Recovering from Disaster

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My intention was to post about making a Navajo style cuff. As you can see in the picture above, it didn’t work out. I decided to still post about the process and how I recovered from this disaster. I wouldn’t sell theopiece, but there is no reason not to keep it.

A Navajo style cuff is a cuff with geometric cut-outs, and a layer below the cut-outs. While these are traditionally silver, I chose to use copper. This was the first one I ever made, and I didn’t want to invest too much in case it didn’t work out.

The first step is cutting out the shape of the cuff. It needs to dry around a bracelet mandrel. To do this without squishing the clay, I placed it around a mandrel, then fasted plastic wrap to the mandrel with rubber bands. The clay will only dry to leather hardness this way. That’s not a problem. When it reaches that stage, take it off the mandrel and let it finish drying in the normal way. The leather hard stage will stand up by itself, so that is not a problem.

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The next step is to cut out another thicker form for the cuff, cut the geometrics into it, and then let it dry in the same manner, attached to the lower layer by copper slip.

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This layer has the same drying issues as the first layer.

Once both layers have dried, one finishes the greenware with the usual methods. The layers might not match perfectly. A bit of sanding can make them match. Any gaps between the layers can be filled with slip.

I then fired the clay according to package directions. When it came out of the kiln, the layers had separated and a piece had broken off. Had I been using a one-fire clay, I would have fixed it with slip and refired. However, I was using Cyprus brand copper, which has a two stage firing. I was afraid that fixing it with slip and then doing the first firing would result in so much firescale that I would never clean the piece.

Why did this happen? My best guess is that I did not apply enough slip along one edge. While the piece shrank from firing, the thicker and thinner pieces shrank at different rates and pulled apart. The lesson from this is, in my next cuff, to be very generous with the slip joining the layers.

I resorted to metalsmithing to bend the pieces so they matched, tumbled the two sections, redid a bit of bending to make them fit, and then used two-part epoxy to join them.

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I wouldn’t sell a piece like this, since I don’t sell work that I have glued together. However, I can use this as a learning experience. Soon, I will try another cuff. With what I have learned from this one, I can do a better job.

Penannular Brooch

A customer asked me if I could make a penannular broach of silver, decorated with a golden-eyed cat design. It took some experimentation, but I succeeded! I’m going to walk you through the process.

A penannular brooch is, typically, a circle with a circular hole in the middle (there are other designs, but this is a common one). A pin is attached to the front of the brooch, so the pin can be slipped through loosely woven fabric (e.g. lace or loose knitting). After much consideration, I decided the best way to do this was to roll out and texture silver clay (1.25 mm thick). I made the pin 1.5 mm thick, and did not texture it. The pin needs a hinge, so it can be moved back and forth. I made the hinge 1 mm thick, with untextured clay. The three pieces, prior to firing, appear below.

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The hinge fit around the narrowest part of the background. To avoid the possibility that the hinge and brooch would fuse during firing, I wrapped the part of the brooch that the pin would touch in paper. This arrangement is pictured below, with the paper and hinge in place.

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Then I added the pin, attaching it with slip.

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Since the hinge allowed the pin part to swing freely, that addressed the issue of possible fusing — the pin could be swung out of the way during firing.

The customer wanted a cat to decorate the pin. I used a commercial mold to produce a cat face and attach to the pin. I attached it at the bottom, so the weight would not cause the brooch to sag, when worn.

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I then did standard clean-up, filing away any excess silver and patching a few cracks with syringe. In the process, I broke and had to repair the pin more than once. This was a tedious process, because the hinge and brooch got in the way of doing the repairs. I then fired the piece.

20191224_094553Since the customer wanted the cat to have golden eyes, I applied 22K gold paste, and refired.

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I then applied a LOS/ammonia/salt patina, and then rubbed most of the patina off, so the piece was not too dark. I then applied a few traces of Black Max, in an attempt to approximate the color pattern of the customer’s own cat. Two views of the finished piece appear below, one with the pin across the brooch and the other with the pin swung to one side. I included a coin in the photo for scale. The gold in the eyes does not show up well in these photos — the gold shows up best in artificial light, and the patina shows up best in natural light. Both these photos were taken in sunlight.

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A penannular brooch is a doable metal clay project. It takes time to make one. For the pin to be large enough to support the weight, it is probably best that the brooch only be worn with loosely woven fabric. However, it is quite doable, if one is willing to put some effort into it.

 

Tatting Shuttle III

After making a number of bronze tatting shuttles, I was asked to make a silver one. Well, why not? At the outset, I made two design decisions: (1) Instead of texturing the shuttle, I would leave it plain. That means it can be as shiny as possible, while still looking finished. (2) Since I didn’t want it to be too plain, I decided to ornament it with a bit of gold.

Since I last posted about making tatting shuttles, I have made a discovery. Earlier, I dried the exterior of the shuttle on a dome light. That works, but it winds up having a bit more curvature than necessary. An idea for an improvement hit me: but a commercial tatting shuttle that comes in a plastic case and use that case for drying. It already has the desired curvature. The result is pictured below:

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When these dry, one can sand them to even them up and use paste to fix any gaps in the shape. The next step is to create the interior of the shuttle. I have tried both making one post and drilling a hole through it, and making two smaller posts side-by-side. According to the tatters I have worked with, the latter design is preferable. Thus, I had this:

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After it dried, I sanded out the unevenness, added a bit of clay to make the posts the same height, and added the top, attaching it with paste. After it dried, I did a bit of last-minute sanding. Then it was ready to fire. You don’t want the ends of the shuttle to fuse. I slipped a piece of paper between the top and bottom. This paper will burn out during firing.

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After firing (but before brushing or tumbling(, I was ready to add gold. I decided against Keum Boo, because getting something this heavy up to temperature would take a while. Instead, I used accent gold ( https://www.metalclaysupply.com/Accent-Gold-for-Silver-p/50442.htm). I decided to not make it too complicated, so I simply painted (prior to brushing, so the gold has something to cling to) a gold oval in the center of each side. The picture below shows the shuttle sitting on a cup warmer to encourage the drying of the gold paint. I then sanded away the few drops of gold paint that were not where I wanted them.

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I refired according to package directions. Then I brushed the silver, burnished the gold with an agate burnisher, and tumbled the piece.

At that stage, it was technically ready. I say ‘technically’ because the two leaves must be close enough together so a thread will not easily slip through, but far enough to that the thread can be pulled through without stressing the thread too much. My leaves were too close together. I solved this by a metalsmithing approach — using a jewelry saw, I sawed down between the two leaves, widening the gap by a about a quarter millimeter. That did the trick.

The completed shuttle appears below, with a coin for scale:

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While metal clay is wonderful for jewelry, it also can be used for a variety of other purposes. I hope I have inspired you to consider non-jewelry applications of metal clay.

 

Naalbinding

Naalbinding (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C3%A5lebinding ) is a fiber arts technique that dates back at least 8000 years. It is done with a single needle, of a particular design. At first glance, the fabric produced by naalbinding resembles crochet. However, the fabric is much more supple than crocheted fabric. Naalbinding was generally replaced by knitting, because knitting is faster. However, naalbinding survived in Scandinavia and the Baltic states, possibly because naalbinding produces a fabric that has fewer openings than knitted fabric, and is therefore more protective against the wind. Naalbinding is undergoing a bit of a renaissance — while it is still uncommon, more and more people are learning to do it. As in ancient times, most modern practitioners of naalbinding use a needle made of bone, horn, or wood. However, other materials are possible. When a modern practitioner asked me if I could make a bronze needle, it seemed like an interesting challenge.

After studying some naalbinding needles, I decided to make two — a blunt needle for coarse yarn and a sharp one for finer yarn. I decided to use Five Star bronze for the dull needle and Five Star light bronze for the sharp, so the needles would have a different appearance. I’m going to illustrate with the dull needle. The sharp one is basically the same, except that it is thinner and the tip is made sharper.

The first step is to roll out the clay to the desired thickness. I chose 4mm for the dull needle and 2 mm for the sharp. While the clay is wet, cut out a rectangle of the length you want the needle to be. Using a template, cut an oval eye in the needle. Using clay shaping tools, roughly shape the end.

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After the clay dries, begin finishing the greenware. For naalbinding, it is essential that the needle be smooth (although it does not have to be straight). This means that the greenware needs to be sanded. I used multiple grits of sandpaper, starting from a coarse grit and working toward a finer one. In each subsequent sanding, I changed the direction of the sanding — first the length of the needle, and then the width. It is very easy to break the greenware while sanding. This can be avoided by holding the needle on either side of the section where one sands. If it does break, it is easily repaired. I’m not certain if it is necessary, but my final step was to burnish the greenware with a metal burnishing tool.

The inside of the eye must also be perfectly smooth. I achieved this by sanding with a watch maker’s file. In the absence of such a file, a piece of sandpaper, folded into a file, will work. After sanding, the piece (Five Star bronze requires two firings, the piece below is ready for that stage) looked like this:

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The piece was fired according to package directions, and then tumbled. To prevent the bronze from turning green, it was sprayed with a lacquer. The finished needles, blunt and sharp, are pictured below. The coins are for scale.

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Did bronze naalbinding needles exist historically? I don’t know. If they did, they would probably have been family heirlooms, or something that would have been buried with the owner. However, bronze needles certainly work. It adds to the thrill of naalbinding to work with a needle that you have made, whether that needle is bone, horn, or bronze.

 

The Shaman of Trois Freres

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Staring at us from the mists of time, the Shaman of Trois Freres demonstrates for us the artistry of our Neolithic ancestors (Trois Freres is a cave in France with many wonderful examples of Neolithic art). While Native American art has widely been used as an inspiration for metal clay, Neolithic art is rarely touched. Here is my first attempt to remedy that, the Shaman done in bronze clay.

I chose One-Fire Bronz clay because it rarely fails to sinter. I chose bronze because, to do the shaman justice, I would need to make a large piece, and bronze clay is relatively inexpensive.

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To start, I rolled the clay to a thickness of 0.75 mm, and cut out a rough outline of the shaman. I left out the antlers. They would be easy to break while working in greenware, and could be added earlier. I studied the image of the original shaman.

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I added the shoulders, 0.75 mm thick. I added the face, carving out the eyes. The original image has no details in the eyes, so I kept that feature. I suspect that the original shaman, on whom this is modeled, wore a mask to deep that the eyes could not be seen. I shortened the antlers from the original — I want this to be worn, and I do not want the antlers to poke the wearer!

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There are many details in the image. I cut them out of bronze clay and added them, one at a time. When all the details were added, I sanded the cleaned the figure. Then I attached the shaman to a disk, textured with a texture sheet that resembled carved stone. I attached a hidden bail, did some last-minute clean-up, and fired.

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The image above is the fired and tumbled shaman. I considered leaving it in this form. Then I considered how the original would have been seen. The cave would have been lit only by firelight. The fire would have been smoky. No, the Shaman of Trois Freres should not be shiny — he should be dark and mysterious.

I considered using Black Max. However, I wanted a more archaic appearance. My final decision was to go over the shaman with a torch until the figure developed a black coating of oxidation. I then polished it, so it was not a uniform black.

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This is my concept of how the Shaman of Trois Freres should look! Clearly, Neolithic art can inspire us, as metal clay artists. This is only my first step into the world of Neolithic art.

 

 

 

Tatting Shuttle II

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After much trial and error, I believe I have perfected making tatting shuttles with bronze clay. I am going to lay out for you what I have learned.

Start by making a template for cutting the shuttle leaves (the part you see in the photo above, plus the other one just like it on the other side) from stiff cardboard. You can trace an existing shuttle or you can draw your own. If you freehand, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t perfectly symmetric — you can fix that while finishing your greenware. Leaves can be 0.75-1.0 mm thick. It is best to use a texture, because a smooth metal shuttle is hard for the tatter to use.

Dry the cut out leaves on something curved. If you have a pre-existing plastic shuttle (or a metal one, that you can cover with plastic wrap), great. If not, you can use a dome light, which is what I did.

Instead of making a single central post, make two small central posts. Attach them with bronze slip, not quite touching, but close, symmetrically located about the center of one leaf. Make them a bit taller than you need (more about this in a moment). Use plenty of slip to make sure they hold. If necessary, sand to make the part of the leaf to which the posts attach smooth. Let this dry thoroughly.

To attach the other leaf, place the leaf (no slip yet) where it will go on the posts. Keep in mind that the tips of the shuttle need to touch. This will, almost certainly, not be the case. Start sanding the posts down. Sanding might not be symmetric — one post might need more than the other. After you have sanded a bit, replace the top leaf. Repeat this process until the tips of the leaves just touch, and the shuttle, looked at from the side, appears symmetric. Then attach the top leaf with slip. Use lots, because it is important that the leaf and posts fuse. Let this dry.

From the side, read into the greenware shuttle with a file. Remove any roughness left over from attaching the top leaf. Look at the greenware shuttle from above. Are there any assymetries (almost certainly, one leaf is a bit bigger than the other)? Sand the larger leaf down until it matches. Now turn the greenware shuttle over, and repeat the process. You might need to iterate, until you have achieved symmetry.

Now for the acid test. Place the greenware shuttle on its side. Let it rock back and forth. Then place it on its other side, and rock it in the same manner. If both rockings look the same, you are close enough to symmetry.

Now it is time to fire the piece. To keep the leaves from fusing where they touch, slip a small piece a paper between them. Since you will fire in activated charcoal, the paper will not burn. It might or might not char but, in either case, it is easily removed once it is fired. Fire the shuttle on its side. If you fire it with the leaves lying flat, charcoal might or might not surround the posts. Fire a bit longer than package directions say; since this is a tool, not jewelry, you want it to be tough.

Once firing is done, tumble and patina as you wish. Patina lightly, because the shuttle will be handled a lot, and you don’t want the patina to wear off. If you patina, be sure to apply a protective coating so the patina will not come off on the user’s hands. Also, be sure to apply the protective coating to the inside — you don’t want the bronze tarnishing and transferring color to the thread used in the tatting shuttle.

I have not yet tried silver. I believe it would work in a similar manner. I believe that sterling silver would be almost the same. I am not sure if fine silver is or is not hard enough to use. However, a small silver tatting shuttle made into a pendant would be a nice bit of jewelry for a tatter to wear.

Tatting Shuttle

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Tatting is a form of Victorian (although it is still practiced today) lace making. Tatting requires the use of a shuttle. In Victorian times, shuttles were made of German Silver (silver coated base metal), wood, or horn. Today, they are usually plastic. A client asked if I could make a bronze tatting shuttle. My answer was, “I don’t know, but I will try.” As the picture above, which shows the completed shuttle and a small amount of tatting shows, I was able to do so. Here, I am talking about how the shuttle was made.

Tatting shuttles consist of two curved forms (usually identical, although one end of one form can have a hook on it). I decided to omit the hook for my first try. I used heavy cardboard to cut out a template. I rolled out One-Fire Bronz clay to a thickness of 1 mm, then textured it on a commercial texture sheet at a thickness of 0.75 mm. I cut out the shapes, using the template I had made, and placed them on domed closet lights to dry, so they would have a reasonable amount of curvature.

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Between the two leaves that make up the shuttle, tatting shuttles have a place for wrapping thread. This is often oval in shape. It is important that the two ends of the shuttle touch, so that thread can be slipped through it, but so that the thread will not go through without being pulled. To reduce weight, I made the central post hollow. Making the post of the correct shape, so the two leaves would just touch and so there was nothing on which the thread that will be wound around the post will catch on, was a matter of trial and error. The bottom leaf, with the post but without the top leaf, is pictured below.

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When this had dried, I carefully attached the top leaf. I drilled a hole through the post, so that thread can be slipped through it (some tatting shuttles have this hole and some don’t). However, the piece was not yet ready to fire.

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While the tips must touch for the shuttle to be used. However, I was concerned that they might fuse during firing. The solution? Place a small piece of paper at the tips of each leaf, preventing them from touching each other.

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The piece was ready to fire. I fired it according to package directions, tumbled it, and lightly patinaed it (I used a light patina because I did not want it to come off on the user’s hands). I sprayed it with a protective coating, and the shuttle was done.

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While this shuttle is usable, it was not ideal. For one thing, I made the post so large that not much thread could go on the shuttle. I am currently working on tatting shuttle Mark II. I will report on that when it is done.

In the meantime, keep on working in metal clay! And, if you tat, consider making yourself a shuttle 😉