Electroforming

Electroforming around Sea Glass February 12, 2016 16:47

Electroforming Sea Glass

electroforming sea glass 

Here are a few pieces of sea glass that I electroformed with copper around the edges. I used both silver conductive paint and graphite paint to compare the differences in technique.  Silver paint is really sticky and so I simply painted around the edge of the glass with the paint with one coat and let the paint dry, done! For the graphite sample I added and extra step. First, I painted the edge of the glass with water-based varnish to help the graphite paint stick.  After the varnish dried I painted the edge with graphite paint.  Regardless of the paint you use, be sure to paint a bit over the edge so that the copper will "wrap" around the edge of the glass like a bezel. 

Attach a wire making sure the wire touches the paint around the glass and then electroform.  I plated these one at a time with the following: .50A for 10 minutes and then 3-6 hours at .15A

conductive paint electroforming sea glass

The end result is the same with either conductive paint.  The little black and white sample (upper right) was painted with graphite.  And if you are wondering where the images came from, I used ITS to apply images to the glass prior to electroforming.  Sealer was used to make the images extra durable.


Testing conductive paints-the pretzel experiment February 12, 2016 15:44

Electroforming pretzels, testing conductive paints

I’ve been promising to talk more about conductive paints, the differences in paints and what factors vary performance.  Although there are several types on the market, my two favorite paints are: water-based graphite paint and solvent based silver paint.  Both of these paints have appealing attributes and depending on what you are electroforming you may prefer one over the other.  I performed a side by side test using pretzels as a representation of any organic object you might electroform.

All of the pretzels were prepped and coated with two coats of water-based varnish using one of our disposable firm brushes.  Care was taken to cover the salt on the pretzels as well as to fill little pockets where the surface was chipped or broken to insure complete sealing of the pretzel.

Both sets were covered with one thin layer of the respective conductive paint.  The graphite paint was easier to apply than the silver and held detail well.  The silver paint was thicker and dried quickly.  In hindsight I might have had better results to thin the silver paint with lacquer thinner to remedy this. (You can buy thinner specifically for silver paint.)  I was able to rinse the graphite paint from the brushes with water. However, I tossed the brushes that were used with the silver paint. In either case the brushes were disposable so it wasn’t a big deal.

After the pretzels were dry, they were ready to electroform.  The silver coated pretzels were waterproof so they could be handled with wet hands and was not as vulnerable to washing off in the plating solution.  Graphite is really sensitive to moisture so care was taken to keep the graphite coated pretzels dry and then to make sure the current and power were on before submerging the pretzels into the electroforming solution.

 

A copper conductive wire was attached to each of the first samples (one silver pretzel and one graphite pretzel) and each was lowered it’s own beaker to electroform. As with most projects, I turned the current up a bit to get the pieces going for about 10 minutes before lowering the current to complete the electroforming session.  The first thing I noticed is that the silver paint allowed the current to flow around the pretzel quickly and uniformly.  The graphite took a bit longer and I watched as the copper progressed to cover the surface.  Graphite is more sensitive to current that is set too high or too low more so than silver.  For this first round I had the current set at 1A which was too high for the graphite paint.  The wire built a crust on it quickly which then prevented the current from effectively coating the pretzel.  I found that .5A was better for the subsequent samples. I was able to remove the graphite pretzel after 10 minutes and replace the wire with a clean one which helped stop the build up and allowed me to continue electroforming the same piece without failure.  Both pieces were bright and shiny after several hours.

For the remainder of the samples I was amazed to see that even though the pretzels were coated with different paints and were electroformed separately, the finishes looked identical.  As you can see on the 2nd set of pretzels they both look as though the copper picked up a patina.  They both plated uniformly.  The copper could be polished later to change the color if desired. 

For the 3rd round, I added several droppers of brightener in both beakers to try to get the bright pure copper color back.  The silver paint was more forgiving of the chemistry change and plated just fine.   The graphite sample was slightly more “dull” or “flat” in sheen and also plated with some cracks and lines on the surface.  The brightener seems to have thrown things off a bit in the beaker on the graphite test side. Interestingly enough the subsequent pieces did better with the graphite side (I’m assuming the brightener became less potent over time with use).

The last set of pretzels worked out better than the 3rd round.  Even though there was a “patina” color on both samples, they were bright and shiny.  The brightener seemed to mellow to a good level and the solution was in good shape.  At this point, both beakers had quite a bit of debris in the bottom of each and so I strained the solutions through a coffee filter. The solution was still good to go, but won’t last indefinitely as it will eventually need more acid or to be replaced altogether.

In summary, both paints performed well to conduct electricity and to allow even plating.  Here is what I would say are the pros/cons of each. I personally use graphite most of the time.  I use silver occasionally for pieces where I’m at risk for the graphite washing off such as plating on smooth glass. Although you can paint on glass with graphite if you paint an undercoat of varnish to help it stick. See my post about electroforming on Sea glass.   For more information on other paints see my comparison pdf here: Comparing Conductive Paints for Electroforming

Comparing graphite vs. silver paint:

Silver Conductive Paint-solvent based from Rio Grande

Pros:

  • Excellent conductivity-forgiving of wide range of current
  • Initial plating is fast
  • Good adhesion to smooth surfaces like glass
  • Made with silver
  • Good support from Rio Grande and widely used

Cons:

  • Thicker than water based paints, fine details may suffer
  • Expensive-follows the silver market price
  • Hard to clean up, must use solvent based paint remover to clean brushes, etc. contains Butyl Acetate
  • Safety precautions: respiration, skin and ingestion warnings
  • Flammable shipping restrictions

Graphite Paint-water based from Sherri Haab Designs

Pros:

  • Excellent conductivity
  • Small particle size to retain detail
  • Inexpensive in relation to silver
  • Can be thinned down and cleaned up easily with water
  • Works very well for fine work using an air brush when thinned down
  • You can see where electroforming is forming during process (easier to see than copper conductive paints)
  • Can be shipped by air and overseas and less hazardous than silver paint

Cons:

  • Sensitive to current levels (too much or too little current may arrest the plating process)
  • Does not stick well to smooth surfaces like glass, must use a “tacky” base such as water based varnish or white glue which will help the graphite paint to stick.
  • If it is thinned down with too much water it will bead like a watercolor paint and not adhere well when painted.
  • Contains ammonia, which some people may be sensitive to in concentrated amounts. 
  • Respirator must be worn when spraying for industrial use
  • Some people can be sensitive with dermal contact.  Gloves will prevent contact

Electroforming or Plating with Gold, Silver or Other Metals June 09, 2015 11:51 4 Comments

Electroforming or Plating with Gold, Silver or Other Metals

We get two questions more frequently than any others about electroforming; this post is an attempt to answer both of these questions and to offer some new information about plating with various metals using the E3 Duo Controller. 

This question more than any other: Can I electroform with silver or gold? The answer is yes you can, but I’ve never met an artist who electroforms in gold or silver. To do this you would simply substitute gold or silver for the copper and use the appropriate plating solutions. I haven't seen a tutorial other than commercial labs showing it on YouTube.  My son pointed out that people might be asking about electroforming erroneously when what they really mean to ask about is plating. That is covered in my 2nd topic below.

But to first answer the question on electroforming: Electroforming is traditionally done with copper and then plated later with other metals. For practical reasons it would be massively expensive to electroform in gold and silver but it is possible. Also, gold and silver are relatively soft so it would take a lot of precious metal to form a strong layer over an object. Typically cyanide based gold and silver solutions are used for electroforming because the cyanide keeps the metal suspended in solution for long periods of plating. Commercial labs use cyanide solutions to electroform gold and silver. I personally do not teach this or have an interest in doing it myself because of 1-Expense, 2-Strength and 3-Safety.  There are YouTube videos and books out there on the subject if you Google electroforming with gold or silver. Most of these references show the process being done commercially for the reasons I mention above. It’s pretty intense to get into gold and silver electroforming.

The other question that comes up most frequently:

Will the E3 Eform Controller plate other metals such as gold and silver?

The answer is yes. Simply use the controller in place of a rectifier and set it to a low current level while plating. Most plating solutions only take a few minutes.  Each metal calls for different steps, solutions, anodes, equipment and safety concerns. Plating takes quite a bit of training and knowledge so be sure to research the steps of the particular metal and solution you want to use before committing to plating.

To give a brief overview of plating, plating is the process of applying a thin layer of metal over metal. To prepare a piece for plating the piece must be cleaned with an electro-cleaning solution and then dipped in acid prior to plating. The piece must also be rinsed between solutions to avoid contamination. The piece then goes through a series of steps involving heating and agitating the solution (if called for) as the metals are plated. If I were to get serious about plating different metals I would invest in a plating station unit like this one below because it provides heat and agitation to certain beakers where needed: 

http://www.riogrande.com/Product/Midas-Six-Station-Plating-System-1-Liter/331961?Pos=6

Certain metals cannot be plated over one another without a barrier layer of metal between. For example a layer of nickel should be plated between copper and gold to keep the gold from migrating with the silver. RioGrande.com has great charts on their website which can be found with each plating solution to show you the steps in order for plating. Here is an example of the information offered with the 24K gold cyanide solution: 

http://www.riogrande.com/Product/Midas-24K-Gold-Cyanide-Based-Concentrate-Plating-Solution/335082?Pos=9

Along with knowledge of the steps and becoming familiar with the characteristics of each plating solution, the most important consideration is SAFETY. When you get into plating various metals you can be dealing with very dangerous chemicals. 24K gold is available in non-cyanide and Cyanide formulas. The cyanide is what makes the gold so rich and beautiful. But it can be fatal if misused. You need to wear a NIOSH mask, proper gloves, apron, goggles, and use a fume hood for ventilation just to name a few of the safety precautions.  If you go to Rio Grande’s website and study each plating solution it will make sense what is involved for plating. This is not a casual craft.

With all of this said, our controller is meant for the small jewelry-making studio for electroforming and plating on a small scale. Personally if I wanted to mass-produce plated pieces I would send my pieces to a commercial lab. I electroform with copper frequently and then I plate those pieces with various metals occasionally. This piece was a leaf that I electroformed with copper and then it was plated with nickel followed with 14K gold.


Successful shiny copper plating-get the power going first! June 02, 2015 12:13 1 Comment

IMPORTANT to turn to the power on BEFORE you submerge your piece in the copper plating solution.

Look at the unicorn toy on left, it was in copper plating solution no power for the first 5 minutes. The horse toy on right had power and current flowing right from the start!  Both toys were left for several hours to electroform.  The horse built a heavy layer of shiny copper, the unicorn never really formed other than a thin dull coat.

I’m always learning something new about electroforming and plating. This weekend Dan and I were electroforming pieces with copper and I put a prepared piece (covered with sealer and water-based graphite paint) into the copper plating solution without turning on the current. I left it there for about 5 minutes before turning the controller on. The result wasn’t good. The piece didn’t plate very well and the copper was a very dull salmon color. The next piece was a similar charm (small rubber toy) prepared in the same way. This time we turned the controller power on and the current was set to HIGH. The prepared piece was then submerged to begin the plating process. We left it on high for just about a minute and then set it to a medium setting until finished (several hours to electroform). The result was beautiful. The copper was bright and shiny with a thick deposition of copper. After several experiments we discovered two important things: 

  1. Always turn the power on first and then submerge the piece into the solution while the current is flowing.
  1. Start with your controller set on HIGH for about a minute to get the plating started. This will expedite the coverage of the copper over the graphite paint. Since the graphite paint is water soluble, this boost in current minimizes the amount of graphite that might flake or soak off had the piece been left longer before plating. We also think that the boost in current helps to limit the contamination to the solution that occurs when organic materials are electroformed. Even with a boost in current, organic materials still need to be sealed very well prior to applying conductive paint and plating.

I found that by making sure the power and current were on prior to plating, my solution stayed viable for many subsequent pieces.  I only had to add a few drops of brightener after plating 5-6 pieces.


Electroforming Question-Why is my piece dull and not plating? January 16, 2014 15:30

Electroforming is easy, yet there is a lot to learn.  One of the most FAQs we get is: Why is the copper plating surface not bright and shiny? What am I doing wrong?   This happens after plating a few pieces. It's frustrating because it's hard to understand why this suddenly happens when previous pieces plated just fine. The good news is that you can polish it to a high shine because it is simply rough copper.  But make sure you formed the copper thick enough before sanding or polishing.  Here is a pdf to explain why copper can look dull and how the acids are depleted from the plating solution, even after electroforming just a few pieces. The easiest answer is to buy new plating solution.  However, read this to understand the reasons why.  Maintaining your plating solution