Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ask Auntie EM - What torch sould I get??? Part one - first you'll need gas.

Have you heard about the new weekly blog post called "Ask Auntie EM"? Ann Hartley of Hartleystudio and, Sue Szabo of lsueszabo , will be answering YOUR questions in a weekly post we are calling "Ask Auntie EM". EtsyMetal has over 100 members with vast amounts of knowledge and far reaching interests and capabilities. We figured if we couldn't answer your questions...someone on the team could! "What can we ask?" Great question! Ask anything! Metalsmithing, enameling, raising, stone setting, cooking, childcare, travel...you got a question, we probably have an answer! Email your questions to askauntie@etsymetal.com and, who knows...you might get your question answered next week!

So sorry for the long hiatus...Auntie EM has been VERY busy making jewelry and wrapping presents. Did you get any excellent goodies this holiday season? I'll bet you have some extra cash burning a hole in your pocket and maybe you're asking yourself "I wonder what kind of torch I should get" Are you sick of using a hardware store torch? Besides being SO expensive per use, they aren't very environmentally friendly. The list of torches is long and there are several different options for fuels. There is something here for everyone and I'm going to try to spell out the pros and cons of each type.

I recently talked to Praxair Safety Manager, Mike Stephens and he was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. I would encourage you to call Praxair, or wherever you buy your fuel, if you ever have any questions...no matter how stupid you think they might sound. Believe me, I asked some pretty dumb questions and he answered every one without making me feel like an idiot. Thanks Mike!

First off, Mike says everyone should have "flashback arrestors" on their regulators. This prevents the gas from traveling back into the oxygen tank and causing the tank to catch fire internally. There is a great article on them here.

So, let's talk about fuel. There are thee main types of fuel that are good for making jewelry. There is acetylene, propane and natural gas. Each has it's own pros and cons so I'll go over each one individually.

Acetylene is probably the most popular choice for lots of reasons. This gas burns the hottest and combines well with oxygen to produce a very hot, very precise flame. Acetylene is sold in tanks, most home jewelers get a "B" size tank that is small and easy to transport and store in a studio. Each tank is filled with a calcium carbide and water core that is very porous. The acetylene is mixed with acetone and becomes very viscous in the tank. When in the tank in this viscous state, the gas is very stable. If you look on the top of each acetylene tank you will see a grey circle. This is your safety valve. If the air around the tank should reach 212 degrees, this valve will melt open and release the gas and pressure. This is good if there should be a fire, it will keep your tank from exploding, but bad if you keep your tank too close to a heat source (remember kids, it's 212...it takes a lot of heat to set that sucker off) or your lit torch. Be aware of where you keep your tank. Acetylene should be kept indoors and above freezing. When acetylene is too cold, the viscous liquid the gas is combined with will thicken and you won't be able to get the pressure you need to use the torch properly. Ideal temperature is 7o F. Acetylene tanks also need to be kept vertical and, if transported in the horizontal position, need to be standing upright for as long as they were laying down before they are used. It takes a while for the gas to move through it's porous core into the bottom of the tank where it belongs.

Now let's talk about Propane. Now, I don't use propane so I don't have as much first hand information about this gas. Propane burns cleaner but, if your pressure is correct, Mike says all the fuels we talked about will burn clean. Propane is easy to get, being sold on almost every street corner and hardware store. Propane requires different tips than acetylene and natural gas and different hoses. If you buy a torch for propane, it can't be used with any other gas without buying new tips and hoses. If you will be using propane with oxygen, know that it will use more oxygen than acetylene, Mike thinks it's enough to justify the extra expense of the acetylene. Speaking of price, propane is definitely cheaper than acetylene as well. For any welders, and I mean plumbers, iron workers ect..., out there...propane can't be used for brazing and welding so you'll need to use acetylene for sure.

The last gas I want to address is natural gas. I used natural gas for years and really liked it. I used the same torches, tips and hoses I use now for acetylene and it was very convenient. You will need a licensed plumber to come out and run a natural gas line to your bench area and natural gas has to be regulated so you will need a regulator to control the pressure. It is one of the safer home options as your house may already be set up for natural gas. Natural gas burns very clean and, again, if it's regulated properly, you should have a flame that is about as hot as propane. There are no tanks to mess with and it's a very economical option. My own husband is a plumber and we have talked many times about running a line out to my studio to convert it over to natural gas but we just never seem to get around to it.

In any case, the gas you choose is secondary to the safety precautions you use in your studio. All tanks need to be chained up so they don't fall over. The valve on oxygen tanks is particularly dangerous as the valve diameter is so small and the oxygen is under extreme pressure. Any blow to a valve should be investigated. So, you have your tanks secured safely, that's great but now...you need to shut off your tanks and bleed your lines EVERY TIME YOU ARE DONE. I am miserable about this. I did it every night at school and have failed miserably now that I'm at home. Shutting your tanks down properly will save you money over the long haul as well as being an extra safety measure in case of a fire. To properly bleed your tanks you will need to shut the valve completely and then open the torch all the way to release the extra gas left in the hose and torch. You then need to back the pressure off your regulator until the needle is at zero. This last part is so important because, when you come and turn that valve, all the gas in the tank goes rushing to the diaphragm in the regulator. If the pressure is still high, it will slam into that diaphragm and cause damage to your regulator...and those things aren't cheap!

One last word about tanks. Don't buy a shiny beautiful new one from Rio or some jewelry supply company, buy a tank from your distributor. I say "buy" but really, you're kind of renting your tank. When you run out of gas, you will bring your tank back and they will swap you for a full one. Each time you will get a different tank. I bought a beautiful new tank and was horrified when the guy at Praxair handed me a dirty, rusty, ugly old thing. Learn from my mistake...start out dirty.

I think this might be enough for one week. There are a lot of factors in buying and setting up a home studio and how you get your fire is an important thing to consider. Think about your space, the limitations you have, how much money you can spend and what you're actually allowed to have in your house or apartment. Maybe call around to suppliers and see what different fuels cost and how available they are. I have found different suppliers have vastly different prices, on acetylene especially. There is an acetylene shortage right now and it might be impossible to get in your area without an established account. My advice? Once you find a distributor you like, stick with them. My local Praxair offers "your 5th tank free" and, although they can't give me a free tank of acetylene, I just got my oxygen tank for free. They will also be there for you to answer any questions or address any concerns you might have.

Next week I'll actually talk about torches, I promise. Until then, happy metalsmithing!!!


Wendy said...

Thanks, great info. I'm just in the process of trying out my new torch so this is great timing for me. Look for ward to you next report on torches.

PPennee said...

Great info- saving for when I finally get my new torch!

I do have a question about finishing. There are so many options now- 3M wheels, silicon wheels, bench polishers- what are the best steps and products to get that professional looking mirror finish?

Francine said...

Hello! Thanks for all of the info regarding torches - very helpful.
I do have a question about balling silver next to a stone/pearl. I have heard of products which can help protect the stone but has anyone tried them and if so which ones work. Thanks for your help!


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