Now grab a jump link with your needle-nose pliers, making sure the open end is facing out – you’ll want to trap the open part in your solder when you fuse it to your piece.
Now position the jump link as pictured – you’ll want the circle of the ring to sit atop the stone so that the left of the circle is at the front of the stone, and the right of the circle toward the back. This is so you can easily string a chain in the piece and always have it hang facing forward on the neck.
Add lots of flux to the open part of the jump ring and to the top of the soldered stone. Load your soldering iron tip, hold the ring in place and quickly touch the tip to your piece to fuse the jump ring to the soldered stone. Hold the ring very still until the solder cools – just a couple seconds will do it.
If you’re having trouble holding the pliers still as you attempt to do this, pick up a “third hand” at Harbor Freight or on Amazon.com. The third hand will hold the jump link securely for you, freeing up your hands to concentrate entirely on the soldering part.
That’s it! How cool is that?! Now it’s time to clean your piece so you can wear it.
Flux is an acid, so you want to neutralize that acid as soon as you’re finished with your piece. Mix about 2 tablespoons of baking soda in a cup or two of water, and swish your piece around, scrubbing it gently with the old toothbrush.
Now put a little dollop of dish soap in your hand, and lightly scrub your piece under the tap with the sudsy water. You want all traces of the flux to be gone. Wipe off your piece with a dry part of that microfiber towel and let it air-dry.
You may choose to add patina at this point to change the finish, and/or seal your piece with artist’s Renaissance Wax or all-natural beeswax. String your piece on a chain and you’re good to go. Nice job!
Ready to make some more? Go get ’em, tiger! 🙂
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