If you ever want to pretend you're a mad scientist while making jewelry, electroforming is the technique for you!
When I first learned about electroforming (or electroplating) jewelry, I couldn't wait to try it. I'd been saving up a bunch of found objects and beach treasures for years that I knew would be ideal for jewelry, I just wasn't sure how. I had a great time experimenting with electroforming all kinds of treasures (shells, buttons, acorn caps, seed pods) and I learned a few valuable lessons along the way.
Using copper strips vs. wire coils: The only hard part about electroforming is using copper wire, because you have to keep it shined up in order to get a good bright finish on your pieces. (Remember, you don't have to use wire when electroforming jewelry with other metals like silver, because the metal particles are in the solution.) The electroforming kit setup that I was using had a coil of heavy-gauge copper wire that has to be cleaned periodically with a brass brush. Have you ever tried to scrub a coil of wire? It's not easy, and getting poked with the brass wires didn't make it any more pleasant. To get around this chore, I switched to four or five strips of straight copper, either scraps from copper sheet or plant markers. The straight pieces are much easier to scrub back to a nice bright finish. This results in better looking pieces and faster plating.
Electroforming one piece vs. several: Even though it really doesn't take that long to make electroformed jewelry, at first my excitement was too overwhelming for my patience, and I wanted it to hurry, hurry, hurry. So thinking I was clever, I wired several pieces together and suspended them in the electroforming solution at the same time. It didn't work. After shining a flashlight into the solution to watch the metal form on the pieces (and I just admitted it to all of you, too!), I learned that during electroforming, the metal particles start in one place and sort of grow from there. That didn't change by having more than one piece in the solution.
When I began electroforming, I had expected the piece to get a thin film of copper all over that would get thicker with time, but it doesn't happen that way. A few metal particles attach to the piece you're electroforming in one place, and then more attach right next to those first ones. It's kind of like covering something with cotton balls instead of wrapping cotton batting around it; electroforming occurs dot by dot. Unexpected bonus: depending on how you apply the graphite paint beforehand, you can stop the electroforming process at any time by just pulling the piece out of the solution, at which time you'll probably have a pretty interesting splash of metal on it that could make for a unique design element. Which brings me to my next point . . .
Electroforming all vs. portions of an item: I found a tiny bone (I think) on the beach that I wanted to electroform part of, so I only painted a portion of it with graphite paint and left the rest natural. Either because the bone was porous or because my solution was very fresh and strong, or both, the white part soaked up a little of the blue dye in the solution and now has a slightly blue hue. It's not awful, but it's not the bright white bone it was before, and I could probably bleach it back to that state. Because it was an organic piece, I did use the standard coating of acrylic, but that wasn't enough. I should have tried to protect it with some other sealant, and if I ever find a similar piece, I'll experiment. So, lesson learned: If you want to keep part of a piece natural, consider how it might react in the solution.
Using distilled vs. purified water: I accidentally used a jug of purified water from my hurricane stash instead of the distilled water that was recommended to rinse pieces after electroforming. The impurities in purified water (ironic, I know) created a lovely patina on my pieces that I'll probably never be able to replicate. You know I love patina, especially on copper, so I didn't mind–but if you want pieces that look like bright shiny copper, you'll definitely want to make sure you use distilled water.
For more great tips and to learn all about the electroforming process, check out Denise Peck's Easy Electroforming for Jewelry DVD (or instant download), in the Jewelry Making Daily Shop! If you're ready to jump in, check out our electroforming kit!
P.S. If you're completely new to electroforming, read my first blog about it.