So, about that recycled silver (on drawing down wire)
August 14, 2014
I had a goal in mind, other than saving some cash, when I started recycling silver, and that was a bracelet I’ve had dancing in my head for probably three years. This bracelet requires several feet of (roughly) 18 gauge sterling wire, which I didn’t have in my kit at the moment I decided to try making the bracelet.
So I melted scrap down and made ingots, but ingots are a long, long way from 18 gauge wire. Of course, there’s a way to get there. It involves lots of fire, heavy tools, and patience. One of the things I love about Scintillant is that it provides me with at least the fire and the heavy tools!
The studio also has a bunch of people who know way, way more than I do. (How often I feel like a complete amateur in there is fodder for another time.) I’ve already learned that my two previous teachers are decidedly old-school, in that they taught me how to do everything the hard way, with the idea that I’d eventually be able to handle myself doing things the easy way — that is, with aggressive tools that will ruin a project in the space it takes to blink just as often as they’ll speed up the work.
To get from ingot to wire, you roll the ingot down in a roll mill fitted with wire plates. (Roll, anneal, pickle, dry, roll, anneal, pickle, dry…) Once you’ve reached the smallest groove on the mill, it’s time to move to the steel draw plates, which have progressively smaller holes, through which you force metal to make it smaller.
There are two ways draw plates can be “the hard way.” The first is that you have to file the tip of your metal down to a very small point, which can then be poked through the plate and grabbed with a heavy-duty plier. Filing by hand is time-consuming and taxing on your fingers. The second is that once you’ve succeeded in grabbing the wire with the pliers, you then have to exert a great amount of force to pull the wire through the plate. For me, it feels like I’m playing tug-of-war with Drax the Destroyer. And losing.
Enter two badass tools, and the easy way. The first of those tools eliminates the need to file by hand. Behold, the belt sander!
Fitted with a wet/dry sanding belt, it makes short work of filing a point on metal of any gauge. Wear goggles and watch your fingers — the speed with which the belt sander works means it’s easy to lose your grip, and the metal gets very hot due to the friction.
The second tool is this weird-looking bad boy (ignore the Photoshop and focus on the awesome tool).
It’s called a draw bench, and I had no idea it was a thing until one of my fellow makers showed me how to use it. Draw benches use a wheel and a belt to draw wire through the plate, reducing the amount of physical force you have to exert by, oh, ALL OF IT. Seriously, you go from tug-of-war with a superhero to easily turning a wheel with one hand. Yay, physics!
Scintillant’s draw bench is a handmade deal that has a few idiosyncracies — for example, the draw plate sort of just sits in a slot. It’s meant to have clamps to hold it in place, but for whatever reason we don’t have them. This means it’s kind of a balancing act to grip the wire with the pliers and put enough tension on the belt to begin the draw (which is why there’s no photo of that stage). Not enough tension, and the whole thing fails to work.
The other catch is that at the end of the draw, when the wire leaves the plate, all the tension that the bench uses to work is released suddenly, which can fling your metal across the room and send the very heavy pliers swinging. After a couple of attempts, I learned to mitigate this effect by moving slowly, which gave me time to catch the pliers at the end of the draw.
In the end, I spent about six hours recycling silver and drawing five feet of sterling wire down. Easily half of that time was spent in the initial rolling stage, because the metal has to be annealed and pickled more frequently to keep it from cracking. Had I not learned how to use the draw bench, it probably would have taken me a couple hours more to make the wire I needed…and that’s not how I want to spend my time!