Patina - The art of going dark…
When it comes to wire jewelry, I have to say that almost without exception I love patina. Very few pieces have I seen that I thought should remain undipped. Primarily, I see patina as a way to really bring out the details of wire work. A side effect is that it tends to give things an antique or old world look, which I adore as well. I think it brings a richness that really adds to the overall look of a piece, and no other jewelry takes patina quite like wire does.
For the new wire artist, the idea of it can be daunting, but it’s really a very simple task. In the following article, I will walk you through the steps, supplies, and results of using liver of sulfur to darken your wire work. Hopefully you find value in this and decide to give it a go for yourself.
Before we begin, it should be noted that not all stones take kindly to a chemical treatment. Please check with a resource online to make sure that your particular stones are able to withstand the treatment. Porous stones such as turquoise, and delicate items such as pearls are not good candidates for being submerged in patina solution. The work around for this is that you can paint the patina on with a brush, so long as you don’t make contact with the stones or pearls. This is a practice with some risk involved, proceed with caution.
The first thing to address is the type of liver of sulfur to use. I have never tried chunk LoS, but from what I have gathered it is not the easiest substance to work with. From the outset, I have only used XL Gel, which can be located with a quick Google search and delivered to your door in a couple days. It might strike you as slightly pricey but I have to assure you that a little goes a very long way and even though I create jewelry for a living, a bottle will easily last me a year. I find the squeeze bottle easier to work with, just because with the pot (shown above) you have to scoop it out. Either one though will serve you just fine. Also, if you want to keep your solution, I suggest a glass container with a tight fitting lid. I went a good couple years not realizing that the XL could be kept for a period of days up to a couple weeks and still maintain effectiveness. As you work with it more, you will start to learn when your LoS solution is losing its strength and needs to be discarded.
You will also need rubber gloves, and I would strongly suggest you get disposable ones. Liver of Sulfur stinks to an extreme, you will never be able to get the smell out of gloves, better to toss them away when you’re finished. Additionally, you will need steel wool. While kitchen wool works alright, I find that the 0000 grade steel wool works much better. You can find this at your local hardware store in the paint department.
Beyond that, you’ll need some dish soap, and I cannot recommend Dawn enough. Not only for this, but for adding to a tumbler if you choose to use one, as well as cleaning up jewelry post-polish. Dawn cuts grease, and you would be amazed at the amount of oil in your skin that will come off on your jewelry over the time that you’re working with it. Dawn leaves no residue and it works perfectly.
You will also need to have some baking soda on hand. This acts to neutralize the LoS to both stop the process of patination, and to make the LoS safe to discard when you’re finished with it. I like to have a soft toothbrush on hand as well, to scrub up my jewelry after the process has been completed. It will help you remove the fine threads of steel wool and allow you to clean in the tiny areas your fingers can’t get into.
Now, let’s begin!
Liver of Sulfur solution is toxic, so use proper ventilation for this process. If you can, working outdoors is a great practice. The smell is obnoxious and the fumes are not healthy to breathe in. You can prepare your solutions and take everything outdoors to work, as the “dunking” process is relatively quick. I don’t save my solution because I live in a house with kids and dogs, so I discard after each use, but I do batch my jewelry, saving up a pile and then applying the LoS to the whole batch at once, so that I am limiting how often I have to mix and use the solution.
I always start by cleaning my jewelry with hot water and Dawn, which will do a few things. Firstly, it cleans off any dirt and oil that might stop the patina from going on properly. Second, it warms up the metal. Liver of Sulfur works best warm, and when your metal is warm as well, it works even better. While my jewelry is soaking in soapy water, I mix up a solution of baking soda and hot water, in order to get the soda to dissolve. I generally add about 2 tablespoons to a cup of water, and you can see it sitting in the black tray below:
Once my jewelry has been cleaned and is ready to go, I add hot water to the baking soda tray and give it a little stir. I set that aside and rinse my jewelry in hot water and let it stand until ready to patina. Then, I mix the LoS solution. For this process you want hot tap water, but not boiling hot water. If you can’t put your fingers in it, it’s too hot. I generally only use a few drops per cup of water, but depending on the age of your LoS you may need more. As it ages, it loses potency. Mix the solution with a wooden stirrer or a plastic spoon, not metal. You will see that the solution turns a bright yellow color. Don’t forget to put your gloves on!
When the solution is mixed, simply lay your jewelry in the LoS and watch it carefully.
Generally what I find is that the pieces will slowly begin to darken, and then in a split second they go black. Honestly the process is neat to watch. Once that occurs, the reaction is complete, and the piece can be removed from the solution.
At that point, I put the pieces in the baking soda solution until all of them have been patinated. The baking soda bath will stop the chemical reaction of the LoS on the metal, which is important and this step should not be skipped. If you don’t neutralize the reaction, you will find that even if you clean and polish your jewelry, it will continue to darken at a very rapid rate. While this can happen from normal oxidation, it is made worse by the LoS residue that is left behind on the metal. Cleaning it won’t get it all off, and you will fight constantly with trying to keep your jewelry looking shiny.
Here is a comparative shot of the same basic design, one having been patinated and the other bright copper. You can see the difference is remarkable.
When all of my pieces have been through the baking soda bath, I set them aside for cleaning, and pour the baking soda solution and LoS solution together. You will see it change from basically clear to milky and cloudy. This indicates that the LoS is safe to discard. Never pour LoS solution down your drain without neutralizing it, it will eat away your pipes over time and it’s terrible for your plumbing. Even when it has been neutralized, I dump mine outside, away from where the dogs and kids can get at it, and away from where we walk. As a side note, it’s a good fertilizer from what I understand, and I do have a friend who waits for her LoS solution to go neutral on its own and then pours it on her houseplants. If you choose to use this method, just cap up the LoS solution in a jar and wait. You will see that eventually it loses the yellow color, and turns almost silvery. This can take a week or two but you can tell by looks and by the reduced odor that the potency is gone out of it.
Milky, neutral and ready to dump.
Now that the patination is done, it’s time to get after your wire with some steel wool. If you don’t have many pieces to do, you can pull the little wad of steel wool in half and save it for later. Once it gets wet it’s going to disintegrate. I like to scrub up my pieces under running water because it washes away the tiny fibers as they break off. Do the front and back side of your pieces, and try to get into all the recessed areas as best you can. You can scrub as little or as much as you prefer, according to how you want your piece to look. But, as you will notice in the photo below, the patination will remain in the deepest parts of the wire work, almost giving it an outline. Here you can see a piece that has been cleaned with steel wool beside one that has not:
At this point, you may clean your piece with Dawn dish soap and a soft toothbrush. If this is the course of action you’re taking, after scrubbing, dry the piece very well, and then polish with a soft cloth, like a Sunshine cloth, to bring up the luster of the metal.
You may also decide to carry it further and polish with a jeweler’s rouge. If you are already set up to polish jewelry with a tool such as a flex shaft, then I will assume you need no further instruction. If, however, this is new to you, I will explain what I feel is the most economical way to go about getting a higher degree of polish on your piece.
At the start of my jewelry career, I made friends with my local Harbor Freight store. While the durability of their tools for a construction site is questionable, they are certainly adequate for most jewelry making purposes and I have gotten a lot of mileage out of the cheap offerings they have. For polishing, I would suggest their knock off Dremel tool, which works well enough for the hobbyist or those not ready yet to invest in a flex shaft. The rotary tool, combined with the muslin polishing wheels they carry, work well and are what I used for a good few years. They do also carry metal polish, but I still would recommend ordering yourself some real jewelry polish. I like Dialux polishing compounds, which are cheap and last a really, really long time. The difference in quality is worth waiting for it to be delivered to you if you can’t buy it locally. Essentially the process is to load the muslin wheel with polish, and then polish your piece. Once you’ve tried it you will see that it’s self-explanatory and doesn’t take long to learn. I will caution you, however, that it’s very easy to catch chains or long dangly pieces in the rotary tool, and you will likely injure yourself or tear up your jewelry if you’re not careful. So, remove the chains before you try to polish with a mechanical device. Also, it should be noted that jewelry polishes have micro abrasives and are not safe for inhaling. At a minimum, a very good N95 mask and safety glasses should be worn, but better practice is a respirator. Safety should always be a priority!
Below you will see two examples of jewelry. On the left, the piece has been polished with a jeweler’s rouge and you can see somewhat in the photo that a nice mirror finish has been achieved. On the right, the piece has been steel wool scrubbed and then washed with Dawn and hand polished with a cloth. While the difference initially is not huge, over time, the jewelry polish does protect the pieces from tarnishing to some degree, so you will find that using it will prevent you having to clean your pieces as often.
Whatever method you decide to use, I hope that this article has been informative, and I would encourage you to do your own research and try out these techniques for yourself. Patina can really add a great deal to the look of your finished work. Happy making!