Soldering Your Stained Glass
A great way to show off your creative side is to make beautiful stained glass art with a soldering iron and solder. In this article, we will discuss how to use your iron the right way to create beautiful three-dimensional pieces of stained glass.
What is Soldering?
Starting at the beginning let’s quickly define terms. When working with stained glass, soldering is a process used for joining metal parts to form a mechanical bond.
It typically makes use of a metal alloy with a low melting point (solder), which is melted and applied to the metal parts that need to be joined. When the solder solidifies, it bonds to the metal and creates a connection between them.
What is Solder Used For in Stained Glass?
Four main uses of solder in stained glass work come to mind.
First, when building stained glass windows or panels that use a framework of lead came, the joints are soldered together. Second, in the copper foil procedure where the glass edges are wrapped in thin copper foil strips, solder is used to join the foiled edges.
Third, hobby came when used as an outer border is attached to lead or copper joints with solder. Lastly, soldering is used to connect hooks, loops, or hangers to stained glass art so that you can hang your piece up securely.
What is a Soldering Iron?
A soldering iron is a tool for joining two or more pieces of metal together with another metal (solder) that has a lower melting point than the parts being joined. It has an insulated handle and a heated metal tip. The soldering iron supplies the heat required to melt the solder so that it can flow into the joint and form a physical bond between metal structures or components.
Do You Need Flux for Soldering?
Metals naturally form an oxide layer on their outer surface that impedes the ability of solder to fully join metals. Flux is a substance that acts to clean metal surfaces of oxides allowing for a stronger more complete bond when heated.
Flux is commonly sold as a paste or liquid, and is wiped or brushed onto metal surfaces prior to soldering. When heated, flux becomes corrosive and removes the oxide layer.
Attempting to solder without first applying flux causes the solder to harden as a coating or shell. Oxides present on the metal surfaces seem to create an invisible film or barrier preventing the solder and metals from bonding together.
However, soldering a fluxed joint is a different story. The oxides dispel as heat is applied allowing the solder to flow throughout the joint and fully fuse together.
How Do You Clean a Soldering Iron?
Before soldering, you must clean your iron, whether you’re soldering stained glass or other metals. This helps keep your iron clean, keeps you from moving oxidation, and preserves tip plating.
When the soldering iron tip is covered in oxides and burnt flux residues, its ability to transfer heat dramatically decreases. It’s a good idea to clean the tip every time you use your iron because the longer oxides and residues stay on the tip, the harder it gets to remove them.
A sponge designed specifically for soldering is needed to clean your iron before soldering. The accumulation of flux and oxidation can be removed with a wet sponge. The sponge should be damp and made of materials like cellulose that don’t contain sulfur. A regular sponge will not be as effective at removing flux or oxidation as this sponge will.
Additionally, a special brass wool dry cleaner can be utilized. It is made of flux-coated, flexible metal shavings. By repeatedly inserting the iron into the shaving, you clean the tip. These cleaners help to extend the life of the iron’s tip and finish the job better because they prevent the thermal shock of touching a damp sponge. However, either method is preferable to not cleaning a tip at all.
Using a clean tip will not only make the process of soldering stained glass faster and more efficient, but it will also extend the life of your iron. Coat the tip of your iron with flux to allow solder to flow across its surface. It can also be used to brighten up dull areas on the surface of the tip.
How Do You Choose a Soldering Iron?
When looking at soldering irons for stained glass, consider power ranges, ergonomics, stability, versatility and value.
Temperature stability is important. The ability for the soldering iron to cycle on and off within a fairly narrow range keeps a stable temperature, which ensures consistent solder flow. The power output of your iron should be between 80 and 200 watts. This equates to tip temperatures from about 310 degrees F. up to well over 700 degrees F.
A soldering iron with a ceramic element is great for stained glass projects. It retains heat for longer periods of time and avoids cold spots. However, a ceramic element is not the best choice if you need a fast heat up time.
If you choose a soldering iron with a low wattage, the heat will be slower making it more difficult to accomplish the task. However, if you choose a higher wattage, you will be able to reach higher temperatures more quickly, giving you better control.
This will make your stained glass work easier. It would be best to choose an iron with an adjustable temperature feature. If you do stained glass work frequently, you will need a tool that can adapt to a wide range of temperatures for different situations.
Fatigue may become an issue while soldering. The irons weight and balance between the handle and tip are important because you might use it for a long time.
A good soldering iron should be light and comfortable to hold. Read customer reviews to get feedback on this before purchasing.
You will need a versatile soldering iron that is adaptable for different projects. A standard ¼” tip works well for copper foil and lead came soldering. Decorative soldering requires a smaller pointed tip.
Various tips include point, chisel, and conical tips. An angled tip will help make it easier to smooth the solder line. Check to see what tips come with each soldering iron you are considering.
Accessories included with an iron are also a consideration. Most come packaged with a small amount of solder and flux, and one or more replacement tips. Nicely put together kits get you a complete set for a decent price.
After soldering stained glass you must wash your hands, as many solders contain lead. Lead is toxic to our bodies and poses an inhalation risk. However, soldering is generally safe if precautions are followed.
Fumes can get into the air and cause respiratory problems. For high-volume shops, a fume extractor is an essential safety item. Also, consider a smaller portable unit.
Wear closed-toe shoes, a face shield or goggles, and a protective mask. Keep your workspace ventilated and clean. Keep kids out of the workspace while you’re soldering.
Any garbage containing lead should be labeled hazardous waste.
How Do You Solder Stained Glass?
Make sure that your panel is secured how you want it on your work area with pins. Apply a thin coat of flux to all joints while your iron heats up to full working temperature. The solder will not adhere without flux.
Unwind some solder so that you have enough to press against the soldering iron tip as you go. With your solder in your other hand, hold the soldering iron parallel to your workpiece.
Position the iron’s tip just a tiny bit above the surface and slowly press the solder against the flat of the tip to begin soldering. Keep the tip of your iron in a vertical orientation while applying the solder.
Move the iron evenly along the joint as the solder flows into the fluxed joint. When you reach the end each seam, pull the iron to the side onto the glass and then up and off, leaving the solder behind.
Once the front of your panel is completely soldered and cooled clean off all of the flux. Flip the panel over, then flux and solder the back. Make sure all gaps on the front side are completely filled before working on the back so that solder can’t bleed through from the back.
This is a good overview of stained glass soldering. For another tutorial on soldering and jewelry work,
Tips for Soldering Success
Keep your best angle for running a bead of solder by repositioning your panel as you go. It will be more difficult from an awkward angle.
If the solder bead looks flat, simply melt a little more and drag it across to build up the seam.
If there is too much solder in a section, rotate the iron so the tip is flat and soak up some of the excess, wipe the tip, and repeat as needed.
Don’t stay in one spot too long. The hot iron can overheat the glass and cause it to crack.
Try soldering in different directions to determine what works best for you.
If you have difficulty feeding the solder perfectly. try dropping a few solder blobs along the seam and joining them up to make the seam smooth.
Your iron may cool down a bit as you work. Try pausing for it to regain heat, or adjust to a higher setting.
Just relax. Try relaxing your grip on the iron. Allow the weight of the soldering iron and the melting solder to dictate your movement. Relax and gently guide along the seam.
Using a dirty tip is asking for trouble. Clean your tip in between each solder line.
Too much flux can cause your solder seams to bubble or pit, which is a problem. Try cutting the bristles on your flux brush super short to remind yourself to apply sparingly. You don’t need much.
The best and final advice is don’t give up! Keep practicing. It gets easier the more you do it!