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.

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36 Responses

  1. Hi Lex!

    What a GREAT and thorough explanation. I’d recommend adding this in your handouts for the weekend metalsmithing workshops you teach. The students will love referring back to this when they have those moments, like I do, of “What did Lexi tell me about this?”

    Thanks too for alleviating those fears that have been churning out on the forums. You hit the nail on the head “Just use some common sense”. Wonderful advice! Super job!!! :)

    • Thanks Kathleen. You know how these comments about ACID have been bothering me for a couple of weeks now. I just couldn’t sit still any more.

      • I’ve seen recipes for using vinegar and salt as a pickle. Would this work also? Or would you recommend getting the PH Down is more effective.?

      • Hi Linda–Yes, a lot of people are going to vinegar and salt as a pickle. It takes a bit too long for my schedule, since I have to work very fast to get the pieces done. PH Down is very effective and works within a minute usually. So pick the one who works the best for you.
        Lexi

  2. Great article! Couple things, you know me, always the crab. Sodium Bisulfate dry, is not a solution. It becomes a solution when you add water.

    Black Magic is another commercially available pickle and claims that you can use steel tweezers. I have used it and it works. But, I have copper tongs, and generally use them

    Copper tweezers are not the only tongs which may be used. Plastic and wood types can be used.

    John, the crab

    • Oh My Beloved Crabby John! OK, my mind works faster than I write, so I did replace solution with granules, and put in about other types of tongs. I forget about those since I always use copper. As for the Black Magic, I left that out because there are so many people who have never used it, or even heard of it. it really depends on if you read certain catalogues or if your local store carries it.
      But thanks for your always welcome comments. And I will always look forward to your replys.
      Hugs-
      Lex

  3. Very useful and clear info. Thanks!

  4. Thank you! Much less stressed about the stuff now. And it never occurred to me to use it as fertilizer. :)

  5. excellent article and John added the things I was thinking about!

  6. Useful information with no drama. Thanks!

    • Thanks Martha–its amazing all the drama and urban myths surrounding pickle. One of my own teachers passed on the story of a Denver man who went to a jewelry supply store to buy pickle, had an accident on the way home and crashed into a creek, and the pickle opened and ate all his flesh off. Its amazing the stories out there.
      Thanks so much for you comment.
      Lexi

  7. nothing from Texas, leave Wed for Wire Fest… 5 classes 58 students.. I’m ready bring them on!!

  8. Fantastic post, Lexi! Thank you! We will refer our customers to this when they have pickle questions. So many people are learning to solder these days and they have a lot of concerns. I love the tip on fertilizing your rose bushes. I never thought of that. Great idea!

    • HI HIlary–Thank you so much for writing! Yes, more people are experiencing the Joy of Soldering. A day without soldering is a day without sunshine.

      How are silver sales going in your store? Can you imagine the price? When I started the price was $4.12 an ounce. We probably won’t see that price again.
      Since I come to AZ sometimes, if you ever want a soldering workshop, tips and trick, please let me know. i think it would be great fun.
      Thanks for your comment, and feel free to print out the post and give it to your customers.
      Hugs-
      Lexi

  9. Hello. Thanks for this article. I want to make some some super pickle, does it mater what kind of hydrogen peroxide I use? Will something from the drugstore work? Thanks!

    • Hi–I’m so sorry, I haven’t been able to get into WordPress for some time. Computers ARG! Anyway, you probably have your answer by now, but yes any hydrogen peroxide will work. I apologize I was so late in answering your question.
      Lexi

  10. […] you want to know what pickle is, I’ll refer you to Lexi’s blog where she discusses that in depth.  Since Lexi covers the details about the pickle solution in […]

  11. Thank you for this article, it was very helpful! But I have a few questions. I’m interested in making my own sterling silver headpins and with a little research I found out that you need pickle and a tumbler to remover the fire scale. I read that the pickle leaves behind a white residue that can only be taken off by a tumbler or lots of polishing with emery cloth. Is this true? Do all pickles leave a white film that are hard to be taken off? Is there any way to easily and cheaply remove the fire scale? Thanks so much

    -aimee

  12. Hi Aimee- Since I was having so much trouble with my computer, and of course it was the computer, it couldn’t possibly be me :-0
    I answered you by email. Please let me know if you got it and if you have any more questions.
    Lexi

    • Hello, I’m hunting high and low trying to find the exact same answer Aimee asked about removing the white film on silver after pickling. Unfortunately you emailed her the answer, so I hope you could post/email me the same info? I’m doing the vinegar w/salt method and it pickles very nicely, but the 2 silver pieces are already highly polished prior to the one-joint soldering and pickling, so I’m hoping there is a liquid solution(?) or something that will just remove that film, exposing the polished silver below… (fingers crossed)

  13. Is it safe and effective to add a percentageof muriatic acid to a Sparex solution?

    • Hi George–I am not a chemist, but I cannot think this would be good. My resident chemist is out of the country right now, but I will ask him when he gets home. But I don’t use Sparex. There are better pickles on the market, in my humble opinion. Why would you want to combine the two anyway?
      Lexi

  14. Hi again, Lexi: Noticed the comment about muriactic acid. I agree, why would you want to use it or add it to sparex or any other pickle? Muriactic acid was used to solder galvanized iron sheet metal. Back in the day before modern aluminum roof gutter they were made of galvanized iron, sold preformed to tin smiths who joined them by using rivets and the soldering the seam shut so it wouldn’t leak. We used muriatic acid as FLUX (tamed down a bit), to cut through the gavanization and big heavy one and two pound soldering irons heated in a small gas furnace, and 50-50 lead/tin solder. Very sharp smelling job. Back then we didn’t know much about safety and what we were breathing was bad for the lungs. Muriatic is another name for hydrochloric acid. Knowing that should be enough warning NOT to use it.

  15. Lexi,
    I want to copper plate some silver solder that I’ve used on a copper piece. I’ve read about using old pickle and putting both a piece of steel and the copper piece in it. I’m very new at this and don’t have any old pickle. Is there any way to quickly make old pickle, or is there another method for covering silver solder on copper pieces?
    Thank you,
    Khara

    • Thank you, Patty. I really appreciate your comment. I try to teach to the best of my knowledge. Please let me know if there is anything specifically you want to know, and if I can, I’ll answer or I’ll find someone for you who can answer. I promise.
      Hugs,
      Lexi

    • Old pickle is just pickle that has turned green from absorbing the copper ions from the sterling. I really don;t know any quick way to make old pickle full of ions except by repeatedly heating and pickling some sterling. Maybe another reader has a better answer, but sorry. It does have to be old pickle, new pickle has no copper ions so it wont copper plate. I don’t know of any other way to copperplate silver, Sorry. Readers? Can you help?

  16. A search in Yahoo brought up your blog – I’m happy it did, thank you.

  17. Hi Lexi,

    Finding this article on pickling could not have come at a more perfect time. I am about to order a Little Dipper pickle pot from Rio and was wondering if the PhDown or even the vinegar and water pickle would affect the lining of the pot? I have read elsewhere that someone had to replace the lining due to the vinegar and salt solution eating into it.

    Cheers
    Kris

    • Hi Kris–thank you for writing, I don’t have a Little Dipper, I use a regular crock pot as it works just fine and is much cheaper. PHDown is exactly the same as RioPickle, its a sodium bisulfate. If Rio Pickle won’t hurt the lining, neither will PHDown. As far as the vinegar and water pickle, I have heard there are some solutions that will eat away a neoprene liner of tumblers and such, but I’m sorry, I don’t use vinegar and water pickle, so can’t speak for that. Good luck.
      Hug,
      Lexi

  18. My pickle did crystallize , but it’s not blue. Should I start over anyway instead of adding more water? Wish you were closer so I could take a class or two. I live in Nh.

    • Hi Susan–you could still come take a class. I recently had a woman come from Norway to take a class with me, so NH is much closer! I’d love to met you.
      As for your pickle, add the water and see what condition the pickle is in. If it’s cloudy and nasty looking, it won;t hurt to pour it out and start with a fresh solution. If you can’t see the bottom of the pickle pot, it will be more of a hassle than having fresh pickle. Physically, its probably fine, and it will owrk, its just a hassle of groping around in nasty or cloudy pickle to find something that will be most difficult for you.
      Good Luck,Lexi

  19. Hello, sweet friend :o) I was just doing some research to triple-check that I’m disposing of my pickle right (I get it confused with etching solution, oy!) and of course I found this post by the soldering queen :o) I love how that worked out. xoxo

    • So glad I am able to help you, my very dear friend. I am always here for you, whenever you need anything. Love you–Lexi

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