Post Earrings

Most of us start in metal clay by making a pair of dangling earrings with a texture sheet. Some people prefer post earrings, with a stone setting. It turns out that post earrings are quite easily made. The secret is to use titanium ear posts with silver or bronze clay.

Titanium ear posts are available from most suppliers of jewelry supplies. While stainless steel and sterling will often become brittle after a trip through the kiln, titanium is safe up to 1650 degrees F. That is why you need to restrict yourself to silver and bronze — copper fires at a higher temperature.

The ear posts, out of the package, are as seen below.

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To convert them into earrings, one cuts thin disks of metal clay. I used 1 m20190314_195952m thick, but other thicknesses would work. I placed bezel cups inside the disks. Be sure to match metals on the cups and clay. A silver bezel cup will sinter with silver, and a bronze cup with bronze. Other than that, and undesirable chemical reactions are possible.

When these are dry, turn them upside down. Place the ear post on the back of the disk, and use more clay to affix it in place. It is not crucial that the ear post be straight, although you should make it as straight as you can manage. Minor errors can be fixed with pliers after it is fired.

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After the clay dried, I sanded it to make the backs as flat as possible. They don’t need to be perfect. They just need to be close enough to wear comfortably. After sanding, I fired, brushed, and tumbled, as usual. I set the bezel cups with chalcedony, a stone I really like but, for some reason, rarely use. Since the fine silver bezel cups are soft, it is not hard to bend the edges so they will hold the stones in place.20190318_154935.jpg

The finished product appears above.

If you, or your client, prefer post earrings, there is no reason not to use metal clay. Just be sure to use titanium ear posts!

 

 

 

A bronze cuff with a stone

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I have previously talked about making bronze cuffs. I wanted to add a stone to one. While the technique for building is similar to making a cuff without a stone, I thought it was worth an update.

I used Fastfire Bronz clay. This clay has the advantage of being pre-mixed (comes as clay, not powder) and of having a good record of sintering well. First, rolled out the clay 2 mm thick, and, using a texture sheet (the hexagon pattern was made for use with polymer clay, but it works fine with metal clay) textured the piece,  leaving it 1.5 mm thick.

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I have a wooded bracelet mandrel. Wood plus metal clay is not necessarily a good thing, because the wood causes the clay to dry too quickly. Wrapping the mandrel in plastic wrap addressed this issue. I then formed the cuff around the mandrel and added a bezel cup. It might take several attempts to make the bezel cup stay in place. If it doesn’t the first time, add more clay thinned with distilled water and stick it in place. Eventually, it will hold.

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There was some distortion of the pattern due to fixing the bezel cup in place. I turned a weakness into a strength by doing a bit of simple sculpting, thereby hiding the distortion. After standard greenware finishing, the piece appears below.

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After that, it was fired according to package directions, then patinaed. I chose to add a green stone, because I thought it would stand out well against the bronze.

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That’s it. Making a cuff in bronze is in no way difficult. The only issue is overcoming the psychological barrier or working with so much clay at one time. If you use bronze, copper, or some other relatively inexpensive metal, that needed be a barrier. I encourage you to try your own!

Metal Clay with an Iron Hand ;-)

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I recently encountered iron metal clay for the first time. I have done some blacksmithing, but it never occurred to me that iron could be a jewelry material. Prompted by this, I decided to try it.

I’m going to describe my experiences with iron clay. Yours might differ. As you might expect, it has some good and bad properties.

First, Goldie iron clay comes in a powdered form. Powdered clays are a bit less convenient that pre-mixed, but have the advantage that you can make as much or as little as you like. However, when I had used other powdered clays, I had no problem getting the clay to take on a texture that I found workable. This was not so with the iron clay. I went through many rounds of ‘too dry, add more water’ and ‘too sticky, add more powder’ until I got it right. My guess is that the other powdered clays I have used were more forgiving, while iron clay probably has a fairly narrow range. Still, after substantial trial and error, I finally got it right.

The first thing I tried to make with the clay was a traditional ‘roll out the clay, texture it, then cut it with a needle tool’. This did not go well. The needle tool left a very ragged edge that would have been difficult to fix in greenware. I don’t know if this is a property of the clay, or if I still didn’t have the water/powder blend down correctly.

I then tried molding. Years ago, in Estonia, I bought a small bronze image of Kalevipoeg, the Estonian national folk hero. I had made a mold of this (for my own use, I do not sell images created from molds of other people’s work). I decided to try the same mold with iron clay, since Kalevipoeg feels like an Iron-Age character. While the clay did not take fine details as well as silver, copper, or bronze, it was quite satisfactory. The greenware, with added bail, appears below. The bail is deliberately somewhat uneven, giving it the look of forged iron.

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Next, I decided to try sculpting. Following on the Esonian theme, I sculpted an Uku’s Hammer (Uku is an Estonian sky god, similar to Thor in many aspects, with a similar tradition of hammer pendants). That worked beautifully. The greenware Uku’s hammer appears below.

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Inspired by this success, I tried a more demanding sculpture. I made a Cthulhu (for those who don’t know, Cthulhu, an ultra-powerful alien who has been mistaken for a god, comes from the works of horror writer H P Lovecraft). My sculpted Cthulhu came out even better than the hammer.

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Goldie iron clay requires a two stage firing, the first on a bed of charcoal and the second buried in charcoal. I fired according to package directions. The pieces came out of the kiln looking like lumps of rust. However, with a bit of brushing and then tumbling for a few hours, the appearances completely changed. The pieces, post tumbling, appear below.

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I then applied a light coat of Max Black patina, polished the pieces, sprayed with a fixative (so they don’t rust), and attached chains. The finished pieces are below. As usual, I have included a coin for scale.

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Will I use iron clay again? Definitely. It is a bit hard to work with, but the results appear to be worth it. In particular, iron clay seems very promising as a sculptural medium.

 

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.