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How to work with steel wire

Blackened Steel Silver Solder 1

Working with steel wire is different than working with copper or silver wire; it is much stiffer and more difficult to cut. But, it provides a unique look that you cannot get with other kinds of wire. 

Mild-steel wire is available at most hardware stores in a range of gauges, so if you create your own design, consider how you can utilize the wire thicknesses to create a variety of line weights and emphasis in your final piece. The wire comes with a black, oily coating on it that prevents rust (it’s sometimes wrapped in oiled paper), but that oil also prevents the flow of solder, so it’s important to remove it before you continue. 

TOOLS 

Use dedicated wire cutters, files, and sandpaper for working with steel. Steel contamination on non-ferrous metals may eventually migrate to your pickle pot, causing other metals to copper plate. Don’t use your high-quality pliers with steel, either. Be sure to use heavy-duty cutters. 
 
 
SOLDERING

Use black brazing flux

Steel doesn’t transfer heat like silver or copper. For a silver or copper piece, you must heat the entire piece in order for one join to become hot enough to allow solder to flow. Steel, on the other hand, will spot heat just in the area where the torch is aimed, getting hotter and glowing brighter than any non-ferrous metal will. I recommend using a long-lasting black brazing flux, such as Handy Flux Type B-1 or StaySilv Black Flux. This flux remains effective up to 1700°F (926.7°C), 200° hotter than regular white paste flux. White paste flux will work, but the high heat tolerance of the black flux will make this project much easier. 

Use this product only with effective ventilation, and avoid contact with the paste and fumes.

Pickling

Steel can’t be pickled as easily as non-ferrous metals can, so use as little flux when soldering as necessary. Removing excess flux can be messy and difficult.

Steel will copper plate in used (blue) sodium bisulfate pickle — they should never meet each other! I recommend using a peracetic acid solution, made with approximately 51% white vinegar and 49% hydrogen peroxide. Exact measurements aren’t necessary as long as there’s a bit more vinegar than peroxide.This acid will eat away flux residue and firescale at room temperature;  just be sure to keep it covered with a tight-fitting lid, as the fumes can be caustic. The acid will break down and discolor with repeated use. When it is time to discard the acid, neutralize it with baking soda and allow it to evaporate in open air. Contact your local hazardous waste disposal company to determine how to dispose of the spent pickle.

To make peracetic acid: Use a fine-tip permanent marker to make a line on a small lidded glass container high enough to submerge your steel-wire brooch, and another line halfway between the first mark and the bottom of the container [PHOTO A]. Pour vinegar into the container, filling it to slightly above the halfway mark. Top off the rest with hydrogen peroxide, stopping at the top line [PHOTO B].

A_ARTH1114_P16
photo a
B_ARTH1114_P17
photo b

STRAIGHTENING STEEL WIRE

I often straighten my wire before forming it if I need crisp corners and perfectly straight lines. For 20-gauge (0.8 mm) and thinner wire, clamp one end of an 18-in. (45.7 cm) piece of wire in a bench vise. Grip the other end in flat-nose pliers, and wrap the wire around the pliers’ jaws for extra stability. Plant your feet, and use your body weight to pull on the wire. Keep your fingers away from the business end of the pliers; if the wire snaps, it will treat your hand like a cheese cutter treats cheddar. Cut off both the end of the wire wrapped around the pliers and the clamped end.

For 18-gauge (1.0 mm) and thicker wire, clamp one end of an 18-in. (45.7 cm) piece of wire in a bench vise, and insert the other end into the chuck of a flex shaft. Plant your feet, and gently pull on the wire while running the flex shaft at a slow speed. The rotation and tension will straighten the wire. Be careful not to fall backward -— the wire often breaks at one end before you’re able to disengage the flex shaft.

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