Electroforming is quickly becoming one of the coolest and most unique ways to customize a water pipe or piece of functional glass art. Steadily, we are seeing more artists and more pieces of glass coming out with electroformed accents or entirely electroformed. This practice is very impressive because—depending on the method they take to electroform an object—it can require a ton of patience and skill. There are also some dangerous aspects of this process which has hindered its growth, but now we are seeing more people willing to test these methods and master them.
In this article, we will cover the two ways to electroform an object (tank plating and brush plating), the benefits of electroforming, and how to clean an electroformed piece.
Electroforming involves an electrolytic solution and an electric power supply. The piece you want to plate is covered in a conductive paint/ink and connected to the positive lead of your power supply. The negative lead is attached to your copper source; the copper and your piece are then submerged in the solution, and with the action of running current through the solution (negative to positive), copper is drawn from your copper source onto the painted parts of your piece. With time, very thick layers can be achieved.
As the negative charge attracts the positive, the process of electroplating takes place as metals in ionic form move from a positive to negative electrode. An electric current passing through the solution causes objects at the cathode or workpiece to be coated by the metal in the solution. After the desired thickness is achieved the workpiece is rinsed off, dried and it is ready for use.The longer the piece is left in the plating bath the thicker the coating of metal will form on the work piece.
There are two really cool ways to electroform an object: Tank Plating and Brush Plating. Both carry several advantages and disadvantages and you will find a lot of artists have different reasons why they like one method over the other.
Tank plating is the oldest form of plating, it is much easier to plate complex objects using this technique. In most cases with tank plating, the artist is able to plate multiple parts at one time. In some tank solutions, there are brighteners—which are chemical additives that can save you time and labor when it comes to polishing, because the plating comes out bright.
Brush plating is mainly used for patch work on worn spots on existing plating where extremely small amounts of silver and direct current are required. It is not a process designed for applying an evenly distributed coating of silver across a large flat area. In brush plating, the electrolytes can be supplied by dipping or pumping through the solution, this way it is possible to apply metal on a selective surface. Brush plating is essentially the same process but with your solution on the tip of a brush connected to the negative charge, effectively allowing you to "paint" one metal onto another.
Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. With brush plating, artists have the ability to be mobile. This allows them to work in a customer's shop or wherever they may be needed. The artist does not need to disassemble the part to be repaired, therefore repairs can be carried out at a much faster rate compared to other methods. For the most part, you do not have to do much machining after depositing the metal, especially when you deposit the metal in thin layers. There are low masking requirements, lower power requirements, lower startup costs, less chemicals and all the solution is used up in brush plating.
All of those factors make this method more environmentally friendly in comparison to tank plating. The disadvantages of brush plating are the limitations of thickness—and if your piece is needs plating all over, this is a much less economical.
Tank plating is more economical when it comes to plating entire items quickly, and you are able to achieve a greater thickness. There is less hands on work with tank plating, which gives the artist the option to multi-task and put their labor to use elsewhere. There is also less finishing when it comes to tank plating, because chemical additives make the product come out bright. One of the main disadvantages to tank plating is that it creates a lot of waste, and it requires the use of environmentally harmful chemicals.
The main benefits of electroforming are the aesthetics. Copper is an extremely versatile metal, in the sense that it can be plated in many different textures and can be oxidized/corroded into a huge variety of different colors. It is also a great base for the subsequent plating of other metals, such as silver and gold. It can be used to attach other objects to pieces, such as crystals and nuts/bolts (a la Snic) with great sturdiness. There are many things you can do with electroforming to create different and unique styles.
Electroplating changes the chemical, physical, and mechanical properties of the workpiece. An example of a chemical change is when nickel plating improves corrosion resistance. An example of a physical change is a change in the outward appearance. An example of a mechanical change is a change in tensile strength or surface hardness which is a required attribute in the tooling industry.
Electroforming increases strength because the deposited layers can be very malleable and ductile, which will dilute any shock that may stress the glass (assuming the point of contact is the copper). It can reduce heat stress in glass, such as from an electric nail or a torch, by acting as a heat sink. The benefits of electroforming a piece are pretty sweet and I can't imagine anyone would be disappointed with a piece that is stronger than it was originally!
Cleaning an electroformed piece is kind of tricky—you do not want to jeopardize the killer work the artist created, but you obviously need to maintain its cleanliness. It can be tricky, because you can't look inside an electroformed piece to see the buildup. Application of a proper sealant is necessary to ensure that the piece will be protected from both normal wear & tear and the solvency of isopropyl alcohol or other cleaners. An epoxy based sealant is recommended, as this should not be damaged by isopropyl or other strong cleaners.
If there is no patina (colored chemical corrosion/oxidation) on a piece, a sealant isn't strictly necessary because isopropyl won't discolor the bare copper or its natural oxidation too noticeably. Any piece with a patina must be sealed because patinas will rub away with time/iso otherwise. Done properly and treated carefully, an electroformed piece will retain its integrity and appearance indefinitely.
Patinas actually tend to become enhanced with time, with more vibrant and complex hues arising as chemical reactions spontaneously come to completion over time under the surface of the sealant. so you will need to be purchasing from a seller who has detailed information on how the piece was processed or have knowledge of how the particular artist you are buying a piece from seals their work. Be sure to obtain this knowledge of how the piece was sealed before you clean it. If the piece is has no patinas added to the copper you can clean freely. So please tell your friends about this budding art form! There are so many techniques and styles that are sure to amaze and impress. We hope that everyone will see that electroformed pieces can not only have unlimited longevity like glass, but even age gracefully and add extra character to any piece.