Though they can be tiny in size and not so pretty to look at, precious metal scraps and sweeps have the potential to add up to hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars over the years in your shop.
Valuable scrap could be hiding in your bench drawers, on your buffs and under your feet. Are you capturing it in a way that gets you the most money back? Jeweler and Rio Grande Jewelry Tech Team member Shane Hendren has decades of experience in getting the most out of his precious metal scrap.
By following a few simple steps and having the right equipment on hand, Shane says that you can turn "what in the past would have been a total loss" into real money that goes right back into your business.
Rio Grande's Precious Metals Recycling Service accepts all sorts of precious metal scrap—including bits of wire and sheet, broken jewelry, chips from engraving, filings thrown off from your flex shaft, and ingots made from scrap you've melted down yourself. We can even buy back precious metal casting scrap, such as sprue buttons. But not all precious metal scrap is created equal.
"Getting the maximum return is a matter of having your scraps as clean as possible," Shane says. And when we talk about "clean" scrap, we're talking about the purity of your scrap, not its actual cleanliness.
Mixed metals and materials require extra steps in refining, resulting in a smaller payment percentage for you. So it pays to keep as much foreign matter—such as residual investment on sprue buttons or stones in old jewelry—out of your scrap. "Working with metals separately is advantageous," Shane adds; you don't want precious metal types contaminating each other and lowering your total payment amount.
Shane uses his workbench's catch drawer to collect chips and fillings while engraving sterling silver. But when he's working on gold, Shane has a sweet trick: He sets a cookie tray into the drawer to catch any gold scraps. As soon as he's done working with the gold, he removes the tray of gold filings from his drawer.
Shane says you might dedicate a different cookie tray to each of the metals you work with—for fine silver, sterling silver, gold and base metals. (You can't recycle base metals at Rio Grande; you just don't want them anywhere near your precious metal scrap, Shane says.)
Another easy way to ensure clean bench scraps: Capture the precious metal fiilngs your flex shaft kicks off before they fall anywhere. Running the flex shaft inside a clear chamber—which can include work chambers, grinding boxes or gold collectors—prevents filings from being thrown all over your shop. In addition to keeping your precious metal scrap contained right from the start, Shane says your shop will stay cleaner and you won't need to wear eye protection while performing those tasks.
(Shane uses another DIY tool at home: a clear plastic pretzel barrel that he's sawn the bottom off of. When he's done working inside the sideways barrel, he screws on the lid, flips the barrel upside-down and gives it a few taps to collect the shavings into the lid.)
When Shane is getting ready to send his bench filings in to Rio Grande's Precious Metals Recycling Service, he always runs a magnet over them to draw out non-precious metal, such as broken saw blade bits. Shane points out that the catch tray drawers in professional workbenches are removable; he removes his drawer completely and dumps the the filings into an appropriate container. If needed, he uses a fine-haired bench brush to collect any remaining scraps.
Rio Grande's Precious Metals Recycling Service does not recycle sweeps—the darker "dust" that settles into the crevices of your shop, your filters and your wheels. Shane's rules of thumb: "Sweeps are what you get on your floor, whereas scrap and filings come from your bench drawer. The majority of sweeps is lint; the majority of filings is metal."
Sweeps contain only a small fraction of precious metal, but it adds up to real money when you send sweep-filled materials away to a refiner for processing. Depending on the production of your shop, however, it could take decades to collect enough sweeps to meet the refiner's requirements.
But jewelers do have an option for small quantities of sweeps, Shane points out. "Both scraps and sweeps can be melted down in your own electric furnace, poured into an ingot mold and sent to Rio Grande for refining," he says. "We test the ingot for its purity—the higher the purity, the higher the buy-back price we pay." The sweeps will lower the ingot's overall purity, but the advantage is you'll be getting money back on what would otherwise be a loss.
Electric furnaces are perfect for melting precious metal sweeps and scraps, Shane says, because the enclosed system protects and retains all of your materials. If you were to try to melt them down with a torch in an open crucible, "as soon as you introduce the flame, the air from the torch would blow them away," he says.
Do you have a buffing station? Make sure it has a hood to get the most money back in sweeps. "Having a good vacuum system with filters on your buffer means you'll lose even less precious metals while buffing," Shane says. A system with a vacuum hood will keep your work area clean, and their buffing wheels and filters can be sent to the refiners.
Mass finishers—including vibratory finishers and barrel tumblers—are another source of sweeps, as they remove tiny amounts of metal while they rub against pieces. A simple flow-thru system can can help you recapture precious metals in the form of sludge, which can be dried and sent to the refiners. "It's a micro amount," Shane says, "but if you're doing big production, it adds up." To avoid cross-contamination and ensure the best possible buy-back rate, Shane highly recommends running separate mass finishers for different metal types.
Back at your bench, dust collectors and precious metal recovery systems are a great option for capturing superfine filings and sweeps, since they run continuously as you work. Then the filters can be sent to the refiners for money back.
Finally, Shane recommends one simple addition to any jeweler's shop; carpet. "Anything that goes into carpet will get captured," he says. Once the carpet has reached the end of its useful life, you just "roll it up, bag it and ship it to the refiner." (Please note that Rio Grande cannot recycle carpet or sweeps-filled materials.)
Shane tells the story of a friend who sent her studio's banged-up carpet to the refiner; it burned away to reveal 20 years' worth of sweeps amounting to roughly $20,000. You don't have to install wall-to-wall carpet, either. Shane mentions jeweler Chris Ploof as an example; he simply places small pieces of carpet under each bench in his shop.
Refiners can process sweeps and sweep-filled materials that Rio Grande can't—including carpets, polishing wheels, buffs and vacuum filters. If you have sweeps but don't know where to send them, talk to our friends or read jewelry blogs to see who they recommend. Then call around and talk to the refiners you're interested in.
Most refiners have restrictions. Some refiners will only process certain types or amounts of materials. Refiners may also subtract expenses, such as lot charges and assaying fees, from the total payout you get from them. Be sure to ask refiners for this type of information to help you decide where to send your sweeps.
If you have a small amount of sweeps that would otherwise go to waste, consider donating them to Rio Grande's Sweeps for CERF program. Although we can't recycle them ourselves, we collect sweeps on behalf of American craftspeople who need emergency assistance. To date, we've sent thousands of dollars in sweeps to the Craft Emergency Relief Fund + Artists' Emergency Resources (CERF+), and will continue to do so.
Because of the large ratio of metal to waste, sweeps sent to a refiner won't get as good of a return as sending in properly sorted precious metal scrap to Rio Grande's Precious Metals Recycling Service. And Rio has another advantage: We can credit your account as soon as your precious metal scrap is processed, immediately putting that money back toward your bottom line. When it comes to precious metal scrap, "Rio Grande is the best bang for your buck," Shane says.