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Plating Copper Jewelry

Jeff Fulkerson

Posted on April 19 2014

With the increase in popularity of copper in art jewelry making, you come up against the problem of soldering it. If you use silver solder, you have a silver line on your piece. If you use copper solder, you have a dirty silver line on your piece. Also, if you try any forging work on a joint soldered with copper solder, you will soon find out that it is very bridle and just doesn’t hold up. What to do?

When I have a piece I’m making in copper that requires soldering, I use silver solder, just as if I was soldering sterling silver, except that I use Prip’s Flux as it holds up better on copper. After the metal work is finished, any of the exposed solder joints stick out like a sore thumb. There is a very simple solution to remedy this problem. Here’s how:
Remember Silver Soldering 101 where the instructor emphatically told you to NEVER put IRON in your PICKLE!!! The reason for all the commotion is that the iron will cause a reaction with the copper ions in the pickle and plate your silver, which you don’t want. But we want to plate our silver solder, so here’s how.

Before we go into the technique, you may be asking how all of this copper go into your pickle. Good question. When you solder sterling silver, the heat causes the copper in the silver to oxidize, creating fire scale. In other words, fire scale is really just copper oxide. When you put your soldered piece in the pickle, you are removing most of the fire scale. As you use your pickle, you will notice that it starts to turn a pretty turquoise color. That’s because there is copper suspended in the pickle, waiting for you to put a piece of iron in it so it can attach (plate) to a piece of metal.

Back to our piece with silver lines on it. You want to use old, dirty pickle because nice, new, clean pickle won’t work (don’t ask me how I know…). Scoop out some pickle into a Pyrex container that is large enough to hold your piece, and make sure you cover your piece completely. I heat my pickle in the pickle pot first so that it’s hot when I put it into the separate container.

Place your copper piece into the bowl and add a piece of iron. I think it plates faster if you touch the iron to your piece, but you don’t have to. Experiment and see what works best for you. Leave you piece in for about 10 minutes to give you a nice thick plating. Remove the iron and piece and rinse both in clean water.

I usually just pour the pickle back in the pot, as I haven’t found any reason not to. Take your piece and finish it however you want. Brass brushing works well. If you want a high polish on your piece, I recommend you polish your piece first, clean thoroughly, then plate. After plating, you should be able to hit it with a final polish with Zam or Jeweler’s Rouge so that you don’t polish through your plating.

Experiment a little and have fun. Remember, copper is cheap, but you can produce beautiful jewelry with it. Good luck.

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  • Holly Humbyrd: June 06, 2020

    I have a question…well, 2 actually. Why are some beads/findings “copper plated copper”? Why plate over it with the same metal? Unless the copper underneath is a lesser grade? Also, I torched a piece to red hot, and instead of fire scale, it turned an interesting matte shade of pink. Why is this? It’s kind of a cool look, but I’m wondering why?

  • Dawn Fulgham: November 25, 2017

    My friend Francesca Watson asked me to investigate a “rumor” that this won’t work when using citric acid pickle, which both Francesca and I use. Do you have any insight? What type of pickle do you use? Thanks, in advance, for your guidance.

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