Monday, January 31, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name

It's been a log time coming, but I have finally put the finishing touches on my latest project, and just in time for Valentine's Day. Silk rose quill pens!

This past Christmas season, I had a part time job working at my favorite craft store. As I was working the register, a customer came through with some silk flowers (they sell a lot of silk flowers there). Only, for some reason, these particular flowers struck me as the perfect size and shape to be used as finials on top of a quill pen. I don't know what it was about them, but seeing them just made it click in my head. And so I thought to myself, I don't think I've ever seen a flower used on a quill pen before. Lots of feathers, yes, but never a flower. So I bought one to try it out. First I bought a black rose bud that was left over from the Halloween stock. You know, for the goth girls.

That seemed to work out pretty well, so I went back and bought a couple more. Then I thought, why just make pens for the goth girls? Regular girls can write bad poetry too. Why not make flower pens that appeal to everyone? So I went back and raided the silk flower isle looking for anything that I thought would look good as a pen. Admittedly, I kept my eye mostly on the roses. But I did buy one other kind of flower.

I had a girlfriend back in the day who loved calla lilies. When I saw this one, I immediately thought of her (not that I needed an excuse). It was the right size and shape, so I tried it. I think it turned out rather well. I have considered sending it to her as a gift but, after all these years, that might just create more unease than happiness, and that's not what I want.

While I was shopping for flowers, I sauntered down the wedding supplies isle and found some cute charms that I could add to the pens. I knew that I would probably be wrapping the joint where the stem meets the pen shaft with some kind of ribbon or something, and I thought a little charm hanging from the ribbon would be a nice accent piece.

As for the grip, some of those I wrapped with ribbon,

 and some of them I wrapped with metal wire.

I haven't yet used any of the metal tubes that I plated with copper using my galvanic plating/etching rig, but some of these are made with the same metal tubing that has been lacquered. In general, the long ones with lots of stem and leaves, like this one...

...are the ones that have the metal tubing for shafts. They average about 13 inches in length and some of the original artificial flower stem has been preserved, making them look pretty much just like flowers when they are in their bud vase holders.

Which brings me to the bud vase holders. I can't believe I hadn't thought of using a bud vase as a pen holder sooner than I did. I actually spent several days trying to think of something to use as a holder so that I could package them as sets. When it finally dawned on me I felt really stupid for not thinking of it immediately. I went to several different stores and picked out quite a few different designs and sizes of vase to try out. I have managed to make use of most of them. I'm glad I didn't just get one kind of vase for all of them. Some of them really work better with one style vase or another. As the project went on, I started doing a little bit of decorating of the vases too. As you can see, silver hearts were not the only little metal charms that I bought for decorations.

The shorter pens (averaging about 9.5" in overall length), like the one above, have wooden shafts. The wooden shafts have two advantages. One, is that they are cheap. I can get 24 pen shafts out of a $1 pack of a dozen 12" hardwood dowels. Compare that to the 11 slightly shorter shafts I can get out of one 60" metal tube, that costs about $7. The other advantage to the wooden shafts is that they can easily be drilled. I have to drill two small pilot holes into the shaft when I do the wire wrapping, so that I can tuck in and hide the ends of the wire. I can not easily do that with the metal shafts (if at all).

The metal shafts (like the one pictured above) have one big advantage. They paint very quickly and easily. All I have to do is cut them, quickly buff them with fine sand paper, string them on a bamboo skewer for painting, do a quick light spray from the paint can to prime them, let it dry just a few seconds, then give it a heavy covering coat and once that is dry it's ready for clear top coat sealer. The prep and painting  process probably takes no more than two or three minutes per pen. I get a really nice even finish with basically one coat of paint. If you scratch them, however, the paint will chip off easier than with the wooden shafts. I usually give them a double coat of clear acrylic sealer to help prevent them from getting scratched by the metal charms or the rim of the vase. I may look for a metal primer to use on them before painting to see if that helps too.

In contrast, the wooden shafts (like the one pictured above) take a lot of work to prep and paint. First, I have to sand them with medium sand paper, then fine sand paper. Then, in order to eliminate tiny crevices caused from the wood grain, I have to rub them down with a piece of air-dry clay to fill all the tiny cracks and imperfections that will show up when it is painted. I used air-dry clay because I didn't have any wood filler putty at the time I implemented this step to solve the tiny crevice problem. Later I get some wood filler, but I honestly like the air-dry clay better. Then after the clay is dry, I have to sand it again with medium, then fine sand paper. Then I have to cut them to length and drill tiny pilot holes and insert T pins in the ends to hold them while they are painted and drying. Then a coat of primer. Then another sanding. Then paint. Then wet sanding. Then more paint. Then more wet sanding. Then more paint. I have to sand and paint at least three times to get a nice finish. After I do the wire wrap, I usually have to mask them off and give them one more quick touch up coat, because I can hardly do the wrapping without marring the finish a little. Then, finally, clear acrylic sealer. With drying time, this process takes about two to three days.

I think the wire wrapping around the grip looks and feels better than the satin ribbon. But it is much more work and I can only do three or four of them a day because it makes my hands hurt. First you have to drill a tiny hold in the shaft on the back side at the tip. Then you stick the end of the wire in the hole and start wrapping. You have to keep the wire very taught and wrap very carefully in order to get a nice kink and gap free wrap. Then, while keeping the wire taught, because at this point it is like a spring, you have to drill another tiny hole at the top of the wrapping on the back of the shaft, making sure to get it as close to the top winding as possible, and without marring either the top winding or the shaft. It needs to be very discreet. Then, still keeping tension on the wire windings so they don't go SPROING and unwind, you have to cut the wire in just the right spot, and bend a 90 degree tab in just the right spot, so that you can fit the tab into the hole to anchor it. This hides the end of the wire, and prevents future sproing. You have to use needle nose pliers to get the tab into the hole and you have to do it without marring either the wire or the shaft with the pliers, and while holding the tension on the wire. You only have one shot to get it perfect. Multiple attempts invariably led to imperfections. In short, it sucks. But I love the way it looks when it comes out right.

For my first batch of flower pens I made 19 different sets, each with its own bud vase holder. I did, red roses, black roses, white roses, light pink roses, a yellow rose, and one calla lily. These pics are obviously not all of them, but this post is already getting kind of long and these pictures are HUGE, so I think I'll hold off on posting the rest until I trim them down a bit. I have all 19 currently up for sale on my ebay store, with lots more pics of each one. You can view them here. They would make a great Valentine's Day present for a loved one, especially one that likes to write poetry (like most girls do) or who likes quill pens. They range from $25 to $35 for each set, which I think is a fair price, given all the labor that went into them and given that ostrich feather and macaw feather pens are selling on ebay anywere from $20 to $100 each. The heavy glass bud vases do make them a little expensive to ship, but I will ship them all Express Mail to ensure you get them by Valentine's Day.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Galvanic Copper Plating

Hello again; long time no blog. I'm back in the workshop again, finally, and very excited about my current project. It's more quill pens, but they are very nice and different from what I had been making. I'm experimenting with some new materials, including shafts made of metal tubing. Some of which are being painted, and some I am going to try copper plating. This post is less about the pens (more on them later) and more about the copper plating process.

Some of you may remember my first attempt at using electrolytic (galvanic) etching. If not please check it out. Also it is worth checking out the reference sites I linked to in that post, especially of you are planing on doing any etching or plating yourself. Last time I was focused on etching. This time I am more interested in plating. The process is exactly the same, but with the polarity reversed.

I'm going to start with the raw metal tubing. What I'm using is 1/4 inch galvanized automotive break line. You can get it at any automotive parts store. I got a 60" long line for about $7. Both ends are flared, so if you don't want that, you will have to cut the flare off. I did. Then I cut a section to the desired length (5.25") with a tubing cutter. Tubing cutters can also be found in an automotive or hardware store. Mine cost less than $10. They are used for cutting any kind of metal tubing, but especially copper plumbing pipe.

Speaking of copper plumbing pipe, that's what I'm going to be using for both my anode and my vessel. I took a short piece of used copper pipe, I think it was 3/4" pipe that happened to be about 9" long, and cleaned it out real well with some muriatic acid (HCL). I was more interested in cleaning the interior than the exterior since that is the side that will be reacting during the plating process. I then stoppered up one end with a cork. This pipe will be filled with my electrolytic solution (copper sulfate) and will, again, serve as both the reaction vessel and the anode (I'm pretty sure I'm using the word anode correctly in this context, but please don't beat me up if I am not). Another advantage to using a copper pipe like this, is that all the surfaces to be plated are roughly equidistant from the anode and copper source material, which should ensure an even plating. If I were to use a copper plate anode on one side of a tank and the tube to be plated on the other, such as with my rig from my previous experiment, the copper would tend to deposit mainly on the side facing the anode.

I want to make sure that the piece of tubing is coated evenly and with no blemishes, so I will solder on a small metal tab for the alligator clip to attach. In my first attempt I used a 1" steel brad, but in this pic, I am using a "T" pin. I placed the end of the pin inside the tubing along with a small piece of solder (after coating the pin with flux). I used a neodymium magnet along the outside of the tubing to help hold them in place while I heated the pin with a small butane torch to melt the solder. I also ran some 1000 grit sand paper over the outer surface of the tubing to make sure it was nice and smooth for plating, though that probably wasn't strictly necessary.

I wanted to make sure that the copper pipe stayed perfectly upright during the process, so I used some newspaper as wadding and wedged it into the mouth of a glass jar I had handy. The jar will also serve to catch any leaks in case my corked end is not perfectly sealed (it isn't). I wrapped some thin galvanized jewelry wire around the outside of the pipe just to give me a convenient place to attach the alligator clip.

The metal tube I am plating will sit nested inside the copper pipe. In case you were wondering from the previous picture, that is a bamboo skewer stuck in the end of the tubing, so that it sits at the right height in the pipe. It is important that the tubing not be allowed to touch the side walls of the pipe, or it will complete the electrical circuit and nothing will happen.
Then the pipe is filled with the electrolytic solution, which in this case is copper sulfate. As in my previous experiment, I used a commercial septic cleaner called "Root Gone", which comes in a crystal form, that I added to water to the saturation point. I made sure that the water level was above the top of the tubing. As the cork leaks a bit, I will have to top it off periodically.

Using test leads with alligator clips on the ends, I attached the positive terminal of a generic 9V battery to the copper pipe, and the negative terminal to the metal tube (actually, to the T pin). In my previous experiments, using 12V at high amperage for short times was way too much current. It ate the anode very quickly and although it did deposit material on the cathode, that material did not bond and was easily wiped off. My previous experiments of using 1.5V at low amperage worked better, but very slowly. I did, however, leave it on for too long (14 hours) and it, again, ate through my anode. I was looking for some middle ground. I didn't have a 6V battery, so I thought I would try a used 9V that was still good, but kind of weak. I wanted the process to go fast enough that it didn't take all night, but slow enough that the copper being deposited would bond properly to the metal tubing.

I left it set up for about an hour and then checked it. SUCCESS! I had a nice even (if not a little thin) copper coating that was well bonded to the tubing. I wanted a little thicker coating, so I wiped it down and put it back in for another hour. Something worth noting, is that the finished product does not come out the nice warm orange-copper color we are used to seeing on pipes and wiring. It comes out a very bright garish, almost pinkish copper color, like a mint fresh penny. I'm sure a few days in the open air will tone it down and warm up the color (I hope).

On a side note, my used 9V battery was good for about two and a half plating sessions (total of 5 hours) before it had to be replaced. One problem I keep having is, I can never seem to remember which way to connect the battery. I have to keep looking it up. So this time I wrote myself a little note to keep with my gear. Material is REMOVED FROM THE POSITIVE terminal, and DEPOSITED ON THE NEGATIVE terminal. Write that down, kids.

UPDATE: Although the first two tubes I plated with this rig went off without a hitch, good coverage, no  problems. The third and fourth tubes were both problematic. The third one was the one where I switched batteries between the first and second hours, and its finish came out dark in some areas. It plated evenly, but it didn't look nice. The fourth was just a mess.The copper only stuck in patches, and covered less than half of the tube. I tried all sorts of alterations to the power supply to solve the problem. I switched out the battery again; I tried using a "wall wart" transformer (5V 2A and another that was 12V 800mA); I tried using a C cell battery. I got plenty of copper built up, but nothing would stick, and I even noticed some degradation of the tube wall thickness on just one end that sort of puzzles me. And I think I burnt out both of the wall warts I used. I guess my apparatus still needs some work. I will have to go online and see if I can find out what the optimal voltage and amperage would be. If anyone else has any idea what went wrong, please leave a comment.