Why Metal Clay?

This is going to be a bit of a departure. People have been producing jewelry through metalsmithing as long as humans have worked in metal. Metal clay is only a few decades old. Why do metal clay?

Let me start off by describing some of the advantages of traditional metalsmithing. First of all, the raw materials are cheaper. Silver sheet goes for around $US 25 /troy ounce (that doesn’t account for the waste in working with silver sheet) while silver clay goes for around $54/25 grams. That’s about $US 0.80 /gram for sheet silver and $US 2.16 per gram for silver clay. Secondly, getting really crisp edges is possible with metal clay, but not particularly easy – if you want to make a box with crisp edges, you are probably better off with metalsmithing. Finally, there are limitations on mixed metal pieces (not counting cold connection) with metal clay that you don’t have with sheet metal.

So, with that, why metal clay? Since I work primarily in metal clay, I obviously think it has many advantages. Some of these are:

  1. Sawing. Learning to saw sheet metal is hard. Until you have been at it for a long time, you will make lots of errors (and break lots of saw blades). You can, and if you keep at it, will, learn – but plan on lots of frustration on the way. Plus, you can take more away from your sheet metal (if your sawing doesn’t end up like you want) but you can’t add. Metal clay, in the wet clay form, can be shape you want. If you remove too much, you can wad up your wet clay and start over. If the clay has dried to greenware, you can add more.
  2. Texturing. Texturing sheet metal takes texturing hammers or a rolling mill. A rolling mill is an expensive piece of hardware. Plus, if you don’t like what you have with sheet metal, you are stuck – either learn to like it or recycle. With metal clay, if you don’t like your texture on wet clay, wad it up and start over. With sheet metal, you must have the appropriate hammers or texture sheets. With metal clay, texture sheets are relatively cheap and you can create your own textures with leaves, seeds, textured cloth, etc.
  3. Equipment cost. This is hard to assess, because, with either medium, you can get by with minimal tools or you can go for the best. However, with sheet metal, you really need a torch, a jeweler’s saw, and appropriate hammers. With metal clay, the minimal tool set is quite cheap – especially if you decide to torch fire instead of kiln fire. While I recommend a kiln, one can fire many metal clays with a butane torch that costs a few tens of dollars. And your other tools can be as simple as a cutting tool and something to sand with. Engraving? Lots of expensive equipment if you want to do it on metal, easy if you want to inscribe images in metal clay that has not been fired.
  4. Safety. An error with a jeweler’s torch can be, well, very bad. With metal clay? If one exhibits appropriate caution in handling just fired pieces (such as letting them cool first, or being sure to only handle with tongs), then there is little risk beyond a piece not coming out as you intended. And, while the chemicals used for patinas can be toxic, there is no difference between putting a patina on metal clay and putting a patina on sheet metal.
  5. Sculpting. Learning to make sculptural figures using metalsmithing techniques? Decades of dedicated work. Learning to make sculptural figures with a mold and metal clay? A beginner can do it. Making your own molds or learning to sculpt greenware takes a bit of learning, but nothing like it would have if you were not working with metal clay.
  6. Special techniques. You can paint a design on greenware with fingernail polish and then sponge away the clay around it. You can use microbeads to make special textures. The list goes on and on. Because metal clay is malleable, there are design techniques you can do with metal clay that would be difficult, if not impossible, with traditional metalsmithing.

Finally, there are arguments for learning both metal clay and traditional metalsmithing. For example, you can make a decorative piece from metal clay and then solder it onto a piece made by traditional metalsmithing – this results in a piece that is cheaper than it would have been if it had been pure metal clay, but easier to make than it would have been if it had been pure metalsmithing. The more tools you have in your toolbox, whether metal clay, traditional metalsmithing, or both, the greater the flexibility you have and the better your work will be.

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