Honestly, making jewellery out of clay sounds easy. Surely you just roll some clay out, scratch in some details, bake it and BOOM! Right?
It almost can be that simple, and that's kind of the beauty of metal clay! But often there's a fair bit more work involved.
This time I'm going to show you exactly how I make something pretty from a dull lump of clay!
You'd remember from last time that metal clay is metal atoms mixed with an organic binder. There are loads of clays on the market now, including bronze, copper and even gold. Each handles a little differently and needs different firing conditions so it's fun to experiment. My go-to is Precious Metal Clay (PMC) Flex. Its 99.9% pure silver so its uber white, and flexible when dry - meaning less breakage.
Point one - metal clay dries out VERY quickly when exposed to air, and even in the heat of your hands. It quickly turns from silky clay into a crumbling mess that you can't do a lot with. So you can't reeeeeally wing it, you need a clear plan before you start.
That said, if you also find that your very first effort ends up a dried up ball of badness, all is not lost! You can reconstitute metal clay by adding water. But it's best to just keep it fresh and work swiftly, and the best way to work swiftly is...
...to be prepared! *smug smile* I sound so much like a parent right there, but it's true!! Before I start, I get my whole work area ready to go. This means a nice flat smooth surface for rolling the clay out, because any texture here will imprint on the clay. I use an acrylic block, or a piece of super thick card. Over the top of this goes a sheet of baking paper, or wax-proof paper, so the clay doesn't stick.
Then, prep your tools. Which are a roller; thickness guides; shape cutters; texture tools; an X-acto knife; oil, water and a paintbrush as a minimum. Anything - including your fingers - that contacts the clay needs to be oiled up... because it's seriously sticky to begin with and things can get messy very quickly :O
Decide how thick you want the piece to be, and choose some thickness guides (I use wooden pop sticks or thick sticks of card) and lay two out fairly closely together.
With everything primed, open that pack (with your slippery oily fingers!) and pull off a wad of clay about two or three pea's worth...
Place it between the guides and roll it flat. Turn the clay over and roll both sides to iron out lumps and seams where possible:
Once it's flat, you could apply texture in virtually any way, but some of the most popular tools are texture mats and/or silicone molds. We'll look at texturing in detail in a later post because there's a lot to look at there!
Next, working quickly, you'd cut your clay into the shape you want. You might use a knife, or a pre-made shape cutter.
Once cut, you carefully pick up and move your piece off the paper which will absorb the clay's moisture and wrinkle, causing your piece to dry that way. I find the best surface is an oiled piece of card, or rigid plastic:
Small clay pieces dry in an hour or two, and you can speed this up by putting it in the oven at 50 degrees celcius, or out in the sun away from little hands paws and wind). When its dry you can refine the shape and add details. But you have to be extremely gentle! Metal clay in this state is called greenware, and it snaps very easily if you get too enthusiastic with drilling, sanding etc. Eaaaaassy does it...
Do as much correction while the piece is still clay, because once it's metal this is a lot harder to do! When it's greenware you can easily sand it to tidy up the edges, carve and drill holes etc.
You can also layer pieces and join pieces of metal clay, more easily at this stage. By using some water on a paintbrush combined with clay dust, you can make a slip that binds wet bits firmly together. Dry pieces can also be joined by sandwiching them together with this dust and water 'slip' - a lot like ceramic clays:
Keep any bits of metal clay that you sand or cut off because they can be used again - as joining slip, or reconstituted back to clay. No point wasting good (and expensive) silver! Baking paper acts as a great catch-all for this purpose.
Onto the firing! There are several ways to fire small pieces of metal clay - less than the size and thickness of a 10c piece (or a quarter, in the US). The most accessible ways are with a hand held creme brulee style torch; or over the gas hob on your stove top:
Firing in both these ways are great - the binder burns off with a bright yellow flame and its all pretty good fun. But, you do have to be careful not to burn your silver up. When you leave the flame on the same spot for too long, the surface of the piece will start to shimmer and dance... the next thing you know you'll be left with a ball of molten metal. Which is totally cool if that's what you're going for, and a massive bummer if you put a lot of work into the piece!
You can use a torch to create some cool effects - particularly if you like a rustic roughed up kind of look on your jewellery. Again, these are definitely the most accessible methods for people just starting out, but over time you'll find it limits your design options. There's nothing worse than creating something gorgeous, firing it with your trusty torch, and then having it snap on you because it was a little too big or thick, and the torch heat wasn't consistent enough to burn the clay out of the metal all the way through. Mucho sadness! :(
When you inevitably start wanting to make bigger and more intricate pieces, you're going to need to own or hire someone else's kiln. Kilns can hold the temperature to a precise level, an extremely hot level (up to 1400 C!) without burning your silver up, providing you follow the manufacturer's instructions! :)
It's slightly less exciting because you don't get to witness the burn off, and the clay going that bright salmony pink colour it glows when its sintering. Plus a full cycle takes a lot longer by the time the machine cools down enough for you to open it! (#hotterthanhell) But, you do get to walk away and forget about it while the technology does its thing, and that's pretty cool too. Typically, my pure silver pieces spend at least an hour soaking in 850 degree heat. I think that's a little bit of overkill, but I like to be 150% sure that its fired all the way through!
In the morning I collect my pieces, and they come out with a fine white coating of patina. That gets scratched off with a wire brush, and if I'm after a really shiny look I'll drop them in my tumbler to polish them up. Then it's time to turn the pieces into jewellery :)
A little bit of work with some Sterling silver wire and pliers, and there we have it! The finished product from go to whoa. This is one super addictive hobby... watching clay turn into something wearable and precious just never gets old.
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And I reckon just about anyone could make something gorgeous out of metal clay! What do you think, would you give it a try? What would you like to make? Would you like me to make tutorials on this blog!? Drop me a comment and let me know :)
Until next time my lovelies,