Ultrasonic Cleaning blog
Ultrasonic Cleaning in the Jewelry and Watch Repair Professions
Jewelry manufacturers and those who repair or restore jewelry quickly come to realize that the best jewelry cleaner is an ultrasonic cleaner. The same applies to horologists and watch repair professionals. But why is this? We'll start by explaining how ultrasonic jewelry cleaners work then get into why they are so widely adopted and the side benefits of using an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner.
Next we'll provide selection tips for choosing an ultrasonic cleaner.
Then we'll take you through a typical ultrasonic jewelry cleaning operation.
A Bit of Ultrasonic Cleaning History
A 2003 article in CE Magazine (controlled environments) authored by Edward Lamm states that "The history of ultrasonic cleaning dates back…to the early 1930s." But the author goes on to say "The majority of ultrasonic cleaning systems…were developed later in the 1950s."
So the technology is not that new.
Among the most significant of advancement in more recent years is the is the introduction of biodegradable water-based ultrasonic cleaning solution formulas. These replace hydrocarbon-based fluids that posed both worker health and disposal challenges.
How Ultrasonic Jewelry Cleaners Work
Truth be told they work the same for any cleaning operation. If you're familiar with the technology feel free to move on to the next sections.
Ultrasound in cleaning is different than ultrasound scanning (diagnostic sonograms). Ultrasonic cleaners are comprised of a tank (ideally stainless steel) to which are mounted generator powered ultrasonic transducers. These are designed to vibrate at ultrasonic frequencies (generally above 20,000 cycles per second or 20 kHz). This is above the range of human hearing.
When activated the transducers cause the bottom of the tank to vibrate as a membrane. This vibration creates billions of microscopic vacuum bubbles. The bubbles implode against surfaces immersed in the cleaning solution. This is called ultrasonic cavitation.
It blasts and carries away the contaminants on surfaces immersed in the cleaning solution. Because the bubbles are so small they penetrate the most intricate crevices in jewelry and watch components. This makes the process much faster and more thorough than mechanical/manual cleaning. And the process is so fast that it does not damage surfaces being cleaned*.
Benchtop ultrasonic cleaners such as used in jewelry and watch making cleaning and repair have a control panel that can range from a simple on/off switch to more sophisticated features that will be described later in this post.
5 Reasons Why anUltrasonic Cleaner is the Best Jewelry Cleaner
At the risk of repeating here are your reasons to consider ultrasonic cleaning technology:
When it comes to jewelry cleaning, the old bromide “time is money” is a literal truth. These machines have enabled jewelers to spend more time serving customers and less time on jewelry cleaning chores.
Conventional jewelry cleaning methods involve soaps, brushes and large quantities of elbow grease. Time spent with a valuable piece in the shop’s back room is time that the piece is not on display and available for sale. Ultrasonic cleaners can thoroughly clean even the most detailed pieces in a few minutes, allowing the jeweler to display the item at its best.
In addition to the decrease in time that an item spends off the sales floor, the costs of the ultrasonic cleaning process itself make these machines a money-saving investment.
When compared to the labor and material costs of traditional cleaning methods, ultrasonic cleaning is much more cost-effective. The ultrasonic cavitation action allows the cleaners to use less cleaning fluid per session, which also saves money.
- Environmentally Friendly
In large-scale retail jewelry operations, the use and disposal of cleaning solutions can have a noticeable impact on local water supplies.
Since the ultrasonic waves accomplish much of the work involved in cleaning the items, the reduced use of cleaning solutions also lowers overall the environmental impact of the cleaning process. Also, the machines are self-contained and do not require the use of heavy solvents, which makes for a safer workplace.
Some of the most valuable jewelry items can also have the most intricate designs. Necklaces, bracelets, watches and other items have crevices that trap dirt, dust and other contaminants.
Specialty items with customized designs can also contain small cavities where dirt can accumulate. Many of these spaces are too small for most tools to reach. The ultrasonic cleaner can send the cleaning solution into those small spaces and bring a new shine to these delicate items.
Jewelers grade their diamonds according to four major criteria: cut, color, clarity and carats.
Another “C” can also affect the perceived value of diamonds: cleanliness. A customer will view a diamond with a stain or smudge as having less value than a pristine, sparkling stone. A bath in an ultrasonic cleaner can remove many of the external imperfections that may cling to precious stones.
Selection Tips for an Ultrasonic Jewelry Cleaner
As noted above ultrasonic jewelry cleaners range from those with a simple on-off unit to those with features that are important to fast, thorough and safe cleaning. iUltrasonic offers products with these and other features from several manufacturers. Here is a representative checklist:
- A sweep mode is extremely important. Sweep provides a slight ± variation in ultrasonic frequency to provide more uniform cleaning to highly finished delicate products such as jewelry, watch parts and gemstones. Select a model with permanent sweep. (The alternative to sweep is "normal" which means fixed frequency. This has value in certain applications but not in cleaning jewelry.)
- Timers let you set the length of the recommended cleaning cycle length (often suggested by cleaning solution manufacturers and your personal user experience). When cleaning begins start the timer and attend to other matters. The unit will turn off at the end of the cycle. Time cycles depend on models.
- Temperature controls – thermostats – let you set the recommended cleaning temperature, also suggested by solution manufacturers (and your experience). Some equipment will automatically start the ultrasonic cleaning cycle when the set temperature is reached.
- A degas mode speeds the removal of trapped air in fresh cleaning solutions that otherwise impedes cleaning action. Degassing can also be achieved by operating the unit for a short period of time without a load.
Other Important Ultrasonic Cleaner Selection Criteria
Size The dimensions (length, width, depth) of the ultrasonic cleaner’s tank must be sufficient to accommodate what you are cleaning. Typically these are small parts, but all surfaces must be immersed in the cleaning solution.
Baskets Ultrasonic jewelry cleaning is accomplished in baskets. Most baskets, whether included or optional, have holes too large for jewelry and watch parts. Fine mesh baskets are available that can be placed in regular baskets or otherwise suspended in the cleaning solution.
Note: Jewelry and watch parts should never be allowed to rest on the bottom of an ultrasonic cleaner tank.
Ultrasonic Frequency This determines the size of the cavitation bubbles. For jewelry and watch parts a frequency of 37 to 45 kHz is generally satisfactory, producing bubbles small enough to penetrate small cracks, crevices and other openings.
A Typical Ultrasonic Jewelry Cleaning Sequence
Experience is the best teacher, and over time you will develop your own routine for your ultrasonic jewelry cleaning procedures. We offer these suggestions as a way to start.
- Prepare the cleaning solution. We recommend JewelryClean
concentrate available in quart bottles with a recommended dilution to 2
to 5% with water. Add water and the
correct amount of concentrate to the tank.
Activate the unit and the degas mode (if so equipped).
If your equipment does not have a degas mode allow it to operate for 10 minutes to drive off trapped air in a process called degassing. (This should be done each time you prepare a fresh batch of solution.)
- In the meantime position objects to be cleaned
in the mesh basket. When ready simply
lower the basket into the cleaning solution, close the lid and set the timer
for 5 minutes.
Actual cleaning time depends on the number of items being cleaned and their condition.
- At the end of the cycle remove the basket and allow solution to drip back into the tank. Rinse the items and let them dry. Electric hot air dryers are available for this operation.
More Tips on Ultrasonic Jewelry Cleaning
Do not overload the basket. If possible minimize or avoid contact between parts being cleaned. It is better to clean a small number of items at a time.
The cleaning solution should be replaced when cleaning cycles get longer. Drain the tank and dispose of the solution according to local regulations, thoroughly rinse the tank with clean water and prepare a new batch.
Read and follow the manufacturer's user guide for ultrasonic cleaner operation and maintenance.
Call the iUltrasonic cleaning experts for recommendations on equipment that meets your needs for jewelry cleaning or for other ultrasonic cleaning applications.
*Fragile or soft stones such as pearls, opals, emeralds and amber should not be cleaned with ultrasonics.
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