Dungeness Crab Copper Electroform Process - How I Made It!

Posted by Jessica Davis on

This piece is probably my favorite to date!
I was out walking my pup at False Outer Pt a few weeks ago and came across this perfect little baby Dungeness crab shell in a tidepool at low tide. I somehow managed to make it home without breaking it (I can't count how many sea urchin shells that I've found that didn't make it back in one piece) and immediately got to work on giving it new life in the form of a necklace. 
Here's what it took to turn this little fragile shell into this copper necklace in the photo above!
First, with any organic material, the shell got 3 coats of polyurethane inside and out to seal the shell so the acidic solution wouldn't get to it, and also so it wouldn't contaminate my electroform bath. 
 
Each coat takes a few hours to dry in between, so just the sealant stage took a whole day to complete. 
After the shell is properly sealed, then I attached the bails, or jump rings, to the shell. This is how you hang it from a necklace chain. I thought about using one in the center, but decided on using two, one on each side. I used 18 gauge copper wire to form tiny loops, then super glued them to the shell. 
You can use a variety of methods to attach bails to your piece. This part doesn't have to be super strong, just strong enough to hold the weight of you piece to the suspension wire in the electroform bath. The copper that grows on the entire piece is what gives it strength and durability. 
 
After the glue is dry, next comes the conductive paint! Each piece gets at least two coats of conductive paint (a mixture of mod podge, distilled water, and graphite powder). Wherever you put the paint is where the copper grows. 
Since these shells are super fragile, I painted the entire shell to make sure it's super strong. This shell took 2 coats of conductive paint. Each coat needs a few hours to fully cure, so I gave this step another full day. 
You have to be extra careful when applying the conductive paint. Any oils on your skin will interfere with the plating process, so gloves are necessary for this step. 
After the conductive paint is fully cured, then it's bath time! This piece was in the bath for a full 24 hours. The longer it's in the bath, the stronger and thicker the copper gets. Some pieces only need to be in for 12 hours, but fragile pieces such as organics require at least 24 hours minimum so the piece is nice and strong. 
The photo above is my electroform setup. Each piece requires a little math to determine the proper amperage to set the rectifier, as well as how much anode to submerge in the bath. The ratio for amperage is .1 amp per 1 square inch of conductive surface. I ran the crab shell at .5 amps, which was a little on the low side, but I wanted to be careful and not get any unwanted texture which sometimes happens if the amps are set too high. Detail is important with delicate organics! The anode ratio is 2:1. So for every inch of conductive surface, you need 2 inches of anode in the solution. 
I did have one tiny 'boo-boo' during the plating process. If you don't jiggle the piece every couple hours, the suspension wire will fuse to the bail or jump ring on the piece. I normally jiggle the pieces every 2-3 hours, but after about 8 hours in the bath, I left it for a little longer than I should have.
I took it out to jiggle, and normally if the suspension wire is slightly fused, it will easily break free with a little tug. Well, I tugged a little too hard and broke off one whole bail!
No big deal, just a small setback. I re-glued the bail back in place, then applied another coat of conductive paint around the exposed glue, then back in the tank it went.
After a full 24, almost 25 hours in the bath, I pulled it out and gave it a polish with the Dremel. The pieces aren't nice and shiny copper when you first pull them out. They come out a dull, salmony color and it requires polishing to get the nice, bright copper shine. After about 10 minutes with a steel wire brush attachment on my Dremel got it polished right up, but I wanted to give it a Liver of Sulfer patina to get a more 'antiqued' look. 
Unfortunately I did not get a photo of the patina process, but it just involves a couple drops of Liver of Sulfer in warm water, then once you get the desired color, a neutralizing dip in water/baking soda, then another quick polish to bring out the copper highlights. 
Here is the end result once I added the copper chain.
 
Altogether, this piece took me 4 days from start to finish. A LOT of love and time goes into copper electroforming.
I hope you enjoyed a little glimpse into how I create my copper electroform pieces, and if you want this little beauty for yourself, you can purchase it here!

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