Chainmaille jewelry is very difficult to clean thoroughly. I always hand wash the jewelry with high-pressure, soapy water, and that does a pretty good job in most cases. Polishing a piece in my tumbler for an hour or so also helps.
Some pieces will be satisfactorily clean with this process, such as the viperscale and helm weaves. For smaller, tighter chains, however, it never quite gets all the oils and grime out from inside the rings. Even my HP bracelet, which I wear nearly every day, doesn’t get as clean as when I first made it. Forget about cleaning the inside of JPL rings!
Solution: Ultrasonic cleaning.
How Ultrasonic Cleaning Works
Transducers attached to the bottom of the tank create sonic waves in the 44 kHz range, which is super-duper high frequency. The sound waves travel through the liquid. This causes microscopic air bubbles to form and burst, a process called cavitation. As they burst, they blow off anything attached to the surface of the item to be cleaned, which includes dirt, oils, grime, and whatever other substances are making the jewelry look unclean. Just think of millions of tiny gas explosions all around the jewelry
This process, especially when using hot water and a de-greasing agent (I use a good squirt of Dawn soap), does a really great job cleaning chainmaille jewelry!
My Ultrasonic Cleaner
This is a basic China-made version sold by Vevor. I bought it on Amazon on sale for around $75. My dentist had the same version for cleaning dental tools. When I mentioned that I had been looking for one, he gave me a good report of its quality and usefulness.
I got the 3-liter tank size cleaner, and I’m glad that I did. (The next size down is 2 liters, and I was unsure whether it would be big enough for larger pieces. For a few extra dollars, I got the larger size. As it turns out, the 2-liter size doesn’t actually hold 2 liters, and the 3-liter size doesn’t hold 3 liters, unless you completely fill the tank to the very top, which is well above the fill line, and if the tank sides were exactly straight down, which they aren’t. 3 liters was a good choice.)
This size unit has 2 transducers attached to the bottom of the tank, which produce the ultrasonic vibrations at 44 kHz.
The cleaner has a heating unit and a temperature measure, which is nice but not all that useful to me in practice. See why below.
Controls on the left are for temperature (up, down, on/off), and controls on the right are for cleaning time (up, down, on/off). It’s pretty easy to figure out. Power button is on the back.
Included basket has feet for sitting on the bottom of the tank and keeping your items off the bottom. But…see below!
It also has a lid, but I don’t see the point of it. Maybe it keeps the water from cooling as quickly when the unit is not in use. Dunno. I don’t use the cleaner every day, so the liquid will cool off with or without a lid.
Tips and Cautions for Using the Ultrasonic Cleaner
1. Fill the tank with hot water. I want around 50 degrees centigrade, 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the default temperature setting when you turn on the power. I’m too impatient to wait for the heater to slooooowly heat up the water. My tap water comes out at about that temperature, so I just fill the tank with hot tap water. When I turn on the heater, I get a temperature measurement of around 48 – 52 degrees, anyway, which is close enough. The ultrasonic waves also heat up the liquid somewhat.
2. Fill the tank to the fill line. I use 8 cups of hot water to get almost exactly to the fill line. Don’t skimp here. Less water means less absorption of the sound waves created by the transducers–and more vibration of the tank itself. This creates resistance between the tank and the attached transducers, such that the tank won’t vibrate in tune with the transistors. This may cause the transducers to fall off (based on many online reports, not on my experience). This also leads to one of the “don’ts” below.
3. Add a de-greasing agent. I just add in a very generous squirt of Dawn dish soap. Rinse the jewelry after cleaning.
4. Use the included basket for suspending items in the liquid and keeping them off the bottom.
1. Don’t let anything rest on the bottom of the tank. Not only will they scratch lightly against the bottom, but also they increase resistance to vibration for the tank. Some online reports suggest that the transducers may eventually tear themselves loose. Seems possible, and I’d rather not test it out myself. (See how I solved this problem below.)
2. Don’t under fill. See above.
3. Don’t drop, shake, or generally handle the unit roughly. I have heard reports of those transducers coming loose, and I recommend avoiding anything that might make it happen.
4. Don’t use with soft, porous stones and other materials, such as pearls. They might just dissolve! (I haven’t tested turquoise – and I will – but I suspect they might not do so well.)
And Some Techniques I Found Useful
1. For very small items that can fall through the basket, such as earrings, I put them in a baggie with some liquid from the tank. I place the baggie in the basket. The sound waves penetrate the bag just fine, and will clean the items.
2. The basket is made to rest on the tank bottom, but, again, I don’t want anything on the bottom. To prevent potential problems, I suspend the basket in the tank, rather than letting it rest on the bottom. I just run a couple of wooden dowels through the handle and let the basket hang in the water. It will be sufficiently immersed to clean whatever is inside. It looks like this:
There is another advantage to this tip: Ultrasonic cleaners are noisy because of how they work. Suspending the basket this way actually reduces the normal “buzz” of the cleaners when in action.
3. Attach wires to the ends of chains. When the cleaner is working, the chains will start to vibrate and fall through the basket. Once started, they will pretty soon end up on the bottom of the tank. I take 3 – 4 inches of scrap wire and run it through the chain end, with a twist to keep it in place, wires sticking out to each side. The wires are long enough that they won’t slip through the basket, and the chain stays in the basket. For longer pieces, such as necklaces, I also put a wire through the middle.
4. Let it run about 10 minutes. Probably longer than needed, but so what? While the jewelry is cleaning, I hold my eyeglasses in the water, too, or drop them in the basket. Might as well get them cleaned at the same time.
5. Clean the jewelry before de-tarnishing and/or polishing in a tumbler. This gives me the best final shine: clean, de-tarnish, tumble. I use a liquid solution for removing tarnish (see my post about removing tarnish), and cleaning first seems to help facilitate the tarnish removal when I use my process. You also never want to put dirty jewelry in a tumbler because your tank will get dirty.
I am pleased with the cleaner. It does a great job, and my jewelry is looking great. (My glasses are also finally completely clean.) This cleaner isn’t “pretty” or cute, but I got it for cleaning chain jewelry, and it does it well.
After using it maybe 15 – 20 times, I have had no problems.
Only you can decide if this will work for you. I’m glad I got mine.