Electroforming! This is the process I use to make many of my free-form copper pieces. When I first started experimenting with this process I ran into SO many problems and couldn't seem to find much information about it. Now that I feel like I know what I'm doing, for the most part, I thought I would share what I've learned with whomever wants to read.
What is electroforming??
There is some science involved in the process, but I'm no scientist- so I'm going to explain like a not-scientist. Simply put, electroforming is the intricate process of controlling a metal deposit of copper onto a conductive surface, whether it be an organic or inorganic material. Basically, a thick “skin” of metal is built up into a rigid surface (in this case, the ring or pendant form).
How I do it
- The first thing I do when I want to begin an electroforming project is seal my stones with lacquer. Any kind of permanent lacquer will do- as long as your piece is permanently sealed. This protects your stone from being damaged by the harsh electroforming solution and keeps your solution from being contaminated by foreign materials. Now wait for the lacquer to dry completely (I usually wait at least 24 hours).
- Next, I prepare to make the base of the jewelry piece by using two-part epoxy clay, which is ready to use after thoroughly mixing two equal parts of the resin and hardener. When making a ring, I cut and form the ring shank with half round copper wire, then use the clay to attach the stone and create a strong and sculptural base. Once the clay cures (I wait another 24 hours), it becomes a rock-hard material.
- The next step is to paint a layer of conductive paint onto the piece. After shaking the paint container to mix it up a bit, I simply paint an even layer of the paint onto every surface that I want to be covered in copper. It's important that the painted areas make contact with each other or will make contact with the wire used in the next step otherwise that area will remain un-plated. Allow the paint to dry completely (I wait another 24 hours to be safe).
- Next, the piece to be electroformed is ready to be suspended in the glass beaker. I take a generous amount of the copper wire and wrap it around the ring- snugly enough that it does not fall, but not so wrapped up that all the paint is covered. It's important to make contact with the conductive paint or it will not get plated with copper. I use a pair of chopsticks to set across the top of the beaker- this allows me to slide the end of the copper wire between the two sticks so the ring is suspended in the middle of the beaker.
- For my copper anodes, I drill a hole of the top of each strip so I can attach them together with copper wire. Before putting them in the beaker, I scrub them clean and to a high shine with Bar Keeper's Friend and a piece of fine steel wool.
- Next, I carefully pour the electroforming solution into the beaker, making sure the ring is fully submerged. After making sure my rectifier is turned off and dials are zeroed out, I clip the positive and negative leads onto the annode and cathode. The red/positive lead clips to the annode/copper strips, and the black/negative lead clips to the cathode/suspended ring. (I remember this because my piece to be electroformed is painted with black graphite paint, and the negative lead is black.)
- After making sure I have a good connection and the suspended piece is not touching the side copper pieces, I turn on the rectifier. Supposedly, the best results come from increasing the AMP setting at .1 for every approximate square inch of painted surface. I've found that it's better to have the settings too low, than too high. This allows the copper to build up nice and slow without becoming bumpy or flaky.
- Now, I wait. I usually wait approximately 12 hours, depending on the type of jewelry piece of how many items are suspended. For rings, I like to get a pretty thick layer of copper built up to create a more durable surface so I may wait 12-15 hours, while for a pendant I may only wait about 10 hours. It's also a good idea to check the items after a half hour or so has passed to make sure the connection is good and everything is plating properly.
- Once I'm happy with the thickness of copper plating, I turn off the rectifier, unclamp the leads and bring my beaker to the sink. (Some people recommend using distilled water for this part, but I've always just used tap water and it's been fine.) I remove the ring from the electroforming solution and rinse it in water. I also remove the anodes and rinse them. I place a funnel lined with 2-3 coffee filters in the original electroforming solution bottle and slowly pour the solution back into the container. The coffee filters help filter out any bits of copper that may be floating around still.
- The final step is polishing. I like to use a liver of sulfur patina to give my pieces some contrast- I mix a drop or two of liver of sulfur gel with warm water then give my finished pieces a dip until the metal is nice and dark. Next, I use a variety of different attachments on my rotary tool to get the pieces nice and shiny: a couple different grits of detail abrasive brushes, and a steel brush. I usually seal the piece with a couple layers of SE Johnson Paste Wax and give it a good buffing once it dries. All done!