Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Electroforming or Plating with Gold, Silver, and Other Metals

We get two questions more frequently than any others about electroforming; this post is an attempt to answer both of these questions and to offer some new information about plating with various metals using the E3 Duo Controller. 
This question more than any other: 
Can I electroform with silver or gold? 
The answer is yes you can, but I’ve never met an artist who electroforms in gold or silver. To do this you would simply substitute gold or silver for the copper and use the appropriate plating solutions. I haven't seen a tutorial other than commercial labs showing it on YouTube.  My son pointed out that people might be asking about electroforming erroneously when what they really mean to ask about is plating. That is covered in my 2nd topic below.
But to first answer the question on electroforming: Electroforming is traditionally done with copper and then plated later with other metals. For practical reasons it would be massively expensive to electroform in gold and silver but it is possible. Also, gold and silver are relatively soft so it would take a lot of precious metal to form a strong layer over an object. Typically cyanide based gold and silver solutions are used for electroforming because the cyanide keeps the metal suspended in solution for long periods of plating. Commercial labs use cyanide solutions to electroform gold and silver. I personally do not teach this or have an interest in doing it myself because of 1-Expense, 2-Strength and 3-Safety.  There are YouTube videos and books out there on the subject if you Google electroforming with gold or silver. Most of these references show the process being done commercially for the reasons I mention above. It’s pretty intense to get into gold and silver electroforming.
The other question that comes up most frequently:
Will the E3 Duo Controller plate other metals such as gold and silver?
The answer is yes. Simply use the controller in place of a rectifier and set it to a low current level while plating. Most plating solutions only take a few minutes. Each metal calls for different steps, solutions, anodes, equipment and safety concerns. Plating takes quite a bit of training and knowledge so be sure to research the steps of the particular metal and solution you want to use before committing to plating.
To give a brief overview of plating, plating is the process of applying a thin layer of metal over metal. To prepare a piece for plating the piece must be cleaned with an electro-cleaning solution and then dipped in acid prior to plating. The piece must also be rinsed between solutions to avoid contamination. The piece then goes through a series of steps involving heating and agitating the solution (if called for) as the metals are plated. If I were to get serious about plating different metals I would invest in a plating station unit like this one below because it provides heat and agitation to certain beakers where needed: 
Certain metals cannot be plated over one another without a barrier layer of metal between. For example a layer of nickel should be plated between copper and gold to keep the gold from migrating with the silver. RioGrande.com has great charts on their website which can be found with each plating solution to show you the steps in order for plating. Here is an example of the information offered with the 24K gold cyanide solution: 
Along with knowledge of the steps and becoming familiar with the characteristics of each plating solution, the most important consideration is SAFETY. When you get into plating various metals you can be dealing with very dangerous chemicals. 24K gold is available in non-cyanide and Cyanide formulas. The cyanide is what makes the gold so rich and beautiful. But it can be fatal if misused. You need to wear a NIOSH mask, proper gloves, apron, goggles, and use a fume hood for ventilation just to name a few of the safety precautions.  If you go to Rio Grande’s website and study each plating solution it will make sense what is involved for plating. This is not a casual craft.
With all of this said, our controller is meant for the small jewelry-making studio for electroforming and plating on a small scale. Personally if I wanted to mass-produce plated pieces I would send my pieces to a commercial lab. I electroform with copper frequently and then I plate those pieces with various metals occasionally. The piece above was a leaf that I electroformed with copper and then it was plated with nickel followed with 14K gold.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Successful Shiny Copper Plating: Get the power going first!

It's so important to turn on the power on BEFORE you submerge your piece in the copper plating solution!
Look at the unicorn toy on left, it was in copper plating solution no power for the first 5 minutes. The horse toy on right had power and current flowing right from the start!  Both toys were left for several hours to electroform.  The horse built a heavy layer of shiny copper, the unicorn never really formed other than a thin dull coat.
I’m always learning something new about electroforming and plating. This weekend Dan and I were electroforming pieces with copper and I put a prepared piece (covered with sealer and water-based graphite paint) into the copper plating solution without turning on the current. I left it there for about 5 minutes before turning the controller on. The result wasn’t good. The piece didn’t plate very well and the copper was a very dull salmon color. The next piece was a similar charm (small rubber toy) prepared in the same way. This time we turned the controller power on and the current was set to HIGH. The prepared piece was then submerged to begin the plating process. We left it on high for just about a minute and then set it to a medium setting until finished (several hours to electroform). The result was beautiful. The copper was bright and shiny with a thick deposition of copper. After several experiments we discovered two important things: 
  1. Always turn the power on first and then submerge the piece into the solution while the current is flowing.
  1. Start with your controller set on HIGH for about a minute to get the plating started. This will expedite the coverage of the copper over the graphite paint. Since the graphite paint is water soluble, this boost in current minimizes the amount of graphite that might flake or soak off had the piece been left longer before plating. We also think that the boost in current helps to limit the contamination to the solution that occurs when organic materials are electroformed. Even with a boost in current, organic materials still need to be sealed very well prior to applying conductive paint and plating.
I found that by making sure the power and current were on prior to plating, my solution stayed viable for many subsequent pieces.  I only had to add a few drops of brightener after plating 5-6 pieces.