Mad About Copper

Beautifully patinated copper.

Helen Driggs
is the Managing Editor
for Lapidary Journal

Jewelry Artist

Sure, I love silver and gold. But my one true love is copper. Nothing hammers like copper. Nothing patinates like copper. Nothing is more forgiving to the beginner metalsmith than copper. And, it is relatively inexpensive. Granted it has problems: oxidation during soldering, allergic reactions when worn by some people. Oh, and discolored skin on others. But once you remember the limitations of using copper as a jewelry metal and then work around them with a creative problem solving frame of mind, copper just can't be beat. So here are three pros and cons and some simple solutions for them to get you working with copper. 

The Pros of Copper:
Fantastic Patination
Copper takes a patina like nobody's business. Almost every ready-made commercial patina solution works famously on copper. You can get the full spectrum of patinas from green to jet black in a matter of seconds with copper. Just be sure to pickle well and scrub the piece as cleanly as you can before applying the patina.

A green way to go black: You don't have to use a chemical patina on copper! A warm hard cooked egg in a plastic bag with the finished, clean copper jewelry object will give you a nice black patina over time.

Hammer Heaven
Copper moves better and faster than any other jewelry metal. You'll anneal less, you don't have to be vigilant about overheating or firescale like you would be with silver, and you can hammer copper for hours and hours to master forming techniques.

Budget Friendly
Last time I checked, you could buy a 6×12 inch sheet of 20 gauge copper for about 10 bucks. What more can I say? I could happily hammer away on a 6 x 12 inch sheet for several days at least. And that doesn't include soldering at all.

The Cons of Copper:
Oxidation During Soldering
For most makers, this seems to be the most difficult part of working with copper. There is a simple solution. Pickle in very strong hot pickle, scrub well with a brass brush after every torch session, and use Prip's flux.

Allergens and Skin Discoloration
The easy fix for this is to make jewelry objects that don't touch skin–pendants, brooches, earring dangles, etc. If you want the piece to touch the skin, make a sterling/copper bimetal sheet and fabricate from there. Use the silver side against the skin and the copper side up. Or spray coat a copper piece with lacquer to seal it and protect the skin. Enough said.

Visible Solder Joins
If you've got a great fit on your parts, they should solder cleanly on copper with the Prip's. If you have big visible joins of silver that bother you, just copperplate the piece in a saturated batch of pickle by dropping a black iron binding wire into the pickle along with the finished piece. The silver solder seams will plate copper during the chemical reaction caused between the ferrous iron and the suspended copper in the pickle solution problem.

Before and after: Here is a copper brooch with visible silver solder joins (I soldered really sloppy for demo purposes) before, and with copper plated solder joins after.

Once you've gotten past the cons and embraced the pros, you're ready to begin experimenting with my favorite metal. To learn from the experts, Contemporary Copper Jewelry  is an excellent resource and is a great resource for all your copper adventures. You can preorder this brand-new book from the Interweave Store now. Then share those copper adventures with us in the Jewelry Making Daily forums!

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