A Bronze Cuff

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Metal clay is great for pendants, earrings, and rings. Occasionally, one can use it to make small decorative items, like a small bowl. Many people avoid making physically larger projects. There is no reason to do so, other than the expense of the clay. That is not an important factor, if one uses bronze clay. Here, I am going to describe using bronze clay to make a cuff.

Before talking about how the cuff was made, I want to give a little background. The decorations I chose were based on a petroglyph. That is just my interest and background. You, of course, can decorate a cuff in any manner that you wish. Making a cuff the way I did requires a small amount (hardly any, you can pick it up even if you have never done metalsmithing) of metalsmithing skill and tools. Also, I tried using both Five Star Light Bronze and Fastfire Bronz clay. While I have had nothing but success with Five Star products in the past, I was unable to get the Five Star cuff to sinter. I do not know if it is because I made some error, or because Five Star doesn’t do as well for larger objects. I mention this as a caveat. I intend to experiment more with Five Star, and will post results later.

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The first issue I want to raise is that, to make a cuff, one needs to work with larger pieces of clay than more traditional projects. The cuff I wanted to create was 7 inches long, in unfired clay. That means rolling out, and texturing, a piece of clay that is at least 7 inches long. Since a cuff will be subject to a bit more stress than an earring or pendant, I chose to make it 1.5 mm thick. If  you are not used to working with so much clay at one time, this might take several tries. Also, I chose to texture the clay by rolling it (originally 2 mm, rolled to 1.5 mm) over one of the net bags than tangerines come in. This gives a nice reptile-skin appearance, and goes will with the lizard I eventually planned to put on the cuff. This can serve as a reminder — texture sheets are great, but there are an almost unlimited number of ways one can texture metal clay.

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Next I cut the shape of the cuff. I made it tapered. Of course blunter, even square, ends would have worked just fine. However, since someone is going to eventually wear the cuff, make sure that nothing too sharp remains. This can be fixed when one deals with the greenware.

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People who make cuffs with traditional metalsmithing methods have arm-shaped mandrels, usually wooden. These mandrels are readily available from any metalsmithing supply company, such as RioGrande.com. However, if you use a wooden mandrel, be sure to cover it with plastic wrap before draping the cuff over the mandrel. I used small plastic items around my shop to hold the ends of the cuff on the mandrel while it dried. As can be seen in the picture above, this resulted in the ends being slightly misshapen. This is easily fixed (after the piece has fired) with a special type of pliers, used by metalsmiths to bend rounded objects.

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After the clay had dried and I had refined it in the usual manner, I added a Native American styled lizard and sun (referencing a specific petroglyph I remember from when I lived in Nevada, years ago). The cuff was then fired in coconut charcoal, more or less by package directions. Since larger objects often take longer to sinter, I fired it for 2 hours instead of the 1 that the package instructions indicate. I then tumbled and applied a light patina.

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This piece demonstrated how a bronze cuff can be made. In making it, I learned some things about sizing a cuff and how much a cuff needs to be bent to fit correctly. Also, some parts of the texture worked out better than others. That’s why I made the cuff in bronze — so I can learn what to do without using terribly expensive materials.

Right now, I have a second cuff on my workbench. When it is done, I will provide an update. With a little patience with the learning process, I am certain the bronze cuffs will prove a worthwhile exercise in metal clay.

What do you need to start in metal clay? The minimum

What do you need to get started in metal clay? There are many tools that can make working with metal clay easier. However, I’m going to focus on the minimum that an aspiring metal clay artist needs. I am going to go for the least expensive option, unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. When I mention a brand, I am merely indicating a brand that I have used and found to work well. I’m certain there are other brands that work just as well.

I’m assuming that you are going to work with fine silver clay (sterling silver is a bit more complicated). I know that silver clay is more expensive than bronze or copper. However, it is much easier to work with. All teachers of metal clay that I have met have recommended starting with silver clay, despite the cost. I agree with them.

Obviously, you need the clay itself. Once you open metal clay, it starts to dry out. There are several ways to keep your opened metal clay fresh. The one I use is to: (1) wrap the clay in plastic wrap (2) put it back in the original envelope, if that envelope is resealable (3) store it in a plastic cup with an airtight lid and (4) add a (slightly) damp piece of sponge to that cup. That is enough to keep most clays usable for weeks.

You need a lubricant, so your clay will not stick to your work surface, hands, or tools. While olive oil, Badger Balm, and a variety of other lubricants will work, I advocate using Hattie’s No Stick spray. It’s not very expensive, and a little goes a long way.

You need a work surface. There are commercially available surfaces. I find that any smooth plastic surface (maybe with a light spritzing of lubricant) works just as well. One workable, and extremely inexpensive, option is a plastic page divider that you can buy in an office supply store/

You need a roller, so you can roll your clay out flat. There are commercial products for doing this. However, I have found none that work any better than a short section of PCV pipe.

You need guides to roll your clay to a specified depth. The cheapest alternative is playing cards. However, playing cards tend to soak up the lubricant and eventually become useless. Pam East’s Graduated Slat Set is reasonably priced and, barring an accident, will last almost forever.

You need a needle tool. It is possible to use a straight pin, or some other needle tool not designed for metal clay. However, I find that the NanoPik is infinitely superior to any of these. It is not terribly expensive.

You need sanding tools for cleaning the greenware. While there are many fine-grade files on the market (and I use such files for most of my work), you can get good results with the nail filing blocks sold at beauty supply shops. (Not required: if you want to spend a little more money, nothing works better than the tiny files that watchmakers use.)

You need something to fire your greenware. A kiln is, obviously, the easiest method. If you can’t afford a regular kiln, a beehive kiln is adequate. Similarly, a microwave kiln will work for silver. Finally, one can torch fire silver.

Your silver clay will come out of the kiln looking white to dirty gray. To fix this, you need a wire brush. Brushing will make your piece look like silver, but not shiny. To make the work shiny, you need a tumbler. However, one can polish fired silver clay by hand, using fine-grained sandpaper (a finer grain at each sanding, sand perpendicular to the direction you sanded last time).

To me, work that is not patinaed looks unfinished (you are free to disagree). LoS and Black Max are the usual solutions. However, it is also possible to achieve a patina with alcohol ink.

There you have it: what you must have to make jewelry with silver clay.

Templates for cutting shapes are nice. However, they are not 100% necessary. You can cut free-hand or you can cut a pattern out of paper and use that (although it will not stand up to being used more than a few times). Texture sheets are nice. However, there are an unlimited number of interesting textures free for the taking. Veins on the underside of leaves, tapping with toothbrush bristles, feathers, and small seeds (for example) all make lovely textures.

So, if you are not already doing metal clay, I encourage you to start. It’s an incredibly rewarding medium.

 

 

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Alaskan Halibut or: Making an Accident into an Advantage

I have been doing quite a bit of work that is based on traditional Alaskan imagery. In the last few months, I have done an Alaskan-inspired salmon, eagle, raven, and snow goose. I decided to add a halibut (a type of flatfish, which means it lives on the bottom and has both eyes on one side to the list). Here, I am going to document how I did it and how I turned an unfortunate accident into an advantage.

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I started out cutting a 1 mm think halibut shaped outline of the newly-reissued original PMC. I chose that clay because I wanted to make the final halibut fairly small, and original PMC shrinks a great deal. Since making the ‘fiddly’ details in a clay that shrank less would have required me to make some really small pieces, it seemed like a good idea.

That was when I ran into one of the issues with the original PMC: it sometimes warps while drying. Well, the halibut shape warped, as you will be able to see in subsequent pictures. Since original PMC produces a soft silver, I planned to bend it back into shape after firing and kept going.

I added some details in 0.75 mm thick clay. As you can see, the halibut shape warped with the middle rising and the head and tail staying relatively flat.

Then I added more details. 

Then more.

Then more. The fins, which I did not want to be prominent, were added with 0.5 mm thick clay. I smoothed out the edges both by filing and by wetting a make-up applicator with distilled water and gently going over the piece many times. Using a make-up applicator in this  manner allows one to smooth out harsh edges, and makes a piece look more organic.

I added a hidden bail. Because original PMC shrinks so much, i used a fairly large bail. That was when it hit me: the warping isn’t as much of a bad thing as I originally thought. With the bail adding height to the halibut’s head, the head and body now fit together nicely — only the tail was problematic. 

I then fired the piece following package directions, brushed it, and tumbled it.  Then, using plastic coated pliers, so as to not mark the piece, I gently bent the tail. Bending metal clay is harder than bending sheet silver, but it can be done if you move very slowly.

I used LOS for patina, but then decided that it only needed a bit of patina. I went back over the piece with a polishing cloth. Then I used silver polish to make the halibut’s back and eyes as shiny as possible. 

This is the finished piece, with a coin for scale. The moral of this story is: if something goes wrong, don’t panic — there is probably a way to fix it or turn it to your advantage.  Here, my warped clay wound up (after a small amount of bending and adding a large hidden bail) making my halibut lie in a nicer manner than it would have if it had stayed flat.

I hope this story helps inspire you to take advantage of errors — or, as the late Bob  Ross would have put it, ‘happy little accidents’. 😉


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Last Minute Commissions

Holidays are often good for metal clay artists. Commisions come in. People want to buy pieces as gifts. However, many people don’t understand how long making something by hand takes. This is the tale of a holiday commission for which the client did not give me enough time to finish.

A client, named O’Haggerty, wanted a piece based on the family crest. The crest is three birds, on a dark background, above a tree, on a light background. The client wanted a silver pendant on a circular background.

I would have enjoyed sculpting this. However, the commission came in on Dec 10, about two weeks. Having both a house and a full time job (not to mention part time gigs as a musician) to attend to, there was no way I could sculpt this. That didn’t mean I was stymied, though.

First, I found some old beads in bird shape. I used two-part molding compound to make a mold.

There are two birds because I wasn’t sure which design to use, and a branch for another design I am considering doing. Since that design has no place here, I won’t mention it further.

The client wanted a fairly small piece. Since that was a ‘rush’ order, I had to find pieces that would fit. The solution? I had a bit of original PMC available, which shrinks around 25%. That gave me more flexibility. I then rolled out the clay and cut out a circle.

Three of the rounded birds fit across the top of this circle. I cast them in the mold and attached them. To clearly delineate the upper and lower regions, I rolled a very thin rope of clay. Doubling it over on itself, I let it spin slowly. This produced a nice ‘spiral’ effect that I could place beneath the birds. I would like to have sculpted a tree, but … no time. I looked at various commercial molds of trees until I found one that both fit the space and had intertwining roots. Since O’Haggerty is an Irish name, I thought the Celtic touch would be nice. Then, following usual metal clay methods, I cleaned up the greenware.

I added a hidden bail and fired the piece. To speed the work along, I crash cooled (there were no glass or jewels which might be damaged). I brushed and tumbled.

I used Liver of Sulphur to apply a patina. Then, I wiped the patina off the birds and from the tree, using a polishing cloth. Because the lower part of the image was white in the original crest, I wanted to make the part behind the tree as shiny as possible. I sanded the part of the pendant around the tree, making it even smoother (using progressively finer grades of sandpaper and changing direction for each sanding). I then carefully applied silver polish, polishing until the silver was as shiny as I could make it. 

The finished piece, with a coin for scale, appears above.

The moral of this story is ‘if you think you have to turn down a commission because of time, rethink — if the client will accept molded pieces, you can hurry things along.’

I hope I have inspired you to think of ways that, if you need speed to meet a client’s needs, you can find a way to do it.

Brooms!


I spent the last week at the John C Campbell Folk School, in Brasstown NC. On a whim, I did a broom making class. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will probably take another broom making class. However, I did not expect broom making to be as physical as it was. The class ended four days ago, and I am still tired and still have many sore muslces. Broom making  involves a great deal of holding the cords that hold the broom corn onto the broom under tight pressure while one works.

Amazingly, I made twelve brooms in the week. Three of them appear below. From left to right, they are: a besom, or ceremonial broom; a standard floor sweeper; and a cobweb broom, designed to remove cobwebs from ceilings and other difficult-to-reach places. The cat, of course, is inspecting my work. He wants to make sure it meets his standards of quality control 😉

Steampunk Without Gears

TI was recently asked to make a pendant that was recognizably steampunk, that did not include gears, and was fairly small. I was only too happy to take up the challenge.

Other than gears, what imagery says ‘steampunk’? There are top hats and monocles, but I chose to not use those. Octopi are also common in steampunk iconography. I chose to focus on an octopus. I wanted to punch up my octopus with something that said ‘Victoriana’, but was not common. After looking through a great deal of historical images, it hit me — a pennyfarthing bicycle. Pennyfarthing bicycles had a large front wheel and a small rear wheel. That was a place to start. After thinking about it, I decided that I needed an octopus riding a pennyfarthing bicycle.

Historical pennyfarthing bicycles had the seat directly above the front wheel. I decided to move it back a bit, so the image would be less one-sided. I also decided to make the wheel sizes a bit less different than they were historically, so the rear wheel would not be too small to see. The first step was to make a background of silver clay and add wheels.

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Of course this is greenware, and will need considerable clean-up before it is finished. Following this, I made the rest of the bicycle. The frame and handlebars were rolled snakes. The seat was made from a bit of clay shaped using a clay shaper.

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The octopus body was made by embossing (roll out clay, cover the clay with plastic wrap, put a template atop the plastic wrap, push the template down, trim off the excess) an ellipse. I made the eye by embossing a circle, punching a depression in the middle, and using a rolled snake of clay for the pupil. I gave the octopus body some texture by stippling with a piece of wire.

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Tentacles could be made of rolled snakes that were thick on one end and thin on the other. How to incorporate eight tentacles was a challenge. My solution was two tentacles on each pedal (making sure the ones behind the bicycle line up), two for the handlebars, and two waving wildly.

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Now it was time to do final clean-up of greenware. All the little dings and irregularities could be filed away, filled in with syringe, or smoothed away by (gently) using a damp make-up applicator.

Once that was done, I added a bale and put my maker’s mark on the back. If you don’t have a maker’s mark, I suggest you create one. It is a way to sign your pieces so they can be recognized as your work. You can either make your mark something easy to carve (like I did) or you can have a stamp made of it.

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The piece was then fired, brushed, tumbled, and patinaed. I chose a very light patina. The coin is for scale.

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I titled this piece ‘The League of Octopus Wheelmen’, ‘wheelman’ being a Victorian term for bicyclist.

The person I made this for wanted silver. Also, the person I made this for had no qualms about me making copies of this of other metals and selling it. Since brass is popular with the steampunk community, I made a mold of the piece.

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I have not yet made brass copies for sale, but I intend to do so.

When one designs jewelry for a specific market niche (like steampunk), one needs to stay within the confines of that market’s imagery. However, the more original one can be, the less competition one will have. When designing for a particular market niche, I encourage you to think creatively. It will help you sell and create a striking piece.