Learning about how the different thickness of metal available is one part of your silversmithing journey and one that a lot of people spend time puzzling over. Backplate thickness is the kind of thing that is endlessly debated but I’m here to make it a little simpler for you.
So, what gauge backplate should you use for a bezel set ring? Read on and I’ll cover that and more!
What Gauge Backplate Should I Use for a Bezel Set Ring?
The answer is… it depends. For the most part, the average jeweler is going to use somewhere between 24 gauge (roughly .5mm) and 18 gauge(roughly 1mm) as a backplate. The size that you pick is an important part of the piece and should be considered carefully.
There are a number of different factors to take into account, and you should figure out your sheet size when you’re designing the piece as a whole.
You should consider:
- The size of the stone
- The ring’s overall design
- Possible embellishments
- The “feel” of the piece
- Production cost
- Your torch
The latter can be a sticking point. Many amateur jewelers use butane torches, and a micro-torch may not be able to sufficiently heat a thicker backplate. You can get quite creative by using fire bricks and other methods to retain heat and push the torch to the limit but they only put out so many BTUs even if you capture most of it.
The form the ring takes will also make a big difference. A ring that integrates the backplate into the band, for instance, may require a thicker 18g or even 16g plate even with small stones, just to make sure the band is thick enough to hold up.
On the other hand, a tiny stacker ring with a bezel cup soldered onto wire can be 24 gauge, or even 26 gauge if the stone is small enough.
Production costs are also a big factor, and they cross over with the “feel” of the jewelry.
Have you ever picked up a piece of silver jewelry and been amazed at how light and “cheap” it feels? It happens, and it’s usually because the jeweler used a minimal amount of silver to create the piece. Make the backplate thicker and you increase the overall mass and weight of the ring, which makes it seem more valuable as soon as someone picks it up.
This can be a problem, especially with in-person sales, since most people associate precious metals with a lot of weight due to their density.
There’s a fine balance to run there if you’re on tight margins. Those who aren’t able to roll their own sheet are limited by what they have in stock and that usually means buying larger pieces of silver. 3”x3” is standard in my experience, and it can get expensive when you need thicker silver.
Honestly, if you’re feeling paralyzed by choice you can just go with 20 gauge for virtually all applications, but read on and I’ll outline some basic guidelines to help you decide.
General Guidelines for Your Ring’s Backplate
There’s a lot to take in when you’re new to silversmithing, and learning the basics of AWG is part of it. We’ve got a guide right here for those unfamiliar with the wire gauge system.
Backplates outside of the 24-18 gauge range may be used in some very specific instances, but it’s not common. In particular, I feel going thinner than 24 gauge is inviting problems, .5mm (24 gauge) is what I consider the bare minimum for anything structural like a backplate.
The stone is one of the two big factors to work around, and what’s ideal for the stone is usually ideal for the whole piece.
As a general rule, I do the following:
- 24 gauge for stones 10mm or less in size
- 22-20 gauge for stones up to 30mm
- 18 gauge for anything larger
There are some exceptions, depending on the stone.
For instance, I won’t set a star ruby on a 24 gauge backplate regardless of the size. The stone is valuable and the heft of the piece is important to giving it a “feel” that makes it appear well constructed.
That’s not to say that lighter silver won’t be constructed well, but the difference between a 24 gauge and 18 gauge backplate in weight is enormous. After all, 18 gauge metal is twice as thick as 24 gauge metal. This adds up, especially in smaller pieces.
Most valuable stones that are going in a bezel set should have a thicker backplate up to 18 gauge. It’s more secure and the feel is better, there’s no need to save a few grams of silver when you’re already using an expensive stone.
That said, not everyone has every gauge of metal in their shop. As long as you match the size of the stone you’re working with you’ll be fine.
Ring Construction Process
In general, a thicker backplate should be used for heavier rings. In some cases, the bezel is set on the ring before the ring is formed, which requires using thicker silver since the same piece is also the band. 16 gauge is a solid choice here for larger stones, but I wouldn’t go underneath 18 gauge in this case.
Keep in mind that lighter pieces of silver aren’t necessarily easier to work with. 24 gauge backplates are easy to melt, and I’ve had them melt before the bezel when using certain designs with extra-heavy bezels.
The chances of melting an 18-gauge plate by accident are pretty low, even when it’s a tiny piece of silver. With double the mass it also takes double the heat to melt it.
How you do your soldering can also matter. Thinner backplates are harder to do if you use a tripod, for instance, since you heat the backplate and allow the thermal transfer to the bezel.
I work on fire bricks, for the most part. That means heating from above. The heat transfers to the surface of the brick, which makes it a bit harder to heat up the entire piece but also makes it harder to accidentally melt the backplate.
The bezel’s construction matters here as well. A very thick bezel on a thin backplate can be a problem, but the opposite is generally good to go. The bezel’s gauge is also important, it radically alters the look of the bezel just by being thinner or thicker, even without castellation or the use of gallery wire.
And, your workshop capabilities play in a bit as well. I can just melt some scrap and make a backplate in any thickness I like, it only takes a few minutes in most cases. If you’re having to buy all of your sheets then your approach will be limited on availability.
Likewise, it’s important to know the limits of your torch. There are plenty of ways to transfer some of the lost heat back into the piece, but you’ll eventually run into a wall with how hot you can get larger pieces of silver.
Do I Need a Backplate for a Bezel Set Ring?
If you don’t have thick enough sheet for your desired stone, you should consider whether or not you want to use a backplate at all. In many cases, this can be a better option instead of using silver that may be too light for the stone.
A step bezel is created by soldering a length of wire around the bottom interior of the bezel. This creates a solid “step” for the stone to sit on. 18 gauge square wire is my preferred step, but you can use round or square wire in the 22-16g range depending on your stone’s weight.
Important to Remember: A step bezel will effectively reduce the height of the bezel strip you’re using. Make sure to account for that when you’re designing the piece, and use a slightly wider bezel if you can.
Putting It All Together
Tying all of this together is relatively easy, in the end. You may be limited to what you have on hand, but in an ideal world I’d go through the following process:
- Type of Stone- Valuable stones will get thicker backplates. 18 gauge is used for anything with serious value like a star ruby or opal cabochon.
- Construction- Do you need the backplate to be thick enough to form the band? 16 gauge or 18 gauge it is.
- Size of the Stone- Small stones get 24 gauge, anything larger than 10mm needs something thicker, and anything over one inch should have at least a 20 gauge backplate and preferably 18 gauge.
- What’s Available- What have you got around the shop? That’s what you’ll be working with in most cases unless you’re making a new order. 24 gauge is acceptable for most uses, but I’d seriously consider reinforcing a bezel for any stone over 1” with some wire to create a step bezel instead.
So, there you have it! Learning what gauge of backplate you should use for a bezel set ring isn’t that hard.
Even better, you can carry this knowledge to pendants, earrings, and any other piece of jewelry where a bezel set is applicable.