Pickle is one of the most important cleaning agents that all metal smiths need if they intend to do soldering. In previous posts I have written about changing the pickle and creating a pickle jar, but I have not focused on how pickle should be used. The key things to remember are gold, silver and copper play well together while nickel, bronze and brass play well together. Lastly heat with care!
Gold, silver and copper play well together
Gold, silver and copper are non-ferrous metals that are not alloys. This means that the metals have a negligible amount of iron in them and are mostly made up of a single content. So when this group of metal interacts with different chemicals they interact with them as a group. Meaning similar affects will happen to the metal. It is true that gold and silver are usually mixed with copper to make them tougher but they are not a complex alloy.
Because of this, these non-ferrous metals need a special pickle and why when your using the pickle meant for gold, silver and copper you can’t put the stainless steel tongs into the pickle. The steel, being ferrous, will interact with the pick badly and coat the non-ferrous metals.
Nickel, bronze and brass play well together
Nickel, bronze and brass on the other hand should be in a pickle meant for them. This category also includes nickel silver, which has no silver in it and is actually a brass. The main reason they have to be kept separately from the rest is that all these metals are alloys with materials that would interact badly if put in the other type of pickle. Either it will damage the original piece or the nickel piece might coat a silver piece.
If you intend to work with both kinds of metals you need clearly labeled pickle pots saying which is which. Also, if you do cross contaminate by accident you should change the pickle if the wrong piece has been in the wrong pickle for a long time. Luckily if you do coat a piece by accident it is pretty easy to clean it off with a little bit of steel wool and some elbow grease.
Heat with care
Pickles are most effective if they are at 140F (60C). This is pretty damn hot. Also, I have never met a jeweler who actually uses the expensive pickle pots that regulate temperature. All jewelers I know, myself included, use cheap crock-pots.
So how do you tell when it is hot enough? I usually remove the heat, unplug the crock-pot, when it the fluid starts to steam or fog up the glass. Remember the crock-pot will continue to be hot for a while after it has been unplugged. In general I don’t like for it to steam up because I don’t want to inhale the acid. In the long run inhaling a lot of acid is pretty bad for the body. This advice also goes for quenching pieces directly in the pickle, I never do this and I don’t understand people who do. It creates a lot of fumes that are bad for you; I always quench in water then place the piece in the pickle.
If you leave the room for an extended period of time (longer then 15 minutes) UNPLUG THE CROCK-POT. This includes taking the dog out, running to the store and moving the garbage bins. Basically anything longer then going to the bathroom or making more coffee/tea.
Why do I say this? The reason is basic chemistry because pickle is diluted acid. Acid becomes more reactive, meaning strong, when it is hot. Pickle acid is almost unreactive at room temperature but as it gets hotter it become more reactive and powerful. I have seen the results first hand when a pickle pot was plugged in over night. The acid ate away the entire pickle jar and did a lot of damage to the table. Luckily it was on a sturdy workbench so it didn’t damage the floor. It is better to be cautious and leave the crock-pot plugged.
Pickle is extremely important to metal workers who intend to do soldering. Just remember to keep certain metals apart and not to let the pickle get too hot and you will be fine. Just never fall asleep with the pickle plugged in because it will cost you at least a new pickle jar or maybe repairing the floor or carpet.
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