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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Red Copper Oxide Patina


Red Copper by Mrs. Kuroki
Frame by me
So many of my fellow metalsmiths are eager to learn how I achieve the red color on copper which I use a lot in my jewelry. These are definitely some of my most popular pieces of jewelry. Most people are curious what the material is because it doesn't look like what people think of when they think of copper.


I learned this method in Japan about twenty years ago from my teacher, Ayako Kuroki. She called it "houshyayaki" which translates to "grilled borax". Mrs. Kuroki taught me how to achieve a solid red patina which isn't always easy. I didn't have a problem getting the results I wanted at first. But a few years ago I lost my touch for some reason. After many frustrated attempts I finally threw in the towel and decided to take a break from it.

Earrings made in Japan circa 1990
Photographed upside down by man who doesn't wear jewelry!


Due to popular demand from both customers and other jewelers wanting to know how I do it, I started trying it again last night. It looks like there's hope that I may be able to figure it out. The more I practice the better I'll get at it which has always been the case from the first time I learned this technique.

This is all you need.  So simple...yet so not!


It's actually a very simple method. You simply mix some borax with tap water in a ceramic bowl which can take the heat of a torch in close proximity. I was taught that the dilution doesn't matter nor does the temperature of the water. You then heat your copper piece with a torch. I use a propane one. I surround the piece with charcoal blocks to help it heat up. You heat it to a red hot and very quickly quench it in the borax/water solution. It usually takes a few rounds before you achieve the solid red. The first attempt is often too orange for my taste. And there are usually black splotches mixed with the red. I was taught to heat from the back of the piece but honestly I have heated from the front with good results many times.  And if it just isn't working I throw the piece in the pickle and start over.  The pickle will remove the patina very quickly.  Which means the piece has to be cold formed.  No soldering.

As far as prepping the copper goes, Mrs. Kuroki thought that hammering it or at least hardening it yielded better results but I have gotten some of my best color on flat pieces of scrap which had no treatment at all. I also give the metal some "tooth" by rubbing it with scotchbrite.  Sometimes the piece has a beautiful shade of red but it's covered by a film which makes it difficult to really see. The best results have a glassy finish with no film.


Domes on left made last night.  You can see the black splotches I mentioned.
The earrings on the right are about 15 years old demonstrating durability.
I've worn them A LOT and thrown them into pockets with keys, etc.

This ring is pretty beat up and I wouldn't be showing it off except
to demonstrate durability again.  This was an experiment to see if
it was possible to inlay into the copper. It's about 15 years old and
worn a lot as well.  What I learned was that the pointy parts of the
inlay are too vulnerable.  But you can see that the red patina keeps
 on tickin'. I learned this inlay from National Living Treasure,
Mitsuo Masuda.  He invented this method of inlay as a modification
of "nunome zougan".  It is called "chidori ishime zougan" or
"bird's foot inlay".  I'll do another blog posting about Masuda Sensei
and this inlay technique sometime.


I'm no scientist, so I don't understand exactly what is going on in this process. But I believe that the borax is forming a glassy crust on the surface of the piece.  The red color is just a layer of oxidation and there is a core of the pink copper we are used to inside.  It is very durable as you can see in the photos of pieces I made about 20 years ago and have worn and manhandled many times. One would have to take a graver and carve into it to see the pink copper underneath.

I'm sure there are people out there who do understand the science behind it and I would love anybody to chime in with their knowledge/opinions.      

34 comments:

  1. thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

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  2. Awesome! Thank you for sharing this with us!

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  3. Love the intensity of the red. Thanks so much for the wonderful instructions.

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  4. Thanks Sarah. This is something I have done in just boiling water and am interested to see how the borax will do and if the hot water will make it easier or harder to do. Thank you for sharing. Very interested in the zogan technique as well.

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    1. I'd love to see how it goes for you Fred. And I will make a post about the zogan technique one of these days!

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  5. Thanks so much for sharing!! :)

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  6. Wow, beautiful! So no lacquer/wax/protectant is also applied? Beautiful!

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    1. Nope. You could but I don't find it necessary.

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  7. Thank you for this! Years ago I got a similar copper patina by using a kiln and soaking the piece for a while...don't remember for how long or at what temp, I'm afraid. Since I gave up the kiln, I've tried a few times to duplicate it with a torch, but have not been successful. Can't wait to try it

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  8. Thank you for sharing such a great technique. I hope everyone posts pics to show off their results.

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    1. Me too Debe. I would love to see other peoples' attempts.

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  9. If you have black spots can you do over it again?
    Love it!!

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    1. Hi Michelle. I'm a little slow at responding to my messages here but, yes, you can do it again. Just pickle it and start over

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  10. Oh my!!! This is just soooo interesting! Thanks for sharing.
    Carol

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  12. I have to try this, thak you so much for the information :)

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  13. You're welcome Eva. Let me know how it goes.

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  14. How do you keep the borax powder from solidifying in the water?

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  15. Lauren, as the solution sits there, that's what happens. I just break it up with tongs. It doesn't seem to impact the process for me. You could also heat it up if you wanted to dissolve it more easily.

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  16. Gorgeous! Have been playing with patinas - looking for a deep red! Can't wait to give it a whirl!

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  17. Grazieeee!!!!!!!!!!
    Infinitamente grazie!
    Bravaaaa!

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  18. Wonderful technique! For a jewellery piece do you harden the copper after the heating? If so, how?

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    1. Hi Andrew! So sorry for the delayed response! I haven't been blogging (obviously!) No I've never tried to harden the copper. If it's thick enough, it really doesn't need it. This layer of oxidation is actually hardening in itself. It's very strong and durable. And if you tried to hammer or twist or press on it, the red oxidized layer will chip off. The nature of my designs hasn't required hardening of the copper.

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  19. Thanks for the instruction on such a simple technique. I tried it last night with some ounce copper coins and only half the coin took the red, the other side was yellow, almost golden. Would you think that to be a heating issue on my part since the coins are much thicker than the sheeting it seems that you use?

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    1. Hi Jordan! No I don't think your piece is too thick. It works on all thicknesses in my experience. It is often a different color on one side. I actually don't know how to avoid that but I would try rotating the piece front to back while heating it so as to heat both sides the same. Just experiment with it.

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  20. What is the pickling solution formula

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