On a recent visit to the studio of jewelry artist Nancy Worden, she was gracious enough to educate me on some of her valuable tips for electroforming. Nothing can replace the years of experience she gained through her labors, and with plating there are no easy shortcuts. I am anxious to pass along a few vital steps I learned from her:
KEEP IT MOVING: Agitation reduces the sharp and uneven build-up of copper particles on your piece. This is especially true for pieces that are left to be electroformed for long periods of time. If you have ever left a certain piece to build a heavy layer of copper for a long time, you may have noticed that the edges or protrusions feel sharp or rough. By providing a way to circulate the free floating copper particles, the result will be more rounded edges which do not feel as sharp. It may be of interest to note that Polypropylene anode bags also play a role in keeping the particles from forming sharply.
A simple solution? An Aquarium air pump. To make your own bubbling device, drill holes in a piece of tubing to be fitted to the pump. In this photo you can see how a slightly larger tube was drilled and fitted over the longer green tube which fits snuggly to the pump. The end with holes in it is placed in the electroforming solution about 30 minutes to an hour after the initial coat of copper is formed. Turn the pump on to provide agitation for the remaining time necessary for electroforming.
KEEP IT WARM: Optimal temperature for electroforming copper is between 75 and 80 degrees fahrenheit. Nancy Worden has found through years of experimentation that this produces the best results. You can use warming devices such as an electric heating pad to heat the tank, especially in winter. Use safety precautions when using electric devices near water.
MAINTAINING THE ELECTROFORMING SOLUTION: There is no easy answer for this one. This can get very complicated, and frankly dangerous, if you start adding acids or experimenting without some knowledge and respect for electrochemistry. Artists like Nancy have their own protocol for maintaining and attending to the plating bath. As every situation is unique, you have to take responsibility for deeper education and study. There are pdf's and books online that are written for associated products from the plating industry for detailed information. You have to decide at some point whether the goal for using the solutions is for a personal hobby, mass production, or an industrial studio set-up. The latter involves getting to know the chemicals and developing a personal knowledge for how and what to do to keep the plating solutions clean and filtered, and the ph levels even. Most solutions sold for small studio or hobby use are sold with the premise that they will be used until exhausted (at a certain coverage rate) and then replenished as needed.
SOME METALS DON'T PLATE: With any art or science like electroforming, there are always new things to learn. One thing I learned recently is that there are certain metals which will not successfully plate with copper without pre-treatment. Steel, iron, or metal with tin in it will not plate well.