Make Gallery-Worthy Wire Jewelry With Proper Finishing and Patina

Here’s a guest post from Ronna Sarvas Weltman, a jewelry maker and regular contributor to Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry on topics that include all kinds of wire info and beyond wire as well. Here, she discusses the importance of finishing touches on handmade wire jewelry. Enjoy! –Tammy

Calligraphy Pendant by Sarah Thompson

Calligraphy Pendant by Sarah Thompson

Finishing Touches

by Ronna Sarvas Weltman
First published in the April/May 2014 issue of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry.

Would you like to know something that breaks my heart? Lost opportunity. Particularly a lost opportunity when someone is so close to a goal, and then it is lost at the last moment. Would you like to know the jewelry finding that all too often breaks my heart? The clasp. I often see it like a monkey wrench accidentally dropped into a car motor in the middle of a repair, causing new damage. Someone designed a beautiful necklace or bracelet. All the parts play well with each other, except…the inexpensive, mass-produced clasp. It’s sitting there making no sense. It has no congruence with the rest of the design. It’s a piece of hardware gumming up the works.

Happily, I don’t need to visit a therapist to explore my heartbreak. Talk therapy with sympathetic fellow artists who share my pain does the trick. Wire jewelry artist Kathy Frey also gives a lot of thought to helping other wire jewelers achieve gallery-level quality in their work.

“When finishing jewelry pieces,” she explains, “That’s an important time to still look closely at the details. That’s where you can really shine as a designer.” Frey addresses clasps in particular. “Make sure your clasps are really nice. Make them yourself or find clasps that work. Show that you’ve put thought into your entire piece-not just the pendant, for example, if you’ve made a pendant.” Frey also puts careful thought into the functionality as well as the aesthetics of her clasps. “Add an extender chain to the clasp so more clients can use it. Look at the extender chain. Put a little pearl or ball, for example, at the end, to show you’ve paid attention to details, and added them thoughtfully and intentionally.”

Scorpio Earrings by Sarah Thompson

Scorpio Earrings by Sarah Thompson

Not to get all Zen-y on you, but as I chatted with Frey, I realized that the focus on finishing actually begins before one even gets started. “I do a lot of preventive finishing,” she explains. “I keep my wire in good condition. I store it so it doesn’t get tarnished or have marks. I look at it before I wrap with it, and sometimes run it through a polishing cloth so I can work with clean wire. For all of my wraps, I always make sure that I have high-end flush cutters, so when I tuck the ends in, I rarely have to do filing. I work with good tools because it saves me time in the long run, so I don’t have to do a lot of finishing. Taking care of supplies and using really good tools are all part of preventive care.”

Frey’s approach to achieving fine finishing is multifaceted. “There are so many different types of finishing,” she explains. “One type is always making sure there are no ends that can catch on anything. I’m usually wrapping a thinner wire over a thicker wire. I tuck the wire on the inside so it isn’t exposed and can’t be seen. Sometimes when I use thicker wire, I will have an exposed end. If it catches when I run my fingers or fabric over it, I use tiny watchmaker files. I use diamond files because you want them sharp so you’re not wasting time and energy. I go back and forth over the edge until it gets really smooth. I always take the time to feel any possible exposed edge and go over it with a sharp file.”

For many of us, the last step to a finished piece of jewelry is achieving a beautiful patina. Liver of sulfur will darken metal, but once the piece is dipped and darkened, Frey considers her many options for where to go from there. “I use liver of sulfur if I’m going for a straight black,” she explains. “Liver of sulfur usually comes out matte. I also like shiny surfaces that look like hematite. Sometimes I go over the surface with a brass brush and buff it heavily and intensely to achieve the hematite look.”

Long Nest Vine Hooks by Kathy Frey. Photo by Audrey Keller.

Long Nest Vine Hooks by Kathy Frey. Photo by Audrey Keller.

Of course, heavy brushing and buffing removes patina, which can be challenging if your aim is to keep the metal as dark as possible. Frey has advice to manage this as well. “If you have problems with patinas not sticking and staying black enough, brush your piece before you use the liver of sulfur. You can brush it with any number of things. A brass brush will give it a soft brushed look. You can use a Scotch-Brite pad for a more matte look. If you’re working with a smooth wire, you’re scratching the surface, so the patina is getting into all the tiny abrasions. It isn’t as highly polished, and the slight microabrasions aren’t being rubbed against the skin, so it can give the impression that the patina is lasting longer.”

A patina’s durability is also an important consideration in finishing. “I like the organic nature of jewelry, whether or not I’ve applied a patina,” explains Frey. “The look of the piece is going to continue to evolve and I like that. There are times I’m creating a gradient effect and I want to preserve that for as long as possible. I like to use water-based lacquer. If the lacquer is too thick, it can create webs. You can use water to thin water-based lacquer. It helps to stabilize the patina. I’ve played with spray and liquid dip lacquers. They all give a slightly different look to metal. You can tell there is something on it.”

But Frey doesn’t use lacquer automatically. “A lot of pieces I do with liver of sulfur, I like the idea they are going to continue to change. It will patina or tarnish naturally. It’s an organic thing. When I’m oxidizing a piece and someone wears it for a time, there will be shiny highlights. It adds depth and dimension, with the piece being shiny on the outside and darker on the inside. Dimension is cool. Wire has dimension. The piece has dimension. It’s just organic.”

Wings Unfolding by Kathy Frey. Photo by Audrey Keller.

Wings Unfolding by Kathy Frey. Photo by Audrey Keller.

Sarah Thompson is another wire jewelry artist whose artistry and finishing techniques leave me aghast with admiration. Thompson makes most of her jewelry with fine silver wire because of its malleability. “My designs are intricate,” she explains, “so I need to be able to bend and reshape wire without it getting brittle and hardening. Fine silver is easier than sterling silver to go back and correct. It’s easier to anneal, and you don’t have to pickle it. It has a good flow when you torch it, and it’s smooth when you melt it.”

Thompson’s work has an astonishingly sublime gunmetal finish. She has a host of techniques for achieving it, starting with patience. “We tend to be in a hurry, and we take our piece out of the liver of sulfur before it’s fully black,” she explains. “Wait until it’s a rich matte black color. It seems like a simple idea, but we don’t always do it. Wire weaving has a lot of depth. You want high contrast to see the details and dimension that come from intricate wire work. Fine silver takes longer. You can put copper in and out, and it quickly gets that black color. With sterling silver, leave it in and let it sit until it’s a rich black.”

Thompson uses 0000 steel wool to brush her pieces after they’ve been blackened with liver of sulfur. She adds dish soap to the steel wool and brushes her piece in the kitchen sink with a little bit of water running from the faucet. “I get all the high points and it easily gets the liver of sulfur off while leaving the recesses black. I put it in water, rinse it off, and do it again in the areas that need it. Most people use steel wool dry. When it’s dry, all the little particles fly around. With water, the particles drop into the sink. Make sure you go back through, once you’re finished, with a toothbrush or soft brass bristle brush in the water so you get all the little pieces of steel wool out of the wire weaving. And,” she cautions, “you want to make sure you rinse your sink. It will leave rust marks if you leave particles in your sink.”

Cascade Pendant by Sarah Thompson

Cascade Pendant by Sarah Thompson

Once that’s finished, the piece is polished to a matte finish. Thompson has a couple recommendations for achieving a mirror finish if that is your preference. “I design my pieces so the gems go in afterward. I tumble the piece with steel shot and Dawn dish soap from 30 minutes to an hour or two. Steel shot burnishes the dark areas so it’s a smooth transition from light to dark.”

Like Frey, Thompson also recommends working with high-quality tools. “If you don’t have a tumbler, a super soft brass bristle brush that costs about $14 from a jewelry supplier is worth the investment. It will give a mirror finish without a lot of hassle, because it’s not scratching, it’s smoothing. It is so soft, it actually gives it a polish.”

Of course, it is important to ascertain that the piece that looks beautiful on your work surface is as, or more, beautiful when worn. I have a car analogy for that too, although happily it doesn’t involve dropping monkey wrenches and destruction. Rather, when I design a new piece, I take it on a “test drive” to make sure that it drapes or hangs exactly as I’ve intended. Gravity, physics, and anatomy are all part of the equation to ensure that a piece looks just right on its wearer. Once you’ve verified it’s good to go, then indeed you can change your focus from finishing and turn instead to your plans for your next design. –RSW

Ronna’s articles on wire and metal jewelry, tools, and more are featured regularly in Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry magazine, in addition to inspiring projects from fresh and favorite jewelry designers, news on great new jewelry-making supplies, an artist’s color feature, and lots more. Subscribe to Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry to grow your jewelry-making skills and stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest the wire jewelry world has to offer.


Sarah Thompson:

Kathy Frey:

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