Monthly Archives: April 2011

What is Pickle?

There has been a lot of panicky talk going around in various circles about “Pickle”.  Lately, on some of the forums,  there has been some very scary and potentially dangerous information given out. I will try to clarify some of the questions which have been sent to me about these statements and also about my ongoing series on soldering which appears in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Back in the middle ages, the most widely used solution for removing copper oxides from metal was alum.  This is also what cucumbers are soaking in to make “pickles” like we eat.  It was probably some medieval jeweler, who, as a joke, called the alum solution for removing copper oxides “pickle”, and the joke is still around hundreds of years later.

Later on,  a sulphuric acid /water solution was found to work better.   Unfortunately, not everyone knew how to appropriately use /mix the solution, and there were undoubtably some severe burns and numerous other unfortunate accidents which occurred.  For us modern day jewelers, there are several brand name products which are much safer and produce pretty good to excellent results.  They are a buffered solution of  sulphuric acid.  In chemspeak,  it is NaHSO4, commonly called sodium bisulfate.  This won’t eat your skin off if  accidentally splashed on you, but it will make holes in your clothing which will show up when your clothes are washed. To confuse the issue, sodium bisulfate is also used in food production in soft drinks and salad dressings and in preserving meat. However, more confusion comes when jewelers say they use a dry form of “sulphuric acid” as a pickle. This causes undue panic among some people who don’t understand exactly what sodium bisulfate is.

Some of the safer and more earth friendly pickles are sour salts, used in Eastern European cooking and available from gourmet stores.  You can also use citric acid, or lemon juice with vinegar.  Yes, vinegar is a mild acid.  These tend to take a lot longer to work.  Today we have several dry, granular commercial pickles available, such as RioPickle, available from RioGrande, or one called Citrex which is citric pickle, or Sparex #2.   (Opinion: I don’t like Sparex #2 because of the nasty skin which appears on the water, and it’s hard to see into the pickle pot with the brownish solution.)  I use PHDown, which is available at your local pool supply store and is used to regulate the PH balance  of water in swimming pools and hot tubs.  It’s much cheaper, almost half the price of jewelry store pickle,  and is the same exact thing,  (sodium bisulfate)  as your higher priced commercial pickles.  It will last a long time when stored as dry  granules.  In fact, many jewelry supply stores just sell pickle in white plastic containers with a generic “Pickle”  label, and it’s just PhDown that they buy in a 5 (or more) gallon size and put it in their own containers.

Mixing pickle isn’t exactly rocket science.   In a small crock pot, (I like the 1.5 quart size available at big box stores)  put 4 cups of water, and about 3/4 cup of dry pickle. It doesn’t have to be exact. Always add the pickle to the water.  Mix with copper tongs, and let it sit on the “Low” setting until the  crystals dissolve. Pickle works best when it is warm, but not boiling.  As your pickle gets used, it will turn a beautiful blue green color.  (Think of the verdigris color of outside copper faucets….its about the same color) That means that the pickle is working.   It does not mean it is instantly disintegrating  your silver, nor copper plating your pieces.  (Both of these  statements have been put out on recent forums.)  Your pickle will still work as it turns blue/green.  I change my pickle when it gets too dark to see my jewelry laying on the bottom of the pot.  Sometimes its been 6 months or more between changes.  It still works.  There are some instances which call for new pickle, but for general soldering clean-up, blueish/green pickle works just fine.

Have you ever heard jewelers speak of “superpickle?”  Superpickle is  regular pickle to which you add 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide, H2O2.  It works best with a batch of new pickle.   This will boost the cleaning properties of the sodium bisulfate for about an hour, and then the H2O2 will give up its oxygen atom and become H2O. In no way does it harm your pickle. Continue using the same solution as usual.  You may want superpickle to extra clean sterling before you keum boo, or if you get a copper oxide  (a copper “blush”) on brass due to overheating.

If you accidentally leave your piece in the pickle for a long time, like overnight, it will usually be OK.  Leaving it in for a month or so is not a good thing, and you may find pitted solder joints or pits in your silver.  (If you put silver in nitric acid for a month or so until it dissolves, you will have silver nitrate, which will turn your skin blue, but makes a great pottery glaze!) Always place your pieces into the pickle after quenching in water first, with copper tongs, and retrieve them with copper tongs.  That’s another long chemistry lesson, so just trust me on this one.  You may also use plastic or bamboo tongs.

If you accidently leave your pickle pot on for a long time, all the water will evaporate.  Blue/green crystals appear on the inside of the pot,.   I just start over with new pickle.  The crystalized pickle stuff gets yucky if you just add water.  If  your pickle has evaporated, but still has water and no crystallization has occured,  just add more water.  It’s fine to do that.  To dispose of my pickle, I merely add  4 cups of tap water and water my rose bushes with it.  My acid loving plants love it. It’s like a fertilizer for them.  You can also neutralize it with 1/2 cup of baking soda and pour it down your drain or toilet.

Does this help?  Please email me or reply with any questions.  Don’t panic that pickle is ACID!  There’s been enough panic about this going around recently. Acids are all around us and we use them daily.  Just use some common sense.

 

The Price of Silver

As I starting writing this, today’s price of silver was at $39.33.  It’s gone up 24 cents since I started writing this post.   (I used to have an app that beeped my cell phone every time the price of silver/gold changed.  Well, I quickly got rid of that annoying little pest!)

Silver is quickly headed toward the $40.00 mark. It’s up about 3 dollars from my last silver purchase, about a month ago. Adjusting for inflation, the price has never been this high.  Back between 1973-1979, the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, (yep, Hunt’s ketchup and tomato sauce–the same Hunts), along with some wealthy Arabian friends,  tried corner the market on silver.  They amassed over 200 million ounces of silver, which was basically half the world’s supply at that time.  Silver had been at $1.95 in ’73, and by the time the Hunts got through with their little shenanigans, around 1979-80, it was peaking around $53 dollars an ounce!  Well, the Federal Reserve got involved and halted the buying.  In one day, March 27th, 1980, the price dropped from $21.62 to $10.80! Countless speculators lost millions, and the Hunt brothers were convicted of conspiring to manipulate the market. When I got into making jewelry back in the 80′s, the price had dropped even more.

We will probably never return to 1973 prices, and if we do, that means the US and global markets are in a severe crisis. The stock market and  global situations continue to control the silver, gold and other precious metals prices much more than the Hunt brothers were able to manipulate. Here in the US, there are more people buying into gold and silver as inflation protection.   This speculation has a great deal to do with pricing, but also the worlds population is growing, and with the astounding price of gold, more people are buying silver and  hoarding it. Even when we think of gold, in the US, we use and wear a lot of 14k gold.  In other parts of the world, in societies where people wear their wealth, their jewelry is 18, 22 and in some cases, even 24k gold.  They consider 14k to be “junk” gold.  So that, along with foreign governments hoarding precious metals as inflation and civil unrest grows, creates more demand and more price increases.  Also, gold and silver are used in many industrial uses, in automobiles, in medical equipment, in so many other aspects. Gold and silver are  historically linked in prices, but in the past year or so, silver prices have risen at a  higher percentage rate than gold.

All this has greatly hurt jewelers, especially the little guy who is not a major buyer of precious metals.  When we buy 2 or 3 6×6 sheets of 20 gauge, while it sets us back quite a bit, that doesn’t constitute much of a purchase in the whole scheme of things.

Several students have asked why the jewelry supply stores charge so much more than the “spot” market price of silver.  ”If I buy two ounces of wire, how come I’m charged $100.00 if the spot market is $37.00.  I should only pay $77.00″, they complain.

Well, the mill (the refiner) must buy  a set amount of raw material–say 5000 ounces of unmilled silver, or other metal.  I’m not sure of the exact amount you have to buy, but at one time it was 5000 ounces. Then that silver must be refined. Copper must be added to silver in the correct percentage, thus making sterling silver.   (925% silver and 75% copper) Then the sterling silver is melted and milled into sheet, wire, tubing or whatever that particular mill makes.  The cheapest way to buy sterling is in casting grain form, but if you want plate or a “milled product”, you are paying for that.  That is called a “mill charge” and it varies from mill to mill. Sheet is one form of a milled product, and if the mill must make wire, that’s one more process, and they charge for that. You want decorative wire, that’s another thing the mill must do to the wire, so they charge a bit more for that.  Oh!  Tubing?  They really charge for that!

Then they ship it to the jewelry supply store.  Well, you can imagine, shipping metals is heavy, and UPS doesn’t do that for free, so there’s an additional charge. Finally your supplier must make a profit, so that’s tacked on.   Jewelry stores do not buy silver and mark it up 100%, or even 50% and sell it.  They make very little profit on metals. Most stores carry metals as a convenience to their customers who come there to buy tools and supplies. (I remember in my innocence as a beginning jeweler, coming from a family who had owned retail shops and galleries, I thought that if I had a tax number, I could buy my silver and tools “wholesale”, 50% off the marked price.  I blush now, thinking about that!)

So if you think the price of silver is high, feel free to go out, find and buy your own raw silver, remove all the dirt, rocks, bugs, roots, etc.  Then melt it, add the copper, and roll it into a sheet.  And let me know how that’s workin’ for you.  You will learn that you just have to bite the bullet and pay the price.

Supply stores are now in a tenuous position.  With the uncertain pricing of metals, what they buy today may be worth more tomorrow, or it may drop and they lose money.  Some supply stores are cutting back on ordering silver from the mill, and you really can’t blame them. What would you do? We think twice now about going to buy $200.00 worth.  What if you had to order $5,000.00+ worth so your customers would have what they need?  So cut the supply houses some slack and don’t growl too much, its not their fault.

Where will this end?  I don’t know.  No one knows.  It’s all just a guess. I love making silver jewelry, so I will continue as long as I can, and I love copper, too, and am making more copper and brass (bronze?) jewelry.  But copper is going up in price, too.   I refuse to make paper jewelry.  It’s a bear to solder!

For more info and to keep tab of the daily changes on all precious metals, go to kitco.com and you can download that annoying little beep for free, or you can just check it several times a day yourself.

Frustratingly yours,

Lexi