By Meg Carter
If you have tried your hand at making sea glass jewelry, you have probably aspired to learn how to bezel set your prized pieces. Bezel setting is creating a custom setting for the glass to be encased in using metalsmithing techniques. Many things about bezel setting can make it seem intimidating. The cost of supplies, pricey metals, and working with a torch make the process seem somewhat unattainable. As with anything in life, risk is necessary for reward.
Hopefully this step-by-step guide will make the process less daunting. This is the process that I use, but metalsmithing is a lot like baking cookies—everyone does it differently. You will find many different products and techniques that you can develop into your own process. Even if you don’t aspire to make your own bezel set sea glass jewelry, this guide may give you a new appreciation of the hard work and long process that goes into these beautiful pieces of jewelry.
- Sterling silver back plate (24 gauge)
- Sterling silver bezel wall (28 gauge)
- Sterling silver half-round wire
- Easy and medium silver solder
- Fire coat (4 parts water to 1 part boric acid powder)
- Paint brush to apply flux
- Clear silicone
- Sea glass
- Titanium solder pick
- Bezel rocker
- Stainless steel tweezers
- Soldering block (charcoal)
- Copper tongs
- Hammer with plastic side
- Steel ring mandrel
- Third hand tweezers
- Ring clamp
- Flex shaft
- Steel block
- Sanding drum
- Sanding wheel
Step 1—Pick glass
Selecting a piece of glass for your first attempt is a very important part of the process. Although tempting, don’t start with your favorite piece. It is best to pick a piece that is around the size of a dime. The piece should have a consistent thickness and not be too thin—1/8 of an inch is best. Don’t use a piece with a curved back, to avoid having a piece that rocks in the setting. Use a piece that is fairly rounded when viewed from the top, as sharp corners are difficult to set with a bezel.
Step 2—Measure bezel wall length and height
The bezel wall should be slightly taller than the thickness of the glass. Usually the thickness of the center of the piece of glass is the correct height for the walls. If the wall is too tall you can cut it down. Measure the length by wrapping the bezel wire around the glass and mark where the ends meet, then cut with shears.
Step 3—File ends flush
It is important to make sure that the ends are completely flush and match up perfectly.
Step 4—Work ends together
The two ends need to touch to solder them. To create tension, over lap them slightly in both directions until they stay together without holding them. You will not be able to push them together when they are hot.
Step 5—Fire coat
Dip the bezel wall into fire coat using stainless steel tweezers. Heat with a jewelers torch that uses oxygen and propane or oxygen and acetylene until the water has evaporated. You may opt for a butane torch that uses disposable butane cartridges, which is a smaller investment, but you will find much more control and precision with a jewelers torch such as a Smith Little Torch. The borax will remain on the silver and will protect it from firescale and staining from the heat.
Using a small paint brush, place flux on the seam to be soldered. Heat until the liquid evaporates.
Step 7—Heat and solder
On your charcoal block, heat up a small piece of medium solder until it balls up and then lightly touch it with the solder pick to grab it. Heat the bezel wall while moving the flame all around the circle to heat evenly. When the silver starts to turn red, lightly touch the ball of solder to the seam. The solder should immediately liquefy and fill the seam. Let the silver cool. To speed up the cooling you can place the silver on a steel block.
Step 8—Shape to glass
Once the silver is cool, shape the silver to the piece of the glass by pushing the glass through it. The glass should be snug and not fall through. If it is too loose and can fall through, you need to cut some of the silver out and re-solder it to make it snug. If you can’t fit the glass in, you need to measure a new piece and start over. It is imperative that the glass fits at this point.
Step 9—Sand bottom of bezel wall
To make sure that the bezel wall will be flush against the back plate, sand the bottom of the wall. You can do this with a piece of fine grit sandpaper. Move the piece in a figure-eight motion on top of the sandpaper to evenly sand.
Step 10—Cut back plate to size
Measure the backplate so it is at least 1/8 of an inch larger than the bezel wall and cut it out with sheers or a saw. You don’t want more backplate than necessary because it will not heat evenly. If the back plate gets warped while cutting, flatten it out with pliers or a flat hammer. Dip the back plate in fire coat and heat until liquid is evaporated.
Step 11—Place bezel wall on back plate
Using your charcoal block, place the bezel wall on the back plate making sure you are leaving room on each side and it is not hanging over. Be sure you have the bezel wall with the correct side up. Using a paint brush, add flux to the circumference where the wall meets the back plate. Heat until the flux evaporates.
Step 12—Solder back plate to bezel wall
Using a solder pick, take up a ball of easy solder. Heat the bezel wall and backplate evenly until they start to turn red. Lightly tap the solder to the base of the bezel wall where it meets the back plate. The solder should move around the entire wall to join the back plate. You may need to use more than one piece of solder. If the wall is not flush you can lightly push on the wall with your solder pick to get it to join. You can optionally put the solder pieces by the seam before you heat the piece and they will fall into place without the solder pick. Let cool.
Step 13—Cut off extra back plate
Remove all or a portion of the backplate. Cut with shears or saw up to the base of the bezel wall while being careful not to cut the bezel wall.
Step 14—File down rough edge
Using files or a flex shaft with a sanding drum, file down the remaining back plate so that you have a flush surface between the back plate and bezel wall. You should not be able to see the seam.
Step 15—Cut half-round wire to ring size
Now it is time to prepare the ring shank. Using a ring mandrel cut the desired length for what size ring you would like. You can use either side of the half round wire. If you plan on making a hammered texture, you should make the ring one to two sizes smaller because hammering will thin out the band making the final size larger.
Step 16—Prepare ring shank
Shape the ring into a round “C” shape and file down the ends so they will fit flush against the back plate. Fire coat the shank.
Step 17—Using third hand fix ring shank to back plate
Place the top of the ring shank in third hand tweezers and line up the two ends on top of the back plate. Add flux where the two ends meet the back plate and heat until evaporated. Be sure that the shank is flush and not lopsided from any angle.
Step 18—Heat and solder
Solder the two ends to the back plate by picking up some easy solder with a soldering pick or placing the solder right next to the joint and then heating until it joins.
Pickle removes the excess flux and fire coat from the silver. You can buy pre-made pickle or make your own by dissolving 1 tablespoon of pickling salt in 1 cup of white vinegar and heating it. Use copper tongs and place the piece in the pickle solution for 10 minutes to one hour. Remove with copper tongs and rinse with water.
Step 20—Use sandpaper, buff & polish
Many kinds of files, wheels, disks, papers, buffs and polishes are on the market for finishing. You might want to try various combinations to find out which combination you prefer.
Step 21—Polish inside or add mylar
Most pieces of sea glass are transparent and tarnish can show through even dark colors. To avoid this problem you can put a piece of silver mylar behind the glass to that will reflect through the glass and never tarnish.
Step 22—Add waterproof seal
Even bezel settings that are extremely tight are no match for liquids. You can seal your setting with a two part epoxy or clear silicone to prevent dirt from getting under the glass and creating a dark spot. Add enough epoxy so that when the glass is put in, the epoxy oozes out the sides.
Step 23—Push in sea glass
Make sure your glass is as clean as possible and set it by pushing it into the setting. If you can’t get the glass to push down, wrap the jaws of your pliers with paper towels and gently push the glass down. The glass should be tight and not rock or shift in the setting.
Step 24—Set the sea glass
Use a ring clamp to hold the ring securely to set. If you don’t have a ring clamp you could try a vise with padding to protect the ring. Push down the bezel walls on opposite sides with a bezel rocker. Push down at the 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions, then 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, and so on. If your piece of glass has any sharp points put those parts of the wall down first followed by straight or gently curved sections.
Step 25—Burnish edges
You can use a burnisher to smooth out any parts that are not flush to the sea glass.
Step 26—Final polish
At this point you can do any final polishing to get any marks out that may have been made while setting.
Use a toothbrush on the glass with a mild soap to clean if any polish got on the top. Goo Gone works great to get any silicone or polish off as well. Do not use an ultrasonic cleaner at this point because the silicone or epoxy are still setting.
Things to keep in mind: You can find lots of videos on YouTube to show you the process. Research classes that might be offered in your area. Books are also helpful. Be patient, as with any new skill, you are learning and it takes time to perfect. You will melt silver, you will ruin pieces, you will get frustrated, but you will have success if you stick with it!
Safety: Keep the area well ventilated and wear a face mask. Use proper eye protection. Using compressed gas tanks in your home may not be permitted in your area. Check with your local officials for rules and regulations. Some homeowners insurance policies do not cover damage caused from conducting business in the home. Research proper business insurance to make sure your home is covered in the event of an accident.
Be safe and have fun!
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine November/December 2018 issue.