After years of experimentation and practice, these are some of my favorite products for achieving consist and better electroforming results.
1. Magnetic stirrer
I put this one off for a long time. This magnetic stirrer by INTLLAB helps to build up a smooth surface on your piece. The trick to a smooth and shiny plate is having a balanced bath, keeping it clean and filtered (using the right type of anode is key= type L phosphorized copper tubing), and using agitation. Some people will use an aquarium bubbler for this, but I find that a magnetic stirrer produces more agitation and therefore a better plate. However, you must keep up on filtering your bath as the stirrer will kick up sediment from the bottom of your bath which can have some undesirable effects on the finish.
2. Liquid latex
There are several products that you can use to seal a gemstone or crystal, however some work for certain stones and not others. For example, I used to love using clear nail polish because it was easy, dried fast, and I could see what it was going to look like at all stages. However, it never seemed to be enough for some porous stones and I would end up with pitting or discoloration from the bath. It also has a tendency to leave a yucky white cast around the edges that was quite difficult to get off without a long acetone soak and scrub (which can also be quite damaging).
I also tried liquid frisket and the three full bottles I still have are a testament to how much I hate the stuff. It’s tackier than latex, rarely peels off in one piece, and if you put more than one piece in the bath they are destined to get stuck together.
Liquid latex is holy grail product for my electroforming flow. It has a high surface tension so it is really easy to paint it on sloped surfaces (such as the edges of stones) without having it run. I created my own latex application tool using 16 gauge copper wire and hammering the end flat.
Note: Not all colors of latex aIe created equally, even within the same brand. I recommend Liquid Latex Fashions in black. Also, latex can mold if not properly taken care of. I recommend pouring some into a smaller container when in use so it can stay sealed as much as possible.
3. Anode bags
No, anode bags aren’t necessary, but neither is having to filter your bath every few runs. I learned this the hard way. Did you know it’s possible to have your bath running for years? Forever? If you told me that when I first started I would not have believed you. I think my first bath lasted me for a month before it was so horribly beyond repair (at least with my knowledge at the time) that I trashed it and started over with new solution. Anode bags prevent all of that sludge on the anodes from settling into the bath and eventually causing an oversaturation of copper (hello sparkle finish my old enemy).
You can make your own anode bags with 1-5 micron polyester filter fabric such as this ol’ reliable. This is enough fabric for years of anode bags. All you need is a hot glue gun and some copper wire.
4. Steel/Brass Wire Brushes
It can be so disappointing when you take your pieces out of the bath and they have a dull finish. Luckily, there are several helpful attachments for your dremel or flex shaft that can quickly shine up a salmon-colored or dull appearance. Brass wire brushes will wear out a little bit faster and have a tendency to shoot out wires at you if you go to fast or skimp on cost, but they are more gentle and safer to use around gemstones. I recommend Stoddard brass brushes for their quality and durability. Steel brushes will last much longer, but are more likely to scratch your stones if you’re not careful.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent copper from oxidizing forever, but Protectaclear can help to extend the length of your beautiful shiny copper finish. It also creates a barrier that prevents skin from turning green which will be a selling point to your customers, trust me!
6. Silver Nail Polish
This is a neat trick for those beautiful translucent stones that you don’t want to darken by having epoxy clay or copper paint on the back of them. Silver nail polish acts as a reflective surface to make your gems sparkle while preserving their color.
Note: Moonstones tend to look dull when silver or white nail polish is used. I have had more luck with black, however it will greatly change the appearance of a high quality, clear moonstone.
Do you want to get started electroforming, but are worried about all of the chemicals and possible interactions? Let us calm your nerves with tehse electroforming health and safety considerations so you can be sure this is safe for you, your space, and others who inhabit it.
Let’s start with some basics from the safety data sheet of Midas Bright Copper Electroforming Solution. This is my favorite pre-mixed solution and the only one I can honestly recommend (side-eyeing you Krohn…), but all solutions will have basically the same health and safety data as they are made with similar ingredients.
The warnings listed are: corrosive to metals, harmful if swallowed, causes skin irritation, causes serious eye damage.
These may seem like scary warnings, but really it is just meant to show you that these chemicals must be handled and disposed of carefully. Also I wouldn’t recommend having this in an area with heavy foot traffic, in your living area, or around children/animals.
Electroforming Safety Considerations
Keep your bath inside of another container that can be closed and kept away from pets and small children. This also helps prevent contamination and evaporation.
Have a container of distilled water near your bath for rinsing (helps to prevent acidic drips) and baking soda to neutralize.
Always use type 2 (HDPE) or type 5 (PP) plastic as it is safe for acid. Look for the little triangle with a number inside.
Never add acid to water, only water to acid. This is really important if you mix your own electroforming solution. Otherwise, you will only ever be adding water to acid by topping up your bath due to evaporation.
Electroforming Health Considerations
Always wear a respirator when mixing a new bath. If you can smell it, you’re breathing it in. Make sure to regularly switch out the filters.
Did you know certain stones can produce toxic fumes if not sealed correctly? Fluorite and bumblebee jasper are two stones that are dangerous to have unsealed in your bath. DO NOT attempt these stones unless you have experience with sealing (it doesn’t always work out, better to be cautious) and have proper ventilation.
A little splash of solution on your skin probably won’t cause any irritation if you rinse it off, but that doesn’t mean you want to go handling this stuff without gloves. I frequently take pieces in/out of the bath without gloves (do as I say, not as I do!), which definitely isn’t the best practice, but I would NEVER put my hand down into the solution without heavy duty gloves.
How to Dispose of Your Copper Electroforming Solution
Electroforming solution is toxic to water systems and therefore must be disposed of at a hazardous waste treatment facility.
Is Ventilation Necessary?
Ventilation is always necessary for gold and silver electroforming, but copper electroforming is a little more forgiving provided you are not running a giant bath or have your setup in a living area. Having a window nearby or a fan to pull away fumes is sufficient for a beginner electroforming setup.
Epoxy resin clay can be an awesome material to work with, but using it in moderation will do wonders for elevating your work from craft to fine art.
The positives: It cures rock-hard and is sturdy, making it an ideal building material.
The negatives: it isn’t as easy to work with as other moulding clays. In fact, it’s pretty awful to work with if you are expecting the feel and workability of polymer clay. It’s terribly sticky and has a tendency to leave films of yuck in its trail. I have found dulled areas on my stones from where I touched it with a filmy fingerprint (if you seal your stones first, this isn’t as issue, but I typically don’t). The worst part is, you won’t even notice there is still some coating your fingers until it is too late. I have even ended up with allergy bumps from rubbing my eyes..after a good handwashing! Plus, the final outcome has a tendency to look bulky after growing a thick enough layer of copper. Less is more!
What to use instead: try using liquid epoxy or super glue to directly attach a stone to a base. You might need to get creative with clothespins or cross-lock tweezers to hold your piece in place while it dries, but the results are worth it!
2. Learn how to calculate anode surface area and amperage for a shiny plate…every time!
This is the difference between a professional electroformer and a hobbyist. If you are chasing that perfect plate right out of the bath time and time again, this is of utmost importance to learn.
Rule: 0.1 amp per square inch of cathode (the piece to be electroformed)
Learning to estimate surface area on the fly is a skill that will come in handy. Keep in mind that you are only counting surface area that is to be plated, not anything that is sealed off. You must also count front and back. This can get really tricky for a ring, but in general, most rings won’t even have a full square inch of surface area. Note that the surface area of your piece is calculated in the round; every bit of surface must be accounted for.
Rule 2: You want a 2:1 anode to cathode ratio.
I like to use 1/2 inch refrigeration type L copper tubing for my anode since the size makes it easy to calculate surface area. Hammer the tubing flat for easier handling. Surface area of the cathode will only be calculated from the front.
Example: You have a square sheet of copper that measures 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch. The surface area of that sheet of copper is 1/2 inch squared. So you would need 0.05 amps and 1 square inch of cathode (which comes out to 2 inches of 1/2 inch copper tubing).
3. Set up a graph paper workstation surface to line everything up/achieve symmetry.
This tip seriously changed my workflow for the better. I have several old pieces hiding away that will probably never see the light of day because they are horribly lopsided. It can be really hard to tell sometimes! To negate this problem, I created a really simple work surface by gluing graph paper to a sheet of cardboard (or anything hard you have laying around) and taping wax paper on top. It allows you to see the graph lines, while having a surface that your pieces won’t stick to. I especially like having it on a piece of cardboard because I can prepare a bunch of pieces at my desk and then move the entire surface elsewhere to dry.
Bonus tip: Did you know there is graph paper with 8 or even 10 squares per inch? More lines=more visual cues to get that perfect symmetry!
4. Learn and use supplemental fabrication skills such as piercing, hammering, and etching.
It can be hard to stand out in the world of electroforming. Especially if you’re limited to found objects (find a good one and suddenly everyone will use it), organics (same deal), and basic sculpting. By learning more applicable skills, you will further yourself from the crowd and have more creative freedom.
The easiest to incorporate are hammer techniques. This is a really quick and easy way to add texture and exciting details to your pieces. There are hammers with interchangeable textured faces or even just a basic riveting hammer to give you a nice indented line.
Etching will take a little more knowledge and equipment, but also can give you infinitely more creative freedom. You can etch drawings, photos, etc.
Piercing will require quite a bit of practice to feel comfortable with it, but it is one of the most useful fabrication skills that I possess. You will need either a drill press or a dremel with drill bits, saw blades, and a jeweler’s saw. This will allow you to create any 2D shape that you can think of! If you’re not sure about your commitment to learning piercing, I would start with just a jeweler’s saw and some saw blades. This will allow you to practice and get a feel for using the saw, but you will not be able to make negative space within the shape without drilling holes first.
Welcome to Atlas & Aether’s complete copper electroforming supply list containing all of my “must have” and “nice to have” products. You can be sure that you are in good hands and can begin with only the things you need for your specific area of interest within electroforming.
(Please note: I am not an affiliate for any of the websites listed below. Everything listed is a personal choice and I receive no income for sharing these products with you.)
Choosing the Right Tank for Electroforming
There are many cost-effective options for creating your electroforming tank, you may even have something laying around! The number one consideration is: how big will your pieces be? how many pieces will be electroformed at once? If you’re just starting out and are unsure about the longevity of this hobby, I recommend starting with the smallest set-up you can as the chemicals are costly. However, if you plan to be producing pieces regularly in larger batches or plan to create large sculptural forms, it may be worth your while to skip straight to a larger tank. I use this 2 gallon fishtank. If you are going to use plastic, make sure it is type 2 (HDPE) or type 5 (PP).
Some people recommend using beakers, such as the 1000 mL ones that can be found in Rio Grande’s electroforming kit. Something this size is great for electroforming singular small jewelry objects, but the roundness of the beaker makes for a risky setup. IF YOU MUST use a round bath, make sure your lead wires are safely secured and clipped to opposite ends so there is no risk of them slipping and touching each other. You will also need to find a way to keep it covered or funnel your solution back into the bottle when you are done (BIG PAIN!). You also may be tempted to buy the kit to make it easy on yourself, but for $500 you can easily get everything on my “need to have” list and several on my “nice to have” list.
A good electroforming tank will: have a lid (for safety and to avoid evaporation), be made of glass or plastic, and be the right size for your needs! I also recommend getting a 2nd larger plastic tub and lid that your bath can fit inside for safety and easy cleanup.
“Need to have” Supply List for Copper Electroforming Tank Setup
Save yourself the hassle of constantly filtering your bath and make your own anode bags with some filter fabric and a hot glue gun. Price: $26
This acts as your bus bar to hang your anodes and cathodes from. 10 ft of type L 1/4-3/8 inch is enough. Can be found at home depot/lowe’s. Price: $5-6
Can use copper refrigeration tubing or other thicker tubing from home improvement store. I do not recommend wire coils as they produce more sludge. (You will also need a pair of tubing cutters). Price: $5-10
For building your electroformed pieces. A good start would be 16, 18, and 20 gauge non-coated copper wire (avoid your typical craft store wire, it’s probably coated). Try this instead. Get 28-30 gauge for hanging your pieces.
Like working with clay? Use Magic Sculpt to build up your forms that will cure rock hard. Price: $46
Premade Jump Rings
Save yourself time and buy premade jump rings. With how cheap they are, its hard to justify time spent on them. Also they will be work hardened already.
Silver Nail Polish
This is a neat trick to seal the backs of your translucent stones so you can’t see the epoxy/conductive paint/etc.
For sketching and for lining up that perfect symmetry!
You may be able to get a perfectly shiny plate right out of the bath time after time, but it is HARD. Save those not-so-shiny plates with a brass brush or steel brush attachment for your dremel. Price: $13