It might seem like a bad idea to try out your first metal working project with something you plan to wear on your body every day for the rest of your life. It also might seem really expensive to practice soldering with gold. And if you are going to undertake such a task, it's probably a good idea to start working on your ring more than a couple weeks before your wedding. But I didn't follow any of that advice and everything turned out just fine.
When my husband and I got engaged in the spring, we decided it would be really great to make our own rings. There are a few reasons for this. Like for one, bragging rights 'cause it's pretty badass. But more importantly because we don't have much money and buying gold is much cheaper than buying rings, we both love learning new skills and working with our hands, and his parents made their rings when they were engaged. We felt it would be a meaningful family tradition to carry on.
Sam's done a little metal working over the years, but not enough to know how to make the rings. And I've never done any. Ever. But since my father in law knew how to do it and had the tools, I decided it was worth trying. So we bought some gold and went out to the in laws' house.
Above is a picture of what the gold looked like when we bought it. We cheated a little in that we bought the gold in sticks roughly the length we thought we'd need for our respective fingers. All that we had to do was shape it into circles, fit them to the right size, cut off any excess, solder the ends together, then file and polish away the seam. Sounds easy enough, right?
First, we used a rawhide hammer to begin shaping our rings, a process called work hardening or cold working. We put a steel mandrel in a vice and hammered away, slowly forming an arc and then a circle against the curve of the mandrel.
As you hammer, the metal hardens and becomes brittle. As I understand it (and remember, I am a metallurgy noob) bending and working a metal such as gold or copper will change its internal structure by forcing the atoms tighter together. It becomes brittle and difficult to bend or form. To coax the metal back to a pliable state, we would use an oxygen acetylene torch to anneal it. This is done by heating the gold until it is red hot and thus altering its internal structure again so that it is soft and malleable. So we would alternate between work hardening and annealing the metal with a torch to shape our rings.
As you can see from the picture above, cold working is slow going. It took quite a bit of beating to get even a noticeable bend in my gold!
After annealing the gold, my ring started to take shape. I was pretty excited, but the scary part was still ahead.
After I beat the gold into a circle roughly the size of my finger, it was time to cut off the excess material on the ends.
There's not any special trick to cutting off the extra bits... it just required a saw and a steady hand to hold the ring in place.
It only took a few minutes to saw through the band. I was really nervous about cutting off too much gold, but luckily it was just right!
After that crucial step, it was time to anneal the rings again, and go back to the mandrel with the rawhide hammer.
The ends of the rings need to push past each other, then bend back to meet end to end. This way, there is tension holding the ends together and the solder can seep through the cracks and create a solid ring.
So the next step was soldering. We carefully placed a small piece of gold solder on the seam and heated it with a torch until it turned molten, but (this is really important) not long enough that the ring gets molten too!
This was the fussiest step: the gold solder would fall off the ring or wouldn't fill in the seam right. Sam and I both had to make multiple attempts. At last, we were successful and our rings were almost ready.
The last step was to sit down with a beer and file away the excess solder around the seam, then buff and polish until the rings shone. We used files first to remove the obvious bumps, then gradually smoothed out the surface of the rings with various grits of sandpaper.
The things in the picture below that look like a piece of red chalk and a small brick are polishing agents called jeweler's rouge (iron oxide) and tripoli (also known as rotten stone). They are rubbed onto cloth then used to buff the ring after filing and sanding. They are pretty exciting to use because they make the gold exceptionally shiny and gorgeous. Also exciting is the fact that this is the last step!
So that's how we made our own wedding rings. They might not be perfect circles, but neither are our fingers. I love the symbolism of creating our rings together. When I look at my finger I can think of the work, love, and learning that went into the creation of our rings: good foundations for a marriage.