How to Patina Copper and Brass with Liver of Sulfur
The ability to add a deep, rich patina is an important tool in any metalsmith's arsenal. Liver of sulfur smells a little funny, but it is an effective and easy way to patina copper, silver, and even (with a little more work) brass. It is potentially harmful, so you do need to take a few basic precautions when working with liver of sulfur. With these tips and tricks, you can learn how to safely create dependable, beautiful patinas to enhance your jewelry and other creations.
This is the liver of sulfur gel I use. I find it dependable and easy to work with.
Materials Needed to Patina Metals
You need to gather a few items in order to patina with liver of sulfur. The list may seem a little extensive, but most people already have virtually all the needed materials and equipment at home.
You will need self-stable liver of sulfur concentrate (gel or powder), baking soda, water, dish soap, a couple of paper towels, window cleaner or ammonia, three non-metallic containers, some sort of scrubbing brush (even and old toothbrush will work), tongs or some other method of retrieving your item from the solution, a disposable plastic spoon, and, of course, something to patina. You could also use a pair of rubber gloves, but they aren't absolutely necessary. See? It seems like a lot, but most of the items are basic household necessities you probably already have under the kitchen sink.
For my containers, I usually use two pieces of plastic tupperware and a glass mason jar. Whatever you use, make sure you designate them for liver of sulfur use and don't accidentally put food in them in the future!
You will also need a well-ventilated area to work in. Some people even go so far as to work with liver of sulfur outside, but long term exposure is a bigger concern than short term exposure. If you're only doing small projects and have a good AC system or the windows open, you should be fine - just try to avoid sticking your face over the hot liver of sulfur bath and breathing in the fumes!
Clean the Metals
The items must be totally clean and free from fire scale, dirt, debris, and finger oils. Contaminates can prevent the patina from sticking and/or result in an uneven appearance. If you've taken the item directly from a pickle pot, you don't need to worry about additional cleaning. If you haven't, you need to prepare a little cleansing bath.
Put a little dish soap in one of your containers and add hot water. Stir, if necessary, to mix in the soap. Next, pour in a little ammonia or ammonia-containing glass cleaner. Ammonia really cuts through grease! Place a couple of paper towels out on the counter next to the bath. Then, toss your metal items down in the hot, soapy water and let them rest for a minute.
While the metal items are resting, either scrub your hands down thoroughly with hot water and soap or don your gloves. You need to keep your finger oils off the newly-cleaned metals!
Then, reach into the bath and pull out the metal items. Give them a little scrubbing with your brush - I use an old nail brush - and then rinse them under hot running water to remove any soapy residue. Lay them on the paper towels to dry.
Prepare a Neutralizing Bath
While your items dry, prepare a neutralizing bath. This neutralizing bath will halt the oxidation, keeping the items from darkening an undesirable amount. Place about two tablespoons of baking soda in your mason jar and add how water. Stir thoroughly to combine.
Prepare the Liver of Sulfur
Liver of sulfur is unstable and basically begins to break down as soon as you make the oxidizing bath. It only works well when it's warm, so make sure to use really hot water. If you have hot tap water, it may work. If not, you should heat water to almost boiling in your microwave, on the stove, or in an ellectric kettle. When working on larger projects, some people choose to keep the liver of sulfur bath over a low heat, like a candle warmer. I have found this isn't necessary for smaller projects and I feel like keeping it warm for an extended period of time just increases the liklihood that I'lll inhale something toxic.
Open a window and turn on a fan to make sure the air is moving or, if you're particularly concerned, set up outside. Place a few drops of liquid liver of sulfur concentrate in your final container. If you are using dry, powdered concentrate, use about a pea-sized amount. Carefully add a cup or two of hot water, depending on how many items you are trying to patina, and stir with the plastic spoon to combine.
The solution should be a bright, lemony yellow. If it looks pale, add a little more liver of sulfur.
You are finally ready to patina! If desired, (and you haven't already) move your liver of sulfur bath and neutralizing bath outdoors. Then, using a gloved or very clean hand, carefully add your items to the liver of sulfur. Do not lower your hand into the liver of sulfur - the glove or extreme cleanliness is to protect the pieces from becoming oily all over again. Liver of sulfur is very alkaline and it has the potential to burn your skin, so make sure not to splash yourself. I like to simply use an unbent paperclip threaded through a pendant, but non-pendant items I usually just lower in with my plastic spoon. Stir the items around a little bit, especially if there are several things in the bath at once.
Watch your items. If they are copper or silver, they will oxidize pretty quickly! Brass may need to sit for a few minutes. As soon as they look as dark as you'd like, remove the items and drop them immediately in the baking soda bath. The baking soda will fizz violently. When it stops fizzing, the residual liver of sulfur has been neutralized.
It is a lot easier to add more oxidation than get just a little cleaned off. I like to patina in stages. You can always re-dunk the items as many times as needed! Make sure to dry off anything that's been placed in the neutralizing bath to avoid introducing baking soda into the liver of sulfur because this will damage its efficacy.
Disposing of Liver of Sulfur
As soon as you are finished with your liver of sulfur solution, you need to dispose of it properly. You have two choices.
- Cover the container tightly, place it outdoors and out of reach of children and/or pets and wait for it to degrade. It will turn clear instead of yellow. Then, you can safely pour it down a drain or flush it.
- Add baking soda. Lots of baking soda until it stops fizzing. This means it is neutralized and is safe to pour or flush.
Finish your Metal Items
Now that your items are patina'd, you can do with them whatever you'd like! If you want to make the details really pop on etched or embossed items, I recommend polishing the raised areas a little. You can use a buffing block, like the Vintaj block shown to the right, or you can wet the item a little and carefully polished the raised areas with some baking soda. Other options exist, too, but these two are my favorite. For items like findings and chains, the easiest way to polish them a little is with a simple polishing cloth. No matter what you use, make sure not to remove all your patina.
To lock the patina in place and ensure any buffed areas don't lose their shine, seal the items with Renaissance Wax or a matte finish spray sealant, like Mod Podge or Krylon. This is not mandatory, but it ensures your items stay looking exactly the way you want them!
I hope you enjoy this tutorial and find it useful. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask - I'm happy to help out to the best of my ability.
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