A Boy and his Torch
The torch begins things and the torch can end things. I like that about it. I like that it channels something as elegant or brutal as fire and relies on my skill to decide which it will be. On a good day I can solder the wings onto a fly (I tell my students) but on a less good day I ignite the stray things on my bench and singe the cat. On a bad day I have the RMT (Reverse Midas Touch) and the torch in my hand can reduce a week of work to a puddle. But, ironically, on an average day in my studio the puddle is where things begin. In a clay crucible I melt scrap and false starts and pour that hot little puddle into fresh ingots, which I roll into sheet, draw down into thin wire or forge. I like that too, the recycling. It takes some of the fear and caution away, since I can always start again.
There’s a zone between the molten puddle and solid metal. Cranking up the oxygen or propane, tweaking the flame or pulling the fire away gives me control enough that I can play for a while in that semi-melt zone. Metals act like clay there. At around 1600° F a sheet of silver begins to sag and then crumbles or breaks; a bit more heat and edges become round and broken bits begin to fuse together. More still and you can burn a hole right through the middle of a solid sheet. Hmmmm. Too much heat and you start again. I try to stick to the first three and avoid the last.
I’ve used this particular torch for thirty years – I know, I know, I must have been a baby when I found it back in New York. I write ‘found’ because I’m not sure how I came by it. Probably it was used, which I also like. It has traveled with me across the country and from studio to studio. The torch is an old-school Hoke, the kind that the old timers used and my teacher had at his bench. Like ducklings following a bowling ball, I’m sure that I imprinted on his. Different tips screw on to produce larger or smaller flames as the job requires. They are tiny and made of brass, although mine are charred and scaled. The character of the flame is adjusted by balancing the mix of propane and oxygen. It’s a bit like fiddling with the hot and cold valves in the shower. A big bushy flame is gentle and heats big things evenly; a hissy, pointy little flame is hot enough to spot heat and weld.
Ninja soldering: get in, do the job and get out. Linger too long and you do serious damage. The torch giveth and the torch taketh away.