Hello! I have to apologise for missing my September Blog post, although I have to say I think I have a good excuse....August and September were pretty busy for us because the O-H and I were buying our first house together! Not only that, but we managed to get it all wrapped up and move in just in time to get married a couple of weeks later....So much excitement in such a short space of time!
But real life must return, and with the approach of Christmas (shhhh I didn't just say that) I've been doing a lot more making. I use quite a bit of brass in my jewellery, and one thing I've noticed is that most the advice on working with metal revolves around silver; I bought a tumble polisher (also referred to as a barrel polisher), but couldn't find any information on how to polish brass jewellery. Most advice goes that it works in the same way as silver, which In many ways is true - the basic method is the same, but I have found the metals respond differently, and it can save many hours of trial and error if you know this in advance!
I've tried to be thorough with my advice, so please excuse the length of this post; but if you've been looking for help on how to polish brass I hope it's worth the read :-)
* Skip to the bottom for step by step instructions with images.
The first thing I found was that polishing compound doesn't seem to work when tumble polishing brass. This is the compound you buy in powder form from jewellery making suppliers, or in my case came as part of a starter kit with my tumbler. I followed all the instructions, some cleaner brass pieces came out OK, but most came out duller and dirtier than they went in! Polishing compound itself doesn't clean your metal, the action of the tumbling shot does; the compound is designed to capture and hold the dirt coming off the metal and keep it suspended in the water. This works beautifully with silver (which I also work with), but in my experience, not so with brass.
I did some research and found that many people use washing up liquid. Most posts on this are from America, and they recommend a specific brand and colour (green) of liquid that we don't have here in the UK. So I tried it with some basic green liquid from my corner shop, lo-and-behold: shiny brass! After moving house and studio I came to do a polishing load, and realised I only had the stuff we have at home (we use Ecover). I thought I might as well try it and was pleased to find it worked just the same, so my feeling is that any brand or colour will work fine.
The second thing I discovered is that brass often takes a lot longer to polish than silver. Many tutorials suggests that 2 hours of tumbling should bring your piece to a high shine, if not just pop it back in for another hour. Sometimes this is true - especially if the brass is not too dirty to start with. However, often I've found that I need to leave pieces in overnight if I want a really high shine. If you check your piece after a couple of hours and find it's not shiny enough yet, I would also recommend refreshing the water and washing up liquid in your barrel before setting it going again. The washing up liquid and water hold the dirt coming of your brass, but there's a limit to the amount they can absorb; once they are 'full', the dirt coming off will just be re-applied to your brass, making it dirty and dull again. If you want to polish lots of items together (as I usually do) or very dirty items, you will likely need to do this. I tend to do a 2 hour session, refresh the water, then leave it on for the rest of the day (or overnight if its the end of the day).
Once your brass comes out of the polisher, do make sure you dry it as it comes out or the water will dull the surface again as it dries.
Lastly you need to make sure you're working with solid, raw brass. Due to the natural properties of brass it will dull over time with exposure to air; to prevent this, some companies add a clear coating to the brass. This is fine if you are just doing bead or wire work, but if you want to solder or polish your brass, you'll need to remove this coating first; this fairly simple - just pop your brass in the tumbler with some ceramic chips and cutting powder instead of your steel shot. Include the water, but washing up liquid is not necessary for this stage. This works like sandpaper - gently sanding the coating away and leaving you with a smooth, dull brass surface ready for polishing. If you find your 'brass' is turning a steel colour when you solder or polish it, it's likely you have a brass plated base metal - steel or iron. Sorry, there's not a lot you can do here, once the surface brass is worn away that's it. The beauty of raw brass is that whilst, yes, it will discolour over time, it can always be polished back to it's original beauty. Coated or plated brass cannot.
So.....I've put together step by step instructions for polishing brass jewellery in a barrel tumbler which I hope is helpful. Enjoy!
Gather together your equipment (see image at the start of this post):
Polishing Barrel: Mine is the Gold Pro Max Barreling Machine, which I bought through Cookson Gold and am very happy with. There are many available with a range of prices, and lot of people have written about the differences so I won't go into that here.
Mixed Shot: This is available in steel and stainless steel; stainless steel is more expensive, but you don't have to worry about it rusting and I think can leave it in the barrel until you next use it. Regular steel shot will rust if left wet after use - you MUST dry it out after each use. This is what I use - I did forgot once and it went rusty; I put it in the polisher by itself and run it for an hour or two and it cleaned itself nicely, so no panic there.
Washing up liquid: whatever you have to hand.
Drying cloth: tea towel/towel/scrap fabric that is absorbent but not going to leave fluff everywhere.
Good sized sieve and container: I like to pour the barrel out into a container through the sieve so I can see how dirty the water is, but you could just pour it directly into the sink. It's also good incase any shot goes over the size - those little balls would be straight down the plughole!
Brass Jewellery for polishing: you can put lots in at the same time - generally the more at one time the longer it will take to polish; I would also say don't put more jewellery than shot. You can also mix brass with silver - both will polish up nicely. I haven't tried other metals, but I don't see why not.
For my example I'm using this necklace which I've soldered and pickled - it has three brass rings connected with brass solder, and a sterling silver chain connected with silver solder. You can see it's clean but dull, so lets see how it shines up! I'm using mixed steel shot, which includes balls, rods and cones. This mix means it gets into all the nooks and crannies of your jewellery. You'll need 500g to start with as a minimum.
Pour the shot into your barrel - you can see that it just covers the bottom of the barrel - you need plenty of free space for the shot to move around when the barrel is turning. Add washing up liquid - just a little squirt, about half a teaspoon full, but it's not an exact science. Add cold water - about 1cm more than the level of the shot, again, this isn't exact, you don't need to get the ruler out! The water and washing up liquid go hand in hand - in theory the more you use, the more the foam will fill the barrel and soften the polishing action; the less you use, the more space will be free for the shot to move freely and properly polish your brass. To be honest I've not noticed much difference though. It also doesn't matter which order you add them in.
Now you are ready to put your jewellery into the barrel. You can put chain in a tumbler, but unless de-tangling chain is one of your hobbies, avoid putting more than one in at a time! It's also best to put them in with the clasp undone.
Put the lid on! Make sure the seal is nice and tight so you don't get any water leaking out. There are different types of lid depending which barrel you have, so if this doesn't match yours just follow your product instructions.
Yay! You're ready to set your barrel running :-) Pop it on the base and leave it to do it's thing on a sturdy surface so it doesn't vibrate itself off the edge! If you have somewhere away from your work space (another room is best) then that's preferable as they're quite noisy.
After 2 hours, you're ready to check the progress of your piece of jewellery. Turn your barrel off and open it up - it will be fairly full of foam. Tip the whole contents of the barrel into your sieve and rinse the foam away. You also need to rinse out the barrel and the component parts - if you're done you don't want to leave the soap scum on it, and if you need to polish again, you want it to start off nice and clean.
In this case my piece has actually come to a nice shine in a couple of hours, so I won't need to put it back in the barrel.
So there you have it. I would in no way claim that this in a definitive guide to polishing brass, just what I have found through my experience. If you have tips to add or can share more on this topic please do add your thoughts in the comments. The more information we can share the better for everyone <3
Anyway, I hope you found this post useful for all your polishing needs :-)