The Fault in Our Solders

Ever since a German friend introduced our family to his New Year’s Eve tradition of bleigießen or lead-pouring, we have rung in January 1 midnight by melting small amounts of silver metal to divine our future. It works like this: Place a small metal nugget, about the size of a Monopoly game piece, into a spoon, then hold it over a flame until it melts. Now pour the molten metal into a bowl of water and watch what happens. Your metal will cool into a shape that might be reminiscent of, say, a ball, which means you’re gonna be lucky, or a cross, which means you’re gonna die.

I suppose you could cheat the molybdomancy gods. For example, I’m told that pausing the spoon above the water tends to create more of a solid form, which could yield a lucky ball. But if my experience in trying to manipulate molten metal is any indicator, gaming the bleigießen (pronounced “bligh-geesin’ “) system is harder than it sounds.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been learning to “sweat” copper pipe, as part of the plumbing curriculum in construction school. It works like this: Say you want to join a straight pipe to a 90-degree elbow, first you paint the joints with solder paste, a.k.a. “flux,” then twist them together. Now fire up a MAPP gas or propane torch. (This is easier than it sounds, kind of like a souped-up Bic flame-thrower that you might use to light your gas grill if the starter is broken.)

Hold the torch in one hand and a spool of solder wire in the other. (Since 2006 regulations, solder is generally a lead-free alloy that includes tin, copper, silver, zinc or other metals.) Heat the copper joint for a few seconds, until it starts to discolor and the flux starts to sizzle. Now touch the solder (pronounced “saw-der”) wire to it and see if the wire melts. If the copper joint is hot enough—but not too damn hot—the heat will draw the molten solder up into the joint, making a water-tight seal. But if it’s too damn hot, the solder will drip away. No seal.

I’ve heard it said that sweating pipe is more art than science. I, too, tend to be more art than science. I still haven’t mastered the process. More often than not, I overheat the pipe so that, rather than getting drawn up into the joint by healthy capillary action, the solder drops straight to the floor in defeat.

The resulting pattern of shiny starburts on the classroom floor invariably reminds me of bleigießen. And, being more art than science, I can’t help but pause to study my future in the silver splatter.

I still don’t know exactly what I’ll do when I graduate from construction school in December, but if the fallen solder says anything, I’m guessing I won’t be a plumber.



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