Pickle is a necessary part of making jewelry, especially if you don’t like spending a lot of time with abrasives. The stuff from jewelry supply warehouses gets expensive in a hurry, however, so you’ll be pleased to know that there are some at-home solutions you can come up with to get the effect you need.
Let’s make sure you’re never without pickle again, I’m going to show you some trusted at-home solutions and also some products you can pick up at a local big-box retailer so you don’t have to wait for your Sparex to come in.
Do I Need Pickle for Jewelry?
You don’t need it, but it can save you a lot of steps.
In all honesty, I very rarely use pickle. But my fabrication style also means I resurface my metal more than once during the construction of the piece.
What pickle does is transform the fire scale (not firestain!) on the surface of the metal. Silver, for instance, turns black when oxidized and a quick dip in hot pickle will turn it white so that it’s able to be polished out.
What it doesn’t do is remove firestain, which occurs when copper pools just under the surface. If you overheat your silver… well, that’s what you end up with. Firestain is going to require an abrasive to remove, whether it’s sanding discs, sandpaper, or even just a file.
Well, take a look for yourself with this little nugget:
This was done by quenching the piece in the first method used below. Please note that your silver will almost never have that much scale on it, I intentionally torched the nugget for a prolonged period to build the scale on it. That’s also why there’s a slight pinkish cast to the “after” picture, I heated it too much and created firestain in addition to the black scale.
The powdery white across the surface is actually fine silver with all of the copper pulled out of it. This is known as depletion gilding, and it’s sometimes done on purpose to enrich the surface of a piece. For the silversmith, it just means a really nice surface to polish without needing to abrade away the scale.
Method #1: White Vinegar Method
This is the simplest method of setting up a pickle solution at home.
It’s also among the safest ways to have pickle in your workshop. At the very least it won’t turn every steel surface into your workshop into rust like some people have done with stronger acids.
You just need a jug of white household vinegar (5% acetic acid) and a bit of salt. You can also add some hydrogen peroxide if you really want it to work quickly but it’s often unnecessary. I use roughly one tablespoon of salt per liter.
Mix the salt into the vinegar in either a quench jar or your pickle pot. You’re pretty much done at that point, but you can take this pickle a step further if you’d like.
All you need to do is add a bit of hydrogen peroxide into the mix. This creates the creatively named “super pickle” which does seem to work a bit faster. It’s necessary if you’re using any alloy that contains nickel, but I don’t bother.
One thing to note about “super pickle” is that it will quickly degrade. Hydrogen peroxide isn’t very stable and it’ll be destroyed by light and fall apart in the solution over the course of a couple of days.
Environmental Note: While the pickle is made with safe ingredients, after use it is considered HAZMAT material. This is due to the copper ions leaching out of the metal, which will eventually turn the solution blue.
Drying out the solution will leave you with copper salts that are easier to handle without creating harmful fumes. You can place it in a pyrex dish or other small, glass storage container and let it evaporate. The blue powdery substance left behind still needs proper disposal but you can space out trips for disposal much further.
Don’t just dump it down the drain. It’s irresponsible and can result in nasty fines if you get caught doing it.
Method #2: Citric Acid Pickle
A less common, but still safer, option is to create a citric acid pickle. You can purchase citric acid in bulk online, and sometimes find it in stores.
You can use any citric acid, the ones labeled as being jewelry specific are just selling you a label. The stuff is all the same as long as there are no adulterants.
Citric acid is added to water in a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio by volume.
For instance, if you need four cups of pickle then you’ll add around ¾ cup of citric acid. It doesn’t need to be precise, and stronger acid will just work a little bit faster.
Citric acid pickle is pretty mild in my experience, even milder than vinegar when you compare them side-by-side. It’s mostly caught on as the new “green” pickle, but I take a bit of an issue with that.
The ingredients going into a pickle can be green. The solution after being used is HAZMAT. Full stop. Copper salts are terrible for the environment and should be disposed of in a proper manner by professionals, not just dumped down the sink.
Like the vinegar pickle, you can allow it to dry out in order to collect the salts for disposal at a later date.
Method #3: Alum
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: this is the original pickle. Alum is frequently used in pickling foods, and before the ready availability of acids it was the primary method in use.
Cheap sulfuric and hydrochloric acid changed that, and nowadays those are the gold standard for jeweler’s pickle.
Alum pickle is cheap, simple, and very safe but it is slow. Which is the main drawback.
Alum is used in foods, it’s not dangerous stuff. I recommend starting with a 1:3 mixture of alum to water by volume. You can add more from there if it’s still too slow for your tastes, but alum isn’t the quickest way to do things.
Alum only functions as a pickle if it’s warm. All you really need is a crock pot (which are often used for jewelry pickles in general) and a bit of patience.
Still, it’s a very safe and predictable way to make your pickle!
If you only absorb one concept from this article I hope it’s this: pickle functions by being an acid.
There are a ton of acids out there that you can use but you need to know how to work with them safely. Respirators, masks, and goggles should all be on hand and may be needed depending on how strong the solution is.
One of the most frequently used alternatives is pH Down for pools. ½ cup per gallon is the usual recommendation, but some people go so far as to completely saturate the solution.
The difference from the above recipes is simple but definite: these products can create a very corrosive acid. Dipping your finger in hot vinegar isn’t a big deal, but doing it in a solution of concentrated hydrochloric acid is going to result in a trip to the hospital.
Safety issues aside, these stronger solutions work much faster than the homemade solutions listed above.
You’re now fully equipped to make jewelry pickle at home with just a quick trip to the store!
The only question remaining is what you’re going to do with it.