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Jewellery Design - How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination)

If you are making your own jewellery, then colour can be an important part of your design. Learning to add colour to your copper jewellery (or silver jewellery) adds a new skill and a new dimension to your work, helping you to be more skilled and inidividual; enabling you to produce unique jewellery for yourself, your friends, or resale.

Patination: This is the term for colouring copper, patination is the term used for adding colour by any method and not just through heating.

This hub is part of a set which follow my course in Jewellery Design.

One of the first parts of my Jewellery Making course looked at adding colour to copper metal - and one of the ways to do this is to use heat. Using heat to produce colours is quite easy to do, but you do need a little practice so you understand how much heat to apply.

Copper Coloured Using Heat

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination).  Copper Coloured Using Heat

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination). Copper Coloured Using Heat

Annealing Copper & Heating Copper

When you're working with copper (or silver) you will need to learn to anneal the metal. Annealing copper or silver (or any metal) is simply a process of heating it up, usually with a simple butane gas torch, the sort you'd use in a kitchen to make a creme brulee, so there's nothing to be scared of; most of these torches are simply refillable too, using everyday lighter fluid. If you want to make any jewellery using metals, you will need to have a gas torch and you'll find you use it on nearly every piece you have.

Essential: A gas torch is an essential jewellery making tool enabling you to anneal metal (soften), as well as being used in all your soldering, whether you're soldering pieces together, making rings or securing jumprings.

As you work your copper it hardens - if you are hammering, bending, doming or shaping copper then you might need to anneal the copper (simply heat it up) a few times so you can continue to work on it.

If you watch your copper while you are annealing it, you'll notice there are a lot of fabulous colours darting across the metal. When you anneal copper you heat it up until the whole piece is glowing red.... but if you stop while the colours are darting across the metal, then those colours remain and your copper has colour.

To learn to colour your copper using heat you should get yourself a good supply of copper and spend 15-30 minutes or so heating them up to see the colours and to stop your heating at the colour you want. When I did it, I was working with one piece at a time; this is a rubbish system because at the end of it I had just one result .... if I'd had 20-30 pieces I'd have really been able to explore the full range of colours and had some great samples for my workbook.

Colouring Sterling Silver Using Heat

This exact same process can be used with other metals, such as sterling silver. The process is identical, but the results will differ slightly as the colours that appear in silver are slightly different. Once you're comfortable with the results in copper, why not have a go in silver too?

Again, you won't be wasting any silver as you can always fully anneal your silver if you're unhappy with the results and start again .... as many times as you want.

All you need is some sterling silver sheet of the thickness you want.

What You Will Need to Anneal Copper

Before you start, you'll need to gather together the essentials!

  • A good supply of copper. This doesn't have to be new and shiny, but it's nicer to start with new/shiny copper as you can see the colours more easily as they appear - making it easier to spot when you've got the colour you want. Cut your copper into small pieces so you have a lot of test pieces to experiment with. Getting copper cut to size will be an issue until you've got your own metal guillotine; once you've got a metal guillotine you can literally chop up your metal into the sizes you want in 2-3 seconds apiece!

Copper Used: I used 0.7mm copper, which is also known as "22 gauge". The thickness of copper is measured on several scales, depending on which country you're in and who you are buying it from. 0.7mm copper is ideal for most jewellery making and great for pendants, brooches and learning!

Quantity of Copper: You can never have enough copper, it's quite affordable, so worth stocking up on. If you're going to make 20-30 test pieces, at (say) 1"x1.5" then you'll need about 6" square (15cm square). I like to have 6-10 sheets to hand.

A jeweller without a ready supply of copper is like a cup cake baker who doesn't keep flour in their cupboard!

  • A gas torch, just like the ones you'd use in a kitchen to make creme brulee.
  • A "torching station", which is simply some heat-proof tiles or sheets. These protect the surrounding area from the flames and heat you'll be producing. Most torching stations will be made up of a few bits and pieces of firebrick, enabling you to position your work where you like. For annealing you'll want to lean your copper upright against a back piece.
  • Tweezers - your copper will be hot and you'll need to drop it into cold water to quench it, so you'll need tweezers for this.
  • A pot of water for quenching. Once your copper has changed to the colour you want you'll want to quench it in cold water. You can use anything for this, from a small bucket to a plastic tub or ceramic bowl.
  • A pot of pickle, which is an acid bath. This works best when warmed, but it does work if you leave it cold and overnight (it just takes the fun out of it if you have to wait though!)

The Colouring, Bronzing & Patination of Metals

Colouring Metals: The Process

  • Set yourself up so your pickle is warm, many people use an old slow-cooker (bought from a yard sale and never used for food!).
  • Get your firing station set up and line up a row of metal pieces to be heated.
  • Make sure your tweezers are handy (to pick up the hot metal with) and your pot/bucket of water is ready for your hot metal to be tossed into.

Once you're ready to go, the process is simple:

Heat up a piece of your copper at a time - experiment with a variety of techniques, to see what happens, try things such as:

  • Moving the flame over the metal at different speeds
  • Try varying the distance the flame is from your copper
  • Try keeping your torch completely still .... lined up in the middle at the bottom, or even directed at only one corner.

Try all of these and any variations you can think of to produce different effects.

  • Once you're happy with the colour you're seeing, remove the gas torch heat, leave the copper for 4-5 seconds, then pick it up with the tweezers and toss it into the water to quench it.
  • Pick out your (cold now) metal from the water and put it into the pickle for 15-20 minutes, or until all the firestain has gone.

When you remove the copper from the pickle, rinse it in running water and dry it. If you don't like what you've got, simply start again!

My Heated Copper Samples

Being limited to the duration of a class - and sharing facilities - I didn't manage to create many samples of heated copper and, to be honest, mine weren't that successful, which is why I recommend you set aside about an hour and have a lot of copper pieces the first time you do this, so you can really experiment, learn and develop your skill and come out with some great results.

Copper Patination

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination). Colour of copper changed by heating.

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination). Colour of copper changed by heating.

Sample 1: Copper Patination

This piece of copper was simply heated with the gas torch until I could see the colours changing, I then stopped the heating and this was the result.

For a lot of people, patination through heating copper is beautiful, an artpiece - it's certainly unique.

Changing the colour of copper through heating is an easy way to give your jewellery designs a unique look, nobody else can make a piece just like it!

Bright Orange and Pink Patination on Copper

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination)

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination)

Sample 2: Copper Patination through Heating

Here is another of my samples. In this case the colour was obtained by heating the front of the copper and this was the rear. It does help to show you some of the colours possible.

I didn't set out to heat the back, I was heating the front where I'd used chemicals to create colour in my copper and this is what happened to the rear by 'accident'/default - but it does help to show some of the great colours you can achieve.

See what colours you can see, the orange and the pink are clearly visible.

Copper Patination Using Heat

Copper Patination Using Heat

Copper Patination Using Heat

Sample 3: Copper Patination Using Heat

Here is another sample I made for my coursework, simply copper heated up until the colour changed.

This shows a slightly different range of colours which come through the heating process.

Copper Patination

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination).   This photo shows how the colours change, in a rainbow-like formation, when copper is heated.

How to Colour Copper With Heat (Patination). This photo shows how the colours change, in a rainbow-like formation, when copper is heated.

Sample 4: Copper Patination

This sample just shows how the colour appears along the copper - if you look carefully you can see different dots of different colours as the heat spreads along the copper metal.

The different colours are caused by the metal not being heated equally across its width. Learning to control the heat flow - and to get the colour you want across a larger area - is something that simply comes with more practice.

Nothing you do is ever "wasted" as you can simply anneal your copper pieces fully (heat up to bright red, quench and pickle) and start again - it's because this takes 10-15 minutes that I advise people to start with a good box full of copper pieces, to prevent you sitting and waiting for your metal to pickle.

Note: Pickling is simply the process where the firestain from the heating process is removed.

Images by:

All the images are the actual results gained from one short class taken by the author.

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