Thursday, March 20, 2008

Understanding Electroforming, pt. 1

Last week I got an inquiry in a comment for more info about electroforming. Electroforming is a process using electricity and chemical solutions to build up a layer of metal, usually copper, onto a substrate (remember those "bronzed" baby shoes?). For the purpose of beadmakers, that substrate is usually glass, but wax, natural items, baby shoes or indeed anything that can be coated to survive the acid solution can be coated with metal.

I think the person who made the request really is interested in the more technical applications of electroforming, which is very prevalent in the microelectronics industry, and not interested in artistic applications, but it does bring up an issue which I had already been addressing in my saved, but as yet unpublished, posts.

Electroforming seems to intimidate and impress the unacquainted. I guess chemistry seems to trip up people a lot. I received my doctorate in physical chemistry way back in ... hmmm, let's skip that part ... but I can assure you that this is not quantum mechanics. It's really a simple process. If you can handle a torch, a kiln, and all the weird interactions of glass, I assure you that you can handle electroforming.

The recognized pioneer of electroforming onto lampworked glass is Kate Fowle Meleney. She has published repeatedly her methods, and she regularly teaches as well. You can read some of her articles online, here and here. Or you can purchase her book, The Lampworked Beads of Kate Fowle Meleney by James Kervin, which also includes a detailed description.

Other lampworkers who teach electroforming include Tink Martin, Ann Davis and Janelle Zorko. Tink has done some incredible things with using copper patinas to impart ancient color and texture to the copper metal, which looks so perfect with her miniature blown glass vessels -- they look like they came out of an archaeological dig somewhere. Ann extends the process to includw the use of wax to add texture and design to the copper, and silverplating over the copper. Janelle uses natural accessories such as leaves to accessorize beads.

For some really gorgeous uses of electroforming in the context of lampwork, check out work by a couple of my favorite artists: Jennifer Geldard and Pipyr.

As I mentioned, the "how to's" are well documented, but the next part of my discussion will try to give a layman's description of what is really happening and address some of the questions that I hear a lot.