On recycling silver
August 11, 2014
In high school and college, I worked in a Houston-area bead shop, where I learned how to wrap all kinds of things in sterling silver wire.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and I have a massive collection of silver-wired jewelry that I don’t wear, or has gotten hideously out of style, or is broken. I’ve been carrying it around with me from city to city, apartment to house to apartment. It’s useless in this form, so the other night I cut it all up.
That little exercise left me with a sizeable pile of sterling silver bits. I figured I’d add it to the scrap I have from bench work, which I’d planned to sell back to Rio Grande for credit.
And then it occurred to me — this is clean scrap, without solder or other metals mixed in. It doesn’t need to be refined. There was absolutely no reason that I couldn’t melt the stuff down myself and reuse it. I’ve always hesitated to do this without guidance from a teacher, because of the incredibly high heat involved and my lack of experience with the process. But in reality, it’s very, very simple.
Here’s a rundown (pictured above):
1. Collect scrap in a charcoal block (or a crucible, if you have one). Place the block in an annealing pan or otherwise heat-proof surface. It’s about to get hot in here!
2. Add flux or borax, to clean the metal of oxides and dirt. I scraped some flux into the scrap pile, and that worked well.
3. Light up a torch with a large tip. My understanding is that you need a propane torch or oxy/acetylene if you want to alloy gold, because they get so. much. hotter. But for sterling and in the amounts I was working with, Scintillant’s air-fed acetylene torch does the job. Turn that sucker up high, high, high. You want a big, hot flame.
4. Focus the flame on the charcoal block full of scrap, and go.
5. The silver will get really shiny, and then start to melt onto itself. Metal has a natural propensity to ball up when molten, which is exactly what I aimed for — a bright-red, round(ish) ball of molten metal.
6. Let cool, at least a little bit, because you’ll find (as I did) that if you poke the red-hot ball of molten metal that you can dimple the surface. Then pick it up carefully using tweezers and quench it.
7. Pickle. Congratulations, you’ve recycled silver!
I also learned that charcoal blocks are super soft, and you can carve into them to form moulds. Someone had beat me to this — one of the studio’s blocks had a wire-shaped channel in it. I melted scrap directly in the form (as opposed to pouring it in) to form an ingot, which I hammered into shape and eventually put through the studio’s roll mills to form wire and sheet.
I can use those in other pieces instead of having to buy new metal! It’s an intensive process that I’ll save for another post, but it’s nice to know I can recover my own silver.