How to Get a High Polish on Silver

HI Everyone–It seems like I’m always getting this question from students, so I decided to write this to answer the questions.  Please feel free to print it out for your notes or easy reference.  It’s very handy, and if you like high polish, this technique will work every time.  The most important thing to remember:  “You must put scratches in to take scratches out.”  This means you must make the piece’s finish look consistent and then start your finishing process.  Good luck. -Lexi
Lexi Erickson

The Lowdown on a High Polish

You have worked hard on your piece of jewelry, designing it, cutting, and filing and soldering. Now you are ready to “start finishing” your jewelry. You have a few more decisions. How should it be finished?

Give a lot of consideration to your finishing process. When deciding what texture to use on a piece, a mirror finish may not be the most appropriate. It’s beautiful, shiny and elegant. However, it is difficult to achieve and almost impossible for your client to maintain. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s the only finish that will do, so now you need to know how to achieve that sought after look. Pieces with large bold designs work best, not too much texture or detail.  To achieve a mirror finish on a piece takes lots of work, and that work starts the moment you purchase your piece of silver sheet from the supplier.

The metal will usually be stored in some type of vertical storage arrangement while at the supplier and will come to you fairly scratch free. Inspect the metal before you purchase it and make sure it’s free from major blemishes. Don’t be afraid to ask for a different piece if it’s badly scratched. At that time, have the seller seal your metal in a zip lock bag; and do not put it in the same shopping bag with tools. When you get home, if you’re not planning on using it immediately, store your silver vertically, still in a zip lock bag, in a letter holder, such as is sold at Office Max or Staples. These are great for holding all your metals according to gauge. Sometimes I stick clear contact paper on both sides of my metal to protect it from scratches. Just remember to pull the paper off before soldering.

There are 2 steps to achieving a high polish—-polishing, which is removing the highs and lows in the metals, and buffing, which is basically melting the top layer of the metal to achieve a mirror finish, actually moving the molecules of metal.

You will start your finishing process after all soldering is done. No matter how careful you have been, you will have some scratches on your metal. To take scratches out, you must put scratches in. Start by polishing the piece all over with fine sandpaper, and gradually use finer and finer sandpapers. 3M makes some dynamite finishing papers. My favorite is called Imperial Micro-finishing film. It is long lasting and can be used with water or without. This wonderful sandpaper is excellent at removing firescale also. The papers are screen-graded in microns, each grain of “sand” is uniform, thus giving a more consistent finish. If I have some deep scratches, I start with 40 micron, then move to 30, 15 and finally 9 micron. Another favorite is the 3M wet or dry Tri-M-Ite polishing papers. By using these cloth-like papers it is possible to keep fine-tuning your work to almost a mirror finish. Please remember, I love doing the final hand work, and since I’m not a production jeweler, I have the luxury of languishing over a piece for some time  I usually just finish my pieces with sandpaper, and never do the polish wheels.  But I regress.  Both sets of polishing papers are available from most jewelry supply stores.

If you wish, you can use regular sandpaper, starting with a 320, then 400 grit and finer.   Finish with an extra-fine crocus (emery) cloth. Crocus cloth can be purchased from an auto supply store and can be torn into strips for getting into tight spots.

To finish this pre-prep process, use a pumice and water paste rubbed on with your fingers and rub the piece of jewelry until the water sheets evenly on it.  Barkeeper’s Friend, found in the household cleaning section of your local grocery makes a fine pumice paste.

Now you are ready to start working on a wheel, either a larger 6″ buffing machine wheel or the flex shaft wheel. If you are working with wide flat pieces, such as a cuff bracelet, or a large flat piece, use the 6″ wheel. You do not want to create grooves in your piece, which when finished will make a wavy surface, which reflects light unevenly. If working with small pieces, your flex shaft will be the appropriate tool. Use the flex-shaft wheel that will work best with your piece of jewelry, probably a 1-inch wheel. Also, don’t forget to wear goggles and a particulate respirator. 3M makes several very good masks.

TIP: The piece may get very hot. It’s fine to have a small bowl of water close by to dip your piece in to cool it. It doesn’t have to be dried to continue polishing.

When working on the 6 inch wheel, you will use the lower front quadrant of the wheel.  On a clock face it would be the space between 6:00 to 9:00. The wheel is going approximately 50+ mph, so hold on to your pieces carefully and with both hands. Hold the piece in what is called a “break away grip”, which means do not wrap your fingers into the piece. Do not wear long necklaces, loose clothing or gloves, and tie back long hair. Do not take your eyes off the wheel or carry on conversations while working at the wheel. This potentially is one the most dangerous machines in the studio, and must be treated with caution at all times. Always wear goggles or safety glasses.

The term for loading compound on a wheel is to “charge” it. To “charge” the wheel, you hold the polishing compound lightly against the wheel. If you have a new wheel, it’s best to hold an old hacksaw blade with both hands, to the wheel first and get rid of the lint on the wheel. You only have to hold the polishing compound on the wheel a few seconds to coat the wheel. Too much compound will build up on your piece and the wheel cannot do its job.  Re-charge as needed.  Experience will tell you when.

IMPORTANT: There is no need to push your piece of jewelry hard against the wheel. It’s the speed of the wheel doing the polishing, not the pressure. Too much pressure will cause the piece to rip out of your hands. The piece can be slung with maximum force against the back of the machine or across the room. This is then called “redesign by buffing machine,” and can lead to some exciting new design possibilities, but probably not what you originally had in mind.

DO NOT mix compounds on the wheel, which means do not charge the crocus wheel with tripoli or the rouge wheel with crocus. The tripoli wheel is only for tripoli, the crocus wheel is only for crocus; the rouge wheel is only for rouge. If you go from one polishing wheel (tripoli or crocus) directly to the buffing wheel (rouge) without cleaning in between, you are contaminating the buffing wheel. You are putting a cutting compound on a buffing wheel and you will never get a scratch-free polish if that happens.

TIP: I like to put the polishing compounds on treated, colored wheels. Tripoli is always on the yellow wheel, while crocus is always on the pink wheel. Those wheels are specially treated and are a little harder, so they are better for holding the cutting compounds. The white cotton muslin buff is softer and is always for rouge. That way I never get them confused. Also, use a Sharpie to mark the sides of the wheels with the type of compound if you don’t use colored wheels.

It will be fine to use the different metals on the same wheel. You can polish silver, copper, bronze, brass and gold with the same wheel if using the same compound. If you are using platinum or white gold, you will need to use a different set of wheels just for those metals.

Polish in different directions. Do not keep the piece of jewelry in one position. Turn it constantly, and don’t forget to polish the edges and back. For good craftsmanship, the back of the piece should look as nice as the front.

Polish first with tripoli.  Tripoli is a cutting compound and will round off sharp edges and can remove or blend details, like roller printed textures.  Pay close attention to what’s happening on the wheel.  The piece will get very hot, also, and you will get the compound on your fingers. Clean the piece, and your fingers in water, with an ammonia/Liquid Dawn solution and an old, soft toothbrush. Liquid Dawn has a great de-greaser in it, so it cleans the greasy compounds quickly. Take extra care to clean difficult hard to reach areas.  To leave any compound on your piece means it will transfer to the next wheel, which will then contaminate that wheel

Next, use the crocus wheel. This is a step many jewelers leave out, but if you want to have a truly high mirror finish, crocus is essential.  Polish the piece evenly, and look for a consistent finish. Again, clean carefully with the water, and ammonia/Dawn soap solution and a soft toothbrush.

Finally, use the rouge wheel to buff the piece, remembering to constantly keep the piece moving. Personally, I like to finish the polishing with a chamois wheel and red rouge, but chamois wheels are very pricey and get eaten up quickly. I can’t afford to use many chamois wheels! When you have finished with the wheel, do not use a toothbrush to scrub off the stubborn rouge.  Clean under running water with ammonia and Dawn detergent. To get the buffing compound out of crevices, use a cotton swab or toothpicks dipped in the ammonia/soap solution.

There are different colored rouges which may impart different finishes on your work. Some are available under a variety of trade names, such as Golden Glo, used for bronze, brass and copper.  It will make Nu-gold look similar to 18K gold! Use a black rouge for a darker silver look, and blue rouge (sometimes called Picasso)  for an almost pure silver-white finish. White rouge is usually for harder metals like platinum.

Experimenting by using the polishing and buffing compounds is fun. Each one gives you a different look. If you have done your homework, and taken care of your metal all along, you will have a minimum of finishing. If not, you may have more hand polishing to do. To do too much polishing with the machines will lead to loss of detail on your piece and possibly some smoothing out of edges and blending of surface textures. In some cases it will thin the metals when overused.

So, the final finishing processes should be:

1. the hand finishing

2. tripoli (the brown compound)

3. clean

4. crocus, (the green compound)

5. clean

6. rouge (the red compound) on a soft white muslin or wool wheel

7. final cleaning

TIP: As an alternative, you can use Zam as a final polish. It is a greaseless formula, which yields a high polish.

Wash with clean water and blow dry with a hairdryer. Use care if using a polishing cloth as this will leave scratches on your piece and you may have to go back to the rouge wheel again for a spotless finish.  The microfiber cloths will also dry your pieces, but do not rub the cloth on the piece, just let the cloth absorb any water. (Sometimes Flitz or semichrome may be used for a final “glow”. Put it on with your fingers, and wash off with your fingers and then, blow dry.

IMPORTANT: NEVER, EVER polish or buff a chain on the wheel, even if you have those wooden “chain holders”.   Polish chains in a tumbler or by hand. High speeds and loose chains are a dangerous combination and can cause bodily damage.

This is an arguing point among jewelers–I finish all the way up to a crocus finish, even if I’m putting a patina or a distressed finish on my piece.  Nothing is uglier than to have a light patina on a piece, and 3 months later finding firescale showing its ugly purple head and peeking thru a patina. So I “take it up” and then “bring it back down”.  Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

TIP: Ever get “lines” on a highly buffed piece?  Well, then, Check your buffing wheels. If you see strings hanging from the wheels, even short ones, cut the strings. They are cutting grooves into your metal. I keep my personal wheels clipped of all long strings and “fuzzies” and they feel like velvet.
By doing these steps in the correct order, you can achieve the ultimate high mirror finish. All your hard work will payoff with an elegant and sleek contemporary look. Take care, use common sense and good luck.

You may share this info with your classes or friends.  Please give me credit for writing it.  Thanks.

Copyright–Lexi Erickson, 2010


37 Responses

  1. […] here to see the original: How to Get a High Polish on Silver « The Torch Share and […]

  2. Great article, Lexi! John

    • Thanks, John. This is a bit different than the one I sent you by email…this one has less typos, I hope it gives you some pointers for those pretty round stones, hugs, Lexi

  3. I know so many will be happy that you published this!

    • Thank you, dear friend. I don’t know how many people do a high polish, but I hope some one tries it and let’s me know if they enjoy the process. This is exactly the technique I used down in Chile when I made all those high polished very contemporary pieces. You’ll be doing one very soon. Hugs, lexi

    • Yep! Almost a year later, but still glad it was here.

      • I’ll have some more tips coming weekly now. I’ve decided not every post has to be 3 pages long!

  4. Thanks so much for this! Polishing is always a puzzle I am trying to solve. Lily

    • Glad that helped. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any problems or questions.

  5. Thank you! Great information. Now I know why I’ve been getting those lines when I’m doing the final polish with rouge. I’m definitely going to try again after trimming the wheel. I thought my pieces were relegated to satin finish only. 🙂

    • You know Joan, it took me a long time to figure out what was giving me those lines. My teachers never told me, and one day I just saw some strings hanging off the wheel, so I trimmed it, then got really ambitious and trimmed them all. That made all the difference in the world. Now my wheels are like velvet. You may have to go back to the tripoli wheel (check it for stringers, too) That will even out your rows, then go to the rouhe wheel. Let me know how it works.

      • Hi Lexi.

        Just wanted to let you know that my polishing has been going much better since I took your steps. Thank you!

  6. This is more like a question: I use Zam to buff and the and then sometimes black rouge. I work mostly with silver and silver plate (old flatware). I then use amonia and joy dish soap mix rinse to clean it and I keep getting a milky film look on my peices. Can you tell me why? Any advice or suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks

    • HI–It might be the fact that on the silver plate you may be buffing too hard and removing some of the sterling plate. I use ammonia and Dawn, and very warm water because it has a better grease cutting agent than Joy does, so you might try that. Brush it with a very soft toothbrush or a Q-tip dipped in the solution. Other than that, I’m stumped, too, Wayne.

      P.S. Sorry It’s taken me so long to answer. I’ve been so busy with other things I haven’t been keeping up. I’ll try to do better! 🙂

  7. Just wanted to let you know I appreciate the article. I’m just getting started and found this very helpful. Thank you!!

    • Glad you liked it, Cherie, and somehow I didn’t get your post until recently. I’ve got to be more diligent about posting. My son and his family moved back to Denver and that takes up a lot of my time now. Not complaining, you know, I absolutely love having them here, especially having the 5 year old at the house a lot, but it takes away from my computer time. Priorities, you know. 🙂

  8. The step we miss… Crocus the green compound. Is that the same green compound used to polish stainless steel?
    I purchase my buff compounds in a package with brown, red, white, green and black bars of compounds.
    The tripoli and rouge I’m familiar with, the green says for stainless… the rest I dunno.

    • Hi Aurora–
      I don’t think the green you use for stainless is the same for precious metals. I get these from RioGrande, the large supply house in Albuquerque. Crocus is essential to get that high polish, though by doing without it, it just takes much longer. I would suggest trying RioGrande. Good Luck, and let me know how it works for you.

  9. Great article! I especially love the tip about using clear contact paper on your sheet during storage. I’m going to the store later to pick up a few rolls.

    One thing I’ve found that works really well for a high polish when you have places you can’t get into or where you can’t use a polishing wheel — stainless steel shot in a tumbler with burnishing compound. I leave my pieces tumbling for a long time, sometimes overnight, and it turns out wonderful, providing all the scratches have been sanded out. (And sometimes I use tumbling to tell if I still have scratches…)

    One word of warning though: excessive tumbling will remove sharp edges, so if that’s important to your piece, don’t tumble.

    • Thanks Penelope–What liquid are you using in your tumbler? I used to use the tumbler when I first started out, back in the dark ages, but if I tumbled them a long time in steel shot, I found the tarnish was being redeposited on my pieces. Like I said I’m not a production jeweler, and have the time to dawdle over hand finishing. I know several jewelers who never let a file or sandpaper touch their work, they just use progressive sizes and cuts of tumblimg media. I’d rather do the hand work because I enjoy it, but I know its not for everyone. Now I don’t use any electricity in my pieces, and do totally everything by hand. So now I make about 150 pieces a year and that’s all. Hardy enough to make a living off of! LOL


      • Thanks so much for your information stuffed article! I was researching formulas for dissolving polishing compound. I knew about ammonia and dish deergent but thought there was — hmmmmm- another ingredient— vinegar? Bleach??? But I know you use bleach to darken silver.
        Anyway thanks for info. Got it bookmarked!

      • Thanks for writing. Yes, bleach will darken silver, so don’t use that. Ammonia, Dawn detergent (which has the best grease cutting agent I’ve found) and a bit of baking soda works well. Windex will also work, but again, its ammonia and a soapy grease cutter in it. Good luck.

      • Lexi:
        I use Rio Grande’s Super Sunsheen burnishing compound in my tumbler with stainless steel shot. I know you can use dish soap, but I don’t find it’s effective for high polish. The burnishing compound seems to pull the tarnish into the suds, keeping it from the piece, but if it’s heavily soiled, you’ll want to change the compound out. I’ve also found that periodically using a steel shot cleaner on your shot makes a huge difference in the redepositing.

        I’m not a production jeweler either, as a matter of fact, I’m just now finishing up my BFA. I like some filing & sanding, but really appreciate the efficiency of the tumbler in certain situations. As you know, you have to chose the appropriate technique for each piece in order to achieve a cohesive end result. I haven’t found a better solution for high polish than this.

      • Hi–I have always used Rio’s Super Sunsheen burnishing compound, too, when I tumble. Nothing else works as well. As for using Fantastic, It would work. It’s the ammonia that works so well and cuts the greasy compounds. Almost any household cleaner, if it contains ammonia, will do fine. This is just personal preference.

        You are probably too young to remember having to clean your steel shot, before the advent of stainless steel shot. What a pain that was? Cleaning it, drying it, storing it……Stainless shot is a godsend, believe me!

        As far as finishing, I just finished Chapter 8 of the soldering series for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. It was about finishing, and I talked mostly about hand finishing, since it was about primarily removing firescale. I’ve never had a tumbler remove firescale. But in the end, we all do what works best for us. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. (No I’m not advocating cat skinnning. I am a cat lover. I have 2. Don’t anybody send me any nasty letters.!)

  10. Linton:
    Fantastic does a wonderful job at removing polishing compound. Far better than soap.

    • I like to use the Dawn Detergent, which rely cuts grease, and add a tablespoon of ammonia, which will whip that polishing compound right off. It in Fantastaic, which is why Fantastic and also Windex will both work.
      Good luck!

  11. Aloha Lexi,

    Many thanks for the info, I’ve been scouring and reading what I could find on obtaining that ever coveted mirror polish. Can I use this method on 12k and 14k gold-fill, sterling silver and sterling silver-filled?

    Best regards,

    • Hi Marlena–No! Please do not use this technique on gold filled or silver filled. The best to do there is to either tumble the piece or hand polish with a polishing cloth. The plating is so thin that it’s very easy to polish it off. Good luck.

  12. Good luck Vicki. One of my favorite things about making the jewelry is finishing. When the pieces smiles at me, then I know its finished.

  13. Hello Lexie, I have a silver signet ring with an oblong face. I want to round the corners on on it so it’s more aesthetic. Should I use a grinding wheel or hand file it please? I’m also worried that the scratching may disfigure the metal, do I buff them out or use fine sanding? All the brand names you mention are not available here in Australia but I presume they are here under another name. I am not a jeweller or silversmith.

  14. Great article, I work with sterling silver and usually finish my pieces with 600 grit scuffing/polishing sandpaper to get the gouges from my tools out. I am wondering if using the sandpaper is unhealthy to breath? Never really thought about it but it popped into my head recently? I wonder!

    • Probably not such a health risk, Betsy, as when using sand papers, partials would probably just fall to,the floor or onto your apron, if you are wearing one. There is much more of a problem with rotory silicone wheels and 3M radial bristle disks.

  15. Is green crocus the same as Zam?

    • Hi Denise– no, Zam will give you a great final Polish, and may also be used on some softer stones, such a turquoise. Crocus is a very fine compound, but will not impart a fine high polish. But it will certainly aid the final rouge to give a gleaming high polish.

  16. Thank you, very helpful!

  17. Hi Lexi,
    while buffing silver ( after sanding it till 2000 grit ) i use to get pits and sometimes dents on the job…. I do not understand the reason…..what should i do??
    Thank you

    • Hi–if you are using 2000 grit sand paper, the grit is not really large enough to,give younpits if some of the sandpaper “sand” was left on the sandpaper. Make sure you are washing the silver after sanding….but make sure your buffing wheels are clean, too. Take a hacksaw blade, turn on the buffer and hold the hacksaw blade with both hands, and clean the wheel. I have no idea what could be causing pits and dents unless it’s something contaminating your wheels. Good luck.

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