Category Archives: how-to

Going Green (and Blue)

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Bleeding Heart leaves in my backyard (Jewels courtesy of Mother Nature).

We are well into spring now. Days are getting longer, trees are greening and flowers are blooming. I always find this influx of renewed energy quite contagious. It makes me want to start new projects – something “new” and fresh, something well… green of course. But I also know this surge of optimism (and over-confidence?) is usually short-lived. As the last lilacs begin to fade, so does my enthusiasm. So, let’s get to it before I surrender to a “less colourful” work routine.

There are countless options available to metalsmiths when it comes to metal patination, especially with copper and brass. In a previous post, I shared a few simple recipes for creating red patinas on copper. This time, I will focus on greens and blues. And like last time, I have chosen basic recipes that can be used easily in a small studio, with limited equipment and common household products (vinegar, ammonia and salt).

Metal preparation is key. The metal must be thoroughly cleaned (free of grease and oil) to ensure the proper action of the chemicals. Pumice works well, but scouring cleaning products like Ajax or Comet, for example, will do the job. Once the surface of the metal is clean, avoid touching it (hold by the edges or make a handle with fishing wire).

Copper is best suited for this type of patina, although brass, a copper alloy, will work up to a point with much less dramatic results. Silver is only superficially affected by this chemical reaction, so it can be used in combination with copper and provide some contrast. In the following example, the silver solder inlay stands out in a copper piece with a dark green patina.

 

 

D.Bréchault - Spring Shower. Brooch. Copper, silver solder inlay, patina.

D.Bréchault – Spring Shower. Brooch. Copper, silver solder inlay, patina.

 

Spraying: The simplest method for producing a blue patina on copper is to spray ammonia on the surface of the metal, and let it dry outside in the sun for a few hours. If the metal has been textured, like in this photograph, the patina settles into the recesses of the texture and highlights the pattern. The cool blue patina is offset by the warm brown of the copper in the background.

 

Copper with stamped texture, ammonia (sprayed on).

Copper with stamped texture, ammonia (sprayed on). Sundried (3 hours).

To produce a wider range of greens and blues with a variety of surface treatments, two main methods can be used: the fuming method and the moistened method.

Fuming method: The metal is exposed to (not immersed in) the fumes of ammonia and/or vinegar. There are two options:

With Option A, you’ll need to drill small hole in the piece to suspend it in the jar with a fishing line (not metal wire). The piece can be re-cut later and filed to remove the hole. Allow at least 3 or 4 days or even more for the patina to develop, and to obtain richer tones.

Option B is more practical for coloring larger pieces or objects that can’t be suspended. As well, since the metal can be laid flat, it is possible to sprinkle salt on the surface. The action of the salt, combined with the fuming, creates patterns that add more interest to the coloring.

 

 

 

OPTION A: The metal is suspended in a glass jar by a fishing line, without touching the liquid. The jar is tightly sealed.

OPTION A: The metal is suspended in a glass jar by a fishing line, without touching the liquid at the bottom of the container. The jar is tightly sealed.

 

OPTION B: The metal is set beside a small container filled with ammonia, and placed in a larger tightly sealed glass container.

OPTION B: The metal is set beside a small container filled with ammonia, and placed in a larger tightly sealed glass container.

Copper. Ammonia and salt. 4 days.

Copper, ammonia and salt. 4 days.

 

Moistened method: With the moistened method, the metal is buried in moist medium.

Metal wrapped in cheesecloth moistened with ammonia and tied with elastic bands, in a sealed plastic bag.

Metal wrapped in cheesecloth moistened with ammonia and tied with elastic bands, in a sealed plastic bag.

This truly fun technique allows the different mediums, moistened with ammonia or vinegar, to leave their own distinctive marks on the surface of the metal – this “etched” texture adds depth to the patina. The only drawback is the length of time it takes to achieve a rich colour, usually several days, a week or even longer. During this time it is important not to handle the piece, which would interfere with the process. But your patience will be rewarded!

 

Copper, ammonia, cheesecloth. 8 days.

Copper, ammonia, cheesecloth. 8 days.

Wrapping cheesecloth around the metal and attaching it with elastic bands creates a simple tie dye pattern:

Copper, cheesecloth tied with elastic bands. 8 days.

Copper, ammonia, cheesecloth tied with elastic bands. 8 days.

Cheesecloth, dried grasses, tobacco leaves, tea, wood shavings, cat litter (clay granules, wood or paper pellets – without additives), etc… each material will create a different “etched” pattern and rich shades of green or blue. Try experimenting with several mediums. The possibilities are endless, as long as the material is dry and absorbent enough, and untreated. For better results, the key is not to add too much liquid to the medium; it should be moist, not wet.

 

Copper, ammonia, cat litter (clay granules), 1 week.

Copper, ammonia, cat litter (clay granules), 1 week.

Generally, ammonia tends to produce more blues, vinegar, more greens, but results are not always easy to control as many variables can affect the outcome. The main factors: length of exposure, quantity of chemicals used, will make a difference, but there are other ones such as the type of medium, the shape of the object, the gauge of the metal used, the composition of the metal (for brass) and the temperature, that are not always easy to manage. Don’t forget to document your experiments. Keep samples and take detailed notes to be able to reproduce the colours you like.

Finishing: Pieces of jewellery with this type of patina should not be worn directly on the skin. Beeswax or a spray coating/fixative like Krylon can be used to seal and protect the surface of the coloured metal. Left unprotected, some of these patinas will continue to evolve:

Copper, ammonia (fuming method). Unprotected surface.

Copper, ammonia (fuming method). Unprotected surface.

What I love about these techniques, beside the rich colours and painterly effects they offer, is that there is no right or wrong, as long as you keep your mind open to possibilities and happy accidents. Have fun with this, and who knows, this might help you sustain those boosts of spring energy and keep you motivated during the dog days of summer.

Recommended reading:

Patinas for Small Studios, by Charles Lewton-Brain, Brain Press, 2007.

Tips from the Jeweller’s Bench, http://www.ganoksin.org

And the recently published:

Patina – 300+ Coloration Effects for Jewelers & Metalsmiths, by Matthew Runfola, Quarto, 2014. (ISBN 978-1-62033-139-2)

This comprehensive guide on patinas explores in depth a large variety of coloration techniques, for different metals from steel to silver. It is very well organised, with detailed instructions and abundant colour samples.

 

Patina - 300+ Coloration Effect for Jewelers & Metalsmiths, by Matthew Runfola

Patina – 300+ Coloration Effect for Jewelers & Metalsmiths, by Matthew Runfola

 

I am very happy to add that two of my pieces have been included in this essential guide to patinas. Here is one of them:

 

D.Bréchault - "Water", bowl, copper, blue-green patina (fuming method).

D.Bréchault – “Water”, bowl, copper, blue-green patina (fuming method).

 

 

Safety reminder: Store chemicals in tightly sealed, clearly labelled containers. Avoid breathing ammonia fumes, work in a well-ventilated area or outside. Wear gloves and eye protection. NEVER mix ammonia and bleach (the vapors produced are extremely dangerous!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A blush of red in the studio

D.Bréchault. Bowl, copper, patina. Dia.: 9.5 cm

As I walk through the neighbourhood these days, I notice the first blushing trees. So many shades of red: burgundy, crimson, vermillion, even some magenta – and some rusty reds too. I enjoy these rich and vibrant colours and I always have the urge to run to my studio and add splashes of colours to my jewellery.

The palette of a metalsmith does not have to be limited to a few muted shades of silver and gold. Metals like copper, brass, and bronze lend themselves particularly well to a wide variety of colours (or patinas) and can open up all kinds of possibilities. Metal patination has been used in different parts of the world for a very long time. Years ago, Ayako Kuroki, a distinguished goldsmith and teacher from Tokyo, Japan, told me about hiirodo the red copper patina used in traditional Japanese metalwork. Here is an example of tsuba (sword guards) with a deep maroon red copper patina:

Tsubas (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco)Photo : Wikipedia Commons

Tsubas (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco)
Photo : Wikipedia Commons

Several types of methods can be used to colour metal, depending on the colours you want to obtain – heat or chemicals, or a combination of both. For now, let’s deal with these rich and vibrant red autumn colours (I will talk about the greens, and the blues in another post). Here is how you can incorporate them into your work. Note that these recipes will only work with copper.

Remember to wear goggles, and make sure there is sufficient ventilation in your studio.

– Heat up the copper with the torch to a high temperature (until the metal is red hot).

– Quench immediately in a boiling water and salt solution (Salt/water solution: 3 tablespoons salt to 3 cups water).

This creates a deep brick red patina:

Depending on the intensity of the flame, or how long the metal is heated up, you’ll get darker shades of red or purplish red. If the metal is heated up for a bit longer, this can produce a marbled effect of red and black,

or a smoky effect like this:

Heating up the metal and quenching it in boiling water without salt will produce some rich tones of red as well, but generally more on the rusty or orangy side:

Here is another recipe:

First, coat the metal with a mixture of borax flux and water, and heat up with the torch. Quench in boiling water. Usually the more interesting colours appear on the back side of the sheet. Depending on what type of flux is used (borax cone ground, and mixed with water, or liquid flux like “Batterns”), you’ll get various results, from a deep burgundy with streaks of orange to a more mottled pattern:

And for a different mottled effect, try sprinkling salt on the metal as you are heating it up. Keep the flame on only until the grains of salt melt, then quench in boiling water right away. Results vary. On this sample, there are intricate patterns of purple and rose tones mixed with some smoky greys.

Sometimes, I like to texture the metal before coloring it; it adds more depth and another layer of interest to the design. There are many types of surface treatments available. In these examples, I used etching and roll-printing:

Important note: Don’t pickle your metal, as the pickling solution would remove the patina!

This heat patina is stable and fairly tough, so it does not really require much protection, especially if the patinated metal is in a recessed area that will prevent scratches. Otherwise a thin coat of soft beeswax will work well.

Now, if you consider yourself a control freak, these techniques are probably not for you! As with most patinas, results are not always consistent, and are difficult to predict, but that’s the beauty of it, and for me that’s the fun of it too. Factors such as the gauge of the metal, the intensity of the flame, or the temperature of the water will affect the results, so keep experimenting!

Stuck for an idea?

Frottage is a useful technique for finding inspiration when you have “designer’s block”. I learnt about this technique when I was studying jewellery many years ago, and I have been sharing it with my own students ever since.

This technique was developed by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in 1925. One day, tired of staring at his blank canvas, he was looking at the wooden floor and daydreaming, and the lines and the marks on the floor started morphing into various images. He decided then to lay sheets of paper on the floor and to rub (frottage comes from the French frotter – to rub) the paper over the textured surface with a pencil. From these, Ernst was inspired to create a series of drawings, called Histoire naturelle.

Max Ernst, from “Histoire Naturelle”, 1926.
MoMA, New York

Here is how I channel my inner Max Ernst:

I walk around my studio, or I go outside and “collect” textures. I just rub the surfaces through sheets of paper, randomly. The key is to work fast, without thinking too hard. It does not matter if the patterns overlap.

Rubbings can be found anywhere: on a concrete walkway, a crate, a brick wall, a metal grate, etc. Natural materials (i.e., leaves, bark, etc.) work well too. Tools, kitchen utensils, lettering, anything goes!

Here is my favourite pencil for this, a very fat and very soft pencil (6B):

I use the frottage technique in different ways. Sometimes, I simply look at the patterns on the sheet, until images emerge; this can serve as a point of departure for some ideas or sketches for future jewellery pieces.

Or, if I want to focus more specifically on textures or surface ornamentation – which I love to incorporate in my work – I pick out areas of the rubbings that appeal to me. Almost any pattern can be translated into metal, using various stamping tools, or techniques like etching, roll-printing, cuttlebone casting, etc. So I grab pieces of scrap metal, stamping tools, hammers, and start experimenting. Or some other times, I cut and paste various areas of the sheets and start assembling them to form necklaces, brooches, rings, whatever inspires me. You could also scan the sheets, and manipulate the shapes further with your computer. Again, the key it not to think too much or to worry about how it can actually be made.

This really works. Thank you Max Ernst! Start experimenting, and have fun. And you’ll probably come up with more ways of using the frottage technique.

D. Bréchault : Brooch “Poppies on the Meseta” – Silver, poppy jasper.
Textures made using various techniques: roll-printing, reticulation, stamping.