Daily Wire Tip: Working with Copper Tarnish

By on August 23, 2011
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Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip

Question:

I use a lot of copper wire and like the look of high shine on some of my hammered heavy-gauge pieces. I use steel wool and it almost glows. However, the color and shine doesn’t stay on it, even if put away and sealed. Suggestions? Is the only answer a type of coating on it? Thanks.

-Kathleen in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Answer:

Hi Kathleen, ah the challenges of working in base metals. These include the temper and the dreaded tarnish! Yes, copper is pretty when it is clean-pink and shiny. BUT, the nature of this metal is to oxidize and there is NO permanent solution! All possible coatings or treatments are only temporary. Depending on the atmosphere and the amount and type of contaminants in the area, copper will turn all kinds of colors, especially green.

Do you remember when the Statue of Liberty was cleaned for her 100th birthday? A solution of baking soda and water is all that was used! The salt and acids in a human’s skin can cause all types of havoc with many metals, especially copper and brass. We have a new article that I would like to direct your attention to. Found on the Resource Center page under the heading "Caring for your Jewelry", Mary Bailey talks about copper and brass jewelry wire, including how to clean it in "How to Clean Copper and Brass Jewelry Wire."

My advice to you and all of my fellow wire jewelry friends is to "work with the metal"! When you use a wire that you know is going to tarnish in some way, use that feature to its advantage. Design pieces that resemble steampunk, vintage or renaissance styles and embrace the fact that those pieces will constantly change according to whomever wears them in whatever environment they are in.

Answer contributed by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong

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19 Comments

  1. avatar

    Jilly

    August 24, 2011 at 11:19 am

    I use Renaissance Wax on mine at whatever state I get it to. Sometimes I want the “bright” look but usually I prefer a slightly more oxidized appearance. Several coats of the wax will keep it there for a long time. Liver of sulfur + Renaissance wax is the ultimate but I’m not a huge LOS fan.

  2. avatar

    Dorothy

    August 24, 2011 at 11:48 am

    I agree with Dale. Personally, I don’t care for the bright metals, so I work primarily with antique finishes. I’ve used these for at least 4 years, and have found no color changes with them. I’ve never thought of using the bright copper and letting it tarnish as part of the design. Can’t wait to try it.

  3. avatar

    Dharlee

    August 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    If you want to shine copper up in seconds, use a solution of a couple of Tablespoons of lemon juice and a teaspoon of salt. Place ingredients in a shallow glass bowl and stir. Add the copper piece and brush with a soft toothbrush. It brings it back to like new condition in seconds, however never use this on silver, and be careful with gemstones.

  4. avatar

    Nathalie

    August 24, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Like you Kathleen, I love the pink hue of a clean piece of copper. I actually prefer it silver and gold. I live in the Pacific Northwest Area by the ocean and have been fighting with the elements to keep my pieces clean. In some markets, I would clean the piece and less than 1 hour later, it would start tarnishing on my table!!! I have used: Nu Finish car polish, solution of vinegar water and salt, solutions of lemon and water, Renaissance wax, anti-tarnish strips, ziploc bags, cleaning cloths… None of these have worked and I am disappointed because I am not a fan of the steampunk look (to each his own). If anyone out there has found a magical solution to keep copper pink, please help!

    • avatar

      Peggy Wiggs

      October 25, 2011 at 9:19 am

      Hi Natalie, I like to put a “color” on some of my copper peices. I do this by sprinkling it with salt and suspending it over ammonia and covering it in a sealed container. To keep this patina on the peice I will mix a batch of resin, I use a doming resin that will cure overnight or in the toaster over, cover the peice with a coat of this resin and after its cured you have a hard finish with a beautiful shine to it. You can do the same with a bright copper peice also. I love the bright pink color of copper. You can also use Future floor wax. Works like a dream and is available at any grocery store.

      • avatar

        jaretta bull

        October 26, 2011 at 8:35 am

        Hi, i am interested in how you use the resin to protect your patina on the copper. i have never used resin befor. can you point me in the direction of how, where and what to purchase?
        thank you
        jaretta bull

        • avatar

          wendy

          June 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm

          Hi Jaretta; You can buy the resin at most of your craft stores or on E-bay. Be sure to shop around because the prices are going to vary quite a bit. The least expensive I think is the 2 part epoxy resin, sold for crafts. The most costly, 1 part(no mixing) is sold for jewelry making also is in very small amounts.
          To find out how, go to Youtube, there’s all kinds of tutorials there.

    • avatar

      Nathalie

      October 25, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      Hi Peggy,

      Resin? I will definitely try what you suggest as I work with resin every day. Great idea, thanks!

  5. avatar

    Barb Hiatt

    August 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Nathalie,
    I also live in the Pacific Northwest, but probably not quite as close to the coast as you are. When I use copper wire, I clean and straighten it using the Nu Finish car polish at this stage. I have had really good results treating the wire this way.

    For an experiment, I cleaned a piece of 14 gauge with the Nu Finish and let it sit out for about a month on a table and it stayed tarnish free.

    • avatar

      Emily Bowers

      October 25, 2011 at 8:16 am

      I have found that ProtectaClear by Everbrite, Inc. works really well. http://www.protectaclear.com
      It’s really best to call them so they can send you the appropriate solution for jewelry.

      • avatar

        MetalGrannie

        November 1, 2011 at 4:41 am

        I have also been using Everbrite’s ProtectaSeal for several months, so has my best jewelry-making buddy. She uses a lot of base metals, and loves the way it makes it shine. I’m really happy with it. But I like pure copper’s bright finish. I just read on the latest issue of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry (Oct./Nov. 2011) an article by Ronna Salvas Weltman where she said raw copper should only be used in plumbing. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I love bright shiny copper and dislike the patinaed look. I did a lot of research before buying the ProtectaSeal, and it works for me. And for my friend.

    • avatar

      Lisa

      June 6, 2017 at 10:47 am

      I love the Nu Finish idea! Makes sense, but never thought of it. Do you know if you can use it on silver, brass, gold, aluminum, titanium, etc. too?
      Thanks!

      Lisa

  6. avatar

    Dorothy

    October 25, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I am very partial to the antique finishes, and avoid the bright metals in most of my work. Since I am selling my work more now, I know I have to also include the brighter metals, including silver, that I don’t wear. When I purchase square wire, I buy the kind that is marked non-tarnish for those purposes. I’ve been buying the non-tarnish wires for about 6 months, and so far they have stayed bright, but am fairly certain they will eventually tarnish. I feel honor-bound to advise my buyers of this fact. If they choose to go ahead and buy them (they usually do) I feel I’ve fulfilled my ethical responsibility. Actually, the only shiny copper I enjoy is on my copper teakettle.

  7. avatar

    Lorraine

    October 25, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I use ketsup..nothing else..instant result..ketsup.

  8. avatar

    Katharine

    January 29, 2013 at 10:38 am

    I am just returning to jewelry making after many years. As I recall, we used a spray lacquer. Is this no longer used or available? I have a copper bracelet over 30 years old that I used it on and it still looks as good as it did when I made it.

  9. avatar

    Shari

    June 11, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I just started mind you, but so far so good. I use clear nail polish. It looks great even on opals in the rough, which I love to keep that way. In the rough that is.
    I have tried ketchup, lemon and salt, lemon, salt, and flour, ammonia, jewlery cleaner is a joke, seems like lots of stuff over the years. Does anyone have a suggestion for my copper pans? Seems to me it’s the elbow grease that worked, and not all the solutions that I have tried. Now that the hands don’t work as well I’m open to anything. Except the clear nail polish of course.

  10. avatar

    Annette

    December 9, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    I hear a lot about preventing tarnish and I know this article is all about working with the tarnish, but what I am wondering, the copper that is sold here it is tarnish resistant or can I actually age it myself and then polish it to give it a two tone appearance?
    I just want to make sure I can do this when the copper wire sold here.

  11. avatar

    Billie Jo Fly

    October 6, 2015 at 11:55 am

    I use salt and vinegar heated in the microwave and then drop in the jewelry. Out comes a gleaming piece of jewelry.

  12. avatar

    Carol

    January 17, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    I use clear nail polish. So far so good.

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