What Is Electroforming?

First and foremost, I am a jewelry artist. I create pieces of wearable art from a variety of materials. I like to say my work is created from minerals, metals and magick! But what exactly is the process of covering items in copper called, and how do I do it?

When I vend my art at shows, I get a lot of questions about my organics. The leaves, mushrooms, honeycombs and feathers that I sell are plated in copper. Not cast, but plated. Many people have a difficult time understanding what, exactly, that means. "So, it's made from a mold?" they ask. No, I tell them, the actual item is still in there, it's just plated in copper. "The mushroom is still in there? No way!" is the usual response.

It took me years to figure out what this process was called. I'd seen electroformed work before, but not often, and no internet search yielded any results that were even close to what I'd viewed in photos. Try Googling "copper top crystal" and you'll get a lot of photos of batteries! At least that's how it was four years ago when I started seriously investigating the process.

It wasn't until I attended a show and met a fellow artist doing electroforming in her own work that I finally got to ask, what is this called? "Oh," the artist stated, "it's electroforming!" I'd never thought of putting those words together, and once I had the right terminology, the world opened up for me! I had the right term, and could now find image after image of what I wanted to try and create! Electroforming is, in essence, the process of using chemistry and electricity to cause pure copper to grow on a conductive surface. But, how to do it?

Again, four years ago when I started, there really weren't any tutorials or kits you could buy. I had to puzzle this out for myself, based on some limited information a few people had put out there on the internet. Not tutorials, per se, but videos of certain outcomes they'd gotten with different chemical mixes. I remember literally pausing the video from one particular artist, zooming in on the shelf behind the subject so I could see what chemicals he was using! Fortunately, most things can be found locally, including the auto parts store!

Because I have a science teacher background, I wasn't intimidated by the chemistry and physics that were necessary to make things happen. I even had some leftover beakers and alligator clip wires from my classroom days that were needed in the setup.

So, armed with the basics of what chemicals to use (sulphuric acid, copper sulphate, distilled water, brightener) and a really ghetto version of a rectifier (the power supply for the electric current needed to start the copper plating), I began to experiment.

Okay, so the first attempts were NOT pretty. I ruined several crystals, because the acid bath they hang inside of is quite caustic, and will dissolve certain materials! I didn't know that you have to protect, or frisket, certain stones so they won't get eaten away. Figuring out what to use to mask those delicate stones was a process in and of itself (Fortunately, there are some really good liquid latex sources available, but it took forever to find them!).

It took about three months to come up with the process that resulted in wearable crystals that wouldn't crumble apart or lose their bail when you hung them from a chain or cord. Turns out, the process of electroforming is as much magick as it is science. One never knows what might come out of the acid bath, in terms of texture or even sometimes color! Copper is a finicky mistress. But after I was successfully plating crystals to make into pendants, I got braver and started into organics, like leaves and, most challenging of all, honeycombs.

Like any new craft, this one required lots of experimentation. You know what? After four years, it still does! I really like the challenge of doing more intricate things now, like skulls and real butterfly wings. Being able to still show the wing color while just plating the edges is one of my prouder discoveries.

I started out my jewelry making life as a wire wrapper, and I'll always love doing that. Now, I can mix both techniques and get some really cool results. Do I still ruin things? Yep. The liquid latex can fail, or I'll miss a spot and the acid still ruins plenty. Sometimes, the bath itself fails for no apparent reason. Or, my conductive paint formula goes bad and I have to repaint everything I've done. It can be frustrating, for sure, but it's also so rewarding.

I really enjoy preserving things from special trips we've taken. I actually electroformed the very first morel mushroom my husband and I ever found on our own--I just couldn't bring myself to eat it...we worked so hard to find it! Now, it is forever preserved and I wear it proudly as a talisman for my foraging adventures!