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
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)
4. crocus, (the green compound)
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