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All I want for Christmas is... a block of charcoal

I was always a little afraid of getting a lump of coal for Christmas. Was that just a ruse told to me by my parents to make me behave myself? What happens if you actually want some coal, or at least, charcoal….?

Hold everything. We’re in real trouble. The business will collapse, everyone out of a job. Mortgages unpaid, repossessions, catastrophe. And all because I can’t find a decent charcoal block anywhere.

My old faithful is on its last legs. It gets burnt and worn away each day. I’d say we have another month or so together, then it’ll all be over. And then what am I going to do?

A charcoal block should be as light as a feather, and as soft as soft. Its primary function is to not conduct heat. Secondary is to bounce heat back, third is to support the piece being soldered. You can press a delicate shape into a soft light block, It will give, and then hold, without draining away any heat. You can scratch it, drill or carve it. You can do anything. Make anything.

A hard old heavy charcoal block is as good as a concrete brick. It can’t be carved, and if it is, where the job touches it’ll sap the heat away and everything will taint before you can get it to solder. Soldering needs to be a directional confident thing. Once you start taking too long, dithering or doubting, you’ve lost it. It simply won’t work. Start again, clean everything up and start from the beginning.

I must have bought over 20 charcoal blocks in the past year or so. An endless search where optimism turns to disappointment.
I never thought a thing like a charcoal block could be such a problem. Anyone got any ideas?

All Alex wants for Christmas is a decent block of charcoal

All Alex wants for Christmas is a decent block of charcoal

Charcoal blocks aside for a minute, Christmas seems (touch wood) to be going (fingers crossed) OK, so far. We were thinking of starting a p/p/h. competition. Pounds Per Hour. We’re all sharing trunk show and Christmas sale duties, the lovely gang are working seven days a week and extra long hours. Susie and Rosie took the lead at their amazing luvvie sale at Vogue. Those fash girls were bashing down the door before they’d even set up properly. Rakhi and April were chasing the prize at their super little trunk show in Chancery Lane. No amount of snow was going to keep those legal beagles away. Yoko, Nazan and I did sterling work at our studio sale. But then we found out that the girls in Liberty were playing too. Emma and Mayo manned the Special Collection stand in store, but those Liberty girls are pros, it was a time trial; how long would it take to sell £1,000 worth. They got it down to three minutes so hats off to them. Respect.

Just a little worrying now I read this back. We’re going to have to keep them well stocked, my first job tomorrow morning…

I love working the trunk shows because it’s a good bit of ‘back to basics’ for me. It’s hard work selling things. And it’s very humbling to meet such lovely people to whom your work means so much. In Ede and Ravenscroft I met a lovely young woman who had wanted a particular piece for over a year, but couldn’t really afford it. So she hadn’t gone out once in November. Every time she had turned down an invitation she put away the money she had saved. By the end of the month she had enough to come along and buy the necklace. How brilliant is that. If we can remember her every time we make a piece we’ll be better for it.

No danger of me not going out for a month. It’s the Christmas party season looming. We’re hiring a pub and doing karaoke. Can’t wait. My old faithful is ‘Beyond the Sea’, which I sing pretty much like Bobby Darin, only better in many ways.

The kids came in to work to make pressies for their Mum. I’m secretly training them up, part of my plan for an early retirement. Actually my little Libby made a scarily super pendant all on her own. I might be getting jealous!

Alex's offspring are giving him a run for his money

Alex’s offspring are giving him a run for his money

We host the Sallie Army band outside our house for Christmas carols soon. Mulled wine, neighbours and hot dogs. The kids and I send our wish lists to Santa via the chimney on Christmas eve. We write on tissue and float them up and away. How Santa finds then I’ll never know. Magic I suppose. Let’s hope for a little magic this year… ‘dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is a BLOODY SOFT CHARCOAL BLOCK!’

Readers' comments (1)

  • Anonymous

    We supply charcoal soldering blocks for jewellers and there are two types. The soft block you are looking for is made directly from a piece of wood the type we supply is willow. The other type is made by compressing charcoal of sawdust and other wood by products into a block. There is both a visible and physical difference, but both are described by suppliers as natural charcoal.

    Visually the willow blocks still have the grain of a sold piece of wood but the compressed blocks have no grain. The physical difference of the two is altogether different in the context of soldering.

    The willow blocks are soft and malleable; they have a reducing effect of oxidisation and reflect less heat than the compressed blocks. The compressed blocks are hard and brittle and reflect far more heat than the willow. For soldering silver the willow are by far the preferred block.

    Both types of blocks are mostly sourced from Poland and before 2003/4 the compressed blocks were not available from UK wholesalers. We were informed that when Poland joined the EU restrictions on certain types of charcoal production restricted supply of the wood blocks which at first raised the price and then led to the lower priced compressed blocks been introduced as a replacement. We do now have a continual but limited supply of natural willow, however the compressed blocks are cheaper so they have remained a stock item and far outsell the willow which we no longer catalogue but still hold stock.

    The combination of your large torch and the heat reflection of the compressed charcoal will make heat control incredibly difficult. It will probably lead to the silver in contact with the block reaching temperatures hot enough for the copper content to oxidise leading to “fire stain”.

    The solution would be the willow blocks or a smaller, hotter more precise torch giving you more temperature control and speeding the soldering process up without the block heating up to such temperatures.

    Another solution I have read about is to “anneal” the compressed blocks but I have not tried this. However this solution is also something to bear in mind when trying a willow block. Natural products being natural products will always differ from one batch to the next and your old block will have been very, very, very “annealed” so any new block will not be identical.

    I have sent my details to info@alexmonroe.com and would like to send you a sample block to try. If they are what you are looking for then maybe we can add contact details to this post, if not you can delete it or name & shame.

    Best regards

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