Metal Magic: Electroforming Organic and Other Materials for Jewelry Making
For weeks now, my friend and co-worker Denise Peck (editor of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry, author of great jewelry-making books, and host of fun and instructional jewelry-making DVDs) has been teasing me with photos of her electroformed pieces of organic material, such as seed pods and tiny flowers that she turns into amazing unique jewelry. Electroforming is an amazing technique, and one that I’m going to discuss with you today!
Her new DVD is finally finished, and I'm so excited about the possibilities for turning all the stuff—leaves, bits of sea creatures, seed pods, acorn caps, and other bits that I've been collecting in nature for years–into jewelry. I have tons of seashells and sea creatures saved from beach trips with my mom, flowers and seed pods collected in my grandmothers' yards and gardens, pressed flowers saved from various authors' graves and gardens during a semester in England, and so many more bits and pieces—all of which can become meaningful jewelry mementos.
You might be thinking, "Hold on, missy. What is this interesting jewelry-making technique, anyway?" I'm so glad you asked!
What is Electroforming?
Simply put, this must-know technique allows you to use low-voltage electricity to coat organic (and other) objects with a layer of real metal. All of the intricate designs in patterns you see on seashells, leaves, flower petals, acorns, etc., could take days to re-create using traditional metal fabrication techniques—if you can do it at all. But with electroforming, you can preserve and display those pieces in real metal, such as copper, silver, even gold and others.
The Electroforming Process, Explained
Some of the supplies needed are unique but readily available from jewelry-supply companies and websites. You need a rectifier, which converts electricity from your outlet to a low enough voltage and current to work with), a glass beaker, electroforming solution (which contains the metal particles in all cases except copper and which allows the electricity and the metal particles to move in the beaker), distilled water (tap water will leave mineral deposits on your electroformed piece and alter its color, the anode piece, which conducts electricity—an 8- to 10-gauge copper wire coil, in this case, but a metal strip of whatever metal you're electroforming with works otherwise, and the cathode piece, which is the item you're electroforming.
During copper electroforming, the low-voltage electricity causes copper particles to come off the anode, pass through the electroforming solution, and attach themselves to the piece you're electroforming, which you've suspended in the solution. However, you can electroform with just about any metal—silver, gold, nickel, etc. You need to purchase the proper electroforming solution for the metal you want to use, because for metals other than copper, the solution actually has particles of the metal suspended in it, and it's those particles that attach to your piece. With copper, however, the metal particles actually come from the anode (the copper wire coiled inside the beaker).
In every case, the electricity, solution, and anode work together to deposit metal particles on the cathode piece. When you're electroforming with other metals, you don't need the wire coil to surround your piece because the metal particles are in the solution, and it surrounds your piece; so a strip or two of whatever metal you're electroforming with can serve as your anode.
Preparing Items for Electroforming
Before preparing your piece for electroforming, remember to add a jump ring, bail, or other finding so that you can use it in jewelry making and have a way to connect it to other jewelry-making materials. Denise recommends attaching the finding before electroforming so that the whole thing (organic piece and finding) will electroform together at once and look like one cohesive piece. She simply glues on a jump ring, etc., and allows it to dry.
To electroform organic material like Denise's interesting and detailed collection, seen above, you must seal it in several coats of lacquer (Denise prefers water-based lacquer, for ease of use and clean up) to strengthen and protect it from sagging or collapsing in the electroforming solution. (Plastic, glass, metal, and other less delicate and nonporous pieces don't require lacquering.) Denise uses tweezers to dip the item in lacquer and taps off excess lacquer so that it doesn't fill up the interesting negative spaces in the item you're electroforming. After allowing it to dry, you repeat that process to create a few layers of lacquer on your item.
When electroforming materials that aren't metal, you have to make them conduct electricity. To do that, you simply coat the items with metal-conductive paint (such as silver or graphite, which Denise uses) and dry. That's the final step before the electroforming magic begins.
How cool is that? So if you'd like to see more of Denise's electroformed creations and learn the rest of the process for electroforming found objects, natural/organic materials, and just about anything else (and I know you do!), order her Easy Electroforming for Jewelry DVD. And if you're like me and you really can't wait, you can instantly download it (also in HD)!
P.S. Want to learn more? Read my next blog.