Temper is a strange thing when it comes to metal, but recommendations for buying half-hard material never cease. It can seem to be a strange, inherent quality of the metal but its actually a simple physical property that can be manipulated even by a novice. Still, the question remains.
What is half-hard silver? Read on and I’ll teach you a bit about metal tempers and what it means for your projects.
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What Does Half Hard Mean?
When you’re purchasing nonferrous metals (ie: silver, copper, brass) you’ll often see them sold with a sub-label defining them as either dead soft or half hard. On occasion full hard material is available as well, but it’s not as common.
The “hardness” of the metal is a relative measure of its workability. It should be noted that different manufacturers, different alloys, and the thickness of the metal make these terms very relative.
Half-hard metal, at least in silver, will generally hold its shape after being bent or manipulated, while retaining some structural strength. If you use it for something like a wire weaving frame you can see the advantages: it won’t twist out of place during attachment nearly as much as dead soft material.
Half hard metal is usually hard enough to withstand gentle manipulation and is generally considered the halfway point between dead soft and full hard metal.
How Hard is Half-Hard Silver?
Unfortunately, the answer is… it depends. Silver temper isn’t graded on anything objective for the most part, it’s just how the manufacturers make it.
As a general rule, half-hard silver should be a bit springy but also still easy to manipulate. Half-hard silver wire over 18 gauge may require tools to form, but as a general rule it should move by hand and stay put once moved.
Silver is sold as half-hard mostly for production line purposes, or for those who don’t have access to basic tools. Wire wrapping is a common use for harder silver. In more advanced silversmithing the temper of the metal is changed repeatedly as a piece is soldered, formed, and annealed time and time again.
While there is no objective measurement that qualifies silver as half-hard, as a general rule it will be a bit springy and have some resistance to manipulation while still being formable.
Do I Need Half Hard Silver?
It largely depends on your experience and what’s going on in the shop. My personal take is that it’s decent for wire wrappers with minimal equipment and people doing production runs who may need their wire stiff initially.
A metal’s temper is a simple thing to change.
Here’s one thing to keep in mind: it’s easier to harden metal than it is to make it softer. If you don’t have a specific use for half-hard material in mind I would skip it and instead just go with dead soft material.
How Do I Soften Half Hard Silver?
If you decide that you need to get things a bit more malleable when you’re setting up your project, then you can go through a pretty simple process.
The treatment that you use is called annealing. The following is a basic breakdown for you, but if you want more information you can check out our guide to annealing.
- Place metal on a heat-safe surface like a solderite block, fire brick, etc. Coil wire as much as possible without breaking it to make it easier to heat.
- Fire up your torch and circle the metal to heat it evenly. The torch should never stop moving.
- When the flame turns orange, back off the heat. You can bring the torch back over a few times, keeping the metal at a dull red, for better results but its usually not necessary.
- Allow the silver to cool to a “black” temperature on the block.
- Quench the silver in water.
- Test the malleability of the metal. Proper annealing will create a huge difference compared to half-hard silver.
You can pickle the silver to remove the majority of the firescale, but if you overheated the metal you’ll probably need to abrade it. A quick touch-up with sandpaper or silicon radial disks in a rotary tool/flex shaft will restore it. 400 grit usually works well for this.
If you don’t get the right temperature, then your silver will remain hard. A dull red glow or the flame turning orange is the best indicator that you’re at the right temp.
What About Making the Metal Harder?
If you’ve got a frame or other structural piece you may need to make even half-hard wire harder. While you can’t turn silver into steel, you can certainly make it a lot harder without much work.
You’ll need a rubber or steel stamping block and a mallet or a silversmithing hammer.
As a general rule, use your mallet to hit the silver on steel or a steel hammer to hit the mallet on rubber. It just tends to work out best that way. Mallet on the rubber is often slow, steel on steel will deform the piece.
The latter way will work faster and perhaps a bit better if you can handle the deformation of the component.
Get your tools and just hit it a few times evenly over the component. You can check it every few whacks until it’s as sturdy as you need it to be.
I suggest letting some give remain, if the piece becomes too hard then the metal can become brittle and snap at pressure points further along in your project.
So, When Should I Buy Half Hard Silver?
Since it’s easy to change the temper of the metal, and the metal’s temper will vary from vendor to vendor, I’m not a big fan of purchasing half-hard metals. Annealing is a more difficult process than work-hardening the material.
I’d say you should consider it if:
- You’re making a production run. For commercial purposes, it can save quite a bit of time to have the metal already hardened over a dozen or so pieces of jewelry. Half hard can serve that purpose well.
- You have very limited tools. For a wire weaver or other cold worker, sometimes tools are at a premium. A stamping block and a good mallet will run you a few bucks, so it makes sense to buy half-hard for structural components.
- You’re making chainmail or another jump ring intensive jewelry style. Half hard silver will hold its shape better and beating every ring into submission is tedious. This is one place it shines, but it can be harder to coil wire over 18 gauge around the mandrel with a harder temper.
Otherwise, most of us will be better served by buying dead soft silver and hardening it as necessary. Dead soft configurations also allow you to form the metal more before hardening, eliminating some of the trouble of dealing with the springiness of sterling silver or copper as it becomes hard.
In the end, it’s a personal choice, but I recommend simply purchasing dead soft wire for anyone not sure if they need half hard. It’s just easier to work with overall and most people aren’t making things that will fit into a niche where it becomes a big advantage.